When I moved to South Korea, I only got two suitcases to stuff with all of my worldly belongings. I knew it would be difficult to find pants long enough and shoes big enough to fit me in Korea, so those went in the suitcase first. The space left barely fit my shirts which left my shiny white sewing machine sitting off to the side. It was a tough decision to leave it behind. But I placated myself: Korea uses a different voltage and I was ready to level up my sewing machine. Rather than the hassle of lugging a sewing machine on an airplane halfway around the world, I’d just buy a new one when I got there!
I should have more research. Despite a booming fashion industry, domestic sewing isn’t very common in Korea and quilting is almost non-existent. I could manage buying quilting fabric online from the US, but the sewing machine was a whole other ordeal. The only sewing machines sold in person were used ones an hour away. They were double the price of their new US counterparts. There were also sewing machines on the Korean versions of Amazon, but they were also insanely expensive. Yikes. With no plans to return to the US and a growing withdrawal from the needle and thread, I bit the bullet and bought the machine.
However, life is a funny journey. My plans for an extended stay in Korea were cut short before I could finish my first baby quilt. You see, the government cut the funding for my work contract and shortly after that the pandemic started. Long story short, I had a new sewing machine I couldn’t sell (domestic sewing isn’t common in Korea, remember?) and didn’t want to throw away. The only other option was to bring my sewing machine on an airplane home with me. I tossed out some worn shoes and started packing.
Preparing Your Sewing Machine for Flight
With all rules around flying these days, I wondered if I even could bring my sewing machine on an airplane, much less an international flight. I did a ton of research. ‘Sewing machine’ wasn’t on any list of banned items, so I decided to give it a go. The other option was to throw it away, so I had nothing to lose. But first, I had to figure out how I was going to travel with it: checked or carry-on. This was a quick choice. Look out the window while the plane is still boarding and watch the luggage handlers with your luggage. I didn’t want the end up with pieces of a sewing machine–this thing was expensive! Before you decide to bring your sewing machine as a carry on, make sure it’s dimensions fit your airline’s requirements.
The next thing you need to do it remove all sharp, pointy things from machine. Needles, the one in the machine and any extras, scissors, and seam rippers should be put in your check luggage. I removed the entire presser foot storage box and put it in my suitcase with my rotary cutter. The TSA says you can bring needles and scissors with blades less than four inches long on a plane. but to prevent any hassle with language barriers and bag checks (and the subsequent repacking), I just removed everything.
Now that the machine is good to go, you need to think about how you want to pack your sewing machine. Some sewing machines come with a nice hard carrying case. Mine did, and I threw it away. (Was this the bad omen?) You may also have a suitcase it can tuck into that can provide some structure and protection. I didn’t have that either, and wasn’t about to shell out for one, so I made do with a large reusable grocery bag and shoved a couple sweaters around as padding. Looking back, I see I got really lucky. Some planes (short regional fights with 2×2 seating) have insanely small overhead bins. If your bag doesn’t fit, the airline will make you gate check your carry-on. If you only have a soft-sided bag that doesn’t zip shut, that could be problematic.
At the Airport and on the Airplane
I went through airport security in Busan, South Korea. I passed all my bags through the x-ray machine and walked through the metal detector. The security officer at the x-ray machine waved me over, wanting to know what was in my bag. My broken Korean and horrible faux sign language did little to help the situation. Google Translate didn’t even pull through for me. I had to show the officer the machine with some sewing sign language before I got a strange look and a little laugh before being waved through.
Honestly, the rest of the journey was pretty uneventful except for lugging a sewing machine around on my sore shoulder throughout the airports. There were also some overhead bins on the large international flights that open/close by rotating the whole bin (rather than opening/closing a door). I was a bit worried about how the sewing machine would tip in the bin. I did the best I could to make sure it was all protected by my sweatshirts and didn’t get any damage.
All-in-all, it was a lot harder to research taking sewing machine on a plane than it actually was bringing it on the airplane. Figuring out how I could use the sewing machine with Korean electricity needs in the US was the next challenge.