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Projectors for Sewing

I love when I am done projecting a pattern and my chromecast just starts showing pretty images in the dark room. If it weren’t so hard to sew in the dark I could just watch TV on this thing while I worked, haha

I read about this phenomenon over a year ago in one of the Closet Core Patterns monthly inspo emails- there was a blog post included by a woman who was sharing her experience working with projectors in her sewing room. Essentially she (and what seemed like a growing community of others) had figured out a way to rig a projector onto the ceiling of their sewing space that projected the pattern they wanted to cut out onto a table. Among many other things, it completely eliminated the need to print at-home PDFs or copyshop patterns because you could either project the pattern lines onto your own pattern paper (if you are #TeamTrace like me) or even directly onto your fabric and either cut out from there or trace the projected lines onto your fabric and then cut the fabric out. I was of course intrigued and I devoured every word of that blog post, but I was also overwhelmed. The idea seemed to be catching on in some corners of the sewing community quickly but it was still new enough that there would be a LOT of troubleshooting to contend with. It seemed like a lot of work, a lot of physical and technological jiggering and problem-solving (which my partner Claire always says is my specialty but I disagree with, lol). Now I’m not one to shy away from hard work- I did after all build and tile our entire master bath vanity from scratch when I couldn’t find a used piece of furniture that would fit in our newly built space (don’t worry, I had my contractor’s blessing!) But I tend to be more invested in doing a lot of work when I know ahead of time how much I will benefit from it, and while using projectors for sewing seemed incredibly cool, there just weren’t enough people talking about it for me to know whether or not it would actually be something that made my sewing life easier, something that would be worthwhile.

Keep in mind that at this time, I was still waiting for a bit of a Craft Room makeover where I planned to get some cabinets installed on one wall of the basement for storage, getting rid of the awful eyesore that I had been working with for the past several years. When we first moved in I tried to install some shelving on that craft room wall but they fell apart pretty quickly and in some places were literally hanging by the thread of the screws I used, lol. So we hired an excellent, affordable cabinet maker to work on my craft room wall, while at the same time getting a recording studio built into our storage-cum-pottery studio. As much as I wanted to dive into this rabbit hole, I made myself be patient and wait for a better time.

my new cabinets, which I designed and painted myself before they were hung!

That time finally came in December of 2020 when a very generous and smart instagrammer I follow, Minimalist Machinest, started posting about how she was converting her sewing space to include a projector! She has a patreon that she set up for people interested in consuming her deep dives for all things sewing related, so I decided to join hers for a bit to learn about the ways in which she was using her projector.  I hadn’t seriously revisited the idea in a long while and I realized that in all the time that had passed from when I first read about it, sewing with projectors had become WILDLY popular! The dedicated Facebook group (that I don’t even think existed when I first read about Projectors for Sewing) has somewhere between 20 and 30,000 members, all helping each other out with resources, tips and tricks, graphs, videos…one of the members even designed an app to help people make technical changes to their PDF patterns for use with their projector- the wealth of knowledge there is staggering!

I cannot describe to you how MASSIVE this facebook group is, how much information is crammed into dozens upon dozens of pages and hashtags and posts, and it is of course very overwhelming at the beginning, but there are two great and unexpected things the group does from the get: one is making it very clear that there will be no tolerance for hateful language, inappropriate comments or posts, racism/ableism/homophobia/transphobia, etc. You even have to take a quiz before being allowed to join the group where you promise to be respectful and keep all talk focused on the subject at hand. This was a HUGE relief to me as I had deleted my facebook account in 2016 and was terrified of coming back for this group and being subjected to some typical facebook bullshit, all the stuff that had made me leave that platform in the first place (my partner Claire still has their account and let me log in and join the group through it because I couldn’t bear to start a new account myself).

The other great thing this facebook group does is include a couple of posts that are pinned at the very top of the group’s ‘Announcements’ page that basically says “If you are new, START HERE”. It is suggested that you just read and take in all the information being posted before asking questions (as everyone has asked every single question there is to be asked and the answers are already there, you just have to be patient and look for them). Whenever I read someone say “I tried to look into that Facebook group but it was too overwhelming”, I assume that they didn’t heed this one bit of advice, start here. I never even had to dive into any of the other posts in the group because the “Master Announcement Post” information was SOOO GOOD, right off the bat. It includes:

