Q & A: Adapting Sewing Machines with Tactile Markings

Question: How are sewing machines made tactile for a Visually Impaired or Blind person to sew with accurate seams and settings?

My own sewing machine is marked with the guide tape and tactile marks I use with my students. While teaching my sighted niece sewing, she said, “Auntie, everyone needs to use these markings on their machine, not just your blind students. It is much easier to sew!” Even sighted folk find the guide tape and tactile markings helpful.

For consistent even seams on all sewing machines, I make a stable seam guide tape that can be used for several different seam widths. The guide tape is really helpful for getting nice even straight or curved seams. The seam guide is made from 1/2-inch wide heavy medical tape. The advantage to a stable 1/2-inch seam guide tape is having no need to re-adjust and re-measure the guide for the different seam widths each time a different size seam is sewn throughout the sewing project.

On the manual sewing machines, I put tactile dots or 3-D puff fabric paint on the surface of the machine to mark the most used dial positions. Tactile marks are placed for the standard settings for all the dials. Some sewing machine models have stitch length, stitch width and needle position dials. Other machines have only a stitch length and stitch pattern dial without the option to control the width of the stitch or control the needle position. I prefer all the dials on my machine, since this gives more options for different seam allowances and stitches.

Memorize or tactually mark the most used settings for stitch length and stitch pattern dial positions. Fewer markings are less confusing. Be sure to mark the ten stitches per inch or 2.5mm for the standard stitch length. This stitch length is strong, yet easier for the visually impaired when there is a need to rip out a seam.

The guide tape along with tactile dot markings made from 3-D puff fabric paint or “Loc Dots” or “Spotters” are the major adaptations made to any standard manual sewing machine. With the tactile markings, guide tape instructions and resources below, the sewing machine is more accessible for all levels of vision loss. I also include a few photos of my marked sewing machine.

Keep on enjoying needle arts without sight.

Making Guide Tape and Tactile Markings for a Sewing Machine

Supplies Needed:

  • A person with good vision to help do the markings
  • 1/2-inch straight edged, waterproof-adhesive-thick-medical tape
  • Small craft scissors
  • Cutting blade
  • Triangle file (optional)
  • “Loc Dots” or “Spotters” or 3-D puff fabric paint
  • APH Braille Ruler with metal caliper slide or other straight edge
  • Rubbing Alcohol and a cotton ball

Directions

Clean off the surfaces with rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball for the adhesive markings to stick to a clean surface.

Making the Seam Guide Tape

1. Measure and cut 1/2-inch wide medical tape the length from the back edge of the throat plate or sewing table edge to the front of the throat plate and table edge.

2. Use the Braille ruler with the sliding caliper to square up with the straight table edge. Place ruler’s left edge 5/8-inch to the right of the centered needle.

3. Lay the medical tape’s right edge along side or next to the ruler’s left edge. This makes the tape’s right edge 5/8-inch to the right of the centered needle. The tape lays over the throat plate and across the table so the tape is parallel to the feed-dog or perpendicular to the table edge.

4. Only use one to two stacked layers of tape along side the feed-dog. This latter portion needs to be cut narrower in width for the tape to not cover the feed-dog teeth. Check the tape height with the pressure foot up and feed-dog teeth up. The tape needs to be below the teeth of the feed-dog; other ways the fabric won’t feed through properly. A method for checking is, lay a straight pin under the pressure foot against the teeth and flat across the tape. Slide the pin against the teeth back and forth from front to back. The pin needs to bump over the teeth, not glide over the teeth, for the feed-dog to pull the fabric through.

5. Use at least four or more stacked layers of the tape for the rest of the guide that is not along side the feed-dog. Where the tape covers the junctions for moving the throat plate or tabletop, slice through the layers of tape with a cutting blade.

6. Check again: Is the right edge of the guide tape 5/8-inch away from the centered needle? Is the left edge of the guide tape about 1/8-inch from the centered needle?

7. If the machine model has adjustable needle positions, more variations of seam allowances are possible. The needle positioned to the far left will provide 1/4-inch seams when the fabric is pushed against the left edge of the guide tape. Or the needle positioned to the far right following the right edge of the guide tape will provide a 1/2-inch seam allowance.

8. For the machines that do not allow for different needle positions, try the following. To make 1/4-inch seams, create two to three layers of medical tape 3/8-inch wide to place on top of the 1/2-inch guide tape with the right edges even. This creates another raised edge to follow in the middle, between the left and right edges of the original 1/2-inch guide tape. The fabric edge is pushed against this new middle raised edge to give the 1/4-inch seam allowance.

Or, if the additional raised edge is too confusing, use a 4.0 mm twin needle. Cut off the right needle with wire cutters, leaving the left needle. This makes a needle off-centered to the left for the 1/4-inch seam allowance, when the fabric is pushed against the left edge of the guide tape.

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Marking Stitch and Tension Settings

1. Place a tactile dot marking on the surface of the machine for:

  • The medium stitch width and centered needle positions. Some machines may need a line of 3-D/ puff paint on the dial to align with the tactile dot.
  • The stitch pattern dial, mark the straight stitch. Plus, one or two other often used stitch patterns, such as three-step-zigzag or stretch stitch.
  • For stitch length, mark the ten stitches per inch or the 2.5 setting.
  • The manufacturers standard pre-set stitch tension, usually around the number four on the dial. Or some machines tension disks mark best using a triangle file to cut a notch on the dial itself.
Note the clear dot at 12:00 and the white puffed fabric white paint

Note the clear dot at 12:00 and the white puffed fabric white paint

Resources for Tactile Markings

American Printing House for the Blind, www.aph.org, Phone 800-223-1839. For: 1-foot Braille English ruler with metal caliper slide item #1-03070-00 or for 1-foot Braille Metric ruler, item #1-03100-00.

Independent Living Aids, www.independentliving.com, Phone 800-537-2118. For: Loc-dots item #439625 or Spotters item #730180.

Local Fabric or Craft store. For: 3-D puff fabric paint, craft scissors and cutting blade.

Pharmacy. For: 1/2-inch straight-edged, waterproof, heavy medical adhesive tape; rubbing alcohol and cotton balls.

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