Sunday, 19 January 2014

Bernina 820 Review

I've been meaning to do this for a very long time - provide an update on how I feel about my machine. I've had it now for 22 months, done over 6 million stitches, made and quilted over 30 of my own quilts, and quilted about a dozen customer quilts on it. Without reservation or hesitation (and with a fair amount of relief), I can say that I love it - it's definitely the sewing machine for me. This post has been written over a long period (literally months), but I've probably still forgotten things.

(Warning: long and comprehensive and contains no quilt progress, though I did sneak in a photo at the bottom!)

It pieces and appliques well. Better than well. I expected nothing less, so I won't bother saying more about that.

Where it comes into its own is the free-motion quilting. My previous machine had been purchased specifically for FMQ (having been marketed as such) and was a disappointment for the full 3 years I had it. You simply wouldn't believe the number of broken needles I experienced - and in the small gaps between broken needles, I had birds' nests and broken and shredded thread. It was awful, and made worse by the fact that I'd expected to love that machine.

I'm very happy to say that the Bernina 820 FMQs beautifully for me. Since I've had the machine, I've only broken a single needle - and that was due to me not attaching the presser-foot firmly, and the needle hit it when it slipped (although I should mention, I would feel more confident if there was a way to actually 'click' the foot into position on the shank). The 'down' side of no broken needles, is I actually need to remember to replace them, and tend to leave them in a bit too long. (I almost always use an 80/12 titanium topstitch needle form Superior.) I do clean out the bobbin area after every couple of bobbins and oil when reminded (probably about every 3rd or 4th bobbin, and the reminder conveniently pops up when you have the bobbin open).

Put simply, it does what it should and what I expect. It allows me to quilt as I'd like, instead of being a hindrance. A good machine won't automatically make you quilt well - but it can allow you to be and become your best.

I regularly quilt with a range of threads including Superior BottomLine (60wt poly), Aurifil 50wt cotton, Superior King Tut (40wt cotton), Superior Rainbows (40wt trilobal poly), FilTec Glide (40wt trilobal poly) and Superior Glitter (metallic ribbon thread). I use them in all sorts of top/bobbin combinations, and all without a single problem. It stitches smoothly, neatly and evenly in all directions. I keep my bobbin tension set permanently one click to the right of centre, which seems to be its natural balance. I didn't even change that when I did some bobbinwork with heavy 12wt Razzle Dazzle (Superior).

Fast or slow, sweeping curves or sharp points, dense thread build-up, bulky seams, multiple layers of fused applique, clear thread, bobbinwork, 100wt silk, metallic, double-threaded (single) needles, double batting.... it really does handle anything I ask.  I do very occasionally find the top thread shreds, but it is rare and not enough to be of concern or a nuisance.

One feature which I use a LOT is the top thread tension adjustment. The default setting is 4, but I automatically reduce it to between 2.5 or 2.75 for most thread combinations. If the stitch isn't quite right, a fractional change is usually all I need to fix it, and it's so easy.

Despite how happy I am with the machine, I acknowledge it's not perfect - but I'm more than happy to accept it how it is. So here are the few things that aren't quite right. The automatic needle threader is not as accurate as it could be and misses a bit too often (however, I've just been shown how to clear it of fluff from using so much cotton thread, and I think that will alleviate the problem - we shall see). The clear foot (34D) has a weak point and the plastic cracked after very little use - I use it only for attaching bindings and a very small amount of applique. It takes a bit too long 'thinking' before the needle starts to move up or down. I'd like a single-touch reverse button that stays 'on'. And it needs more than 11 needle positions. That's pretty much it!

There were more things I didn't like to start with, but familiarity with the machine has eased those. While some of them still could have been designed better (e.g. the visibility of the buttons on the machine's head), they really have become non-issues.

Whenever I review anything, I always find its the few less-than-perfect things that stick out in my mind, so I also want to list some of the things I really love. This can be hard, because these are often the things that become second nature, and we stop noticing them, but here are a few. The stitch counter just makes me happy (I passed 6 million around New Year). I love the clock. The lighting is fabulous. The curved front to the 'table' is really comfortable - it allows me to drop and relax my shoulders. And the little window to the bobbin area is extremely useful. The head shape gives great needle visibility. Threading is easy. Cleaning the bobbin area is easy. The oiling reminders are brilliant (especially as the oil is quite thin - but it makes a huge difference). The thread stand works really well. I love the ease and precision available for adjusting the height/pressure of the presser-foot. The eco setting - wow! - perfect for leaving the needle in position mid-FMQ when necessary. The 'stitch-only-every-second-stitch-in-the-pattern' feature is genius. If you tell it which foot you have, it automatically adjusts some settings - when I'm ready to FMQ, the feed dogs just drop - no forgetting!

