Saturday, May 23, 2015

Vintage Sewing With Ancient Aliens

more about this lady later

I may or may not be able to attend the NC TOGA (Treadle On Gathering and Academy) in June.  My buddy Art calls it sewing machine summer camp.  But I have been thinking about what I might take to sell at the swap meet portion of it.

Machines, obviously.  Then I thought about thinning the herd of vintage sewing goodies.  And I had to confront a DREADFUL FACT for the first time.

I cannot part with them, and that fact makes me a collector.

OK, those of you that know me can stop laughing now.  Yes, I have 100+ sewing machines in the house.  But I am NOT a collector of sewing machines.   Really, I mean it.  I like fixing them up and they accumulate, that is all.  There are very few of them that I would not part with under the right circumstances.  I can prove this:  see the last post about the gorgeous near-mint PINK 15-clone that went to Barbara.

Yes, I have a LARGE studio stuffed to the gills with fabric, tools, accessories and other goodies.  But they are all meant to be used and shared.  Collecting = hoarding, not sharing.  I can prove this too:  vintage sewing books, Greist hemmers, and more than one skirt marker (among other things) have gone to various sewing buddies.

Before this week I would have said that the only things I collect are Folkwear patterns.  I have been buying them since the company began back in the 70's.  I have almost all of them.  They never leave the house (never loaned out, ever, no matter how much I like you.  So there.)  I have made many things from them in the past but mostly I just want to own them.

So now I have to face the fact that I also collect wooden vintage sewing thingys.  And last week I hit the jackpot at my favorite thrift shop.  I first spied the scissor-holder-becomes-duck thingy which was IDENTICAL to one I found a couple of months ago.

Then I spotted a similar duck shaped thread-but-not-scissor thingy.  AHA, perhaps someone cleaned out a sewing room.

Quickly found a couple more pieces, including another ducky scissor holder, although it needs a spot of glue and a replacement for a pin cushion.

obviously needs some vintage scissors

The piece-de-resistance was the gray alien doing her mending.

I absolutely adore the TV show Ancient Aliens.  The premise is that aliens from other planets have visited Earth throughout the ages influencing our development.  I don't take it seriously, in fact I usually fall out of my chair laughing several times during each episode.  It is deliciously ridiculous.  I love the unexplained ancient mysteries (ever heard of Puma Punku?) and love the extensive video footage of places like Nazca.  I love the fractured logic by which they decide that all the advances of human civilization can be explained by aliens.  But instead of ancient aliens, I think that ancient humans were capable of all of this stuff.

One of the ancient alien theories concerns a group called "the grays".  And another theory is that aliens came down here and were so smitten with the hot Earth girls that they mated with them and therefore we are descended from them.

Why did it have to be just hot Earth girls though?  (Perhaps because most of the people who believe this stuff are guys living in their parents' basements?  Just a thought).  Why couldn't the girl aliens have been smitten with the hot Earth stud muffins?

So this is my theory about "Tuesday mending".  Gray girl alien comes to Earth, finds a lovely guy, marries him and adapts to our culture.  Does her mending.

It's the only logical explanation.  The piece was made in Yugoslavia (before it fractured into several separate states), but I have known people from Yugoslavia and none of them were gray.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

In and Out: Recent VSM comings and goings

Life has reached a tipping point.  The sheer quantity of cabinets has threatened to overwhelm my house and some of them MUST and WILL go, even if I have to take them to a thrift shop.  My problem is that I want things to be used, and I know they will languish for months in the thrift shop--because I see the same old cabinets in the same old places all the time.

The number of machines coming in to the house is exceeding the number of machines leaving (this is totally normal btw) but NOT because I am buying them.  It is because my quilt guild buddies are donating them to me.  When they are the good kind, the all metal vintage beauties from the Golden Age of Sewing Machines, I do try to convince them to keep them.  No luck there yet though.  Many of my guild friends do like their Featherweights or would gladly take a Featherweight off of me (I have no spares though) but for some reason the idea of forty pounds of cast iron just does not appeal to them.

