Visit to the Pfaff Industrial Showroom

Pfaff Industrial Showroom (from Pfaff's website)
The Pfaff Industrial Showroom (from Pfaff’s website)

In what became the follow up to my visit to Texprocess, I visited the Pfaff industrial machine showroom in Kaiserslautern, Germany. For years I have wanted to go there. You can’t see it from this picture, but all of the postbeds are just to the left of this view.

At the trade shows, you can often spend some time on the machines and speak with a sales rep who may or may not be able to answer some of your questions. Texprocess was totally secondary in priority for my visit to Europe this year, but since it was happening around the same time, I went to check it out. I learned a lot there. Still, the industrial showroom was what I was after. This is what Pfaff has to say about the showroom on their site:

Are you looking for information on the latest state of the arts?
Do you wish to consult one of our specialists, or perhaps just talk shop?
Experienced consultants, sewing mechanics, technical engineers, application engineers and organisation specialists are all ready to help you.

Yes, please! The representative from Pfaff who coordinated my visit, Axel Zangerle, has been with Pfaff for almost 50 years. To say he is knowledgeable about their machines is a bit of an understatement. Only recently returned to Kaiserslautern, where he grew up, Axel has spent a lot of his career working for Pfaff in various parts of Asia. As I had confirmed with Axel previously by email, if you want some time to yourself and also get some personal attention, make the effort to go to the showroom.

He set me up with Julia Weigerding-Domic, who worked with me while I went through a pile of samples that I had prepared. We tried different needles, different thread, and different machines. We didn’t go through all of the zillions of settings that are available these days, but I did learn some very important things about how these machines work and how much influence the speed of factory production and the repetition of mass production influences their character.

Making custom shoes, it’s unlikely I will ever get to make the same piece twice, let alone the same pair of shoes. On one pair of shoes, the left and right uppers are typically not two of the same, they are mirror images. These machines can stitch up to 3,500 stitches per minute! Sewing through leather at high speeds can really heat the needle and thus melt the thread. Most seams on shoes are short, and very curvy. We’re not making jeans, awnings or sails. Sewing one-of-a-kind uppers, we’re not sewing quite so fast or as long. Even so, if you put the pedal to the metal, look out! Turning down the max sewing speed was the first adjustment I made on each of these machine’s control panels. This is such a far cry from the old 3-phase 380V clutch motor days that used to characterize “industrial” machines.

Until very recently, all the moving parts on industrial postbed sewing machines were mechanically linked together and driven by one motor. Functions like presser foot lifting were handled with compressed air. Like the various CNC machines, there are now stepper motors everywhere. The latest postbed machines have dedicated electric motors for almost every moving thing – roller foot, roller feed wheel, presser foot lifter, stitch length, etc. This allows easier control of the speeds of all of those things. It’s not a change in the mechanics of sewing, but it is a change in the adjustment of it. The 878 from Durkopp/Adler even has an electronic motor and cam for thread tension. That is a new thing. Thread tension was always mechanical, never linked to a motor or compressed air. Adjusting the thread tension is always a bit fussy.

As I learned at the show, Durkopp/Adler and Pfaff are all part of the same company now, along with a few others. This means at the Pfaff industrial showroom, you can also try out the Durkopp/Adler machines. I found it very educational to have these machines side by side and discuss them with someone who has been in the business for a long time.

I’m not going to write up a review of the machines or make a buyer’s guide, but I will emphasize that I have read tons of spec sheets, spent time on the phone with reps, looked at the websites and videos and did not discover on my own what I was able to learn with Axel in the first hour of my visit. To be fair, much of what I learned really is in the brochures, but it doesn’t resonate until you sit down and do it yourself.

I will wrap up with an example of the different speed settings for top and bottom feeds. Why would anyone ever use this? I have seen reference to this even in the service manual for the old Pfaff 491/471 series which were discontinued in 2000. It’s an idea that been around for a while. Nobody I knew seemed to have any idea how this might be useful.

Example of differential speed sewing
Example of different top and bottom feed speed sewing

I learned from Axel that it’s a gathering function which creates additional curves, or distortion, depending on how you look at it. Julia showed me that it can also help mediate stitch length distortions on tight inside and outside curves. On oxford patterns, for example, where the quarters meet the vamp, it’s not completely flat and a bit of gathering is what you want. When flattened it out, the quarter facings overlap. The line where the quarters meet the vamp can be tricky. A lot depends on the shape of the last and the design of the pattern. A skilled person can get the shape they want at the time it’s sewn together even if the pattern wasn’t designed that way. Different top and bottom feed speeds can greatly facilitate this. With electronic controls, it’s very simple to set and switch to and from.

Thank you Axel, and Julia for making my visit worth the journey!