Friday, January 18, 2008

another oldie but goody (part II)

A great old sewing machine is a mighty good thing. If I had to choose between a cheap new machine and a vintage machine that was a top model in its day, I'd choose the vintage machine. It's nice to simultaneously own an up-to-date machine with its computerized stitches and fancier doohickeys, but when the computer malfunctions and the buttonholer won't buttonhole, the feeddog won't feed, or the zigzag won't zig, it's invaluable to have a solid, mechanically sound machine as a backup.

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.
When I bought Rilla, Sally, her original owner, told me that the machine was purchased for her in 1960. She remembers the very day. She sewed her own clothes, then later clothes for her husband and children, on this trusty 404. Then, one day, about 15 years ago, she stopped. She sat Rilla in a closet somewhere and started painting and making jewelry and whatever else (y'all know how we crafty folks can be). That was the end of oil and cleaning for Rilla. When I brought the machine home, I knew I couldn't just sew on it -- lest I risk blowing the motor -- so I downloaded a manual:

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.
With Rosie, I learned a valuable lesson about machine self-service. The first thing I did when I got the machine was carry it into a repair shop, the same one that fixed my Brother when it went on the fritz. Supposedly, the repairman knew all about Featherweights and had just fixed one the week before. All I wanted was a cleaning, oiling, and to find out why the machine was a tad sluggish when starting to sew. I was charged nearly 200 dollars and told that the machine had fallen out of time. It got a nice cleaning and oiling, but it turned out timing wasn't an issue, and that had been the bulk of the repair cost. Timing is almost never an issue with Featherweights; it's often used to pad charges. I learned this from the OSMGs (Old Singer Machine Guys, or Old Sewing Machine Guys if you're not in the cool Singer click) on the Yahoo groups. Why spend time looking for vintage machine bargains only to pay a fortune in repair costs? Repair people are fond of pretending that old parts are so hard to come by, blah, blah, blah. Save money by learning where to get good replacement parts and how to fix your own machine.

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.


Ellen Bloom said...

Wow! Now I know what the subject of your first book should be, "Sewing Poetic" by Carla Seamstress!

Excellent description and "how-to" post, My Dear!

sappmama said...

LOL! My life has obviously been taken over by old machines!

Adrienne said...

Girl this is a great entry!!! You are making me want an old machine lol

Anonymous said...

Yeah Sappmama, what a wonderful post. For crying out loud, and those pictures!!! Tomorrow I'll read more closely and nitpick...LOL...
Just want to say though that you will learn, live and learn. That OSMG ripped you off, but never mind sometimes we have to pay 'learn money'. Soon you will be looking into the motors yourself and checking the brushes or changing them (they cost a few dollars, the most).
Maybe you could ask around, sometimes there are OSMGs who do their thing on the side and charge just a tenner or two for a checkup. I have one, he was a Pfaff Technician back in the days when Pfaff was building industrial machines. He travelled all over Europe for Pfaff maintaining and rebuilding the machines to suit the needs of the factories. He doesn't want me to tell him what is wrong with the machine, he just goes over them with a comb and have them running smooth as silk, for three tenners.
BTW, I am a Bernina girl who collects Elnas and Pfaffs on the side...Singer and Necchis for a quick fix.
Oh, I think I found my 401 electric...LOL..just have to strike a deal.
Walk good,

Nik said...

It was great to read this. And I especially loved the pics.

I downloaded info about the innards of my machine when I first got it. I was going to send it to a repairman for cleaning only because I thought that Snookums would freak out if I broke the machine. Since it's MINE now, I'm going to put my foot down and follow the diagrams, open that baby up, and clean it myself.

You're right about those yahoo groups. They gave me great info about the best thing to use to clean the gears/outside of the machine and told me that I really didn't need to send it to a shop...that they'd give me the information I needed. You've inspired me to work on this this weekend.

Robin said...

That baby looks just like the Singer my mom sewed most of my clothes on as I was growing up. My first machine as an adult was a 1971 Singer, as well. I like older machines, just as I prefer older cars (gas mileage notwithstanding).

normanack said...

Hurry up and write the next post -- this is fascinating!

Cennetta said...

Girl, this is a great story. I would love a older machine. They are built to last.

Dee said...

What a wonderful post. I have a (barely) vintage Japanese machine from the 60s and one of the first things I did when I bought it was google it. I found the manual on ebay and a yahoo group for owners of similar machines and learned *so* much there.

sappmama said...

Heather, thank you for all this great info. The sideline repair guy is an excellent suggestion. I've read a bit about changing motor brushes, and your words have inspired me not to be chicken about doing it when the time comes!

And, hmm, Berninas? Elnas? Pfaffs? Oh boy.

Thanks for commenting, friends. :)

Anonymous said...

You are most welcome sappmama. Just dropped by to say I made a deal with the seller and am now the owner of an electrical 401. It was on the 'bay for quite some time,went around at least twice, asking BIN price $94.00. I offered him $60 and he took it. It is fairly close to me so in that sense it was a good deal, no driving halfway across the country.....the only bummer is, I couldn't collect it today as he wasn't around. So next week. I hope it is a good buy.

Now, a parting word of warning, don't say I didn't warn you about the possibility of becoming addicted to this type of thing!

April said...

Exceptional post and photographs! Love everything you wrote - HEAR HEAR! ;) Your Stitchery (and Purling!) Friend, April

P.S. I about croaked when you said the guy charged your $200.00 for a 're-time'.

Anonymous said...

Oh man! I'm kinda of a gadgety kind of guy, so this whole "wanting an Oldie but Goodie" is really difficult to make sense of. But I want one!

sappmama said...

Heather! Congrats on the electrical 401. I like how you roll, lol. You have to let me know how she sews!

Hi, April. Thank you for commenting. :) I guess that repair guy realized there's one born every minute. Next time it won't be me, though!