  1. Visual Quick Start – gives you all the basic information you need to know about what, how and why people use projectors for sewing, and helps you figure out if it’s the right choice for you.
  2. What to Look for in a Projector – helps you figure out what projector is the best choice for your individual space.
  3. Setup and Calibration – this one seemed like a doozy initially, but it’s actually not THAT bad, it just takes time to physically set up your projector to project accurately onto your cutting area.
  4. Top Tips for Projecting – includes information about how and when to use your projector, with which patterns, how to manipulate Acrobat Reader and a few other programs to get the most out of your set up and your patterns, etc. 
I should note here that lots of people assume that projectors today are the same kind that were used when we were in grade school, the big bulky pieces of machinery that had to be wheeled in on a rolling cart so we  could watch Science videos- those are not the kinds of personal-use projectors being made today, and certainly not the kind that the majority of sewists are using. Most modern projectors are small, portable, efficient, and pretty affordable. I found my projector using this amazing graph that someone in the group put together that mapped out all the different projectors people were using compared with their throw. The first big thing about choosing a projector is knowing how much space you have to work with. Throw refers to the distance between the lens of your projector (which will most likely be installed in the ceiling and pointing down) and the top of your cutting space, which will be a table top for most people but can also be the floor if that’s where you plan to cut your fabric out. The object here is to get the largest projection onto your cutting space as you possibly can, and of course projectors project larger images the further away they are from the thing they are being projected onto. Which becomes a problem when you are projecting downward and have only a limited space (the ceiling height) to work with, as opposed to something being projected onto a wall, in which case the projector can, within reason, be moved forwards or backwards in the room to make the projected image bigger or smaller. You want the projected image to be as big as possible so that it can project more of your pattern onto your surface. My craft room is located in my basement and thankfully I have a decent amount of ceiling height down there, but not so much that a standard projector would give me the projected image size I needed. In the case of having less throw than is ideal, you need to opt for what is called a Short Throw projector rather than a standard projector. A standard projector needs approximately 4 feet minimum to provide a decent sized image, but I had less room than that so I got a Short Throw. These tend to be a little more expensive than the standard, but still in the $200-$300 range new (less if you find a used one on eBay), although they can also get REALLY high priced, like in the $6000 range. According to this graph in the facebook group, the largest projected image someone got with the same amount of throw I had in my space was with an Optoma Lv130 projector, so that’s exactly the one I went for. It was comparatively well-priced to other Short Throws, but doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, which came to bite me in the ass later.

my view of the projector looking up from my cutting table

My projector doesn’t have any adjustable pieces on it to angle, lift or shift the projected image when it’s sitting flat on a table, which is totally fine for me, as I wouldn’t need mine flat on a table, it would be hanging from a mount in the ceiling and didn’t need to be adjusted on a flat surface. However it also doesn’t come with a remote control, which means that you have to manually turn it off and on, which does not work well for the ways I need to use it. It means that in order to calibrate the projector (changing brightness, contrast, focus and keystone and shifting it) you are required to physically touch the projector, which moves it and knocks off the calibration incrementally. However the BIGGEST issue is that I can’t turn it on remotely, I have to stand on a stool and verrrrrrrrrry gentlyyyyyyyyy press the power button so that I don’t knock it out of alignment. Someone made the suggestion that I get a smart plug for my projector, which can be turned off and on remotely through an app on your phone. It seemed like a completely brilliant idea, until I realized that smart plugs only work on appliances that have physical on/off buttons, not the kind that have electric on/off buttons, and of course my projector has the latter kind, lol. This might have been a deal breaker for me at the beginning of my foray into this subject, but now that I’ve already set everything up, it’s actually not THAT bad. I have a stool close to my cutting table and I have to climb onto it when I use the projector to press the button on (I can still turn if off through the smart plug though), then I do a quick check through Acrobat to make sure it’s properly aligned, and so far it hasn’t been knocked off (I’m just waiting for an earthquake to ruin all my hard work, though).

the chromecast is the round thing with a cord coming out the side, and the other wire is my projector’s power cord

Figuring out which projector is right for your space is the easy part- next comes installing everything. I found a cheap ceiling mount on eBay and I bought a chromecast for my projector as well. You can very easily plug your computer or phone or tablet device directly into a projector with an HDMI port, but that entails having a bunch of wires hanging down from your ceiling and connected to your device, and I just personally did not want to deal with that. Aside from being unsightly, it also seemed very limiting- I wouldn’t be able to move my computer around easily and I would be weary of knocking the cords around which would in turn knock the calibration of my projector off- I just didn’t want to go that route. I hadn’t read great reviews about projectors with wi-fi capabilities so the chromecast seemed like the smartest option for me and I am so glad I went that route. The chromecast is connected to the HDMI port of my projector and it connects wirelessly to my computer so that I can share my computer screen through the projector. Sounds easy enough, but each new gadget I added to this set up required a fair amount of trouble shooting and I spent FAR TOO LONG trying to figure out why I couldn’t get my entire screen to share through my chromecast when I first set it up. I eventually figured it out (the culprit was terrible UX design, not my own shortcomings), but man, these troubleshooting steps took such a toll on my mental health!

this image is taken during the day with light filtering in through my window’s shades- I usually use the projector once the sun has gone down to make the most out of the low light