I have had some luck in the cabinet reduction plan.  FIF Maureen (Formerly Imaginary Friend, meaning that I met her online before meeting her in person) bought a Singer 185 hand crank for her daughter-in-law, and I told her I would knock $10 off the price if she also took a cabinet.  The 185 is a 3/4 size machine, and cabinets for them are not easy to find, but they are apparently not easy to sell either.   I know, I tried.

Singer 185 with spoked wheel and hand crank painted Krylon celery green

Pancha brought over a lovely pale iris Kenmore she bought from me a couple of years ago that was behaving badly.  It was an easy fix and I managed to persuade her to take home a nice BIG desk style cabinet.  Kenmores only fit in Kenmore cabinets.  This cabinet had arrived with an 1803.  FIF Linda bought the 1803 but didn't want the cabinet, so it had been taking up valuable real estate here.

not sure if this is a photo of Pancha's actual machine, but it IS this color

FIF Barbara bought a Singer parlor treadle and an absolutely lovely pink 15-clone to go in it.  She plans to switch back and forth between treadling it (her) and using the motor (her mother).  It is a lovely shade of pink too, not that is-it-pink-or-is-it-beige shade so common to pink machines of that era.

a gleaming, glossy surface
I forgot to take pictures of it in the parlor cabinet, but I will correct that on our next sewing machine play date.  And here's a secret, just for you (shhhhh):  this machine would NEVER have been offered on CraigsList or any other sale venue.  It was just too special.  It waited here until the right person showed up and I felt inspired to offer it.

a classic 15-clone
The parlor cabinet had originally housed a Singer 127 with not-too-bad Sphinx decals, and Barbara came back recently to pick that one up too.  She plans to convert it to a hand crank.

needs a front slide plate, as so many of them do.

Non-sewing friend Becky took home another desk-style cabinet to use as an actual desk in her new apartment.  She is putting a piece of poster board on the top and had a piece of glass cut to go over that.  I'm sure she will do something crafty with the blank canvas provided by the poster board.

Becky has only recently joined the ranks of enablers.  She called me a couple of months ago from a nearby charity shop.  The conversation went like this:

B:  Hi, I am at the Goodwill and there is a sewing machine here.  The label says something like "burreena"
Me:  Bernina?
B:  Yes.
Me:  Buy it.
B:  But I haven't told you how much it is.
Me:  Doesn't matter, buy it.
B:  But I haven't told you anything about it.
Me:  Doesn't matter, buy it.
B:  It's in a red case.
B:  It's $15.
Me:  OMG, buy it NOW!

Needless to say, she bought it.  And she told me that four other shoppers tried to persuade her to give it up as she was on her way to the front of the store.  Turns out it is a Bernina 807, which appears to be the budget version of the much-sought-after Bernina 830.  Lovely machine, now the go-to workhorse of the studio.

Bernina 807

A solid vintage workhorse WITH a free arm is a dandy thing.  And I just happened to have exactly the right table for that free arm.  The free arm differs in length and width from manufacturer to manufacturer (and possibly from model to model) so just any old table might not work.

Table folded down, so that you have access to the bobbin.

Table folded up, to provide a large working surface

And speaking of 830's, I had one that I just could not get to turn freely.  Functionally it worked perfectly, it was just sluggish.  I tried everything I could think of for weeks and finally gave up in disgust.  FIF Marianne was over here to pick up another much-sought after machine, an all-aluminum 3/4 size Bel Air Bantam.  She bought the 830 also and I was very happy, because I could only have sold it to someone who thoroughly understood the problem and was willing to try to deal with it.  She says she knows a good OSMG (old sewing machine guy).

Bel Air Bantam

So those (and the 99 mentioned below) have gone out the door in the last months.  Coming in the door (in addition to the Bernina):

A Singer 66 Red Eye, back clamper, from guild buddy Janet.  She bought the whole treadle but just wanted the base.  I have tried (repeatedly) to convert her to treadling, so far unsuccessfully.  Told her this could be her big moment, as the 66 is a lovely treadler (well, all the really old machines are lovely treadlers, aren't they?)  No dice, so I got the Red Eye.  Cleaned up a treat, and I used it as a demo machine at our guild's recent annual quilt show.

