Wednesday, October 10, 2012

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things

After that last blockbuster post, how about something short and sweet:  three of my favorite things.

2.5" clear Not-A-Ruler
Yes, it IS hard to see.  I lose it on the cutting mat all the time.  This has been photoshopped to make it show up!
Once upon a time, only a few little old ladies quilted (or so the myth goes).  They may have learned their skills back in the 1930's when there was a surge of interest in quilting, but I am just guessing.  There were no guilds.  There was no multi-billion dollar quilting industry.  There were no rotary cutters.  There were just the little old ladies like my great-aunt Bessie, and they had two choices in quilting fabric:  solids and little calicoes.  They cut their fabric with scissors.  They used thin cardboard to make their own quilting templates.

Then America had a national bicentennial (that was in 1976 for those of you from other places).  Suddenly all things colonial were hot and trendy, although the words "hot" and "trendy" were not yet heard of, and "colonial" was not yet a synonym for evil (at least not in the US).   A quilting revival was born, and I was there for the birth.

Barbara Schaeffer (at the time a mother of schoolchildren, NOT a little old lady) taught quilting to a small class of interested women at the community room in her church.  From that tiny beginning a guild* was born.  One of the women in the group volunteered to have her husband cut long pieces of clear rigid plastic into sizes useful for quilt blocks.  I used them to mark fabric with a pencil, which I then cut with scissors.  Nothing like this was available on the market.  There WAS no market!

Pre-cut 2.5" strips.  This photo was taken a while ago and these jars are full now.

I still have the whole set, but it is the 2.5" one that I use all the time.  I do my own pre-cuts of fabrics I buy at the thrift shops.  And I love remembering the days when we were quilting pioneers.  Don't get me wrong, I'm perfectly willing to spend money on awesome fabrics and the latest tools (you should see my collection of specialty rulers).  But I also get disgusted at the crass commercialism of the quilting industry today.  Yes, this is quite hypocritical. 

*ps:  After 25 years away from Maryland, I still love and miss you, Eternal Quilters of Glen Burnie.

Not-A-Steam Press

Imagine that your iron was 25 inches long, 11 inches wide, and exerted umpty pounds of pressure (one of the ads says 100 pounds).  That's what this is/does.  I could not live without it. 

The upper surface gets hot, the lower surface is like an ironing board.  The official name of this awesome device is "steam press" because you can put water into it to generate steam. I have learned my lesson with steam irons and NEVER do this.  A spray bottle of water does the trick and the device will last years longer.

Pressing fabric.  Pressing blocks.  Fusing.   That's what I use it for.  And when I say "fusing", I don't mean fusing one wimpy little piece of quilting cotton to another, although it will do that.  I mean fusing rag rugs to canvas backing.  Xena Warrior Princess fusing.

The first one I had was "digital" and had an electronic display.  It burned out quickly and I was lucky enough to find this older, pre-digital model. 


Break a bamboo skewer in half.  Keep the pointy end, throw the other half away.
I sew with this in my right hand, using it to place, guide and push the fabric (as needed) under the presser foot.  It safely gives you much more precision than a finger would do.  Some people use chopsticks for this, but I like the pointy-ness of the skewer.  It is also great for fishing out that little loop of bobbin thread from under the presser foot when you are threading the machine. 

And life is all about the enjoyment of the simple things, like bamboo skewers.  Did you know that they come in all sorts of diameters and lengths?  I buy them all and they are useful for all sorts of things.

Feel free to share your own bamboo skewer stories or tips below.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Are You Looking For ONE good vintage machine?

Note:  I have a link to this post in my current CraigsList ads, but please remember that I wrote this post in 2012.  The machines shown in the photos below are NOT currently for sale.  They have gone to new owners long ago!  But I do have other nice machines for sale now.

In the last couple of months I have begun to get emails from readers who have questions about buying vintage machines. This post is for you.  You, the person who is looking for a one, and only one, great vintage sewing machine.  You, the person who loves to sew and NEEDS a solid, reliable workhorse of a machine.  You, the person who just wants to go out and buy a machine without having to fix it yourself.  I didn't know you were reading my blog, and I'm delighted to meet you. 