There are some features I've chosen not to use, as a matter of personal preference or just because I don't need to. In particular, I don't use the knee-lift or the tie-off functions, have never used the thread cutters on many machine, and early on I determined my preference for FMQing without the BSR, having already had substantial FMQ experience. And I've only scratched the surface when it comes to lots of the fancy tricks and stitches - I use only a handful of stitches on a regular basis and haven't needed to tray many others, either!

There's also the weight. It's not light. But I have no problem with that. I very rarely need to take my machine anywhere, or even move it. And when I do, I'm young and healthy enough to manage.

Oh, and the cost. Bernina's 8-series don't come cheaply. The 3-year 'wait' through my previous machine was long, but makes me appreciate the 820 all the more. My perspective is that I've made an excellent investment (not least in happiness), and am definitely getting my money's worth. When buying it, I intended to keep the 820 for a long time. I still do, because it does everything I want. Quilting on the Bernina 820 makes me happy.

And my dealer and tech Otto gave me a really great deal. He also provides impeccable service and really knows the machine. Shhh, don't tell him, but knowing what I know now - I'd buy from Otto & Penny's in Walkerville (South Australia) even if they were the more expensive option! Yes, the price was the initial drawcard, but I was made to feel welcome and valued, allowed to test the machine extensively, given all the answers I needed, and made confident that my machine was in capable hands. Otto's excellent reputation is thoroughly deserved, and that makes him invaluable. He goes the extra mile to minimise the interruption to my sewing (e.g. instead of having to wait a week with the machine in for a service like elsewhere, when I took it in for something to be fixed, I was given the floor model in the interim, and even them, it was a mere 24h before it was ready - and he serviced it at the same time, without being asked, because it was about due!)

Until I had the 820, I dreamed of one day owning a longarm. But now I'm not so sure. There are some lovely all over patterns which I'd love to use sometimes, but are too awkward and slow without a pantograph - but I'm not sure that following pantographs wouldn't take the fun out of quilting for me anyway. On the other hand, ruler-work is something I'm often wanting to do, but haven't found a satisfactory method on a domestic sewing machine. And I hate basting, and suspect a long-arm would make that process much easier and faster. I'd still like to try actually quilting a quilt on one, but I no longer covet them.

Here are my reviews on day 1, and after 1 week, 2 weeks and 2 months for comparison. Looking back, I can see that I definitely experienced some teething problems - which I now attribute almost wholly to my lack of familiarity with the machine. Apart from the fact that you need time to become attuned to any machine, this was not only a change in brand for me, but a machine quite unlike others.

Many of the features I loved at first I still love; others I do take for granted and use every day. Many of the problems I experienced have simply vanished - as has the awkwardness of the unfamiliar - so bear in mind that these were indeed early impressions. As I found the rhythm of the machine, the few thread breakages, skipped stitches and birds' nests ceased naturally - any quickly, I've also found ways to address other things. The too-short bobbin thread is easily fixed by not pulling it through the thread cutter after threading the bobbin.

I have come to the conclusion that every machine is just a little different, and what suits one quilter may not work for another. But my Bernina 820 and I have settled easily into a very comfortable partnership, and I see many years of happy quilting ahead of us. It was the right choice for me.

I'd be happy to read your comments/experiences and answer any questions.

This is a block made for my current quilt. It gives no indication whatsoever of the actual quilt though...


Tracey Phillips said...

Great review, I am using rasant thread and have to change my top tension to 6 to get the bottom to look good,
Have you experienced a high top tension ?
May be I should loosen my bobbin thread off a bit but seems complicated

Elaine said...

My dealer's mechanic had to replace the entire upper tension assembly. I was having to dial up to 6.25 to get a decent stitch. Now I am back to 3.25, which is where I get a good stitch.

My new issue is this: I am using the dual-feed function with the recommended D foot (grr, no slit for the threads) but I am getting ever-so-slightly crooked stitches. This means my ditch quilting is visible about every other stitch. If I speed up, it seems to be happening less, but at times I want to travel slowly!! I plan to stop off at my dealer's shop today and talk about it. (Just got the machine back this week.)