I spent two days working with the Viking Designer I embroidery sewing machine preparing for this review. Actually it was a lot more like play than work. And in case you’re wondering, this is the best job on the whole planet!
Even though the Viking Designer 1 was one of the early sewing/embroidery machines in the top-of-the-line category, it’s still an amazing machine today.
Sensor Foot System
At the heart of the Designer I is its Sensor Foot System. The way the Designer I handles its presser foot is a big departure from other machines I’ve tested, but it is also the one thing I most hated leaving behind when I finished my testing. The Sensor Foot System, once you get used to it, makes sewing a truly wonderful experience.
The first and most obvious difference you’ll notice in the Sensor Foot System is that there is no presser foot lever. In testing other machines, I adjusted to different locations of the presser foot lever — the back of the machine, the side of the machine — in a short time. But getting used to having no presser foot lever takes longer.
Instead of a lever, the Designer I uses a series of four buttons on the front of the machine to control the height of the presser foot. There are four choices for the height of the presser foot: down completely, pivot (slightly raised), up (normal, raised position) and extra lift (for working with extra thicknesses of fabric).
At first I had to make a conscious effort to use the buttons on the front of the machine. As I got involved in testing other features, I occasionally reached for the missing lever. By the end of the first long day of sewing, however, I pretty much had the hang of it.
Changing The Way You Sew
The Sensor Foot System has some great advantages. But to use those advantages, I needed to change the way I sew.
My normal procedure is to lower the presser foot onto the fabric. Then I use the needle-down button to make sure that my needle always stops in the down position while sewing.
I couldn’t do this with the Designer I. First I pressed the Full-Down button to lower the presser foot onto the fabric. Then I pressed the Needle-Down button. But when I did, the Designer I raised its foot to the Pivot position. The Full-Down position and the Needle-Down position don’t work together.
But using the Needle-Down button along with the presser foot Pivot-position button works very well. The moment I step on the foot pedal, the presser foot is automatically lowered to its Full-Down position and remains that way as long as I keep sewing. When I stop sewing, the presser foot is raised to the Pivot position.
I liked the Pivot position so much that I didn’t even use the start/stop button more than a couple of times. That says a lot, since I always use it on other machines.
In its Full-Down position, the Sensor Foot System automatically adjusts the pressure that the presser foot applies to the fabric. It adjusts to different thicknesses and weights of fabric like magic. I never even noticed when a change was made. I just kept sewing.
Even though the Sensor Foot System was the thing that took me longest to master, it is the number one thing that I really hated leaving behind when I finished my testing.
The Designer I that I tested had recently had its internal software updated to include the latest features and stitches. I had over 700 stitches to choose from when sewing.
Quite a few of those 700 stitches are really a combination of stitch pattern and needle position. Instead of having to change your needle position yourself and remember where you set it, the Designer I has the stitches preset with the needle in a left, middle, or right position so you can push one button and sew.
You may think that keeping track of 700 stitches would be a monumental task, but 19 Specialty Stitch Menus make it easy. Each stitch for a given purpose is grouped together with other stitches in the same category so they are easy to find.
There are 54 stitches on the Quilt Menu, and 16 stitches on the Applique Menu. There are 15 different styles of Buttonholes and three Alphabets with upper- and lower-case letters and numbers. There are Children’s stitches, Heirloom stitches, and several different kinds of decorative stitches.
The only change I’d make to the stitch menus would be to name each stitch. Sometimes I had to really study the picture to decide which stitch I wanted to use.
The Color Touch Screen
As with any advanced sewing machine, the Designer I’s screen is your control center. At first, I wasn’t too happy with the position of the Designer I’s color touch screen. It is rather low on the front of the machine, making it a little hard to see. I had to bend down to read it, and not because of my height — I’m only five feet, five inches tall.
But the organization of the stitches into menus made it easy to remember the location of the stitches I used the most. After working with the machine awhile, I found I didn’t have to bend down to study the screen as much.
The first stitch on the Quilt Stitch menu is the 1/4″ straight stitch. If you use the recommended “A” foot, you will get scant 1/4″ seams. If you want to use full 1/4″ seams, you can use the first stitch on the Utility menu (a centered straight stitch) along with the optional 1/4″ open-toed foot, which has 1/4″ and 1/8″ markings.
There is only a thread or two difference between the scant 1/4″ seam and the regular 1/4″ seam. I like the idea of having a choice, particularly when dealing with heavier fabric or thread.
In most of my tests I found I didn’t have to hold the thread tails when I started sewing. But I got knots on the underside if I didn’t hold the thread when I started my 1/4″ seam on the 35-degree angle of a triangle piece. The 55-degree angle worked fine.
The Designer I is the easiest-to-use sewing machine for free-motion quilting and machine applique that I have used to date. Machine quilting was so smooth and easy that I could have done it for hours without getting tired. And my work looked fabulous!
The Designer I includes a mock hand-quilting stitch. I used the recommended standard foot to “hand quilt” my quilt sandwich, and I was very pleased with the result.
