My new sewing machine from 1953

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I occasionally troll Kijiji for... stuff. Sometimes it's for things that are actually useful (like the sweet patio set we just picked up), and sometimes I just like to know what sorts of things are out there. Other times, you run across someone selling a beautiful old sewing machine with a cabinet and you drive across the city and arrive 20 minutes early and walk around their neighbourhood in an attempt to hide your eagerness.

Based on this aptly-named blog post on identifying old Singers from crappy Craigslist photos, I was pretty confident that the machine of interest was a 201, by all accounts a solid, fast, and quiet domestic machine that has a really nice straight stitch and decent piercing power. It turns out that I actually have a Singer 201K (where K means it was made in the Kilbowie factory in Clydebank, Scotland) based on this serial number lookup. I don't have any confirmation, but I think this may have been the last year they were made out of cast iron, as the aluminum model started in 1954. As a side note, the vintage Singer enthusiast community is apparently huge, so there's information available everywhere. It's great.

Now, my Pfaff Ambition Essential is great, and has integrated dual feed, a hundred fancy stitches, can zigzag, etc, but look how pretty the Singer is:
My Singer 201 in her final resting spot
Definitely worth the effort to get 50 pounds or so of table and machine down the stairs into the basement.

One thing that's really cool about vintage machines is that they're designed to be maintained and repaired, and have convenient access ports to give you access to the gears for oiling. I opened up a couple and was pleasantly surprised how clean everything looked:
Gear box up by the motor, not sure what this is called
There was a bit of fluffy crud above the needle, but that's to be expected. At least it's easy to access and brush away!
The needle mechanism
Although Calgary's climate kept this 63 year old machine free from rust, the dry air was not kind to the electrical cables. There was more electrical tape than original insulation:
If it looks like this, don't plug it in.
Fortunately, I live with an expert, who recommended buying a cheap extension cord and cutting it apart to replace the cords. It turns out this is less expensive and more convenient than buying a plug and wire by the metre.
Re-wiring the motor and foot control
While Ryan was busy fiddling with all the little connectors and getting the electrical system working, I turned my attention to the mechanical. My first testing looked okay on the front, but the back was a mess:
Business in front
Party in the back
As a general rule, if you've got crazy birdsnests on the back of your work, you've probably got issues with the top threading. I turned my attention to the previously-untouched tension assembly. It felt weirdly loose and lopsided, but because I didn't have any experience with this type of machine, it took me a while to figure out the problem. Can you spot the difference?
Wrong
Right
After seating the tension knob bracket thingy, it was still quite loose. The internet (particularly this blog post) tells me that the scale on this knob is entirely arbitrary: to adjust the range of tensions you unscrew the thumb nut, turn the number dial to 1, then push it in and hold it in place while you screw it back together. Then you kind of wiggle everything until the little blip on the thumb nut seats in one of the holes on the number dial. There, you've just defined your 0 to 9 scale in a very precise manner.
These numbers are meaningless
I tweaked my tension assembly for a while until a setting in the middle seemed pretty reasonable. However, now my thread was breaking after two stitches or so, and still creating birds nests. Despite my rule of thumb, I concluded that something wasn't right down below. This took an embarrasingly long time to figure out, and ultimately was my own fault, as I took the bobbin case out for cleaning and didn't put it back in correctly. Spot the difference again!
Wrong
Right
This turned out to be the magic ingredient. I'm stitching! It even works in reverse!
My first sloppy stitches
At this point, things were working more or less, but I was having to jump start the motor by turning the hand wheel. The motor was also very loud and rattly - not what I was expecting when people talk about how quiet the 201 is. Again, this turned out to be my fault. When Ryan re-wired the motor, I insisted on taking it apart and inspecting it. When I did so, this little shim dropped out:
How much difference can a little shim make?
(By the way, magnetic pin cushions are kind of great for disassembly projects too). I again enlisted the help of the expert, who determined that this shim was indeed very important for keeping the magnet in place. Once it was inserted, all the wobbliness and rattling stopped, and the machine purred along nicely. It really is quite quiet - most of the sound comes from the external motor, with the rest of the overbuilt gearing humming away silently. One day I'll do a video comparison with my modern machine. For now, however, let's look at the stitching!

