I love an old sewing machine. Duh, right?
With that fact once and for all established (probably I'll get busted saying it again), let me address some of the issues I've encountered or observed surrounding procuring and owning a vintage machine.
A sort of aside here. I think the word vintage is more abused than a three-dollar whore in a Black Friday sale. Everything more than a few days old seems to be vintage now. Anytime anyone wants to sell something made at an earlier date, it's not old, it's vintage. It's a word that used to apply solely to wine, ie, This Cabernet La La La is vintage 1932, but it's now used in any number of ways. Some people agree that vintage is anything that's old enough to come back into style. I like the definition that antique dealers use -- vintage is anything 50+ years old. Antique is anything 100+ years old.
That said, I use vintage just as liberally as everybody else (how to avoid it?), and when I refer to Rilla, I'm talking about a machine that was first purchased in 1960 and likely manufactured a year or so before and may just be coming into the above definition of vintage. Still, it's an important distinction, because I'm not talking about "vintage" machines from 1982. I'm talking mid-60's (stretching a little here) and older, but not so old as to be antique. Rilla was purchased in 1960, Rosie was manufactured in 1959. All this means I don't know jack about the early computerized models made in the '70s.
So -- vintage machines. If you, like me, should find yourself bitten by the collecting bug, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be flexible. People are loyal to particular brands. If you check out the comments from part I of this post, you'll see that Ellen's is "a Sears family," preferring the Kenmore brand above others. Nik mentioned that she received a vintage Necchi, and found that there are people who won't sew on anything else. It's old Singers that float my boat (so far). I say keep your brand loyalty, especially if you've built familiarity, but stay open to models other than a model you may be looking for. I want a 401, but a 404 is what I came across on the cheap, so a 404 is what I own. One day I might be looking for a 301 and bam, there might sit my 401. You never know.
- Maintenance is your new best friend. You're not going to be a prima donna about this, remember? You're going to get out there and get your hands dirty searching dusty shelves at St. Vincent de Paul and rooting through people's yesteryear treasures (junk) at garage sales. The goal is to avoid the high costs for vintage machines typically found on eBay. Bargains. That's what we want. The downfall, or adventure, as I like to think of it, is that with bargain machines comes god knows what kinds of issues resulting from lack of use, poor storage, etc. (*I wouldn't buy a machine that doesn't run at all, because I don't know enough about fixing machines, but plenty of people do, and they figure things out along the way.*) This means you are going to have to learn to clean, oil, and perform basic maintenance on a machine. This is coming from a person who can hardly be bothered to plug in her cell phone when the battery is running low. But with love comes responsibility.
Old machine manuals are widely available on eBay, but they're available almost as often via free download from some kind soul. Why pay 15 bucks when you can get one for free? I even dressed mine up in a nifty ("vintage" ha ha) folder that I stole from, er, found at work. This manual told me what I needed to know about the likes of all this:
(Okay, now I'm just trying to show out.)
Like old machines, the manuals are old, too, and they don't speak to us in the language of today. They contain points that require clarification, and sometimes more info than what they offer is needed, which brings me to my next point.
- Be a joiner. Become a member of Yahoo groups, forums, mailing lists, whatever. The information flying around such groups is priceless. You can learn tips and tricks for using and servicing your machine, about attachments you never knew existed, dates and histories of machines, on and on. Also, and very important, you can learn about reputable parts dealers and repair people. The objective is to do as much of your own maintenance on your machine as you can. With the all-metal gears and easily accessed parts of old machines, this is entirely possible. You need a good repair kit -- oil, lube, screwdriver, lint brush, and a can-do attitude. Anything you don't know, people in these groups will be happy to tell you.
It isn't likely that you'll have much fixing to do on a solid brand/model anyway. I could have cleaned and oiled the Featherweight myself, for next to nothing. (The machine's hesitation is something I have to live with, Rosie requires a gentler touch.) By the time I got Rilla, I was resolute. When you tote home an old machine that hasn't been serviced in gawd knows when, cleaning and oiling is something you're going to have to suck up (and it's worth it, because it familiarizes you with your machine). Rilla was covered in a thin patina of greasy yellowish grime. I believe this was partly because Sally is a smoker. If I hadn't seen the ashtray spilling with cigarette butts when I picked up the machine, I would have known it by all the matchsticks that fell out of it when I opened it to clean it. I also learned that Sally is a big fan of those red dyed pistachios, because a fair number of shells fell out, too. In addition, the gears and rods, and all the innards, were caked with dust balls, fiber leavings, thread. I didn't know what to use to get all this stuff out, so I went on Yahoo and asked (a mixture of alcohol and water. For the outside, I used water and a few drops of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap, then rubbed it with sewing machine oil).
After cleaning, I gave the machine a good looking over and saw that a few things were missing. I'd run the machine at Sally's, so I knew it would start up and that the needle would move like it was supposed to, but for 45 dollars I wasn't going to test sew a blouse. In the intervening years, Sally had forgotten how to turn on the machine (I pointed out that, once plugged in, she could just press the foot pedal), and since she couldn't find the manual, there wasn't abundant opportunity for a lesson on the finer points of the machine anyway. When I examined it, I saw that I'd need to replace the bobbin winder tire, which was bloated, cracked, and hardened. The original was the same taupe-y color as the machine. (Excuse me if this color isn't taupe. I always use taupe to describe beige-y colors that aren't quite beige. I also use puce to describe any yucky color I don't like, but that's another thing.)
I'd also noticed, at Sally's, that there wasn't a spool pin.
So I ordered a pack from eBay. By the way, the plastic ones are the only pins that are available for the 404s. There weren't any metal ones made for them. I know because I asked an OSMG, the OSMG from whom I bought the felt spool pads (he had them in black, and the original brown, yah).
Sally had no idea what had become of the drip pan, so I consulted my OSMG (by now we are great friends) and he sent me one of those, for a very reasonable price, too.
All told, in addition to the 45 dollars to buy the machine, it's cost me less than 30 dollars to get it in tip-top shape.
Now we're up to the last part of this undoubtedly illuminating series (ahem). How does a vintage machine sew? What's so hot about them? Any machine can make a stitch. That's what they do. So how come people are always waxing poetic and saying things like "This baby, she sews a mean stitch!" about these old machines? And, for the love of all that's holy, what is it that makes it so hard for people to stop at one vintage machine? Why does my wife/mother/sister/brother/grandmother have twelve of them when s/he's only got two hands to sew?
I'll attempt to answer these questions a few days from now, in part III.