In Sewing on
May 30, 2015

The lure of antique sewing machines, part 1

I have a weakness for old sewing machines, in particular Singers, because they are incredibly well made and there’s a lot of historical information available about them.

It’s amazing how many of them are floating around at antique markets, thrift stores, town dumps, and in people’s attics. Some of them are in practically mint condition and just need a little cleaning and oiling, but others are pretty worn or broken. Each one of them is part of a history lesson that touches on industrial manufacturing, mass marketing, and gender roles in such an interesting way.

And this history is surprisingly accessible; with the exception of my 1945 Featherweight, I’ve acquired each of my machines for less than $40.

With the weather warming up, I’ve been seeing more of these antique Singers and have had a great time visiting with them and learning more about them.

Not surprisingly, I’ve brought a lot of these beauties home with me. Though I’ve not brought home even more. I’m going to profile my machines over a few blog posts – I hope you enjoy!

Singer treadle model 28 with original cabinet, c. 1904

SingerTreadle

This beautiful machine was owned by a colleague of my husband’s who had bought it at the Brimfield Antique Show years ago, and was resting unused in her basement. It cleaned up really nicely, and just needed a new belt and some oil and now it absolutely sings. Without an electric motor, this machine makes the most lovely soft clacky-clack sound when you’re sewing, and the bobbin mechanism is a dramatic vibrating shuttle with a long bobbin; watching a bobbin wind is like watching a tiny factory in full swing.

This machine was built as a home model, but has similarities to the industrial models that were used in the garment industry in New York in the early 20th century. A friend of mine told me about her older relatives who had worked there, and they would bring their own “head” (what we think of as the sewing machine itself), drop it into a table in the work room, pop the drive band around the hand wheel of their head, and get to work.

There’s a bit of a learning curve to using this type of machine (see Treadle On for some guidance), but once you get the hang of it, it’s actually great to get your blood pumping. If the machine (and treadle) are properly oiled, it shouldn’t be hard work, but you’re definitely moving!

Like most of my antique machines, this one only sews straight stitches (and this one doesn’t go in reverse), but it came with a ton of great attachments for hems, ruffling, etc. I have this one set up in my office/studio right now and it’s often the first machine I go to.

Over the next few posts, I’ll write about my other antique Singer sewing machines, dating from 1890 to 1964.

Resources

There are several people who have done wonderful work putting together the history of the Singer company and the machines they manufactured, and compiling detailed records of the company’s logs and serial numbers.

Once you know your model number, you can find the manual:

Because of the brilliant efficiency of the design of Singer machines, where many of the same parts were used on multiple models of machines over the years, you can also get just about any part you need for these older machines at very reasonable cost. Here are a few of my favorite sources:

 

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