this thing's incredible

It Took Maayan Zilberman 30 Years to Find This Sewing Machine

The author with her Bernette Academy 05. Photo: The Strategist; Photo: Courtesy of Maayan Zilberman

The first time I tried using a sewing machine, in middle-school Home Ec, I ended up in the hospital. Picture a tween me sitting in the ER with a paper-bag puppet over a needle-pierced pointer finger, still smiling, undeterred.

After that mishap, I preferred being self-taught. I didn’t want lessons or someone to sit me down. Being my own teacher felt punk and immediate. All I needed at the time was a sewing machine, but it’d be nearly 30 years before I found the right one.

My first home machine was one I inherited from my aunt who, at 30 in the mid-’80s, made a “feminist investment” in a Swiss-made Bernina 1130, the “sewing computer.” When she died a year later, the machine made its way to me (along with her handmade dresses). I attempted a pencil skirt. I’d seen one on Linda Evangelista, but because I didn’t yet know about choosing fabrics accordingly, I thought shiny PVC was a good beginner material. It got jammed in the feed immediately.

In college, I forgot about sewing for a few years. After graduation, I started hand sewing looks for friends of friends for extra cash, so my mom surprised me with the updated Bernina 145. This one had a computer screen like my new iMac, seemingly hundreds of stitching buttons, and an attached work table. It was like getting your driver’s license and receiving a rocket ship in return.

It did give me the guts to start a lingerie line called the Lake & Stars and keep it going for a decade, but the machine was way more advanced than my simple draping needs (our factories really made all the samples), and it was too heavy to tote around on all my travels.

I needed a machine that would fit with my sewing philosophy, which is that it should feel easy and straightforward. Just go for it. Don’t use patterns if you don’t “get” them (like me), and cut into vintage fabric to release its spirit. This is supposed to be fun. Not every stitch needs to be perfect.

So I DM’d Bernina to ask where to go from here. The company suggested I order the Bernette Academy 05, a basic beginner model that would take me back to square one and remind me that I love the simple, repetitive motion of sewing. It’s my quiet personal meditation. When it arrived, the Bernette was angular and solid, more like a 79 Volvo than anything flashy, but it was just what I needed.

Over the last few years my partner, our daughter, and I became more nomadic as a family, and I’ve been able to take my Bernette with me wherever we’ve gone, since it comes with a cutie-patootie rolling suitcase. Now I sew at night, which soothes my anxieties and gives me a source of tranquility. With the Bernette, I can sew in the middle of the living room while my family is watching a movie because it barely makes a sound. Mostly I make clothes for my 3-year-old daughter, Freddie, by cutting and sewing up my most special vintage pieces, like a lilac taffeta Vivienne Westwood dress I transformed into a tinier outfit.

My new Bernette is perfect for this — and for any beginner or person who doesn’t want to be too fussy or precious about their sewing. It holds my hand through blind hemming via its foolproof specialty presser foot, has a drop-in bobbin case (easier for long nails because you don’t have to use your fingertips to maneuver the hardware and thread), and has the capacity to do a ton of stuff you didn’t know you needed, like sew through ten layers of fabric or stitch together vinyl without sticking. It also works for simple fixes like sewing a button onto a cardigan and, most importantly, has a finger guard, so no more trips to the ER!

The author and her daughter in their matching sateen. Photo: The Strategist; Photo: Courtesy of Maayan Zilberman

Recently I made Freddie a dress inspired by my favorite sculptural but whimsical Miu Miu red satin pinafore dress from spring 2008, the collection Miuccia Prada said was like “life as theatre.” I cut up an old skirt I can’t zip closed anymore to create a ruby sateen column dress for her. I kept the matching Starter jacket, and we wore our complementary outfits to a nearby oceanside amusement park, where we walked the boardwalk hand in hand. Wearing a made-for-her version of an outfit that had once been mine, she had an extra skip in her step.

While Freddie and I were in line for one of the kiddie rides in our matching shiny fabric, someone asked her if she knows how to sew, and she said “not yet,” which fueled my hope we can one day sew together. I have just the right machine for her when she’s ready.

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It Took Me 30 Years to Find This Sewing Machine