How To Sew A Hot Air Balloon!
One of the great mysteries in life is how to properly sew a hot air balloon together. OK, maybe it's one of the more esoteric mysteries, but shoddy hot air balloon construction workmanship is an epidemic widespread enough that I've decided it's time to write a tutorial on some of the proper methods and techniques to use in order to get the best results when sewing together a hot air balloon.
In this section, you will learn how to create a perfect French Fell hot air balloon seam, at full speed, with or without a seam folder. If you're building your first hot air balloon, you want to sew it right - Right? Well, read on and you'll learn how to avoid many of the mistakes I made on my first ever hot air balloon over a decade ago. Important considerations are in spectacular bold type.
This should be one of the more popular and perhaps more confusing sections on this entire website. Skim over it, then read it again in detail, and read it again and again until it makes sense. I don't guarantee I've typed out the instructions with the clearest possible wording, but if you pay close attention and practice along at home, you should get it. When "it" gets there, you'll know, because you will have made that perfect folded fell seam and it no longer seems like work to get repeatable, quality results.
A Short Background on Seams, Stitching and the Mechanics of Such
The double-needle French Fell seam, folded fell seam, felled seam, folded seam, flat fell (a misnomer) - whatever you want to call it, is technically known as Federal Seam Type LSc-2. Each thread stitch goes through four layers of material if the seam is properly folded. This diagram shows each thread stitch passing through only three layers, which is just fine, as long as the fold width doesn't vary wildly or begin to come unfolded. The ultimate goal of a folded fell seam is to attach two pieces of material together while hiding/protecting the raw, cut edges inside the seam.
The standard single- and double-needle lockstitch sewing machines commonly used in sewing hot air balloons create a locking stitch using two threads in each stitch, known as Federal Stitch Type 301. The upper thread is fed to the needle from large spools on the thread stand attached to the sewing machine table. The lower thread comes off of bobbins situated in the throat of the machine, which must be refilled or replaced somewhat regularly, as the bobbin thread capacity is limited by the thread thickness and bobbin size.
Tip: Pre-wound bobbins can typically hold more thread on the same size bobbins because they are wound more tightly under uniform tension. Pre-wound bobbins come at a fairly higher price than the same quantity of thread on a 1-pound spool, but they save so much time and frustration that you'll likely never go back to winding your own once you experience the convenience of pre-wound bobbins.
In a lockstitch sewing machine, the upper thread (A) is passed down through the material by the needle, and a hook on the bobbin case underneath the bed of the machine captures the resulting loop of upper thread that protrudes from the eye of the needle. The upper thread loop takes a ride around the bobbin case, and when it completes the revolution, it is interlocked with the lower thread (B). The needle passes back up through the material being sewn and both threads are pulled tight against the material to complete one stitch. This cycle is repeated 40-60 times per second at full speed on a double-needle sewing machine.
If you've got your needles and hooks in proper timing, your upper and lower thread tensions properly set, and the machine well-lubricated with oil, you can sew as fast as your machine's recommended maximum stitches per minute, all day, every day, and get a perfect stitch every time at full throttle. If your machine is skipping stitches or being temperamental, which forces you to "throttle" the machine (by partially engaging the clutch pedal) to sew slower than it wants to go in order to make it sew right, something is off. Perhaps just a slight turn of a few set screws or another tiny adjustment is necessary to get things working again. Maybe you've got old needles or your thread is threaded wrong. Timing and adjusting an industrial sewing machine is a very involved subject on its own, perhaps for another rainy day here.
In any case, this tutorial intends to prepare you to become more comfortable with sewing at full throttle, all the time, to get the most out of your sewing machine's potential and save many hours of construction. After all, time is the most valuable commodity. Once your machine is running at its peak, it's time to start getting comfortable folding a felled seam, and then get comfortable doing it FAST.
Like riding a bicycle, a French Fell seam is simple to do once you get the proper hang of it. Getting there, however, is as much a mystery to many first-time builders as the elusive "female logic" remains to most mortal men.
If you've never tried sewing a folded fell seam, it might be best to watch the first half of this sewing video, starring yours truly (with a lot more hair than I normally ever have - yeah, that's really me!). Take note of all the different things my hands do. There are a lot of actions going on that are not immediately obvious from the video, which I will explain a little further down.