Being consulted as if I were an expert strikes me as funny. I have only been in this hobby for a few years.  Hopefully I have made it obvious that I am just blundering through this world.  I make mistakes.  I laugh at myself.  I invite the reader to laugh along with me. 

In the photos in this post The Herd means that the machine has been cleaned, repaired if necessary, and is sewing as it should.  The Hoard are those machines that are waiting for attention, hoarded for a rainy day when I need a machine to work on.

Lots of people have generously given their time and advice to me and I'm glad to pass it on when I can.  See above about how much of an expert I am not.  The place to go for RELIABLE advice is a good bulletin board.  Yahoo runs a bunch of them.  You may get both reliable and unreliable responses to your questions, but someone will step in if the advice is off kilter.
The Herd:  Wheeler & Wilson No. 8, circa 1878

Here is why people love vintage sewing machines:  they are solidly built of metal to last for decades or centuries.  Yes, you heard me right:  centuries (not including the motors or electric wiring, which can be easily replaced).  One of my machines, working beautifully, is 130 years old, and there's no reason why it shouldn't still be around 330 years from now.  Just try to wrap your mind around that for a moment.

Everyone who sews should have a good vintage sewing machine.  But how do you go about it?

The approach followed by me and many of my blog friends
  • buy that first vintage sewing machine
  • fix it up
  • fall in love with both the machine AND the process of fixing it up
  • buy another machine
  • fix it up
  • repeat, repeat, repeat, learning more and more with each "new" vintage machine
The good vintage machines are now 50 years old or older, and will need some TLC.  Do you want to do your own sewing machine maintenance and repair?  It isn't all that difficult on vintage machines, and you can learn just about everything on the internet, AMHIK.  But it takes time and trial and error.  If you begin as a total novice, as I did, it takes lots and lots and lots and lots of time.  Maybe you have a full time job.  Kids.  A life.  Maybe you don't have the time or the inclination to learn to be a sewing machine mechanic.

There is a big difference between collecting vintage machines and looking for just one good one to sew with.  I collect them, and of necessity I do all my own maintenance and repair.  Because I have many I can swipe parts from one machine to make another one work.  I don't mind if they aren't working well when I buy them because I enjoy fixing them.  You will be following a different path.

Parts have been harvested from this rustbucket Singer 66
So:  here you are.  Not aspiring to be a mechanic.  Wanting a vintage sewing machine to own and love. 
What approach should you take to finding that one perfect machine for you?  I'm going to make some suggestions, but there are no guarantees!  You can't just pop into a store and buy a vintage machine they way you can pop into Ikea for a chair.

First, be open minded.  Think about what functions you want rather than what brand name.  A particular brand and model may have a very good reputation, but that does not mean that the one that you find for sale is a good machine.  That specific machine may have led a terribly tragic life, neglected, un-oiled, left to choke in its own lint for decades.  Insects may have built colonies inside it.  I'm speaking from personal experience here (shuddering at the memory).

This Singer 99, nicknamed "The Yeti" for its coat of fur, was rescued from the trash pile behind my local thrift shop.

Photo from The Golden Age of Style

Basic types:
Straight stitchers
Plentiful and often quite cheap, which around here means $10.  They do one stitch only and the good ones do it superbly.  Every quilter should own one.   And when you think about it, all of those beautiful elaborate Victorian and Edwardian garments were sewn on straight stitchers because the zig-zag had not yet been invented.

The Hoard:  A Morse.

How to spot a straight stitcher: 
There is a lever or knob on the pillar (on the right hand side) to control stitch length.  That's the only lever (or knob).  It has a needle plate with a tiny hole for the needle to go through, rather than an oval opening, and the presser foot also has a very narrow slot for the needle to slip through.

For every pretty green or pink one, there are a hundred black ones, btw.

