Needle feed sewing machines

juki_needle_feed Mr. Fashion-Incubator got a new whiz bang camera which we played with last weekend. Like many cameras these days, it also shoots short video segments. We thought a good sample video would be to show the difference between the sewing operation of a needle feed machine (the one I bought recently) versus a regular straight stitch machine. With the video, our intent was to show three things:

  1. The needle feed action
  2. Machine speed
  3. Machine noise level

Needle feed action
Many people were curious about how this machine worked and why it offered advantages over a regular machine. On the needle feed, the needle moves to and from as well as up and down. The other is a normal machine in which the needle only moves up and down. Both machines are industrial machines, so novices can gauge the quiet and controlled operation of both. In this clip, the needle feed has a white Teflon foot that is useful for leather and velvets.

Machine speed
This is shot in real time, it’s not slow motion. I ran the machine as slowly as possible so those who fear the runaway speed of industrial machines can realize their fears are for naught. In the video you’ll see I’m just chug chug chugging along.

Machine noise level
The machine noise is barely perceptible yet with the camera microphone so close, it is amplified. It wasn’t until we got home and in the process of editing that we learned how good the microphone was in that it picked up a lot of ambient noise. Duly noted for next time.

Both of these machines have servo motors with electronic controls versus the noisy clutch motors that are traditionally known in production sewing. These machines are easier to control with regard to speed, use less power and are much quieter. Although it is not evident in the clip, my home sewing machine is noisier than either of these two machines. The servo motors are programmable; you can program automatic back and end tacking with a variety of configurations and my favorite, automatic thread trimming. Like I said before, I thought automatic thread trimming was only for wusses but I never want to buy another machine without it again.

Benefits of a needle feed machine
The reasons to consider a needle feed machine are myriad. These are new (to me), I haven’t worked in a facility where these were used as a matter of course. I had a friend who swore by these, all of his were needle feeds. He used to sew athletic jerseys made of that very light nylon mesh material with holes in it (don’t know the official name of the fabric). Needle feeds are good for any material that needs a little help. Everything from slippery light dress weights to piled fabrics (velvet, why I got it) and even garment weight leathers (walking foot machines used to sew heavier leathers are also needle feeds).

If you’re having a problem feeding materials and want to know if one of these machines will solve your problems, the best thing to do is to send samples of your fabrics to a machine dealer and let them do a test sew for you. They’ll ship the sewn samples back so you can compare for yourself. The only thing I would have done differently would have been to cut the fabric sample strips to exact lengths. It would have been easier to judge whether the machine fed them evenly.

If you decide to buy the machine, ask that they set the machine up for you. Also ask what they did differently to set it up in case you need to reset the machine. In the case of the velvet samples I sent, the mechanic reduced the foot pressure a significant amount. So, if I decide to use the machine for something else, I’ll know to increase the pressure if the machine isn’t forming a quality stitch.

If you’ve never purchased an industrial, these are easy to set up. These days, all you do is unwrap it (after unbolting it from the pallet). The thread stand is the only thing you need to connect, the rest is good to go. Do go through the manual to cover your bases making sure the machine has adequate oil etc.

Oh, one last word and that is power. If it’s a new machine with a servo motor, there’s a switch on the motor so you can change it over to either 110 or 220. Have them set this for you depending on your needs. You also need to ask about amperage. My Adler runs on 110 but specifies a 20 amp circuit. Many circuits are only rated for 15 amps. Newer places have 20 amp circuits but the plugs on a 20 amp machine don’t match the outlet. The work around is to change out the receptacle to match the machine plug and to not put anything else on that circuit. Out of curiosity, we tested the load on both machines. Although the Adler specifies a 20 amp circuit, the most it drew was 5 amps at top speed. But that’s the Germans for you, they’ll over engineer everything. Not that I’m complaining, better safe than sorry. I doubt you’ll have the difficulties I did with setting up the Adler (the regular feed machine). It’s at least ten years older than the needle feed.

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  1. Kathleen says:

    Hi M, I agree this is confusing. It’s less accurate for me to describe it like this, it’s better to call it a controller. Okay, with clutch motors we have one thing that makes it go and that’s the motor. With the servo motors, these are really controllers, or brains. It’s exactly like a computer (it is a computer). You have your PC or Mac that runs (sews) and you have peripherals that you plug into the machine like a printer, scanner etc. With the servos, you also have peripherals you can plug in, namely the automatic thread trimmer in this case. You also have a small display board with buttons you can press to program stitch configuration (back stitch, hard or soft etc) and even short cut keys if you want to bypass it. This is kind of like using a short cut key on your keyboard that you’ve programmed to do something. Does this help? But you’re right, I haven’t described it accurately, just the concept.

  2. Theresa Riess says:

    loved the video. Even better were the other video choices that popped up after yours played such as the Pfaff doing bartacks and a Japanese video showing how to set in a fly front zip. More video viewing.

    Theresa in Tucson

  3. Dave K says:

    My only thoughts about Needle Feed machine is “More Complexity – More Things to Break”. Is there an appreciable difference in reliability or maintenance? It would be interesting to see it do a big zig-zag … the needle must really travel a lot, is there much vibration when sewing at high speed since it has 3-axis movement.

