The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

A friend told me the other day she was going to start collecting sewing machines. I found this a bit odd, mainly because, though she can sew, she doesn’t on any sort of regular basis. She said she was cleaning her apartment and came across her sewing machine shoved way up on the top shelf of her closet and then, for some reason, had the thought she should start collecting them.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

I get it; old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting and cool. They often have intricate decals and ornate brand badges. Most of them still work – mainly because they’re all metal and have less parts to break.

Oldie but a goodie

I used to have an old black iron Singer with a knee pedal. I don’t remember the model number but it was one of the first ‘portable’ models Singer made. The machine did run on electricity and came in a beautiful wood dome shaped case. In reality, it was actually a bit too heavy to be considered portable. I think I found it in the depths of some storage room in an old school building somewhere in Syracuse, NY. I was working for a costume designer, I think, for the opera. (Does Syracuse still have an opera? I can’t remember – it’s been so long).

We had been given the storage room as a work space and told we could have and/or use whatever was in it. I remember sitting in a corner, shelves and tables around me piled high with fabrics and boxes and just stuff, sewing tucks into big white cotton petticoats. I remember the machine being very fast. Unlike a lot of models today who have multiple speed settings, machines back then only had one: fast.

I honestly am not sure what happened to that machine. I know it made the move to Texas but it didn’t make the move to NYC, so it’s been gone from my life for almost fifteen years. I suspect I sold it at a garage sale for $20.00 or something. Or even gave it away to someone who would use it – which is sort of how I think antique sewing machines should navigate through life.

Value: only in the eye of the beholder

I know there are some ‘rare’ models that are perhaps ‘worth’ a lot of money but, all in all, I think people tend to pay entirely too much for used machines. Online auction sites such as Ebay certainly contribute to that. I suppose it’s nice that people can get some money for the old machine that’s been sitting in their basement or garage but, I also think those Ebay auctions get a bit out of hand. And they also trend, often for no discernable reason.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

It’s a beautiful machine and comes with the carrying case but no accessories. I honestly think it’s priced too high but perhaps someone will buy it. The value of things is, of course, ultimately measured by what people will pay for that thing (just look at real estate prices in NYC).

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

What now?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

Go to garage sales (or stoop sales if you live in the city). When I lived in Texas, I used to frequent yard and garage sales all the time. I almost always found at least one machine at each sale. Some of them I bought but they were never for more than $30.00 or $40.00. If you are buying a machine at sale, ask if you can plug it in to see if it works. Check to see if you can turn the wheel freely and, even if the belt happens to be cracked or broken (they often are as the belts are usually rubber) make sure the light comes on when plugged in.

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

The needle won’t go up and down if the belt is missing or damaged but belts are not an expensive or difficult thing to fix. Check for rust too. Machines that have been stored in a garage or barn often have too much rust damage to ever run well again.

I’ve gotten out of the buy old sewing machines game (I live in a 5th floor walkup in NYC after all), especially on online auction sites. Although many of those machines are cosmetically extraordinary, they lack a “soul”. The only ‘antique’ machines I have now are my Nana’s old Singer 401K and a Singer hemstitcher we purchased for Boardwalk Empire. I’ll never get rid of Nana’s machine. Its sentimental value is immeasurable (even if it didn’t work though it does).

And that’s when things truly become priceless: when they somehow hold a collection of memories related to a person or time.

Sewing Seams That Stay Together

Sewing Seams That Stay Together

There’s nothing that makes more nuts than seams that come apart. I know it’s a small thing and they can easily be fixed, but it drives me nuts when seams don’t stay together. Over the years, I’ve come up with some techniques to keep seams together, even if the thread breaks. It saves my sanity, and my clothes, a lot of stress.