Guild buddy Linda enjoys the treadle experience

I stripped down a Singer straight leg treadle, made of tubular steel rather than cast iron and therefore more light weight.  This is my travelling treadle and I can pop any compatible machine into it.

Me at the Red Eye, taking a break from talking to everyone about their grandmothers' machines
If you have a treadler in your quilt guild, why not help her transport a treadle to your next public event?  Everybody, and I do mean everybody, will enjoy telling her about their grandmothers' treadles.  Its a great way to get the crowd to interact with your guild members.

A hand crank is another great crowd pleaser at public events, particularly for children.  I took a Singer Spartan to another public event at a local mall.  The kids got to choose a 5" square with a picture on it and sew it to a plain blue 5" square.  These will eventually go into a quilt for the UNC Children's Cancer Hospital (one of our guild charities).

Mr. Sunshine with a Singer Spartan hand crank,
I'm very careful not to show photos of children unless I know the parents and have their permission, so I persuaded Mr. Sunshine to pose with the hand crank.  Eleven children participated throughout the day and the squares you see in the photo were all sewn by kids.

Another new arrival in the studio:
A Morse 3/4 size vibrating shuttle machine (long bobbins).  I guess you could call this a Singer 128-clone.   I had never seen one before spying this exact machine on the site.  I didn't bid on it, but guild buddy Jo showed up with it a short while later--her daughter had bought it!  It needed a motor and I helped her get it up and running.  The long bobbin system was no fun for them, however, so she brought it back and gave it to me.  In return I gave her a Singer 99, same size but with a drop-in bobbin much more familiar to modern sewing people.

Morse 3/4 size vibrating (long) shuttle machine

And a heads up about the Morse:  the standard reproduction hand crank will NOT work with it.  The critical distance between the motor (and hand crank) mount and the handwheel is incorrect.  This is the same reason that you cannot convert a Singer 306 or 319 to hand crank.  I know, I have tried.

Nothing wrong with the long bobbin vibrating shuttle system btw, it is just a different system to learn and I totally sympathize with anyone who does not want to bother with it.  In fact it is superior in one significant way.  It is so open underneath that there is almost nowhere for lint to accumulate--most of it just falls away underneath.  Closed bobbin systems have to be cleaned much more regularly and carefully to keep them working properly.

Guild buddy Cynthia brought two machines to me at our last guild meeting.  Her church had a sewing group once upon a time, long disbanded, and these two machines were languishing in a closet and needed to go away.  They were more modern machines and I have not checked them out yet.   But I never turn away any sewing machines.  If they are working I will eventually find a home for them.  If I can't fix them they can be organ donors for other machines.

The main reason I never turn away a machine:  people keep bringing you MORE and some of them are gems.  Cynthia called me a couple of weeks later to tell me about a machine a friend of hers was throwing away.  The only thing she knew about it was that it was a Singer.  She and her husband even hauled it all the way to me (I belong to a small friendly guild in another county rather than the mega-guild in my own territory).  Imagine my delight to discover a real gem:  a Singer 237.

don't let the boring looks fool you

The 237 is nothing special to look at.  But (and please correct me if I am wrong) it is the only all-metal-innards (well, almost, read on) Singer zigzagger than can be treadled and that takes common needles and bobbins.  I used to run across these all the time, and at one time had 4 or 5 of them.  Sold two of them as treadles.  Once they were all sold they quit turning up in the thrift shops and it has been a couple of years since I have acquired one.

There is one teeny tiny plastic piece (tension stud gear) down in the innards of the tensioner on a 237 and when it goes bad you have to replace the tensioner.  It is a cheap ($12 or less) and easy fix.  Supposedly you can just replace that tension stud gear with a similar part if you do some modification on it but every time I have needed one it has been sold out.

The best selling vintage machines in my little world are the simple zigzaggers.  Many people are intimidated by the multi-stitch machines.  The zigzaggers almost explain themselves:  one dial (or lever) for stitch length, one for stitch width.  Does not get much easier than that.