The Hoard:  Universal MZ
You can set them to straight stitch, or to make a zig-zag stitch.  You can make just about anything with them, and the zig-zag is handy for mending and for finishing edges so that they don't ravel.  But if you are the passionate seamstress I am imagining, you already know this.

How to spot a zig-zagger:  
There are usually two levers (or sometimes large knobs), one for stitch length and one for stitch (zig-zag) width.  The needle hole is oval and large enough to accommodate those zigs and zags.  The presser foot will also have a much wider opening than on a straight stitcher.

They make a variety of stitches, functional and decorative, in addition to the usual straight stitch and zig-zag.  Creators of garments will love the blind hem stitch.  I love decorative stitches but some folks never use them.  

The Hoard:  Morse 4400

How to spot a multi-stitcher: 
Vintage multi-stitchers use round cams to make their stitches.  Some of them have a built-in cam stack, and these will have a lever for stitch selection with tiny diagrams of the stitches above each position of the lever.  

The Hoard:  Elna Supermatic. The flat surface folds up to become the carrying case.  See the cam door?

Some of them take individual cams, and these will have an opening on the top so that you can insert the cam you want.  If there are no cams with the machine, then what you are seeing is a multi-stitch CAPABLE machine, but now only a straight stitcher or zig-zagger.  Move the stitch width lever to maximum to check if it zig-zags.  They also have the oval needle hole and wider presser foot opening.

Now about brands.  You may already know the good ones:  Singer, Pfaff, Elna, Necchi, Brother, White, Bernina (good vintage Berninas are rarer than hen's teeth). This does not even scratch the surface.  Good companies made machines and "badged" them with the name of the department store selling them.  Japanese companies in the post WWII period produced millions of machines under hundreds of names designed to appeal to the American market.  (all of this is bulletin board lore, btw.  Remember, I am not an expert, I'm just passing the info along.  It's probably correct, but how would I know if it was not?  If I hear it often enough, or from sources I have come to trust, I assume it is right).

The Herd:  Riccar 108, zig-zagger

Kenmore 1515 multi-stitcher

And speaking of brands, don't overlook the Japanese-made Kenmores.  Almost all of them are plain and utilitarian in styling.  They will probably not make your heart sing at first sight.  But they have followers that are loyal to the point of fanaticism and the song they sing is very convincing.  

Kenmore 1515 with its extension table

Vintage Kenmores are solid, reliable, dependable, and can handle just about anything.  They are not sexy and others may sneer at your machine.  Yes, it happened to me.  Just smile smugly, because you know something they don't:  these are some great machines. 

(see below about how to tell good vintage from crappy vintage, because there are crappy vintage machines of every brand name out there also).

Where to look:
  • The attics and basements of your friends and family.  Put the word out.
  • Thrift shops run by charities
  • Yard sales and estate sales
  • CraigsList.  
    • Type "sewing" in the search box
    • Be smart about doing business with total strangers. 
    • Prices on CraigsList range from ridiculously low to stratospherically high.  If you are patient and look every day you may find a gem for a great price.  
and a reader added a brilliant suggestion, so brilliant that I am ashamed that I did not think of it myself.  See his or her anonymous comment below.
  • an OSMG (old sewing machine guy, discussed in more detail at the end of this blog post).  

I don't bother with antique stores or thrift shops run for profit.  I'm shopping at the bottom of the market, but you may not need to be so cheap frugal.

If you are a novice, stay far, far away from eBay.  First, the shipping charges alone will be enough to buy you a good local machine.  Next, there are hundreds of horror stories about poor packing and machines broken during shipping.  Finally, you want a machine you can see and examine.  There ARE good reliable people who sell machines on eBay but there are many more who do not know enough to write a useful reliable description of the condition of the machine, or know how to pack a 40 pound machine for shipping.