Fabric tape

Sewing Seams That Stay Together

This is my absolute favorite sewing cheat. Don’t get me wrong, I still sew the seams on my Singer, but before I do, I use double-sided fabric tape to hold it down. This way, if the thread breaks and the seam starts to come apart, my hems and side seams stay put. I don’t have to worry about splitting seams in the middle of a work day or outing. And it means I can take my time repairing the seam rather than having to fix it immediately.

Fabric tape doesn’t work with every seam. It works best with hems and cuffs, but I’ve come up with a way to use smaller pieces of it on side seams too. With side seams, I sew the tape right into the seam and cut the excess away while I’m trimming the fabric finishing up the piece.

Double stitches

As sewers, we all sew back and forth over seams at the beginning and end to lock them in. I use this same technique on areas of a seam that are likely to come apart due to stress. Inner thighs on pants, arm pits and elbow areas seem to be places that come apart a lot for me so I’ll often double stitch over them to prevent those areas from coming apart.

Over stitching

I often give those same high stress seam areas some extra attention by hand or using the over stitch function on my machine. By sewing over the fabric of those high stress areas, the seams are less likely to pull apart. There’s also more thread in that area, in different directions. The likelihood of them all breaking is slim to none.

I can’t promise you won’t ever have a seam come apart using these techniques, but I can promise they’ll be less likely to come apart. So if you have broken seams as much as I do, give them a try and let me know how it goes.

Free Singer Sewing Projects

Free Singer Sewing Projects

I love free sewing patterns. I bet you do too! Here’s a few of my favorites from SMP.

I love free sewing patterns. I bet you do too! Here’s a few of my favorites from SMP.

The cold weather doesn’t seem to want to let go this year – at least where I live. As much as I’m yearning for warm days so I can get outside and enjoy nature, it’s a perfect time to sew. I love free sewing patterns. I bet you do too! Here’s a few of my favorites from SMP.

Sewing Machine Cover

I love that it’s soft and easy to remove, but keeps the dust off and the pet hair out.

I love that it’s soft and easy to remove, but keeps the dust off and the pet hair out.

My mom made one of these for the Singer she taught me on many years ago. I love that it’s soft and easy to remove, but keeps the dust off and the pet hair out. With four cats, everything gets covered in fur fairly quickly if it’s not covered. I also love that it can be made with any fabric or print so you match it to the décor and colors in your sewing room.

https://www.sewingmachinesplus.com/media/projects/singer/Sewing-Machine-Cover.pdf

Embellished Kitchen Towels

Bring a little color and spring into your home, no matter what the weather is doing outside with some fancy kitchen towels. They’re easy to make, no matter what your skill level. Even better, they’re a great way to use up some of your fabric stash and require nothing more than a white kitchen cloth (or any other color if you prefer).

https://www.sewingmachinesplus.com/media/projects/singer/Embellished-Kitchen-Towels.pdf

Crayon Pouch

This awesome sewing pouch makes it easy to carry all the colors I need & look fashionable to boot.

This awesome sewing pouch makes it easy to carry all the colors I need & look fashionable to boot.

Have you been bitten by the adult coloring bug yet? I have! And I love using crayons. I bought a container of around 120 crayons that I can carry, but if I’m working on a specific picture, I may not need all 120 colors. This awesome sewing pouch makes it easy to carry all the colors I need and look fashionable to boot. The ladies in the sewing group at the public library will swoon if I bring this in…maybe an extra source of income? *wink

https://www.sewingmachinesplus.com/media/projects/singer/Crayon-Pouch.pdf

These three free singer sewing projects are just a few of the ones you can find at sewingmachinesplus.com See the whole list and get inspired here.

March Madness – It’s Not Just for Basketball Fans

March Madness – It’s Not Just for Basketball Fans

Sewing lovers get their own version of March Madness! If you’ve been wanting to buy a new sewing machine, upgrade your current machine or purchase a different type of sewing machine March is the time to do it.

March Madness – It’s Not Just for Basketball Fans

March Madness – It’s Not Just for Basketball Fans

With the amazing sale at SewingMachinesPlus.com you can save up to $400 on the sewing machine you’ve been lusting after since last year.