After I got my projector mounted to the ceiling, plugged in, connected to my chromecast, and my screen shared through the projector, it was time to…dum dum dum dum…CALIBRATE! This is the trickiest part of the whole process, not because it’s difficult, but because it’s tedious. Most set-ups make this a two person job, but I was able to get it done by myself, which made it take longer I’m sure but also meant that I didn’t have to drag my partner into this mess, hahahah. The facebook group provides a downloadable PDF with a few boxes on it that measure perfectly square, and your job is to adjust your projector so that the projected boxes match up with the grid on your cutting mat (if you have one, measured taped lines on your table if you don’t) that coordinate with the measurements of the boxes in the PDF. This is of course easier said than done. It is necessary to zoom in your PDF reader to make the projected boxes the correct size, and once you are more or less in the correct zoom territory, you have to physically shift your table/cutting mat and projector, utilizing it’s keystone/focus functions to get the projected image even on your surface, so all the lines match up and there are no warped boxes or overlap. It took me a few hours spread out over a couple of days to calibrate my projector, but once I did, the hard work was done. After calibration, you just have to note which zoom number helped you achieve the correct measurements through your PDF reader, and THAT is the zoom number you will use for all future patterns. So whenever I am ready to trace out a pattern onto paper or fabric, I open the pattern in my Acrobat Reader, put the zoom at 28.3%, maneuver the program to full screen, and then start my project that is now projected onto my cutting table.

This is a shot of the projector working in my craft room in the evening with the overhead lights turned out. It shows up more brightly of course and you can see the boxes of the PDF sort of matching up with the grid of my cutting mat (I staged this photo for this blog post so if the grid doesn’t equate with the boxes it’s because I’ve moved my table around since I used the projector last)

There are lots of cool things you can do with your pattern at this point (most of which I haven’t even researched or attempted to be honest)- the standard is to open your PDF file to a website like sedja.com which allows you to manipulate your pattern for optimum use. Adding some extra room around the pattern let’s you move it around your computer screen without running out of room- hard to explain unless you’re doing it on your own computer with your pattern projected to your surface. There are also ways to stitch separate PDF files together all into one, get rid of edges and gaps in tiled patterns, etc. Eventually I will have to figure out how to do that stuff, but for now I am absolutely enjoying the sheer ease of eliminating a big chunk of paper products from my sewing practice, and only a week and a half in, all the labor and research seems to have been absolutely worth it.

this is an example of tracing a PDF onto pattern paper, which I can manipulate and then cut out

Here are the main pros and cons I have experienced with my new set up- I’m sure these will change over time- maybe it will be cool to revisit them in the future and see what has changed and what hasn’t.
Projector Pros:
  • I don’t have to get indie patterns printed anymore!!!! I would use tiled PDFs occasionally if I needed something in a hurry or if the pattern was small (less than 15 pages taped together), but generally I am not a fan of tiled PDFs because they are cumbersome, they take too much time to put together, they are difficult to store, and they require a lot of paper and ink to be printed at home. Most of the time, if the option was available and if it was a pattern I really liked, I would get them printed as a copyshop file, which could get very expensive. Depending on the size of the pattern, my local copyshop charged between $15 and $20 a pop. When possible I would use one of the discount architectural prints services online which was much more affordable, but they require a minimum order for prints so I would have to wait til I had several patterns I needed printed, which sometimes took months and would keep me from actually making the things I had planned on the schedule I wanted (I usually just broke down and got them printed locally for more money).
  • I find myself buying more patterns now, which could be considered a con to some, haha. But I would rather spend my money supporting the art of pattern designers I love than on paying to get a pattern printed up. Now patterns that I would see in passing and think ‘oh that might be cute, but do I really want to spend $14 on the pattern and another $20 on printing it up for something I am not 100% sure about?’ are more likely to actually get purchased and used quickly- it’s not easy to forget about a pattern you’ve purchased when it’s immediately available and you don’t have to wait to print it up.
  • I don’t have to worry about physically storing my copyshop files anymore! Before my projector, I was on the brink of doing both a cull of patterns to get rid of all the ones that I wasn’t likely to be sewing anytime in the future, and buying another bin to start storing future copyshop prints. My bin already took up a lot of space and was becoming an eyesore for me since they just didn’t get used very often. It was a constant reminder of how wasteful they were.

    my unsightly bin of copyshop patterns, barf!

