Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Sewing Machine Reduction Plan

Three years ago I restored my husband's grandmother's Singer treadle and an obsession was born.

Lovely to look at, a pain in the neck to sew on.  If the handwheel slips backwards the tiniest bit, the thread breaks

Fortunately DD-A wanted it as an art object for her new house.  She did learn to use it, too.

I have followed the path trod by many others and gone through the same phases:  initial enthusiasm without the necessary knowledge or wisdom, resulting in the acquisition of some questionable machines among the jewels.  Later on, overestimation of my emerging skills, resulting in the unnecessary conversion of a couple of decent machines into parts machines (in other words, in fixing them I broke them).  Lately, facing the consequences of three years of buying sewing machines at thrift shops and from CraigsList: there were 21 sewing machines in my dining room over the holidays.  Fortunately the big dinner is at the MIL's, but really.  21 sewing machines.  And that's just the dining room.  Total head count for the entire house:  88.  It's time to turn the corner and start reducing the herd.

I had a plan, but it morphed along the way.  I was going to focus on getting the high-end Singers (401 and 500) fixed up and sell them on CraigsList.  I delved into half a dozen machines sequentially.

Singer 401s:  Enthusiasts claim that this is the best sewing machine Singer ever made

I even "repaired" one, by which I mean that I unscrewed and adjusted things and got them aligned properly.  Usually all I do is deep clean and oil them.  I always feel especially empowered and virtuous when I move beyond clean-and-oil.  I got to the point where one was clearly going to take up too much time, four each had one small thing that needed to be fixed or added, and the last one is a parts machine that could donate to some of the four.  None of those tiny repairs ever happened.  So I guess I have a plan for Christmas 2013.

In the meantime, the DH's home health nurse got interested in the sewing machines strewn around the house.  Everyone in her family, including her father, sews.  She wants to learn and asked about buying a machine from me.  We discussed it in snippets of time over several weeks.  She absolutely loved the Singer 66 brown Lotus.  Everyone in her family told her she needed a machine with at least reverse and a zig-zag and I explained why I agreed with them.  It took her a while to give up the dream of the Lotus, but in the end she choose a Singer 237 and we put it in a Singer 7-drawer treadle with the gingerbread trim on the sides.  Her family approves, which pleased and surprised me since none of them are treadling.

The Singer 237 is one of my all-time-favorite models.  Sturdy, reliable, simple and straightforward.  Can be treadled or handcranked too.
So I had five 237's sitting around (in the front hall under the entry table), a couple of them never touched, a couple with serious problems or missing parts.  I moved from the 401s and 500s to the 237s and got three into excellent shape, combined two into one good machine and a parts machine.  One went to the nurse (she does have a name but I have not yet asked her permission to mention her here).  Another one went to a nice couple--he made the call initially and said he wanted to buy his wife a sewing machine for Christmas.  Gotta love a guy like that.  One is reserved for studio use.  One needs a minor adjusment to the spring on the tensioner.  And today I bought another one at the thrift shop.  Two out, one in--that's not bad, right? 

A fellow guild member asked me to look at her family treadle.  It turned out to be a Singer 9W, identical to a Wheeler & Wilson D-9, but with a class 221 bobbin rather than the hard to find Wheeler & Wilson bagel bobbin.  The tensioner was badly rusted, so I convinced her to buy a W&W D-9 head from me as a parts machine.  I charged her the ENTIRE $5.00 that I had paid for it, too.  And before you tell me how much I will regret letting it go, let me mention that I have a W&W No.8 with a complete set of the glass presser feet, in its treadle.

Jo's Singer 9W.  It has a Wheeler & Wilson serial number.  We put a new belt on it and got it turning smoothly.

I sold a Singer 338 to a mother for her young daughter.  Grandma is teaching the little girl to sew.  It has problems and they returned it.  Fortunately I had another one to loan them while I try to fix it.  I'm the only person on my local CraigsList to offer a 30-day guarantee on vintage sewing machines.  And if I can't fix it I will either give the money back or they can keep the loaner.

I love Singer's flat cam machines, and these are the prettiest color!

I sold a lovely Riccar 108 Japanese zig-zagger to a woman who has become a student, so you may see her later on.

Everyone who has sewed on this machine loves it (all three of us!)
 And on Christmas Eve I sold a green Alden's zig-zagger to a woman with several daughters.

Never found a cam set to fit it, so it remains a zig-zag and straight stitch only machine.

And here's the best news of all:  THEY ALL TOOK A CABINET WITH THEM.   They took the well-used but sturdy vintage cabinets.  They took the funky not-yet-cleaned cabinet with the peeling veneer.  They even took the beautiful vintage Singer cabinet with the lovely coordinating chair, and they paid extra for that one (the rest were free).

