At SPESA there were lots of embellishment techniques on display: printing, embroidery, sequin- and rhinestone-attachment. However, the Murata booth was unique. Murata, a brand of the Weixiang Machinery Company of Taiwan, was showing an entire line of smocking and shirring machines, with pintuck attachments available for many of them. They have machines ranging from 12 needles up to 118 needles, using as many as 354 threads.
First, let me give a little background on this kind of machinery. Multineedle machines like this invariably do chainstitch rather than lockstitch. There is one basic thread per needle with no bobbin under the needle. With needles set every 1/4″ or 3/16″ apart, there is no room for a bobbin. Instead, there is a looper which moves back and forth to form the stitch. Engineers can cram many loopers into a tight space since they all move in unison. To complicate things, there is such a thing as two-thread chainstitch, and many of Murata’s machines do it. They still use loopers and unlimited length threads, but there are sets of threads both above (passing through needle eyes) and below (passing through a guide block then around loopers).
When you have a multineedle machine, you are not required to install all the needles. If you have seen shirred fabric with a group of lines of stitching, then a gap where the shirring shows nicely, then another group of stitching, that was probably done on a big machine with the needles removed for the gaps. Before I forget, you can do shirring a couple of different ways. You can use elastic thread, or use regular thread and gather the material during the stitch. Most of Murata’s shirring machines use elastic thread, either as the upper or lower chain stitch thread or as an additional “captured” thread that isn’t part of the chainstitch. They do have one shirring model that does non-elastic gathering.
Machine smocking is done a bit differently than hand smocking. There is a continuous line of stitching for every “column” where a smocking stitch might line up. These are the basic chainstitches made by the needles. There are additional decorative threads laid on top of the fabric, secured in place by the continuous stitching. These decorative threads are guided by plates with a hole for every possible thread. These plates move left or right one or more columns on each stitch to define the pattern, which must eventually come back to the original column and repeat. Smocking machines usually have multiple plates, each with a different pattern of motion. The Murata smocking machines have four plates, with a six column range of motion, and repeats ranging from 6 to 18 stitches. By giving each plate a specific motion pattern, and deciding which decorative threads are guided by which plate, you define the overall smocking pattern. Four plates is enough to have two symmetric motifs in your overall pattern.
Getting back to numbers for a moment, Murata’s machines take one, two, three or four threads per needle, depending on their function. The simplest machines are one-thread shirring machines. The most complicated are smocking machines using two-thread chainstitch with an inserted elastic thread. Which is how a 118 needle machine can use 354 threads, or a 33 needle machine can use 132. Murata offers 12, 16, 25, 33, 38, 50, 88 and 118 needle machines, with needle spacings of 1/4″ or 3/16″. The 88 and 118 needle machines have needle spacings that give a 22″ wide sewing area. The 38 and 50 needle machines have a 9.5″ sewing area. The four smaller needle counts have more flexible needle spacing options. Unlike two-needle machines, you can’t change needle spacing on these multineedle machines, so when you buy the machine you have to pick 1/4″ or 3/16″ and stick with it.
It was my impression that if you wanted shirring, smocking or pintucking, you had to get a custom solution. You’d go to a specialty company like Atlanta Attachments and they would build you a machine, based on a standard multineedle machine, to your specifications. Murata is selling these machines “off the shelf”. And they are really, really inexpensive. A 12 needle smocking machine with pintuck attachment is $2,800. I thought I misheard that. Two thousand, eight hundred dollars. If you could buy such a machine from a US manufacturer, it would be more like $15,000.
Let me point out what you could do with such a machine. All the people at the Murata booth were wearing shirts embellished with their machines. A “racing stripe” of pintucking and smocking down the right front, and the patch pocket with a different smocking pattern. You could do tuxedo dress shirts or nice blouses with just the pintucking. They were showing off strips of material with two pintucks folded out to the left, a six needle smocking pattern down the middle, and two pintucks folded out to the right. All done in a single pass. You could do elastic shirred waists or cuffs. You could do peasant-style smocking until it goes out of style and then comes back in. You could add same-color texture to design features on a style where colored smocking would be inappropriate. Make embellished drapery or apparel ruffles.
OK, so what’s the downside? Well, there are several issues. First, Murata has no sales, distribution, service or support network in North America. One of the reasons they were at SPESA was to line up some distributors. (I was asked at both the Murata and Siruba booths: “Do you sell sewing machines?” That’s a business opportunity come knocking loudly.) Second, these machines are fully mechanical with no fancy computer-controlled solenoids. The guide plates are controlled by cams. To change the pattern, you have to change the cams. Their brochure lists 40 standard cam patterns, and blank cams are available if you want to make a custom pattern. But you will need the services of a machine shop to make that custom pattern. Third, your local sewing machine mechanic isn’t going to know how to deal with these machines. The folks at the Murata booth suggested buying a (small) machine, using it for a while, then going over to Taiwan for a short service/mechanics training course.
If I have deciphered Murata’s model numbers correctly, the suffix tells you what sort of machine it is.
- P – double chainstitch
- PSSM – double chainstitch shirring and smocking, elastic lower thread
- PQSM – single chainstitch shirring and smocking, elastic upper thread
- PQT – single chainstitch shirring plus additional elastic thread
- PQTM -single chainstitch shirring plus additional elastic thread and smocking
- PQ3 – double chainstitch shirring plus additional elastic thread
- PQ3M – double chainstitch shirring plus additional elastic thread and smocking
- PQ2 – double chainstitch shirring, elastic lower thread
- PQS – single chainstitch shirring, elastic upper thread
- PSTM – double chainstitch shirring, non-elastic gathering
- PSM – double chainstitch smocking
- PSM+PTV – double chainstitch smocking and pintucking
- PTV – double chainstitch pintucking
If you feel adventurous, Eric Chen is Murata’s English speaking export manager at the Taiwan office. Murata was passing out books of sewing samples at SPESA. You might request one to see if the machine capabilities strike some design sparks.