Thursday, December 22, 2011
Singer XL-400 Futura Sewing & Embroidery Machine Review
I really wanted to get an embroidery machine that had a bigger embroidery field than my LB6800PRW. I did a bunch of looking around (literally a month of research) and finally decided to get the XL-400 Futura by Singer. There were a decent amount of negative reviews out there that I saw, but most looked like they were from people new to sewing or embroidery where the issue was user related, not machine related. Besides those reviews and comments, the machine had the features I most wanted.
The XL-400 brings a bigger embroidery area of 10 inches by 6 inches and the option to go to 20 inches by 12 inches by multi-hooping, using some nifty alignment tools that are built into the hoop and machine. I have tried to do manual alignment, and I can't even get close, no matter how long I try. The alignment tools allow you to shift the placement of the design using the machine instead of physically rehooping. This sounded like an awesome way to go. The SL-400 also has a deep throat, allowing bigger items to be rolled up under the machine. The LB6800PRW isn't anywhere near as deep, so it is hard to sew shirts or embroider them. There is also a speed controller, so that the speed at which the embroidery id done can be slowed down from maximum speed. I wanted something like this for doing delicate fabric, as I felt that going at 350 stitches per minute was too fast for some fabric.
The XL-400 has some features that didn't matter much to me, but they sounded nifty, such as the quick threading of the machine, and the auto-tension. The feet and needles are also interchangeable with the LB6800PRW that I already had, so that was a plus too.
The things I didn't like about the machine specs before I used is that there is not an LCD screen or anything like it on the machine. The stitch selector area has a bunch of LED's over each stitch, and in embroidery mode, the LED's act as a big indicator for things. This seemed like a bad idea, as an LCD nowadays would only cost about $5. One like the LB6800PRW has would probably cost about $15, but either one looked like it would have been better than the LED grid above the different stitches. The machine also has to be hooked to your computer 100% of the time while stitching. With the LB6800PRW, you only need to connect it to transfer the design at the beginning, but for the XL-400, it needs to be connected at all times. The software on the PC controls the machine, instead of the machine controlling the machine.
Some things I didn't like at all were that there is not an automatic thread cutter on the XL-400. That seems like a really big oversight on a machine that costs $800, when my $100 machine has one. I never realized how necessary a thread cutter was for embroidery until I didn't have one.
The biggest factor on why I got this machine was the price. As an engineer, I know there is almost no difference between making a machine that can do a 4" field or a 10" field besides the stepper motors, some extra reinforcement on the machine and the hoops. The cost between them should be very marginal (maybe $50 besides some engineering cost). Brother goes from $400 for 4", to $600 for 7" to about $12k for 12". Granted, each step has more features, like color LCD's and the like, but I don't need that, I just want a bigger field. The mechanics are basically the same for 4" or 12". The Singer is still overpriced for what I know it cost to make, but it was the cheapest option at about $800. I expect companies to make money, but the markup on these must be crazy. They could make so much more money by gettinga ton of machines out there and making bank on accessories. Kind of like how the console gaming industry works. Sell the console cheaply to build the base, and make tons on accessories.
Using the machine
When I unboxed it the first thing I noticed was how heavy it was. Thankfully, I have a steel and oak table for this, as this machine is very heavy, it did not feel chintzy at all. Easily 4 times heavier than my LB6800PRW. The embroidery module attached easily and was sturdy. My computer recognized it easily after installing the software. I would say it was about 30 minutes from when I got the box to when I was ready to do the first design. Sadly, this is where I started to dislike this machine.
When I pulled out the hoop, the first thing I noticed was how weak it was. The ones for my Brother machines can probably take a good hundred pounds of force before deforming, they feel extremely sturdy. The 2 singer ones felt like they were made out of very elastic plastic. I could easily bend the hoop using only my hand. For embroidery, stability is everything, and this didn't look good. No matter what I did, the large hoop did not hold fabric or stabilizer tightly. Works fine for 1 color, but subsequent colors don't line up. The machine has a cool basting feature, where the entire design is outlined with a basting stitch, sewing the fabric and stabilizer together. However, all this helped me do was figure out just how much the embroidery function on this machine sucked. The basting could be done after any color, so once I figured out that the hoop was utter garbage, I used the basting option between each color to see just how far the material was moving. In some instances, it was moving up to 1/2 of an inch between colors. It was abhorrent! I have tried using no stabilizer, 1 sheet of 1.5 oz, 1 sheet of 2 oz, 2 sheets of 2 oz, 3 sheets of 2 oz, and every combination I could think of both in tearaway, cutaway and different brands. Nothing seems to matter, there is just plain an engineering failure with the hoop. I was unable to find any aftermarket hoops that may solve the problem that would fit this machine, so right there, it was end game for this machine as it would not work for what I got it for, multi-color embroidery. 1 color was mostly fine, and regular sewing was fine, but more than 1 color? Forget it.
It took me a good few weeks of experimenting, trying to figure out a way to make the machine work for me, and during that time I learned a lot more about it, none of which went in the machine's favor sadly.
