A sewing machine operator is a textile worker who sews fabric with an electronic sewing machine. Although many couture houses employ hand sewers to do delicate beading and embroidery, most clothing manufacturers also keep a legion of sewing machine operators on their payroll because using the machine speeds things up dramatically. Some sewing machine operators do their work on machines identical or similar to those commonly used in domestic sewing projects; others use larger, more powerful machines that are faster and able to handle thicker fabrics easily. Most sewing machine operators work in the garment industry, although tough industrial sewing machines are also used to make boat sails, curtains, fabric napkins and upholstery. Sewing machine operators may also work for sewing machine manufacturers. Their experience "out in the trenches" is invaluable for companies that are developing new sewing machine models because the operators know what works, what doesn't and what they'd change if they could.
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Sewing machine operators operate, inspect, and repair sewing machines. A sewing machine operator threads the machine (this is a very intricate process on many machine models), adjusts the tension settings based on the type of thread being used, selects stitch settings and then actually gets down to sewing. Sewing machine operators must monitor their machines for symptoms of metal fatigue or motor failure, and may have to perform minor repairs on the spot. Even experienced operators occasionally make mistakes; one of the most difficult aspects of work as a sewing machine operator is catching - and fixing - them.
Sewing machine operators must understand the limits of their machine. All sewing machines are not created equal; those with weaker motors cannot accommodate heavy fabrics such as denim and canvas and may break if the operator tries to force the fabric through. Needle selection is also relevant here; thicker fabrics require longer, thicker needles because they are stronger and less likely to bend or break. If the proper needle gauge and type of sewing machine are not available, the operator may have to hand-stitch the heaviest fabrics. This is time consuming, but prevents broken equipment and the injuries that may result from flying needle parts.
Experience is the most valuable asset for a sewing machine operator. There is no substitute for it; even those who hold degrees in fashion design won't be able to sew well without practice and repetition. Good eyesight and small, thin fingers are ideal; those with larger, thicker fingers must exercise extra caution so that they don't get impaled by the sewing machine. Patience is a virtue for a sewing machine operator; these professionals must also be able to visualize a three-dimensional garment as it takes shape from a pile of flat pieces of fabric. They must also be neat and well-organized so pattern pieces don't get damaged or lost.
Many sewing machine operators work in cramped conditions, hunched over their machine for hours at a time. Good health and a strong back are helpful; those who need a bit of extra help in this area may be most comfortable in a lumbar support chair, which reduces pressure on the tailbone and lower spine. Sewing machines generate moderate noise, so conversation is impractical when they are running. Sewing machine operators must therefore be comfortable working in solitude; even if there is another person working close by, the clattering machines preclude any real conversation.
Sewing machine operators may work in almost any capacity relating to the garment industry. Those who specialize in altering wedding gowns often do their work in a small, cramped room in the rear of a bridal salon; others offer a broader range of alteration services and handle clothing for both women and men. Sewing machine operators who work for large clothing manufacturers often work in a huge warehouse environment, where the focus is on churning out garments as quickly as possible. If a sewing machine operator prefers creating and altering theatrical costumes, he or she can expect to set up shop in a long string of temporary locations. These operators must often bring their own sewing machine with them, and are given work space in the basement of a theater or opera house. In this type of environment, the sewing machine operator must be able to think quickly, block out distractions and work under extremely short deadlines. It's a very high pressure endeavor. Some sewing machine operators specialize in costumes for dancers and figure skaters; athletic costumes must be durable, comfortable and have an attractive appearance. They must also not interfere with the athlete's movements.
Sewing machine operators often work for very little money, especially if they're churning out mass produced garments for major clothing labels. In many such cases, the operators make little more than minimum wage. Those with extensive experience and a proven talent for sewing may be hired by couture designers and elite costuming firms, and will earn much more under these employers. Sewing machine operators who perform complex freelance alterations, such as those required for most wedding gowns, may charge by the hour; others have a set price menu in which time is not a factor. Wedding gown alterations may easily cost more than five hundred dollars (US); prom gown alterations are another potential source of lucrative income.