  • I was on the fence about cutting directly into my fabric from my projector at first and therefore wasn’t sure if a projector made sense for me, (I have since done it and it was totally fine and not that big a deal, even though it wasn’t a perfect result, lol) but I realized that even if I didn’t cut each project directly out of my fabric from my projection, I would still massively benefit from not having to print copyshop files because again, I am #teamtrace and could still eliminate the need for the printed pattern by tracing the pieces onto my drafting paper from the projection. It’s quick, easy and still saves a substantial amount of $ and paper.
  • I actually haven’t tried this yet but I am so looking forward to it: I won’t have to use a tracing wheel to place my darts on my fabric anymore!!!!! This is one of those random tedious sewing things that I hate doing more than others. It’s just so fiddly and takes so much time and not all fabric responds well to chalked paper and tracing wheels but the only other alternative has been making tailor’s tacks, which I hate even more. Now I can just place my fabric under the projected image of the pattern piece and draw the dart on properly with my fabric pen, no flimsy paper and double layers of fabric to contend with!

Projector Cons:

  • After finally getting my cabinets installed in the craft room, painting them and organizing the whole area so that it looks really tidy and nice, I now have (what feels to me) like a huge eyesore hanging from my ceiling. All those necessary cords to make the projector fully operational thankfully aren’t hanging down in the middle of the room, but they still aren’t very sightly, running across the ceiling and then down the wall to plug into the nearest outlet. I have some white cord-wrapping that I might use at some point to get rid of some of the visual clutter but so far it hasn’t been a big enough issue for me to address it properly.
  • If your goal is to cut directly into your fabric without tracing your pattern pieces out, this set-up seems most ideal (read: less work) for straight sized sewists than sewists who need to make lots of adjustments to their pattern pieces (FBAs, SBAs, FBAs, etc) which require a lot of pattern manipulation that you would have to do in a computer program first.
  • There might be a way to do this in some app, but otherwise you are limited to the layout of your PDF pattern pieces and have to either manually adjust the rotation so that you are cutting your pattern pieces out properly on your fabric (making sure grainline of each piece is situated in the right direction) or move your fabric around to adhere to the direction of the fabric grainline (I have to do this with pattern pieces on the crosswise grain, as there is no way rotate the PDF incrementally, you can only go clockwise or counter clockwise at 90 degree angles).
  • The biggest con is that this set-up might not work for people with visibility issues, as the projected image on your table top is not going to be super clear and defined- most patterns you won’t be able to read the projected words on, which is pretty standard in the community from what I’ve read, and you also need to work in a dark room in order for the projected lines to show up on your paper or fabric brightly. This is also where the biggest request from Projectors for Sewing comes into play- having a special projector file from indie sewing designers makes our projects run so much more smoothly. PDFs that come with separated layers are also a godsend as you can just uncheck the layers you dont want and work with one set of lines to trace from, as opposed to squinting to figure out which line is your size in the midst of a fairly blurry image in front of you. Being on the lowest or highest end of the size spectrum here is definitely an advantage as it’s always easiest to pick out the first or the last set of lines in a nested pattern, but having only one line appear is obviously the most helpful. There are ways to try and get your projector image to show up as brightly and clearly as possible, like changing the colors of the PDF file on your computer to show up more vividly (having a black background with bright yellow lines was helpful on one project but the lines barely showed up in that color scheme on another designer’s pattern). You can also adjust the brightness and contrast settings on your projector. I’ve also found that lighter colored fabric has great visibility when I am cutting directly into it, and that when tracing onto paper, sticking another layer of paper underneath it to make it look more opaque helps the lines show up more clearly (I have a green cutting mat which makes anything transparent on top of it take on it’s green hue).

    The projected lines show up on certain colors of fabric fairly well. This is a textured peach silk.

  • You can’t map out a cutting layout with PDF files (although I haven’t used the suggested cutting lay out from a pattern in YEARS, so this won’t be an issue for people like me).
  • I have to manually turn my projector on by climbing on top of a stool and carefully pressing the button when I am ready to use it. Not a deal breaker, but definitely a hassle.
  • I’m not sure how you use A0 tiled patterns to work in your Acrobat Reader. There is a way to trim off the margins so that all the pieces connect, and there is a way to piece together a continuous row of pages in Acrobat, but not more than one row, so it only works if you have a pattern with pieces that adhere to those rigid constraints. There might be more information on how to accomplish this, but I haven’t found it (and I also haven’t looked very hard- I’m sure I will try and figure it out once I am ready to project an A0 file).

And that’s it, folks! So far I’ve used my projector for two projects- for the first one I just traced the pattern pieces onto my drafting paper because I didn’t have the fabric I needed for the project yet. It was quick and easy and fun and a great first project with the projector since I didn’t have to pay attention to any of the details required when you cut directly into the fabric. The next project I made WAS directly onto the fabric and let’s just say…I learned a lot! Thankfully I didn’t completely screw it up, but it was definitely an ambitious project for only my second time working with the projector, hahah!  You can read more about that experience when I share the details of my faux fur coat in the future.

Til then, thanks for reading, and keep wearing your mask!!!!