Translations of sewing machine descriptions used by sellers: local, thrift shop, and eBay:
"Works" means that they plugged it in and the light came on.  It does not necessarily mean that it works.  You may think I am joking, but the manager of a Habitat store actually told me this.  I had suspected it for a long time!
"Runs" and "Runs good" means that they plugged it in, pushed the motor controller (foot pedal) and the motor made spinning noises and did not emit smoke.  It means that they think the motor runs, but does not necessarily mean that the machine runs.
 "Worked the last time we used it", which might have been 25 years ago, really needs no translation.
and my personal favorite, which I have heard several times:
"I know it works good because it belonged to my grandma."

Is it "good vintage" or "crappy vintage"? 
You have tracked down a machine, and are suspending belief on whatever the seller is telling you.  How do you figure out whether to take a chance on it or not?  And don't kid yourself, every vintage machine purchase is a roll of the dice.  You may win, you may lose, it may be a draw (you win eventually but only after spending more time or money than you planned).

Good vintage is solid metal, especially any drive shafts or gears.  Crappy vintage has plastic gears and perhaps other plastic parts.   The transition from all metal machines to more and more plastic parts began in the mid-1960's, but it is doubtful if you will know the date of the machine in front of you.  Here are some guides to finding a good one.

Where was it made?
It may be worn away, but usually if you search you can find "Made in___" information somewhere on the machine.
US, Great Britain, Canada:  Potentially good
Once upon a time we had factories.  Remember factories?  Remember when there were good industrial jobs here in the US?  If you do, you are probably as old as I am!

Germany, Switzerland, Italy:  Potentially ever better

Japan:  Also potentially good, many wonderful machines were produced here after WWII.

The Herd:  A pink Atlas, made in Japan for the Brother company.

Taiwan?  Cast iron?  OK.  Plastic?  Walk away from it.

The Herd:  The front says "Necchi", but the back says "Made in Taiwan".
p.s.:  in the comments section below both Elizabeth and Cari tell me they have found good Taiwanese machines.  My advice: be sure to peek inside to see if it is an all-metal model.

China?  Run, don't walk.  Leave that puppy behind.

It's not that there is anything wrong with the Taiwanese or the Chinese.  It's the fact that by the time sewing machine manufacturing had moved to those places, the days of all metal machines were long gone*.  Which leads us to the next point...

*update:  I recently had a cast iron Taiwanese "15 clone" come through my workshop.  

Does it have plastic parts?
Examine it as best as you can.  If it has a computer type screen, walk away.  If the body is plastic, walk away.  If you can open it up and peer inside and you see plastic, walk away.  If it obviously weighs 40 pounds, it's probably a good all-metal one. 

You might make an exception to the "no plastic" rule for the cam stack of a multi-stitch machine.  Be sure to turn the machine so that you can see the stack through a full rotation.  If there are cracks, walk away.

Is the motor internal (built in) or external (hanging off the back of the machine and connected to the handwheel by a belt)? 
If it is built in, walk away.  If something is wrong with it, you are out of luck. Or if a motor for it can be found, you are out of a rather large quantity of money.  If you buy one with an external motor and the motor is bad, you can buy a brand new motor for around $50.  Or you could buy another vintage machine and swipe the motor off of that one---they are pretty much interchangeable.  And then the insidious disease of vintage sewing machine collecting and repair will get its grips on you.

By the way, you can replace the drive belt very cheaply, so don't let a bad or missing one scare you away.

The Hoard:  A White
When you turn the handwheel (on the right) does the needle go up and down?
If it doesn't, walk away.  

If you hear yourself thinking "It probably just needs a little sewing machine oil" then succumb to your fate and face the fact that sooner or later you, too, will be collecting and working on vintage sewing machines.  Cleaning and oiling solve 90% of the problems with a good all-metal machine.

P.S.:  Most of the handwheels will turn towards you (as you face the machine).  Whites turn away from you.


Is the wiring taped together?  Is the insulation falling off of it?
And if it does not look fine, you know what to do.  All together now: WALK AWAY.  Or you could take the motor off, throw it away, and put a hand crank on it.  but that's a story for another day.