Most of the staff at Nashua Sew & Vac still use the walking foot for machine quilting. So I tested the walking foot to compare it with the great results I got with a regular foot. I couldn’t tell which line of quilting was made using the walking foot, and which was made using the regular foot.
I showed my samples to several of the staff members, and they couldn’t tell which was the walking foot line, either. They admitted that they use the walking foot because the rhythmic clicking it makes helps them keep a smooth and steady pace to their quilting.
The Designer I offers two sizes of stipple stitches. The small stipple is 50% to 100% larger than the small stipple stitch I’ve seen on other sewing machines. The large stipple stitch is by far the more useful stipple stitch.
Most of the stipple stitches that the machine does on its own are done in a linear pattern, making them fine in a small border. The pattern is not random, so you could line up the next row to stipple and the two rows would look like an interlocked pattern.
The Applique Stitch menu has a zigzag stitch and three widths of satin stitches: narrow, medium and wide. I first chose the zigzag stitch and adjusted it to a very short stitch length for satin stitching around a fusible applique design. I wasn’t very happy with the look I got.
Then I realized that I was using the wrong stitch. The next three stitches on the menu are the satin stitches. I tried all three of the satin stitches and found each one to be dense and even. That was the look I wanted.
I tried several of the other stitches from the Applique Stitch menu. The blanket stitch that I did around a fused heart was effortless. Because of the Sensor Foot System, I didn’t have to sew a few stitches and then raise the presser foot to adjust my direction. I stepped on the pedal and drove the heart around under the needle with one or two fingers. It was that easy to create a perfectly smooth curve!
The Omnimotion Stitches
The Omnimotion Stitches are small designs up to about 1-3/8″ wide. These are stitches, not embroidery designs. The collection includes simple decorative flowers, hearts, leaves, vines, and other patterns. They are as easy to use as a straight stitch. Any one of these designs would be great to quilt a small border on a wall hanging.
I used these stitches to test different threads on the Designer I. For the thread test, the only thing I changed was the thread. I left the quilt sandwich, the needle, and the automatic tension the same.
I started with YLI Jeans thread. The design looked great! It looked almost as though I’d embroidered it by hand with a backstitch.
Next I tried Coats Machine Quilting and Crafts thread. The pattern was unrecognizable. I re-threaded the machine. Still the design was unrecognizable. The dealer warns against using Coats products on the Designer I, and I agree.
Next I tried American, a quilting thread that is sold at JoAnn’s stores. The design looked good. The pattern was medium-heavy, but not as heavy as the jeans thread test earlier.
I tried Sulky Rayon thread. Its shiny, dense colors look beautiful with medium-weight designs. I also tried R-A Rayon threads and got beautiful results in more colors than you can imagine.
Then I tried two different metallic threads. The first was Sulky opalescent, with a turquoise bobbin thread. The effect is beautiful. The Designer I pulled up enough of the bobbin thread to enhance the color of the colorless opalescent thread on top. I used YLI silver metallic with the same success, although the design was a little heavier-looking.
Next I used a variegated rayon embroidery thread by Madeira. This thread feels good in your hands, even while it’s still on the spool. And it sews beautifully on any machine I’ve tried. So I wasn’t surprised when I had the same marvelous results with the Designer I.
I tried Mettler’s Metrocene, a polyester thread and Mettler’s cotton embroidery thread. Both had nice fine stitches. And I finished my test with Mettler’s Cotton Quilting thread, which worked well, too.
The Designer I offers a plethora of buttonhole stitches, many more than any quilter would need. But I’m sure it is a collection that any garment person would appreciate. The buttonholes are easy to make, using a special foot that plugs into a special jack on the sewing machine.
The touch screen allows you to set the size (in millimeters) of the button that needs a hole. The manual translates standard button sizes to millimeters for you. Since there are only a few button sizes that you would use regularly, these numbers are easy enough to remember.
The Designer I has two halogen lights. The first is located on the left side of the needle bar. The second is located at the top of the harp so it lights up the work on the machine bed.
I want to warn you that like any halogen light, those lights get hot! I was trying to use the needle threader and accidentally touched the bulb. That is something you will only do once!
The Designer I has a standard manual needle threader. You pull down the threader, pivot it into position, wrap the thread around the threader, and pull it through the needle eye. The Designer I holds the thread a little tighter than I’m used to, so it took me a little while to get comfortable with using the threader.
I couldn’t make the needle threader work with monofilament thread. I tried about a dozen times to get it through before I asked one of the staff members to show me what I was doing wrong. She couldn’t make it work either.
Maybe this is an adjustment issue, or maybe I needed to allow more slack in the thread. But I only wanted to devote so much time to that task.
What I was really trying to do, of course, was to see how the Designer I works with monofilament thread. It worked just fine, with all the stitches even and smooth.
Part 2 – The Embroidery Features
In order to turn the Designer I sewing machine into an embroidery machine, I removed the slide-on accessory tray and replaced it with the slide-on Embroidery Unit, an extension table that has all the mechanics needed for holding and moving a hoop.