    I laughed when I saw the 20 amp requirement – that would be approximately a 3 hp motor. My table saw doesn’t have a 20 amp requirement!

  4. sfriedberg says:

    Dave K, the mechanical difference between needle feed and bottom/drop feed (the “usual”) machines is fairly modest. A mechanic would probably have to do only one or two additional adjustments for a needle feed machine. I would say the difference in mechanical reliability and maintenance is minimal. But the difference in stitching reliability is considerable when dealing with slippery fabric!

    Neither of the machines in the video is capable of doing any zig-zag. Straight stitching only. There are a very few industrial zig-zag machines with needle feed and/or walking foot, but most industrial zig-zags are drop feed.

  5. Sandra B says:

    Thanks for the great description of clutch vs servo motors. I have a servo, but didn’t realise what the difference was, other than noise. I like the auto cut, but mine doesn’t start very cleanly afterwards. Hmm, must get it looked at.
    On another note, one of the funniest things I’ve seen while teaching sewing was the eight year old girl who appeared to be having a fit of some kind. I was alarmed until I realised she was just keeping her eye on the needle as she sewed … and it was doing a zigzag. I wonder how she’d go on a needle-feed machine?

  6. LisaB says:

    Something made me wonder why one wouldn’t simply purchase a needle-feed instead of a regular feed. Is it getting the machine fine-tuned for a particular fabric and not wanting to change those settings for every fabric you work with? Is it cost? Possible maintenance issues? Since they handle difficult fabrics so well, why not bypass buying a regular feed and go straight to the specialty machine? Just wondering…

  7. lucy says:

    Is there a price difference? If you have a ballpark price for needle-feeds, that would be helpful. Sounds like a great machine that we may want to purchase at some point.


  8. Kathleen says:

    Hi Lucy, I’m sure there is a price difference btwn a regular straight stitch vs the needle feed (all other things remaining the same) but I wouldn’t imagine it would be dramatic. I think the list of this model is $3,200 (?). A lot of online vendors (good dealers) were selling it for $2,900. I think I paid $2,650 (from Orange County industrial sewing) plus shipping. I could look it up but I’m too lazy right now. [DH is setting up to shoot some videos here and I’m just killing time till he’s ready for me].

    Machines, even new, are incredibly cheap these days. Not to say everybody has two or three thousand dollars sitting in their lingerie drawer that they can plunk down on one of these things at a moment’s notice, but technology has improved so much, lowering costs dramatically. For example, the first pocket welting machines were these big station set-ups, they cost $25,000 and this was $25,000, 20 years ago. That’d be, what, $35,000 in today’s dollars? But we saw a great pocket welting machine at SPESA in 2007 that I think was $6,500. And this was a Pfaff, an excellent machine, made in Germany, not a China price. And used machines? They’re so cheap you can practically get them free if you know where to look. I have two, maybe three you can have if you come pick them up. Needle-feeding machines isn’t new technology, see about getting a good used brand if a new one is out of your budget. Try Miami Sewing.

  9. Brina says:

    [I meant to post this some time ago, and as I’m trying to entertain myself while recouping from sinus infection…]
    Perhaps a bit OT. When I used to sew B’way costumes for a living we used a velvet foot to sewing napped fabrics–which is shaped like a V if you look at it from the front. It basically just puts pressure on a thin area around the needle so that the velvet is not crushed or pushed to crawl–of course it does make a difference whether you are trying to sew with or against the nap. Anyway here’s an example of a velvet foot FEET
    As you can see these are not the same as a zipper/piping foot that apparent some vendors sell to sew velvet. And the images don’t really show the V. I found I could get pretty good control with these feet, even on a conventional feeding machine. A co-worker used to call it the pickle foot because it kinda looks like a pickle fork–at least the long toe.

  10. aminesay says:

    We use needle feed machines in heavy fabrics (jeans) in operation like waistband corner (where the needle has to go through 4 layers). It helps alot!

    By the way all 2 needle machines are Needle feed machines.

  11. Janet says:

    Are you saying that some machines can be needle feed AND have walking feet? Is that perhaps what people mean when they use the term “compound feed” or “unison feed”? You’ve got me wondering whether that is what my Singer 211U567 might be.

    • Avatar photo

      I’d made the clarification somewhere (should have been here, sorry about that) but can’t find it. Briefly, all walking foot machines are also needle feeds. “Compound” feed just means it has more than one feed so technically, both needle feed and walking foots are compound feed. Unison feed is similar and probably more often used in one area over another but still, “compound” is intended.
      Single needle -single feed (feed dogs)
      Needle feed -compound/unison feed (feed dogs plus needle feed)
      Walking foot -compound/unison feed (feed dogs, needle feed plus foot walking)

  12. Mark says:

    Hello, anyone know if there is a needle-feed domestic or portable machine in existence? I am an on-set tailor and need to carry my machine to every job, I’m sure it would make my job that much easier!!!

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