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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I came to enjoy these machines for a different reason. I make spending money buying and selling. It started with a mint Featherweight I found a couple of years ago. Shortly after that, I found a 401A in really nice condition. I cleaned it up and sold it quickly. I love the pure mechanical robustness of the 401. I love the sound it makes and the direct drive design. And I don't sew. Not a lick. Wednesday, I found another 401a in a local thrift shop. Totally covered in a thick coat of brown...whatever, internals completely seized. Now, not so much:
It's pretty and smooth as silk. I have at least 10 hours into it; definitely a labor of love. What I like most about buying and selling is that I get to rescue an item like this, one that will never be made again, fix it up, and then give it a home with someone who may use it for the next 50 years.
Michael L.
Richmond VA