The minute you slide on the Embroidery Unit, the sewing machine is magically changed into an embroidery machine. The screen changes to embroidery functions, and you no longer see the regular sewing menus. The feed dogs drop automatically, and the presser foot’s pressure is automatically set to glide easily over changing thicknesses of fabric and previous embroidery designs.
The Designer I comes with three embroidery hoops. You get a standard 4″ by 4″ (100mm x 100mm) size; the large 9.6″ by 6″ (240mm x 150mm) size; and the huge 14.2″ by 6″ (360mm x 150mm) mega-hoop size.
(The list of Designer I embroidery features that I downloaded from the Viking Web site has an error in the hoop dimensions. The metric dimensions for the mega-hoop are correct (240mm x 150mm). But the conversion of 150mm to inches is wrong. The correct measurement in inches is 6″.)
Viking also offers several optional hoop sizes and types. For example, you can get a small, round 1.6″ (40mm) hoop for baby clothes and hard-to-reach places. You can get a medium 4″ by 2.75″ (100mm x 70mm) hoop, and a plug-in spring hoop.
The Designer I has a wrong-hoop warning system to let you know when the embroidery design that you have selected won’t fit in the hoop you have installed. This warning saves wear and tear on the machine if you make a mistake.
You will also get the “wrong hoop” message if a hoop isn’t clicked into place properly. Before you call your dealer for help, be sure your hoop has really clicked into place.
The Designer I’s color touch-screen allows you to see your embroidery design in full color before you begin stitching. It also lets you choose designs and options by touching the screen.
For my first test, I followed the steps in the manual to combine letters and designs and then edit them.
The full-color manual is very easy to follow. It shows every button you need to push, and it shows you what the screen looks like each step along the way. Even your six-year-old could be sewing in no time.
I picked my design, flipped it over using the mirror-image option, and rotated it to get the orientation correct. When I was satisfied, I enlarged the design. (I could have reduced it if I wanted to.) I did all this by just pressing buttons on the touch screen.
With the design customized to my liking, I pressed the Fix button on the front of the machine and the Designer I basted an outline of my embroidery design onto the fabric. I really like this feature because I can see exactly where the design will appear. The basting is easy to remove when the embroidering is done.
The Designer I does a great job of thread management. If the thread breaks when I’m embroidering, the broken-thread warning sounds so I can rethread the machine. If I run out of thread, I get a warning too.
When either of those things happen, you start stitching again using the Stitch Restart feature. It backs up a few stitches before it begins sewing again so the design looks smooth and continuous.
In the “Teatime” example, I treated the word and the design in each corner as three separate designs so I could learn how to manage thread changes.
I threaded the Designer I with the first color and started the embroidery. When the word “Teatime” was complete, the Designer I took a “Color Stop.” Its screen prompted me for the first color in the upper-left border. I changed thread and let the embroidery continue.
Soon the Designer I took another Color Stop and asked for the thread for the next part of the upper-left design. But in order to cut down on the number of thread changes, I just forwarded the embroidery design to the next spot where the current color was used and completed that thread color in the lower-right border.
When the Designer I had finished that color in both borders, I backtracked to the second color in the first border design. Completing one color in all the designs saved me lots of rethreading.
The Designer I has a feature that eliminates color changes altogether. I could choose to do the entire design in one thread color for a more subtle effect.
Selective Thread Cutter
One of my favorite Designer I features is the Selective Thread Cutter. When using the embroidery functions, the cutter cuts the top thread only. It leaves the bottom thread in one continuous piece.
In sewing mode the thread cutter behaves differently. It pulls the top thread to the bottom and cuts both threads at once. The cut threads are about 1-1/2″ long, so you don’t have lots of long threads to deal with when sewing.
The bobbin compartment holds the thread tail so the automatic bobbin thread pick-up can bring the bobbin thread into the sewing position. It’s not a particularly difficult task for the sewer, but it’s nice not to have to do it.
The Designer I also allows me to wind thread onto a bobbin without having to undo the top thread. It is real nice to wind bobbins without having to re-thread the top every time I need thread in the bobbin.
Viking offers several software packages to help you create embroidery designs from existing images. The Digitizing software package can create a Designer I embroidery design from anything you can draw or scan. If you plan to create original designs for embroidery, this is the software for you.
Color Picture Stitch scans a photo and turns it into an embroidery design. This is a great way to make a memory quilt — you won’t have to worry about the photo transfers lasting.
Cross Stitch takes embroidery designs and turns them into cross stitch designs. When you use the cross stitch designs on your Designer 1, you won’t have any trouble making the back look as good as the front.
Where Can I Buy the Designer I?
The only real drawback to the Designer I used to be the price. Many years ago you could have invested $10,000 on this machine and all of its software. Today, you can find this amazing machine for around $2 to $3000.
Unfortunately, it is pretty hard to find one of these new anymore. However, you can sometimes find them used at you local sewing shop or often you can find them on Ebay.