Introduction: Laser Etched Sewing Machine Quick Reference

About: Designer / maker

Even after sewing for many years, I can’t always remember the right way to thread each machine I work on. Small changes in threading, tension or bobbin insertion can give you a pretty poor quality stitch. However, I am not one to keep manuals on hand. I created this quick reference guide for an old industrial Singer I recently purchased. Now anyone working on the machine has a visual guide to some of the key instructions for operating this machine.

This guide covers the process I used from gathering images to laser etching. Of course, you can create a visual guide in any format that is helpful in your practice. Silkscreening, hand drawing, or printing out a guide would also be helpful. The important part is selecting the information you think is most valuable to be able to view at a glance when working on your machine. I would love to some day create quick reference guides for all of the machines I use in my studio, but this is a fun first step.

Step 1: Determine What Machine You Have

Every machine will have a manufacturer and model number displayed on the body somewhere. Often it’s quite prominent. At a glance you can see that my machine in manufactured by Singer, and the model number is 281-1.

Sometimes the model number will be displayed on a plate by the plug. This is more common on a domestic sewing machine.

Step 2: Find Your Manual

  • If you actually have your manual from when you purchased your machine, congratulations! You are off to a good start.
  • If your machine is relatively new, most manufacturers will have a section on their website where you can access PDFs of manuals. The model number and manufacturer name you had determined will be helpful here.
  • If you have an older machine, like I do, type the manufacturer and model number into a search engine. I was able to find a manual quite easily online within the first couple google hits.
  • If for whatever reason you cannot find the manual look at similar machines by the same manufacturer from the same era. Most features will not change model to model, so following these instructions will still be valuable.

Resources for online manuals:

Step 3: What Information Do You Want to Display?

I find the most common mistakes people make while sewing are with threading. Especially with industrial machines, it’s hard to remember the exact order things need to be threaded in. Because of this, I would say that including any threading diagrams is very important.

Otherwise, what is tricky about your machine? Changing stitch length is strange on mine, so I included that diagram. Also, inserting the bobbin case in industrial machines can be challenging, so I included that diagram as well

Step 4: Screen Shot, Scan, or Otherwise Collect the Images You Want to Use

Depending on the format of your manual, the image collection will differ. I took screenshots from the manual I found from my machine. Consider what medium your manual is in, and determine the best way to digitize the diagrams.

I took screenshots of the relevant diagrams showing the portions of machine set up I wanted to be able to look at. I included the subtitle describing the image.

Step 5: Determine What You Want to Laser Etch

I had a piece of 12x24 plywood lying around the studio, so I designed my sign to fit that. Light coloured plywood will have a high contrast when laser etched, so I think it’s the ideal material. It’s also biodegradable, so it won’t be around forever.

Of course, if you don’t have access to a laser cutter, or simply don’t want to etch your sign this is the step where you should determine what other format you would like to consider for your reference guide.

Step 6: Bring Your Images Into Photoshop (or a Similar Program With Editing Capabilities)

  • I created a document the same size as my piece of wood – 12 inches x 24 inches. I made the document 150 pixels/inch for resolution, which is quite low. Because my source material is screenshots from a PDF, I can’t make anything that tis very high resolution. Anything you are taking from a screen to print is going to be low resolution.
  • Because of this, I resized the images a little bit to make them bigger. There is more loss of quality when resizing, so pay attention to how the image is looking when you are zoomed all the way in. Balancing quality, legibility and size can be challenging. Because the manual for this machine is quite old, I thought the low-resolution grainy look was pretty cool.
  • Arrange everything where you want it. Make your file fit the material you’ve identified for your sign. Use the move tool to rearrange the diagrams
  • Adjust the levels so your image is black and white only. The laser will not be able to etch grey.
  • Use the eraser tool to clean up the image
  • Add some text if you want – many sewing puns are possible

Step 7: Save Your File

  • The laser cutter I use needs a 2-bit file to raster engrave. This means that each pixel is either black or white, which the laser reads as on or off.
  • The easiest way I have found to save these files is through “Save for web..” in Photoshop
  • For the file type, select GIF, and in the “colors” drop down, select “2”
  • Remember to press “Save…” not “Done” to get out of the dialogue. I have often clicked done by mistake, and then you have to go back and do it again

Step 8: Upload to Your Laser Cutter

  • All laser cutters are different, so follow a tutorial specific to the laser cutter you have access to in order to bring in the file and find appropriate settings for engraving plywood
  • Ensure that the engrave settings are set to engrave from a raster image rather then a vector. If the machine is looking for a vector, it will have an error and it won’t work.
  • Test your settings
  • Double check you’ve set your z axis to the right depth for your material
  • Engrave

Step 9: Sand Your Piece

After engraving wood, I tend to sand the surface with a fine sandpaper to remove the smoke discoloration and give a smoother finish.

From here, feel free to try any wood finishing techniques that you like.

Step 10: Hang It Up!

Display the sign somewhere that the user can get the relevant information at a glance! No more digging around for manuals when you (inevitably) make a mistake threading.

Step 11: Resources

If you have an industrial Singer machine, it's likely similar enough to my machine that you can use the sign I made. Download the photoshop file, or a 2-bit gif for your own use. Enjoy!