As an added bonus, you’ll get FREE shipping on all orders over $49 – every day! And an additional 10% off qualifying items. Take a look at a sampling of the sewing machines included in this fabulous March Machine Madness Sale.

HQ Sweet Sixteen Long Arm Quilter with True Stitch Regulator

This quilting machine is ideal for quilting projects of any size while seated. The throat space is large enough to handle a king size quilt! The easy to use touch screen makes it easy to choose your stitches and easily access them the next time while the unique light ring brightens the area being quilted with 28 LEDs. One of several patent-pending features on the Sweet Sixteen is a low bobbin alert. You’ll never run out of bobbin thread and not know it again.

Singer 4432 Heavy Duty Extra-High Speed Sewing Machine

This machine is a workhorse! The heavy-duty metal frame stands up to daily use and provides skip-free sewing. The stronger motor enables you to sew through heavy weight fabrics without a problem. Its complimented by the adjustable pressure foot lifter meaning you can sew lightweight and heavy fabric easily. And buttonholes are no longer a struggle with the automatic 1-step buttonhole feature.

Every March Machine Madness purchase comes with optional no interest financing at the sale price. And just like all purchases from SewingMachinesPlus, you’ll get a lifetime of support from the talented customer service crew.

Check out the full line of products on sale at sewingmachinesplus.com!

We Can Be Heroes

We Can Be Heroes

Growing up, my Mom had one of those metal Singer sewing machines that lived in a cabinet, the kind that folded in on itself where the machine dropped down underneath so that when not in use, the whole shebang was just an unassuming small wooden table.

That’s the machine I learned how to sew on, downstairs in the basement laundry room of my parent’s ranch style house in rural Ohio. Shoved against a wall right next to the furnace closet that, somehow, also contained the laundry shoot, there was barely room for the machine table. When you unfolded the top, it blocked the doorway. Clothes lines stretched across the ceiling of the room and the air space above the sewing machine was most often occupied by my father’s button down dress shirts either waiting to be ironed or just fresh off the board. I would bend over the machine with only its tiny little internal light to see by, trying to keep my stitches straight while the sleeves of my father’s shirts brushed against the top of my head.

Oldie but a goodie

It’s a wonder I ever completed a garment. But somehow I did. I constructed quite a few. Sometimes, I think that those early years of sewing with inadequate lighting next to a furnace room in the basement among men’s dress shirts perfectly prepared me for a career as a film and television tailor. If you can sew on a tiny table wedged into a rack of clothes on the back of a wardrobe truck and still create a well fitting and properly constructed garment while six different people ask you how long its going to take, you are well suited to be a film tailor. Cut out a perfect circle skirt with no pattern in five minutes or less on the tailgate of the same truck, and you will likely be a hero – at least for that day.

Tradition

Growing up, my Mom had one of those metal Singer sewing machines that lived in a cabinet, the kind that folded in on itself where the machine dropped down underneath so that when not in use, the whole shebang was just an unassuming small wooden table.My maternal Grandmother, my Nana, also sewed a lot. She had a whole room allotted for sewing, though it also held a bed and dresser. She sewed in the narrow space between the bed and the wall, only able to push her chair out so far. There are quite a few pictures of her at the machine. She made dresses for my Mom when she was a girl and later, jumpers and pants for me. She had a Singer 401 – the tan and cream model, the kind with the decorative stitch black cams that you insert into the top. The cabinet is long gone, but I still have the machine.

At that time in history, when I was young and my mom was young, the 1940s through the 1970s, sewing machines were common in most households. A lot of those machines were lodged into corners and narrow pathways. People laid their patterns out on wood floors, or the dining room table, or even the bed. Prom dresses and bridal gowns and Sunday bests were created in small, dimly lit spaces across the world by women and girls and boys (yes even boys), all of them heroes.

What about you?