Miles of electrical tape do not make this wiring safe!

Time to test stitch 
 If it passes all the tests above, do some test stitching.  This means that you should have in your purse a bit of fabric, a spool of thread, and a loaded class 15 bobbin (for the bobbins that are inserted into a holder and then put in the machine) and a class 66 bobbin (for the bobbins that drop into the top of the machine). 

How does the stitch look?  A tiny bit of a slant to the stitches is a normal result of the way the stitch is formed.  How's the tension?  Does turning the tension dial change the tension?  Move the zig-zag lever through a range of widths.  Is it working?  How's the motor controller (foot pedal or knee lever)?  Does it start right up and change speeds smoothly?  Or do you have to give it a boost?  Or is there a jackrabbit start?  How does the motor sound, look, smell?  Screeching, sparking and smoking are obviously not good signs.

The most important question is:  does it make a stitch?  Almost all of these vintage machines desperately need to be cleaned and oiled, and they will perform much better once this has been done.  By the way, all of the problems described above are fixable, so it if is making a satisfactory stitch, it is a good candidate for you to:
BUY IT.  If you love it.  
If you don't love it, trust your instincts and keep looking.  Unless it is super cheap and you need a machine RIGHT NOW.  Then buy it and keep looking for one to love.  

Who is going to clean and oil and adjust it?
You can do it yourself.  You really, really can.  But I promised that this post was for the person who just doesn't want to for whatever reason.  

So now you need to find someone to work on it.  
Here's what's not to do, and what will happen if you ignore this advice.

What not to do:
Look in the yellow pages, or whatever digital version you use, for a sewing machine repair shop for your brand.  Walk in and tell them that you want it cleaned, oiled, and lubed, the motor and all wiring checked, and any necessary adjustments made.

Here's what may happen :
When you return to pick it up they may tell you one or all of the following:
 (all plucked from stories on the boards, and in each case turned out to be not true)
  • your machine is obsolete
  • it needs parts that are not available
  • no repair manual is available for it
  • it is so old and worn out that adjustments are no longer possible
Then, guess what?  They will kindly offer to sell you a brand new whiz bang plastic computerized wonder.  Engineered to last for YEARS (not decades or centuries).  Costing many hundreds (for a really cheap one) to many thousands of dollars.  Any wonder why they don't want to fix your vintage machine?

What you need is an OSMG
Old Sewing Machine Guy.  Old enough to have been trained back in the day when sewing machines (and all other mechanical devices) were meant to be repaired.   This means that the OSMGs are all over age 75 by now.  Nowadays "repair" people just yank components out, throw them away and replace them, not the same thing as real repair at all.  Word of mouth is the only way to find an OSMG.  Or I suppose you could just start calling up shops and asking how old their repair guy is (and they were all guys back in the day). 

And now you understand why so many of us repair our own machines.  I'm sure there are good repair people out there everywhere and in several age cohorts younger than 75-80, and word of mouth is really the best way to find one.  If you join a bulletin board you can even ask if there is anyone in your area who can recommend one.

By the way, my local shop requires that you pay to have the machine cleaned before they will even look at it to see what repairs are needed.  Cleaning is $75.  
That would buy me three lovely vintage cast iron machines.   

Good luck in your hunt for that one perfect machine.  And don't blame me if you contract a serious, incurable case of VSMAD:  Vintage Sewing Machine Acquisition Disorder.

Sewing machine collectors and vintage fix-it folks:  Please leave your own advice for the person who wants to buy a vintage machine, but who does not want to become a geek like us and spend hours researching machines and days and weeks cleaning and repairing them.  I may incorporate your advice into the post above, and will give you credit if I do.  TIA!

This post is really, really long.   I thought about breaking it into parts (part 1, what kind of machine, part 2, where to look and what to look for).  My conclusion was that it would be more useful all in one.  Any opinions to guide me in the future? 

I don't know Ed Lamoureux, but I like his blog.  He has also written about finding and buying an old sewing machine.