Thursday, June 21, 2012

Of All Things, Why Vintage Sewing Machines?

Restoring a vintage sewing machine is truly a labor of love and a time consuming task, as I have quickly discovered over the last several years with each successive machine. I never imagined that such a symbol of domesticity would ever give me such joy as these hefty little beauties seem to provide. My journey into this hobby began with my grandmother's Singer 401A.

I inherited Nana's sewing machine back in 1995 when she passed away. It was her only possession that I truly wanted and fortunately for me, no one else in my family saw any value in the old machine. I don't mean monetary value, though top condition 401's can bring a nice sum of money these days; I mean in sentimental and emotional value, as each time I look at or use that 1950's beige and white machine, I relive some of the happiest memories of my childhood. That machine is priceless to me. I watched her sew and repair many garments on that machine; she patched my favorite pair of jeans where I had worn the seat out, on that machine; Nana taught me to sew on that machine.

Over the years, I have made mostly quilts with the 401, making one for each of my nieces and nephews at their birth. I've patched some clothing, hemmed a lot of pants (being only 5'6", I hem a lot of pants). A couple of years ago, I opened up the sewing cabinet to hem a newly acquired pair of jeans. As I started my project, I noticed the machine didn't quite sound 'right'; she was a little sluggish, and her stitch knobs wouldn't budge. I pushed on and finished my small project, but I was concerned that my grandmother's machine may be on her last leg.

I started searching the internet and joining any/all sewing machine forums I could find. I felt like a vacuum cleaner at one point, sucking in so much information. With my newly found 'knowledge' and printouts of parts charts, wiring diagrams, and an adjuster's manual (thank you Lord for the internet!), I set out to breathe new life into Nana's 1958 Singer 401A - the Slant-O-Matic.

Nana's 1958 Singer 401A Slant-O-Matic

Two weeks and a lot of elbow grease later, Nana's 401 was sewing like new again! I can't tell you how much joy and pride I have in this little beauty! I say little, but even with a cast aluminum body, she still weighs in at about 25 lbs! And I haven't come across a single thing that she can't sew through when using the proper needle. She could certainly handle another round of intense cleaning; 40+ years of cigarette smoke and nicotine definitely take their toll. So now each time I sew with her, I give her a nice clean up afterwards and she shines just a little bit more.

While doing my research to fix and repair my grandmother's machine, I discovered that having a few spare parts on hand might not be a bad idea. After all, this machine hasn't been produced in nearly 50 years and new O.E.M. parts would certainly become harder to find than hen's teeth. One part in particular that I was concerned about given my 401's recent sluggishness was a replacement  for the internal motor. Fortunately, dried, gummy oil had caused her slow responsiveness and not the motor, but having a spare certainly couldn't hurt.

I began scouring my local Craigslist for similar machines and one day a Singer 403 popped up, for a dirt cheap price. The 403A is in essence the same as a 401 with one major exception - the 403 requires external cams (Singer called them Fashion Disks) to be inserted to zig-zag or make fancy stitches; the 401 has the zig-zag built in, as well as multiple other stitches and can use the Fashion Disks also.  I call the owner who it turns out was settling his father's estate; his father had bought the machine new for his mom and it hadn't been used in years. All the parts were there, so I loaded her up and brought her home. After inspection, I realized this machine had seen little to no use, and using my newly acquired knowledge about the 401, I set about servicing the the new-to-me 1959 Singer 403A.

1959 Singer 403A Special

The Singer 403A cleaned up and sewed beautifully, albeit a bit noisier than Nana's 401. I think probably because the 403 had never truly been broken-in.  She became the second machine in my collection and I soon realized just how great these machines are. They were designed to last a lifetime without worries or troubles. They were made in the USA, when workers had pride in the job and in their product, and were made long before built-in obsolescence was commonplace.

I decided then that I wanted more of a challenge and began looking for an out-of-service machine. That next machine just happened to be a Singer 404 - the basic straight-stitch only introductory machine to the Slant 400 series.  That machine had been used hard and put away wet, as it were, having been used in schools to teach and it had obvious signs of abuse.  A few eBay parts later and some touch-up paint later, this bad-boy was ready for another 40+ years of sewing.

1959 Singer 404
And so a new hobby (addiction?) was born...all from the love and adoration of my Nana and her cherished Singer 401A.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Antique/Thrift Shopping (or How a Singer 99k followed me home)

A few Saturdays ago,  Michel, my sister Deana and I went spent the day together and set about antique shopping in some of the north Georgia towns. Deana had been asking me for weeks to go with her, just to spend time together and to help her find some Depression Glass. I was fortunate enough to inherit my mother's Depression Glass (who got if from her mother, her got it from her mother-in-law) and my sister wants to start a collection of her own. So, we set off in search of something yellow, her favorite color.