The very, very best simple machines for home sewing (in my opinion) have one additional feature:  the blind hem stitch.  This is a miraculous stitch that makes a blind hem (duh) and the secret lies in how you fold the hem and feed it into the machine.  Back in the day (decades ago) I had tried and failed a couple of times to figure this out.  I only mastered it when a friend showed me how.

So an absolute favorite machine of mine is the Singer 223, a post war Japanese Singer, which has a lever for stitch length and a dial for stitch width

and a little lever to switch back and forth between the simple zigzag and the blind hem stitch

The photos above are of the 223 in my permanent collection.  I recently found another one at a thrift shop but it still has plenty of grime on it and is not very photogenic at the moment.

BTW, Singer made another model with zz + blind hem, the 457.  It look suspiciously like a 237 but don't be fooled.  It has nylon gears, which were great for the first 40 or 50 years but are on the verge of death by now.  So avoid that one.  Sorry I don't have a photo of my own, but a Google image search will show it to you.

I never got around to holding my annual CraigsList Christmas sale in 2014, but I will be offering sewing machines for sale at this years NC TOGA.  More about that later.  And if you are anywhere near Hillsborough NC and in need of a sewing machine cabinet, give me a call.  Free to a good home...

Saturday, March 14, 2015

VS2 Restoration: Paint and Decals

This is the last in a series of posts about the complete restoration of an 1891 Singer model VS2.

The usual reminder: I am not an expert.  I do all of this for fun and I learn by experimenting.

Here's how the experts repaint a vintage sewing machine, such as a Featherweight

  • strip off all of the old paint
  • create a completely smooth surface using the same techniques and products that auto body shops use.
  • paint
  • decal
  • clear coat
I've read the blog posts and watched the YouTube videos and am in awe.  I hope to rise to those levels one day and repaint a couple of Featherweights myself.  But I am not there yet.  

On my first re-paint I did not strip off the remaining badly chipped original paint. Hammered Rustoleum has a texture that hid all of the chips beautifully.  The decals melted themselves to the smooth undulations of the texture with no problems.  

On my second re-paint I did strip off all of the old black paint.  This paint was originally baked on in layers and is thick enough to hide small irregularities in the casting.  I painted it with a sparkly paint. The sparkles created a different type of texture, rather sandy.  It was not thick enough to hide some gouges in the metal, yet it was textured enough so that the decals did not meld down into the surface.  (Clear coating before applying the decals probably would have fixed this).

For this third re-paint, the Singer VS2, I am going with what worked well, Hammered Rustoleum, this time in black.  I went into great detail about the wonders and perils of using this paint here so take a look if you want more of a tutorial.

The first of several coats

The same quart of this paint has covered two treadles and this machine and I still have a lot left.  I think it has gotten thinned down because it did not cover the surface irregularities very well.  I built up some paint in the low spots and then put a couple more coats on.  24 hours drying time between coats.

Keeler Sales gave me a copy of their brand new VS2 decals as a thank you for providing them with measurements of the bed.  At the time I delivered the machine to Sadie and Patricia these decals were not yet on the market, which was an additional thrill for me.  They are now though and you can get them here.  I would tell you about this even if they had not given me a freebie.

I scanned the decals, printed copies of them, and checked the placement of each piece before beginning.  I learned this the hard way on the sparkly blue machine.

Another thing I learned the hard way is that it is very difficult to work with long strips of decal.  Look for breaks in the design and cut them into segments.  It makes life MUCH easier.

You can see the smooth and subtle texture of the paint and the way the decals just flow on to the surface.  You absolutely cannot see the edges of the decals.

On the first two machines I had trouble getting the decoration smooth on the convex surface at the top of the pillar.  The trick is to look for breaks in the design and cut from the outer edge towards the center in several spots, like spokes of a wheel.  This allows the decal to shape itself smoothly to the curved surface.  It worked perfectly this time.

All of the openings were taped prior to painting.  I left them in place during the decal process.  The next step is the clear coat.