I am right-handed, but that doesn't really make a difference. Everyone
sewing balloons should sew with their right arm through the machine to
help push material through and keep excess clutter from creeping underneath the
presser foot and needles. I sewed my first balloon with my left arm leading,
before I knew any better, since it seemed unnatural to stick my arm through the machine. My first balloon turned out just fine, with very few "sew-unders,"
but that's par for the course on nearly any balloon construction project. However, I was compelled to change my sewing technique, this time with my right arm leading, when I started working for a balloon manufacturer shortly thereafter. Good thing, otherwise I'd probably still be sewing wrong!
"Sew-unders" are where excess material slides under the presser foot and gets stitched underneath the main pieces being sewn. They are very inconvenient at
best, so it's good to avoid them by all means necessary. A "sew-over" is
often many times more frustrating. That's where excess material above the
pieces being sewn get sucked into the needle/thread area and get sewn
into the seam. The presser foot stops quickly, because it has just
sewn itself to the fabric and comes to a dead stop. A sew-over is a big pain to remove, and sometimes
the only way out of a really bad sew-over is to cut it all out of the
foot by brute force. You may even have to put a small patch on the resulting hole(s) if you can't snip the mess of threads without getting the fabric as well. Sewing with your right arm leading will help tremendously in the fight against sew-overs and -unders, since your arm automatically clears extraneous fabric from the throat of the machine as you sew.
If you pay close attention in the video, you'll notice I pull evenly on both the front AND the back ends of the seam, to keep the entire length of the material being sewn under tension. This serves two purposes: It keeps the two pieces of fabric in the French Fell seam from unfolding and falling out of the seam, and it also reduces the amount of pucker introduced by the stitching. Every time something is sewn, it puckers slightly, and as a result shortens the finished dimensions very slightly from the original. When a sewing machine's thread is in proper tension, this puckering is kept to a minimum - however, it's still there. Pulling on both ends of the material being sewn will reduce this puckering to a bare minimum. You'll also notice I'm moving my entire upper body as one unit. I'll get back to this later, but first I shall briefly explain one highly useful benefit of shrinkage.
The more times a piece of material is sewn, the more it shrinks. This is a handy technique that balloon repairmen utilize to make replacement panels fit into the area previously occupied by the original fabric (shrink-sewing). The original fabric has often shrunk over the lifetime of the balloon, so the exposed edges of the new (original size) panels may need to be shrink-sewn to be able to fit evenly into the hole without unsightly folds or puckering. A run of double-needle stitching is first zipped up the edge in order to shrink it before installation in the shorter space left by the old panel. With time and flight-induced heating, the rest of the fabric will assume the same shrunken stature as the edges were installed to fit. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program!
To Use a Seam Folder, or Not To Use?
I sewed my first balloon over a decade ago without one (and it really shows). Somewhere in between then and now I got skilled enough at hand-folding to where I can fool just about anyone into thinking I used one. However, it's always easier to use a well-made seam folder if you've got one. I prefer using one whenever possible. It takes a little getting used to lining up the beginning of the fold, but once you get it down perfect, you never forget. Just like learning to ride a bike or motorcycle, it never leaves you.
Here are two different seam folder attachments. They both accomplish the same exact thing but look a little bit different. The one at left creates a 1/2" wide finished fold, while the one at right makes a 3/4" finished fold.
Lightweight fabric doesn't work in your seam folder? Try Harder!
|> I was talking to **** ****** on the balloon makers list, and he said he can't
> even get seam folders to work on that 1.3 oz silicone coated fabric because
> it's too thin. He also said that's the hardest possible fabric to learn how
> to sew on. Yikes! I'm starting to dread how this thing might turn out.
Yes, 1.3 oz. silicone-coated ripstop nylon is tougher to work with overall, but once it's properly in a seam folder (or folded manually) and sewn down, there's very little difference between sewing the lightweight stuff and 1.9oz fabric other than the fact that it's more slippery and half as thin.
I find that it is way easier to get silicone fabric into a folder than it is to get Nomex or even 1.9oz fabric with a faintly tacky urethane coating. The silicone fabric slides easily over the other half of the fabric in the fold and thus can be positioned more easily. HOWEVER, it's definitely more difficult to LOCK it into position once you get it right, because it is so prone to sliding around over itself. Use as many fingers as necessary as well as your forearms to make sure the two pieces don't move out of position before you can trap the fold under the presser foot and lock it with the needles.
