Saturday, January 21, 2012

Vintage Sewing Machine Love

Since I've been working on more pillowcases this week, I thought I would talk a little about sewing machines.

My mom has a blue Singer sewing machine from 1965, which her mother-in-law forced my dad to buy for her because for too many years she did not have one herself, and had to sew for others in exchange for the use of their machines.  It is not a fancy machine, but my mom has sewn THOUSANDS of miles on it and it still works great.  In all these years and with all that sewing, I think it has been in the shop once.  My mom's experience gave me a great respect for older machines.

The sewing machine I had -- a 1966 Singer Touch and Sew -- was only one year newer than my mom's, but unbeknownst to me that machine marked the beginning of some unfortunate design changes, and it had to go in the shop all the time.  The nylon gears finally crumbled away about three years ago.  The cost of the labor to have it repaired was prohibitive, so I began to research fixing it myself.  In that process I inadvertently got sucked into the vintage machine subculture -- which is populated by some very helpful people:)

After joining some yahoo groups (in particular, vintagesinger and wefixit) and asking some questions, I decided that instead of trying to fix my old machine I would see about getting one that had consistently good reviews.  Lo and behold, on my local craigslist there was a Singer 401 from 1956!

A young man was selling it.  It had been left behind by the former homeowners.  He knew nothing about it and it needed some work, so I offered what I thought was a fair price and brought her home.  Over a period of several weeks, I cleaned her up (like a lot of mid-century items, lots of nicotine stains), ordered a few parts and installed them, basically just fiddled around with the machine.  I did finally take it to my local sewing machine repair shop just to make sure I had everything set right.

Now I did not have a lot of prior experience working on sewing machines, but there is a lot of good information and also good resource people in these yahoo groups.  The internet has made it possible to learn how to do so many things that would have been virtually impossible before. So I was able (with my on-line connections) to get her in good shape, oiling all the necessary places, figuring out problems, taking things apart and putting them back together.
A peek into the side above the needle
And in doing this, I have found out something about myself:  I really love mechanical objects.  I love the fact that it is possible for them to work as good as the day they were made, I love the design that went into them, I love figuring out how the parts work together.  I think this is part of why I loved the movie "Hugo", with all its clockworks and other inventions.
Such modesty!
The Singer 401 was a top-of-the-line machine in its day --  it says so right on the front of the manual! --  and it has a lot of great features:  adjustable needle position, adjustable pressure, adjustable stitch length, adjustable tension on the thread and the bobbin, ability to sew two threads at once, quite a few decorative stitch options, etc. There are lots of newer machines that don't have all these options.  Plus I love how she feels -- plastic machines do not compare to the solidity of metal.
Some of the stitch possibilities
She came in her own desk.  The desk has a formica top and the machine folds down into it to make a flat surface.  I've thought about repainting the desk, but I really can't think of anything that would be an improvement, so I'll leave it alone.  I love having my machine in the desk, though.  The flat surface is so nice when you are sewing.  Also, it has a knee lever to make it go.  There is a foot pedal I can put down on the floor if I choose, but I actually prefer the knee pedal.

There are two storage drawers in the desk.  In the top one I keep my extra feet, bobbins, sewing machine needles, etc.

The bottom drawer has other sewing machine accessories:  extra discs (which change the stitch patterns), a buttonhole attachment, and a monogram attachment (which I haven't used yet).  I like collecting all the available accessories :)

I'm not a person who really names her appliances, but if I do give her a name, it will be Cordelia because I bought her on Cordell Street.  Do you like how she looks?  I admit, after my mom's pretty blue machine, the two-tone beige and cream had to grow on me.  But after all the loving care I've put into her, I love her.  I love her quirky good looks and all her knobs and levers.  And I mostly love her because she does just what she is supposed to do, and does it well -- sew.
My lovely Singer 401


  1. What. A. Find!
    She is indeed a beauty...and, for what it's worth, I think Cordelia is a fine name for her.

    The new machines do not have the quality of the older models. We bought both of our older daughters inexpensive sewing machines to get them started, and neither of them is worth the frustrations that they cause. (The machines, not the daughters!)

    Enjoy your new (old) machine!!

  2. Well first.........way to go girl on fixing. Second, I can't help but love your machine, because this is what my Grandmother had and I learned to sew on it. She also taught me how to quilt and I used her the pictures just bring back all my memories. She is now 95!...and I have no clue who has the machine, but I know it sewed a many young girls dresses.

    My machine isn't this is 30 years old and I have no intention on getting a new one.

  3. Thank you for sharing all this, Angela--I have found my new machines so frustrating and my mom's old 1963 Kenmore is probably still chugging along out there for someone. I sold it in a yard sale years ago, when I didn't know any better. Don't make me talk about it, it hurts too much. ;) I appreciate the tips and resources, and am on the hunt for a new/old machine now.

  4. Wow, what a wonderful machine and interesting post. You must have a lot of self confidence now that you actually learned to work on your machine. I love the old machines too. You picked a good name for her.


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