I mask off the chrome hand wheel before spraying the clear coat.  Thin strips of painters tape are clipped so they can follow the round edge, followed by more thin strips until the chrome is covered.  There is probably a better or faster way but this works for me.

Three or four coats of clear coat.  Read the can for the drying interval, which was pretty quick.

After the last coat of clear coat dries, remove all of the painter's tape and re-attach the bobbin winder, the tensioner, and all of the access covers.

DD A and I delivered it on Christmas Eve, wrapped up in plastic bag meant to wrap a bicycle and with a big red bow.  You can see the bag on the floor in the photo above.

The sisters were delighted to see their grandmother's machine brought back to life.  From its 1891 vintage I suspect it may even have been their great-grandmother's.

Gasps were gasped (by the sisters).  Tears were shed (by Sadie's husband).  Christmas cookies were consumed (by me).  A good time was had by all.

Pat, me, Sadie

This was the highlight of the year for DragonPoodle Studio.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

VS2 Restoration. Cleaning and Sanding the Machine

The continuing saga of the complete restoration of an 1891 Singer model VS2.  If you enjoy reading a detailed description of cleaning a 124 year old sewing machine, then you have come to the right place.  If the destruction of the remaining decals on a rusted machine will distress you, then don't read this post.

Decision, decisions.

rusted bed

This machine had obviously seen a lot of use, and perhaps an extended period of time being stored somewhere in a humid environment (which was everywhere here in NC before air conditioning).  Dirt is a temporary condition which can easily be corrected, but rust is a whole different ball game.  The bed of the machine was extensively rusted, but the rust didn't stop there.  There were spots of rust scattered over the machine, and the rust obviously extended under the paint.

So the decision should have been easy.  Sadie and Patricia were definite that they wanted it "pretty".  Even though there were tantalizing sections of the original beautiful Victorian decals remaining, there was no way to bring it back to "pretty".  The rust would have to be sanded off, every bit of it.  It would have to be repainted.  The new paint would not match the old paint, so I could not just paint part of it.  There was no way to save the remnants of the decals.  I still agonized over this for a couple of weeks before I could bring myself to do anything that would remove those fragments of original decals.  

But there was good news as well.  When I first brought the machine home back in May, I contacted Keeler Sales about replacement decals for the VS2 (aka VSII).  At that time they told me that they did not have any, but that they were working on them.  In September they contacted me (and a couple of other people) and asked if I could send them the dimensions of the curved bed of the machine.

I took measurements, made a template, scanned it and sent it to them.  When they completed the design of the decals they very kindly sent me a set!  You will see them on the machine in the final post of this series, coming soon.  ish.

Big moment for the DragonPoodle.  Immense satisfaction and pleasure at this transaction.

So finally a decision:  I would repaint and re-decal it.  This meant that I could be very aggressive about cleaning it inside and out.

Regular readers may take a short break while I mention for the upteenth time that I am NOT AN EXPERT and I have learned everything I know in the last few years by reading stuff on the internet and by experimenting.

Below I have separated cleaning the inner mechanisms of the machine and cleaning the surface (prior to painting) but in reality these went hand in hand.


Although the machine was turning relatively freely, there was plenty of old oil showing on in innards of the machine.  Oil dries out over time, leaving behind a residue.  Those of us who fix up machines refer to it as "varnish" but in reality it has nothing to do with varnish.  It just looks like varnish.

The dried up oil that is showing is actually causing no problems, because if you can see it, it is not inside of the mechanisms.  So it is a symptom rather than the actual disease.  But if you can see a lot of varnish on the surface, there is dried up oil lurking within the mechanisms also.  My goal is always to bring a machine back to the best condition that I can, so I wanted to clean it inside and out.

Sewing machine folklore states that immersing a machine in kerosene and leaving it there for a period of time does wonders for removing old oil and dirt.  If I had bought a big enough bucket and enough kerosene back in May when I first got my hands on this machine, and left it in there throughout the summer and early fall, this might have worked.  But I can testify that a two week long soak does NOTHING for either the surface or the innards.  I had tried this once before a couple of years ago on another machine and had the same lack of results.  So much for the kerosene.  Unless you have months to leave it there.

