Renee of Miss Celie’s Pants fame convinced me to write a little blog post on my experience with the Janome Jem since there are not a whole lot of info/reviews about it online, and she is basically my all-things-sewing-blog guru, so of course I had to do it!
Back in August I found out that I would be living in Savannah, GA for three months. I travel a lot for work, but I hadn’t had to do an extended stay out of town in several years, so I was ill prepared to say the least. Although I have owned at least one sewing machine since my college days, it is only in the past 4 years that sewing has become an indispensable artistic outlet for me, so my first thought was to get my hands on a travel sewing machine that I could tote around with me on this and all future out-of-town jobs lasting longer than a week. Although production hours are generally long and arduous, there can be a lot of down time in between shooting days, and being bored on location is something I have struggled with in the past, so I was excited to have something fun to do with all my extra time in Savannah.
I did a bit of googling online to try and find a machine that stood out to me, but I was overwhelmed. I like to do a lot of research and price checking before I make almost any online purchase, but with less than a week til I was leaving LA and with so much packing to do, I didn’t have as much time I would have liked. But Renee came to the rescue!!!! She is that one friend who keeps her eyes and ears out for virtually any item at any time and stores it all in some file cabinet in her brain, just in case she or someone else needs the information in the future. This has worked out in my favor more than once in our friendship so far and I feel very thankful for her friendship and know-how!
I wrote an IG post (which is the social media outlet that has also become indispensable to me ever since I got rid of my facebook account) asking if anyone had suggestions on a good travel sewing machine and of course Renee piped in with a few great ideas. I am a bit of a sucker for cute design aesthetics, and if you do a simple google search for “mini sewing machine” you can see how inundated I was with tiny machines in bright pastel colors with adorably rounded edges. The mini John Lewis machine in particular caught my eye and was co-signed by a couple of my IG followers, but Renee steered me clear of that one (I’m sure it’s a great machine, but I needed something I could make JEANS on!)
I tried to focus less on the appearance of the machine and instead on how well it worked and how many bells and whistles it could combine with a lightweight body. I knew that at the end of the day I would rather have a regular-looking workhorse sewing machine that could do almost everything my Bernina 350 does than one that was super cute but couldn’t handle the type of sewing I would need it for. And that’s how
I we settled on the Janome Jem, which was Renee’s very first suggestion. I have a Janome serger that I bought used on CL several years ago that I LOVELOVELOVE (it took everything in my power not to pack it up and bring it with me on my travels) so I knew what a fine name it was, but not all machines, even within the same brand, are created equal. Thankfully the Janome Jem Gold did not disappoint!
I can’t remember why Renee had this machine on her radar, but we talked about a few other machines when we were trying to narrow my options, specifically trying to get my hands on a Singer featherweight. Obviously I would love to own such a machine at some point in my life, but finding one in the used-machine market that was affordable and didn’t need a lot of work during my time restraints seemed like an arduous task, and I still hadn’t even finished packing! Ultimately we also decided that, although used machines are awesome and I personally prefer to buy used over new, it made more sense to get a new machine for my needs. Buying new took out a lot of the guesswork and since I didn’t have a car in Savannah, it would not have been easy to get a vintage or used machine tuned up or fixed if something went awry with it. The price point for the Janome Jem was right in line with what I was looking to spend (I paid less than $250 for it on amazon) and it offered a decent selection of stitches without adding too much weight/bulk to the body. This machine has 8 stitches which you can access manually by turning a dial, including 2 stretch stitches/ zigzags and an overlock stitch, and it also had a button hole maker, which was a necessity for me since my first project was to complete six Grainline Archer button down shirts for Claire (one is not pictured below because it got finished after this photo was taken).
Speaking of bulk/weight, this was my main concern when buying a travel sewing machine- I really wanted it to be lightweight. I didn’t want a toy machine that was 6 pounds or anything, but I wanted something that I could conceivably put in a carry-on suitcase that wouldn’t slow me down too much. A lot of the “travel” and “mini” sewing machines that I found online were actually much heavier than I imagined they would be, but the Janome Jem came in at 14.1 pounds, which was one of the most lightweight machines I read about that combined as many bells and whistles as it did: again, 8 stitches and a 4 step buttonhole maker, plus a bobbin winder, needle threader, top loading bobbin, and (some) metal parts.
At the time, I thought the downside of the machine was that you couldn’t change the length or width on the stitches, which seemed limiting- the machine offers a tight straight stitch, a regular straight stitch and a basting stitch, with about the same amount of options for zigzags (although surprisingly this machine does come with a triple zigzag, something even my Bernina doesn’t have). I wondered how much this would affect my sewing, in the event that I needed more than three lengths of a straight or zigzag stitch for a project. But after using the machine for a few weeks, I realized this wasn’t a downside at all; in reality I didn’t need any more options than what came with the machine. Obviously I used the regular straight stitch and the basting stitches most often, and I used the tighter straight stitch once or twice, but the real surprise was getting so much good use out of the zig zag stitches.
Because I didn’t have a serger with me, I had assumed that I wouldn’t even attempt to sew knits, but somehow I ended up packing in my sewing suitcase a fresh cut of a Liberty floral knit that The Fabric Store started carrying right before I left town, and I couldn’t bear to let it sit so long untouched! I know how to sew knits on a regular machine, I just never have the need for it because my serger does it so much better, but for the sake of turning that fabric into something wearable, I dusted off my knit-sewing skills and zigzagged my way through a Closet Case Files’ Sallie Maxi Dress. And you know what? The dress came out great! It doesn’t have the same streamlined look on the insides as it would had I used a serger, but it still looks tidy and it has held up beautifully with a lot of wear!