The needle threader is very difficult to use, and takes a ton of times. It will often pull 1 ply of the thread though the needle and not the other, and jam the eye. I gave up after a good 500 attempts, and inspecting the way the needle threader actually worked. After looking at it, I can see it would only work if the thread is perfectly aligned. After I figured that out, and held the thread instead of using the alignment guide, I could get it to work about 30% of the time, but it was still faster to manually thread the needle.
The machine puts down 6 to 8 extra stitches at the end of a color. It appears to be right at the start point for the next color. These stitches are not in the design, but the machine adds them, and I have to cut them off or pull them out. The machine/software does this with all designs, even ones I made personally. Even the 'baste in hoop' option adds a few stitches dead center in the middle of the hoop. This makes absolutely no sense. The manual and help for the software made no mention of this, or an option to turn it off. I'm not sure why anyone would EVER want that option anyway.
The machine is very 'jerky' when pulling thread off the spool, and constantly jams thread by wrapping it around the spool holder. This happens with both the regular thread holder or the vertical auxiliary thread holder, and happens approximately every 1000 stitches. I think this is because the 'easy threading' process eliminates the part of the machine that equalizes the thread tension as the needle descends into the fabric. If I slowed the machine down to about 1/4th speed, this didn't happen.
The machine generally stops when the top thread breaks, but not it never stopped when the bobbin thread breaks or runs out. I can't count the number of times the top thread broke, and the bobbin thread broke way too often. On my LB6800PRW, I can't remember the bobbin thread EVER breaking. The machine would also never catch when the bobbin thread ran out, it would keep going in it's merry way with no bobbin thread.
The machine literally fell apart. The plastic tip lever for the needle threader came off while the machine was embroidering, and came off frequently. It is a friction fit, because that part of the machine is made to be removed, so I couldn't just glue it on. I solved this by only having the lever on when I needed to thread the needle.
Towards the end, The bobbin case rotated in the machine, causing the needle to jam the case, and break. It also ruined what I was embroidering. In 20 years, I have NEVER seen this happen. It didn't cause any damage to the machine besides the needle though, so this wasn't that big a deal.
The top thread turns into a birds nest under the design. Sometimes this stooped the machine, sometimes not. The auto-tension just didn't cut it. When I switched to manual tension, it was a little better, but it still happened. The top thread switches between being correct, then being too lose for a few hundred stitches (and you get giant 1/4" to 1/2" loops on the top) to being correct, then back again. When it happens the machine doesn't stop. I have tried catching it when it happens, but even re-threading the machine entirely (top and bottom thread) did not help. The machine will continue to sew lose for a few hundred to a thousand stitches, then the tension will fix itself. There is something majorly wrong with the auto-tensioner. Probably related, the machine will stop saying there is a jam, but there isn't a jam. if I rotate the needle by hand 2 times, the machine will resume.
The machine/software skips stitches. Not skip as in the top thread doesn't pick up the bottom bobbin thread, but skip as in the machine/software doesn't even try to sew them. It took me a while to figure out that this was a software issue and not the more common skipped stitch issue. I thought this was a tension problem until I actually watched exactly what the machine was doing compared to that same point in the embroidery file.
Last but not least, the XL-400 is loud, and unbalanced. It shakes my entire house. If I put it on my steel table upstairs, I can feel it shaking the floor downstairs. For me, this isn't a problem, but it may be for some other folks. Putting this machine on a weak table will easily shake the table apart.
Singer & the Vendor
The worst part of this process was the support I got from Singer. And by support, I mean I got no support. All contact went unanswered. It was a total joke. I was trying to figure out if the machine was just broken, or if what I was experiencing was normal behavior. To this day, I still don't know, as I could get a response from no one. My emails were more detailed than this post as I was trying to explain that I wasn't 'new' to this, and it most likely wasn't user error. Even the vendor I bought it from was horrible. I tried calling & emailing them after I could not get a response from Singer, but they were no better. On top of that, when I bought the machine, it showed in stock, but it didn't ship for almost 4 weeks. I kept asking about it, and was always told it would ship the next day. Towards the very end of the wait, I found out it was on backorder since the beginning. But even that day, and every day until I stopped checking, their site showed it was in stock. I wasn't in a hurry so it didn't matter to me besides the fact that they didn't have the decency to tell me that it was on backorder. This would be a non-issue, except for the fact that I got horrible service form them after the sale too.
After trying for about a month (2 months after purchase) I started trying to return it. Then I finally got a response to call the vendor's service department. The guy stopped listening to me after about 5 minues, and said he would call me back. I never got another call back, and my future calls went unanswered and unreturned. I had to issue a chargeback to get my money back, and Is hipepd the machine back to them at my expense. I lost about a hundred bucks doing that because I couldn't get a hold of them to get a prepaid label (or even a label I would pay for on their account, since they have a cheaper UPS rate than I did). So yeah, complete failure of the machine, complete failure of the vendor, and complete failure of Singer.
So overall, the XL-400 promises a lot, but delivers on none of it. In my humble opinion, it is a waste of money, and Singer is not winning any business with non-existant customer support. I recommend staying FAR away from not only the XL-400, but any Singer machine. The other reviews and blurbs warning of this machine being junk are right on the money.