But this is part of the fun:  experimenting, and then reporting to you, dear readers, what my results or lack of them are.  Might not be fun to a normal person, but it is fun for me.

To get rid of the dried up oil I use Tuff Stuff (discussed below in the surface cleaning section) and/or alcohol.  Both will destroy decals.

In my experience alcohol (either denatured from the hardware store or rubbing from the drug store) does a fabulous job of removing dried up oil.  I use a toothbrush and scrub away with the alcohol on all the unpainted metal moving parts. Remove the access covers and the nose plate and scrub out all the innards you can reach, while being a total fanatic about protecting all the painted surfaces from drips.  Since I am repainting this one I could splash the alcohol around freely.

Of course this only removes the visible varnish at the surface, but some of it will run down into the joints and melt away the old oil in there too.  For this reason it is VITAL that after EVERY cleaning session you completely re-oil the machine.  Even with these precautions, I ended up with a completely frozen up machine (meaning that the moving parts would not move) after two of my extended cleaning sessions.

Not to panic:  I knew that what had happened was that gunky stuff had moved around and re-hardened somewhere.  More cleaning,  more oiling, and some heat with a blow dryer freed things up both times.  This is the basic plan for cleaning up the innards of any vintage or antique sewing machine.

I worked on this project sporadically, and it sat for a week or two (or a month or two) at a time.  When I returned to it right before painting it was not turning as freely as I liked. At one point in the rotation of the movement it was catching or hanging up.  I decided to pull out the big gun and attack it again.

Literally, the big gun.  The heat gun, actually a tool for embossing.  Normally the heat from a blow dryer is enough.  The heat gun blows air heated to 650 F.  This will melt plastic parts (none on this machine).  Could it cause paint to bubble?  I have no idea.  So it is my weapon of last resort, only to be used on a cast iron and steel machine.

I guessed that the problem was in the mechanism where the shuttle swings back and forth, and a little oil there improved things.  So I blasted it with the heat gun, and dripped more oil through it for several minutes.  The oil dripping out of the bottom of this was gray with gunk rather than clear.  I kept at it until it dripped out clear, then repeated this with all of the moving parts on the machine for good measure.

Let it sit overnight and then tested it again.  Turning freely, problem solved.  Two months later, still turning freely.

SURFACE CLEANING  (prior to sanding and painting)

Step One:  Remove everything that can be removed.
Take LOTS of pictures so that you can put it back together correctly afterwards.

Step Two:  Clean it thoroughly.
Why bother (you undoubtedly wonder)?  It's going to be sanded, right?  Won't the dirt just come off with the sandpaper?

Well, yes, but not EVERY inch of it will be sanded.

My favorite product for (relatively) easy deep cleaning is Tuff Stuff, labelled as a multi purpose foam cleaner.  You spray it on, it foams up, the foam turns brown as it dissolves the dirt.  I do this in a large shallow metal pan and the dissolved dirty cleaner runs down into the bottom of the pan.  As the foam starts to dissolve I give it a light scrub with an old toothbrush and then wipe dirt off.  Spray again and repeat.  And again.  And again.  Etc.  Remember, it took about a hundred years to accumulate this dirt, so don't be surprised by how long it takes to remove it.  You will know when you are finished when a) the foam no longer turns brown and b)  the machine no longer feels sticky with grease.  

BE WARNED:  THIS WILL DESTROY THE PRETTY DECALS.  I usually only use this on the underneath side of the machine and on treadle irons.  

I also spray this into the workings of the machine as far as it (and the toothbrush) will go.


A light sanding is the final step in preparing the machine for its new paint and decals.  I sanded just to create a slightly rough surface for the paint to adhere to.

I sanded off all of the rust.

see the rust?  keep sanding...
After sanding I wiped it all off with a microfiber cloth and some alcohol.

The next and last post in this series will cover the process of painting and applying the decals. Yes, those pictures WILL be much prettier than the ones in this post.