In addition to sewing the knit maxi, I also used the zig zag functions to sew up a couple of bra and panty sets and a Named Patterns Sointu Tee– all came out really beautifully. But my most impressive project was to sew a pair of jeans from start to finish on this machine. As anyone who has sewn jeans can attest to, working on a sturdy, powerful machine is half the battle; those denim layers get really thick and hard to navigate under a sewing foot. But the Janome Jem handled my medium weight denim like a champ, including all the top stitching, and I actually had more trouble pounding my rivets and buttons in without my normal tools than I had constructing the actual pants.
Finally, it’s important to note what the machine feels like to sew on. Because it’s fairly lightweight I was worried it would be jumping and dancing around my sewing table as soon as I pressed the pedal, but that was not the case at all. It is a surprisingly sturdy machine, and the one I bought came with a special rubber mat to use underneath it, keeping it from sliding around on slippery surfaces. The machine is quieter than I thought it would be, and really smooth. It came equipped with a couple of feet but I had others to use on it too (they are snap-on) and everything worked well. I was particularly fond of the ease with which it makes its zig zags; some machines can be a little jerky when the needle is operating in anything other than a straight stitch, but this beauty zig zagged efficiently and smoothly. Compared to my Bernina, this machine was just as smooth to sew on and only a tiny bit louder, but compared to my 1950’s Singer, it is practically silent!
So YAY for the Janome Jem! I plan to use this machine to loan out to friends who might need to use one short term or who are looking to learn on something simple and user-friendly.
Now, aside from reviewing the sewing machine, I also wanted to write a little about my adventures in sewing “on the road” as it were, although technically I wasn’t really on the road very often, but rather stationary in a place that was not my craft room. I tried to be very deliberate in how and what I packed for my three months away because I tend to overpack, which is something I am very self conscious about, being that I am married to someone who could probably travel with little more than a knapsack on a 2 month long journey (this past Christmas is the first time I have checked a bag on a non-business trip in like 7 years, and it was all because I couldn’t fit my Vogue coat in anything smaller).
Anyways, one suitcase (the larger one) was all clothes, shoes, accessories and toiletries, and the medium sized suitcase was all sewing stuff- fabric, notions, tools, etc. I packed my sewing machine into my carry-on along with my portable rice cooker (who can spend three months without perfect rice??) Three suitcases for three months- not bad considering I was bringing along half my craft room!
In being deliberate about what I packed, I also made sure to plan out what projects I could conceivably tackle while I was away. I brought a pattern for every cut of fabric I packed, plus a couple more in case I bought any fabric while in Savannah (which I did). I knew I wanted to work on perfecting my boned bodice construction, so I brought steel boning in addition to wire cutters- that was the one “splurge” in my suitcase. Everything else I brought was for general sewing and I used almost every single item at least once. My sewing box included but was not limited to:
- chalk pens
- needles and magnetic holder
- safety pins
- machine needles for stretch, silk, denim and regular cotton fabrics
- a couple of zippers that matched the fabric I brought
- thread in several shaded
- enough buttons for 6 Archer shirts
- tape for PDF patterns
- Fray-Stop fabric glue for buttonholes
- seam ripper
- separate scissors for fabric and paper
- ribbon for waist stays (I just realized that I didn’t end up using these!)
- horse hair braid for stabilizing a hem (didn’t use this either)
- clothing tags
- transfer paper
- a sewing gift from Oona
- boning casing
I used every single fabric I originally brought with me except for one, although when I got to go back to LA briefly after a month in Savannah, I got more fabric to bring back with me, and not all of that got used- but it was close! For a bunch of reasons that I wont get into here, I ended up moving 5 times during my first month in Savannah before I got settled in a very cute (and possibly haunted, even though I don’t really believe in ghosts) apartment downtown. So my efficient packing was put to the test several times as I changed rooms and hotels. But sewing in a hotel room was not nearly as painful as I thought it would be, and was actually fairly comfortable.
My first order of business was to make sure everything had a place and there was no clutter, so I got rid of everything the hotel likes to stack on the desk (phone, hotel services binder, notepads and pens, etc.) and put my machine and mat there. I used the tiny coffee table as my main cutting/construction area, but I would occasionally have to move to the floor, which I hated because hotel carpets are sketchy and it would wreak havoc on my back. I placed a couple of plastic bags around the room so that I could put my threads, scraps and sewing detritus in them easily- I didn’t want the people who cleaned the hotel rooms to have extra work to do on account of my hobby. And that was pretty much all she wrote!
After I moved out of the hotel and into my apartment, sewing got even easier because the space was bigger and there was a ribs-high dining table that I could cut my fabric on, which meant I could stand up while doing it (less floor cutting for me). There was also a large desk in the living room which could hold my machine and my sewing box with plenty of extra space left over. It was a super comfortable set up, and although I missed my large cutting table and my rotary cutter like nobody’s business, I was able to get a lot of really great sewing done during my three months. I never figured out a good way to photograph myself wearing my makes because I didn’t bring our good camera or the tripod, and I was usually too embarrassed to ask someone to take photos of me (one of my many downfalls). So a lot of the photos of my completed projects were taken once I was back home. But below is a play-by-play of everything that got made on Savannah soil. Hopefully this can serve as a little inspiration for any of you other sewcialists interested in making things #sewnawayfromhome!
Svaneke No. 8 Dress in Swan fabric (haven’t blogged this yet):
Kimono Tee by Named Patterns (unblogged):
These Cloth Habit Watson Bra and Panty sets (unblogged):
my first pair of knitted socks (unblogged):
Sallie Maxi Dress (unblogged):