Our first stop was a veritable treasure trove of glass. You name it, they had it. We found lots of different yellow pieces in more patterns than I can remember. Deana found a few that she liked, but didn't purchase anything, as it was only our first stop and she couldn't commit to a favorite pattern. While we were at that shop, I found a few vintage sewing odds and ends that I thought were neat, but didn't purchase. On the drive to the next stop, a voice in the back of my head said to actively look for sewing paraphernalia. Sometimes I listen to that voice a little too much and passed on to Michel and Deana that I was looking for "Singer" branded items.

The second stop was a typical antiques store - lots of nice things, but at very high prices. We browsed around, with the usual 'just looking' response when asked if we needed help. I always feel bad just 'window shopping'; those store owners need to earn a living just as much as I do and every just browsing customer is a non-paying customer.  But, as we were about to leave, Deana spotted a little green box with 'Singer' on it. The box was full of attachments for a low-shank machine - perfect for my newly acquired Singer Featherweight! The price was less than I could find online and I scooped them up!

The next stop was the mountain city of Ellijay - a place with antique/thrift stores galore! Browsing around the first in a long line of stores, I gravitated towards a wood domed shaped object, knowing its significance as a case for vintage & antique sewing machines.

I opened it up and inside was a Singer 99 sewing machine. The machine was mostly intact, but missing the critical knee bar controller so there was no way to test the electric motor. The wires were in fair shape, and thinking about it, it would not have been safe to try it out; exposed wiring is not something you want to play with. For its condition and missing pieces, the asking price was a little high and I wasn't willing to take the gamble on how much work it would need, given that high asking price. I spent a good twenty  minutes or so pondering the purchase. How badly did I want it? Did I really need another machine? I lost count at eight machines, but what's one more? Right? Right? Well, rationality took over and I passed on this one. There would be others I was certain.

But I didn't leave empty handed. Deana found me this gem, for a decent price and it goes perfectly with my model 27 treadle from 1899 (machine number 3 in my growing collection).

Several more hours of store shopping yielded many interesting finds, but nothing that screamed 'take me home'. Probably not a bad thing for my wallet in the grand scheme of things. On our return trip home, we decided to stop at an recently opened antique/thrift shop near my sister's home. Deana said it was a re purposed Hobby Lobby, so I knew it would have lots and lots of treasures. There were neat things, but again, no 'screamers'. Although, I was certain I would scream personally if I had seen one more sewing machine treadle cabinet with those nice cast iron legs underneath a piece of glass for a decorator table! For me, you might as well take a Tiffany lamp and smash it against a wall. It hurts my soul to see the wonderful machines cast out as trash and destroyed. Oh the stories they could tell if only they could speak. How many hours of hard labor had each of them seen under the tender hands of their owners? Maybe that is the root of my hidden desire to restore every forsaken machine I come across. Those machines were designed to last a lifetime, many of them have done so with proper care and maintenance; some of them multiple lifetimes.

And so, at this last store of the day, this little forgotten treasure came home with me.
I wasn't going to purchase this machine; it is electric and needs a complete re-wire. That isn't beyond my skill level, but not something I had on my 'to do' list, as it were.  But through the use of modern technology (thank you Android and 4G!), we ran the serial number and according to Singer, this machine was allotted on January 5, 1950. Which in non-collector speak, means this machine was manufactured sometime between January 5 through July 27, 1950 (the next allotment for this model). Why is that important? Well, to a Singer Collector, there is no significance to that particular date; nothing unusual about the machine to make it extraordinarily collectible.  But to me, to me it has meaning. Mom was born in February 1950. This little machine and woman I treasured could very well share the same birthday. Though that I could, I know I can't bring Mom back. But, I could breathe new life into this little machine. Michel saw the gleam in my eye as we discussed the machine's 'birth date'. He knew what its significance meant to me.

Michel bought this little gem for me. Not only because it reminded me of Mom (though she never really sewed), but also because I think he gets a bit joy from watching my excitement as I bring one of these little babies back from the brink of death.  I've been busy working on her since we brought her home. Yes, this machine is a 'her', and her name is Ann. As I progress, I'll post photos so you can see Ann's rebirth. I can't wait to sew with her; perhaps Ann's first project will be a sundress for the grand-daughter her namesake never had a chance to meet.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Time Flies

It's hard to believe so much time has passed since I last made posting. So many things have changed, some good and some bad, that at times I've felt a bit overwhelmed. I hope to add all of the changes here eventually.  The most significant change - I have achieved my weight goal of the mid-160's! That makes a total weight loss of about 90 pounds, and a helluva lot of work to do it! What has been harder? Making certain I don't fall back into old, bad habits. And so far, so good. I've held the same weight now within a few pounds up/down since Christmas - that in itself is an accomplishment for me. And a good by-product: this summer heat isn't bothering me at all; at least not yet!

Here's a recent photo of me with my sweet, dear sisters.
Deana, me, and Dana