Do you have a young person in your life who has discovered the joy of creation and sewing? If so, perhaps this might be the year to get them their very own machine – if you haven’t yet.

I’ve written before about the wonderful lightweight affordable machines Brother makes like the CS-5055 and the PC-210.

Either of these machines would make an excellent gift for that young dressmaker and tailor in your life. They are the perfect size to jockey into an unused corner with no light and launch the next generation of resilient, adaptable and creative sewers.

Learning to Sew with Mom

Learning to Sew with Mom

I remember watching my mom make clothes, doll clothes, and other items on the Singer sewing machine. Pins in her mouth, scissors in hand, she’d pin, trace, and cut a pattern and then magically sew it into something spectacular. I don’t remember how many times I asked, or how old I was when she finally agreed, but one day I finally got to learn how.

We went to the store and I got to pick out an easy pattern. Mom showed me how to read the back to figure out how much material I’d need as we browsed through bolt after bolt of fabric. I couldn’t get enough of all the colors and textures, but finally settled on something. Then it was off to pick out thread, zippers, and other necessary notions. I had no idea so much happened before even starting the project.

I had no idea so much happened before even starting the project.

Once home with the loot, Mom helped me fold the fabric so that the pattern would line up correctly. She supervised while I carefully cut out the tissue paper pieces of the pattern and helped me line them up correctly on the fabric. I was so ready to start cutting them out, but Mom said I had to pin the tissue paper to the fabric first. My small fingers weren’t overly dexterous, still aren’t, but I managed to get it done. And then, finally, it was time to cut!

Mom supervised while I carefully cut out each piece on the appropriate line for my size, being careful not to cut through the pins. I felt so grown up being allowed to use the special fabric scissors. When each piece was cut, it was time to learn to read the pattern instructions on pinning it all together and what the heck “right side to right side” meant. Turns out, that’s actually pretty important, but I still think “pretty side to pretty side” would be less confusing.

I quickly realized that the pinning part is not a lot of fun, but Mom told me it was necessary or it wouldn’t sew up right on the machine. So, I suffered through it one pin at a time. It wasn’t until years later I figured out how to do the pins in the mouth thing I always saw Mom doing, so I also got poked a lot messing around with the pin cushion.

Finally, though, the pinning for the first part was done and I got to sew…or so I thought. But Mom was worried I might be a little young to use the machine on my own, so at first, we did it like we had when she came to my nursery school class to make beanbags, and she sewed while I watched. After some pleading, she finally relented to let me use the Singer under her supervision. I managed to refrain from twirling around in excitement, but I sure wanted to!

Scraps, pieces and extras. These spare parts will make a lovely quilt someday!

Scraps, pieces and extras. These spare parts will make a lovely quilt someday!

Before I was allowed to sew my project, Mom pulled out some spare scraps from her ever-growing scrap bag and gave me a lesson on the presser foot, going forward and backward, keeping constant pressure on the pedal, and keeping my fingers out of the way. I’m pretty sure there were parts were I was sticking my tongue out with the effort of concentrating, but I finally sewed the scrap to Mom’s satisfaction and was allowed to sew part of my very first project!

'Old Reliable' mom's Singer Creative Touch takes a lickin' and keeps on stitchin'!

‘Old Reliable’ mom’s Singer Creative Touch takes a lickin’ and keeps on stitchin’!

We continued this way, pinning per the pattern instructions and sewing it together. It took far longer than it would’ve taken Mom to do the project herself, but we both have fond memories
of sharing this time while I learned a life skill. I don’t remember what the first project was, but it certainly laid the foundation for a lot that came later. I loved to make my own clothes, dresses and skirts particularly. And when I got married (the first time) I even made my gown.

I don’t use it as much as I’d like to, but I’ve still got that trusty old Singer and I periodically have the opportunity to teach the sewing craft to others. Plus, I can repair and alter clothes that would otherwise become unwearable or have to be brought to a tailor. None of this would’ve happened without that first lesson from Mom.