OK... Let's Use A Seam Folder!
Seam folder technique (regardless of fabric used) generally consists of the following steps:
1. Insert left (lower) side of fabric into the folder, from the left, so that the far end of the piece is slightly behind (i.e. all the way through) the folder. You might need to wiggle it front to back while pushing from the left until it slips into the fold, but that's not always necessary if you use your right hand in the following manner. Your right pointer and thumb should be used to upturn the fabric in front of the folder (closer to your body) and influence the whole fold to be an even 3/4" wide. By folding the front evenly at the same time as the rear goes through the folder, you can keep the fold pretty perpendicular the whole time.
2. Once you make the foldover an even 3/4" wide along the first 6", keep both hands where they are and slide it into position under the raised presser foot (move your upper body to do that without messing things up). If you don't have a knee (or foot) lifter for the presser foot... Good luck. Drop the presser foot to lock it in place. The best place to position the fabric under the foot is so that the rear edge is just behind the rear of the foot. Use the whole foot to keep it down for now.
3. With the presser foot down, don't let go with your right hand just yet - BEND the folded fabric over and down the table's edge. This "locks" the 3/4" fold width in place at the front end of the piece, and the presser foot locks the fold at the rear end. This keeps the left side from migrating while positioning the right side. Some folks use magnets to lock each side in place, but they would just get in my way. They probably help while learning, though.
4. Now, for the right side. Repeat step 1, except reversed. Use your left pointer and thumb to roll the front fold while you push/slide the fabric into the folder with your right hand.
5. Tricky part: With the presser foot raised, use your left forearm to keep the left side fabric from shifting. You need to slide the right side fabric towards the back so that the left and right edges line up under the foot. When sliding, use your fingers and thumb to push the entire right side back while trying to keep the fold at its optimal 3/4" width the whole time. When the back edges are lined up, you can put the foot down again. Your folds should still be 3/4" wide for the first 6" or so. They don't need to interlock for that 6", but a properly prepared fold should interlock at least for a short bit out the front of the folder.
5A. If the fold is too narrow under the presser foot when you put the foot down, or if it is slightly tapered towards the back, or any other combination of "not quite right", you need to do some repositioning with the foot up. I can't really explain this properly, but each hand needs to control its individual side. Keep gentle pressure inwards to keep the pieces from migrating out of the fold when the foot is up, and reposition as necessary. This is the most critical point in the process where it's easiest to mess up and then have to start over. When everything goes just right up to this point, quite often it's not even necessary to reposition things - just slide the right side back, drop the foot, and continue.
6. [This step is not necessarily required if you have a machine with reverse, or if you don't mind that the first 3/4" of the fold isn't stitched.]
I prefer to follow this step because it allows me to start sewing at the extreme edge of the fabric, rather than starting 3/4" in from the edge and having the very first bit of the fold unsewn. With hands in place on the fabric to keep both sides from migrating, and with the foot raised, I pull the whole fabric setup in one piece towards me to place the rear edge of the fabric closest to the needles. If you have a machine with reverse, you may be able to skip this step by starting out sewing in reverse when that time comes. That will close up this open gap and also lock the stitching at the same time. I've never had a habit of doing this, so I can't really recommend starting in reverse. It probably adds complexity to the process and it certainly removes the use of your right hand for more important things. I'm so used to this step that it's second nature even when I'm using a machine that has reverse.
7. You're almost ready to sew - but first, you must get the run of the fold ready. Position the needles down through the fabric to lock the beginning of the fold so that it's positively secured in place. If the needles aren't into the fabric, it might be pulled out from underneath the presser foot while the run of the fold is being set up. There is some pulling and tension involved, and it's easy to pull the fabric out from underneath the presser foot if the needles aren't down in place.
8. With needles in place, grab the front edge of the left side with your left hand, about 12-18" in front of the needles. For a beginner, shorter spans are easier. I prefer my thumb on top, forefinger on bottom. Do not hold it with a fold yet. Clasp the edge tightly in between your fingers.