A couple of machines were re-homed without any money changing hands.  The SIL wanted a zig-zagger and took a two-tone aqua Singer 347.  Merry Christmas, Mary!

Simple zig-zagger and very pretty.
And although I haven't delivered it yet, I am planning to give Don back the 15-clone that he gave me.  I had cleaned and oiled his lady's plastic Singer and when I took it back he confessed that he is the sewing person in the household.  His sewing needs are for tarps and canvas and boat cushions.  I told him that he had given me the machine that he really needed.

Post WWII Japanese copies of the Singer model 15 are known as 15 clones.
This was the worst-looking machine ever to come through my hands.  Three living spiders emerged during the cleaning process--three different species, too.  Paint was badly chipped.  Wiring was horrifying, but it turned out that only the light wire was bad, the motor wire was fine.  So I removed the light, cleaned and oiled it, touched up the paint, replaced the missing bobbin cover, put a size 18 needle in it and some heavy duty thread, and adjusted both thread and bobbin tensions for the heavy thread.  Presto-bingo, a boat cushion cover machine for Don's workshop.

After restoration:  Sews beautifully through eight layers of heavy canvas.  Maybe more.

The two other black 15-clones that I had fitted out with hand cranks did not sell.  Not only that, they did not even get a nibble (not a single phone call).  Next year I am going to put the motors back on, fit them up with size 18 needles and market them as workshop machines for guys.  I'll let you know how that goes.

The sales did not end at Christmas.  After Christmas I sold two Singer 301s.  One a lovely LBOW (light beige, oyster white) in a cabinet with the cradle that allows you to snap the machine in and out without unscrewing anything.  AND the matching stool with storage inside.  AND a 301 zig-zagger, buttonholer, and an assortment of slant shank presser feet.

And I sold the black longbed 301 shown in the last blog post.

The nurse came back for another machine, too, a gift for a crafty young relative.

Singer 128, La Vendedora decals.  It now has a new front slide plate and a hand crank.
Eleven machines gone.  So, it sounds like the machine reduction plan was a success, right?  Not so much.  During the same period of time three more machines showed up to join the herd.  Five if you include the month of October.   But those are a story for another day.

That's it for this year.  I sold everything I had fixed up and ready to go.  I did this last Christmas, and plan to do it next Christmas too, but not during the year. I may let a few go to friends or friends of friends, but I don't want to do CraigsList for more than one month a year.   And people enjoy spending money at Christmas when they are looking for gifts for themselves or others.

Are you wondering how many thousands of dollars I made selling these lovely vintage sewing machines?  Mwahahahahahahaha.  The best models sold for just over what a low end plastic wonder from Walmart costs.  I DID recover my own costs, which I carefully track, right down to my favorite double-ended lint brush and bottle of sewing machine oil with a brass telescoping spout.  I can't in all good conscience sell a sewing machine without these.  And here's the disclaimer about my financial relationship with Jenny at Sew-Classic:  I buy stuff from her.  That's it. 

I don't track the time spent on each machine, but I have a pretty good idea.  If you count ONLY the machines I actually sold, I made less than $3/hour.  If you include all the machines I worked on last year and did not sell, my hourly wage drops to well under $1/hour.  What I have NOT tracked is what I spent last year on tools and cleaning chemicals, paint, etc.  So I'm guessing that it is just about at the break even point.  A self-supporting hobby is not to be sneezed at.

And the money from Christmas 2012 went straight back into the hobby.  I bought some industrial-type steel shelves and rolling carts and converted an unused guest room into a sewing machine workshop.  I bought some tools.  I'll take my MIL out to lunch at Two For Tea, my favorite hyper-girly lunch place. And that will take care of it!

Which brings me to a final confession:  I am going to take some dead sewing machine carcasses to a scrap metal dealer to see what I can get.  A 127 with lots of rust, missing critical parts (and stripped of everything useful).  A completely rusted up 66.  And possibly a White missing some vital organs.  At least they will not be in the landfill.  If you are upset by the thought of them being melted down, well, I'm not.  It's a lovely image.  Think Gollum and Mount Doom. 


  1. At least they have been gone over with a fine tooth comb and not randomly scrapped by someone who knows less. Makes the remaining ones worth all that more, doesn't it?

  2. good for you. some machines are unsalvagable. I need a plan, i keep tripping over them....

  3. I am excited to find someone obsessed like me! Tell me about the paint you use for touch ups, I need some of that!

    1. I use a Sharpie paint marker for the black machines. Not a regular Sharpie. Have fun!


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