8A. With the left side held straight, wrap the right side around the tight left edge and 3/4" wide. Hold the wrapped right side with your right hand, then fold that over to the left side. Grab the completed fold again with your left hand and keep it in place - it will remain there for sewing. When folding (and more importantly, sewing), your other three fingers (middle, ring, pinky) should be used to great effect to pull the fabric on each side of the fold tight so that there is no slack that can cause grief.
9. Your right hand should then be behind the presser foot, gripping all four threads firmly so they don't get sucked back under and tangled in the hook/bobbin. Some machines are notorious for doing that to loose thread ends, so it's a good habit to get used to which only takes a second. It's a good habit to get used to sewing with your right arm through the machine head. You have the benefit of automatically clearing the fabric through the arm as the pile gets higher.
10. With the fold held tight in your left hand and your right hand pulling on the threads, you are finally ready to start sewing! Go for it! Use your forearms and other three fingers on each hand (against each palm) to keep the fabric on both sides of the fold wrinkle-free and tight. Your rear hand and front hand should be pulling equally away from each other so there is constant tension on the fold (often a moderate amount is necessary), but allow the action of the feed dog and stitching to actually advance the fabric. Move your upper body as necessary to allow the fabric to be advanced through the machine, and keep your hands and arms as still as possible. The opposing hand tension does two things - it minimizes the inevitable shrinkage from stitching, and it ensures the fold doesn't come undone. Long runs can be done, but more tension is necessary to maintain a longer fold.
Watch the video and take notes on the sewing technique. Pay special attention to my hand and arm placement, and try to see what I do with my three minor fingers and forearms to keep things taut. I'm holding the closest three inches aside of the fold with each hand, which does (at least) three beneficial things:
A. Helps keep the fold width consistent
B. Avoids pesky sew-unders
C. Helps keep the stitching straight and consistent by constraining my movement strictly front to back. Having both hands involved makes you sew straighter for that reason also - it's harder to stray when you control both ends of a long run, rather than just the near end.
Hand-Folding Your Seams
Folding WITHOUT a seam folder starts off with a different set of instructions, but the latter portion and subsequently sewing it is all one and the same.
Making consistent folds without a folder:
1. Start with the left piece flat on the machine to the left of the presser foot.
2. Place the right piece directly on top of the left piece, but upside down. Offset the top piece 3/4" to the left of the bottom piece's right edge.
3. Place your left pointer finger and thumb even with the edge of the top piece, about 4" apart from each other. Position your fingers close to the beginning of the piece (furthest away from you).
4. Use your right pointer and thumb to fold the bottom piece up and over the edge, while making sure you keep some tension with your left fingers. This ensures the edge stays well-defined and allows the fold to be made around it without influencing its position.
5. After the first fold is made, position your right pointer and thumb just inside your left fingers to now hold the newly-created fold's edge in the same manner as Step 3. Your middle finger will probably get involved.
6. With tension held by your right two fingers, use your left pointer and thumb to fold the top piece up and over the taut edge in the same fashion. Use your left fingers to hold everything in place, and your right hand can come out. Flatten the fold. You should have a perfectly-formed 3/4" wide fold for the first 4-6". If not, practice more.
7. Once the fold is made, grab the end of the fold with one hand, and grab the front end of the proper fold with your other. Reposition the assembly under the presser foot and enter into the folding and sewing instructions above (Step 7). I find that things migrate minimally if I grab each end of the fold with my hands, but keep the fabric flat against the throat of the machine as much as possible. Lifting it off the throat when moving it sometimes causes unnecessary migration, which should be avoided entirely. It should wind up under the presser foot exactly the way it was folded - perfectly. If not, something happened - start over!
|> I think my Juki has a problem with the clutch, as there is no way to start
> off sewing slowly with it. It just goes from zero to full blast no matter
> how slowly I push down the pedal. Guess I'll have to take it into a repair
> shop and see what they can do.
Industrial sewing machines' clutch motors are designed for on-off operation. When you get used to sewing fast, you will rarely sew at less than full speed. Check out that video for how it's done. However, if you ever need to sew slowly, i.e. for detail work, or at the very beginning of starting out a seam, you can slip the clutch carefully by pushing down very gently at the point of contact, which allows the clutch to barely touch the motor plate. Sometime's it's a fine art.