I sewed two rows of stitches on both the Pfaff and the Singer to see if there was a noticeable difference. I'm using more or less the same thread (both Gutermann polyester, but different colours), and I tried to make the stitch length the same. I'm also using the single hole needle plate on the Pfaff, so this is really the best straight stitch I can get out of it. To my eyes the result looks comparable - the Singer might have slightly straighter stitches, but the Pfaff holds up admirably.

Finally, I tried out the performance on a quilt sandwich. My Pfaff free motion/darning foot turned out to be compatible with the Singer, so I gave that a whirl. I look forward to FMQing a real quilt on this baby - the large throat space and cabinet mounting are really nice to work with. I'll probably buy a new darning foot to remove the spring though - the Singer is so quiet under normal operation that the noise of the hopping foot is really distracting.

I also folded up my quilt sandwich to test out the performance on thicker fabric. Here I've got 3 layers of batting and 6 layers of quilting cotton. I had to help it out with the hand wheel to get it going in the beginning, but after that it cheerfully pierced through all those layers and sewed up nicely.

I expect that my Pfaff will remain my primary machine, but I'm looking forward to getting to know my new Singer a little better.

A quick bit of quilting

Thursday, April 21, 2016

I keep getting distracted from my rather monstrous couture dress project, but it was a pleasure to work with well-behaved cottons again after wrangling silk for weeks.

My quilt guild has a "block lotto" from time to time, where everyone makes the same quilt block and brings them to the meeting. Each block earns you a raffle ticket, and whoever wins the draw gets to take home all the blocks to make in to a complete quilt. This month's block is a tulip block for spring (which we seem to have skipped - it's full on summer right now).

I didn't take any pictures mid-construction, but here's my completed tulip block. I only made one - I imagine many of the more seasoned guild members will be bringing in half a dozen or more! I used some springy pastels from a fat quarter mystery box that I bought a while ago.

My block lotto tulip
After finishing this block, I had a bunch of scraps left over, so I decided to make myself a little mug rug for work. I made a scrappy log cabin block around 4" square and quilted it with pebbles. I've never done FMQ pebbles before, and they were super fun and turned out much better than I expected! I used some leftover half-inch bias tape to bind the block, but I kept missing the edge on the back so ended up with three rather wobbly lines of stitching. Oh well, it's going to get coffee stained anyhow.

My scrappy little mug rug

Back side of pebbling

Mug rug in action

Grainlines and other important lessons

Friday, April 15, 2016

My progress on my couture dress came to a bit of a demoralizing halt the other day. I spent so much time carefully fitting the bodice, but I think I rushed the skirt. In The Couture Dress class, Susan Khalje emphasizes the importance of perfect grain alignment many times, so I can't blame her when I got it wrong. The upshot is that the skirt portion of my dress has a tendency to twist around. It's kind of hard to photograph, but you can kind of see in this photo that the seam on the right is on the outside of my knee, while the seam on the left is more or less centred.

My grain-misaligned skirt
The best and most obvious solution is to scrap what I have so far and redo the entire skirt. I really don't want to do that though (after all, this is isn't my wedding dress!), so I instead chose to redo the worse panel. The Centre front was okay, but the irregular slubs of the Shantung allowed me to see that the front side left was kind of terribly aligned. See how the horizontal striations angle upwards from left to right?
Centre Front
Front Side Left
I haven't been trying to match this irregular grid pattern, and I think the fact that it's kind of almost aligned between the two panels just makes mistakes like this less obvious. However, if you follow your eye along a row of diamonds, you can sort of tell that the panel is off.

Because I have such giant seam allowances, I decided to try realigning the fabric without recutting the panel. Yes, I'm cheap and lazy. I also decided to try (gasp) glue-basting the organza with Elmer's washable glue instead of spending the time to hand baste. This worked out quite well and feels like it might actually be more precise than hand-basting, so I'm going to try using it more often in the future.

My new realigned and glue-basted skirt panel
One of the big advantages I see to glue basting is not needing to pick out all the hand basting after sewing by machine. The glue washes out really easily, and if you do it right you're sewing right on top of the hand basting. It took me forever to pick this out:

Fun times unbasting
Because my silk is fraying like crazy I decided to pink the seams before folding them open and catch stitching. This probably isn't a couture technique either, but I've clearly abandoned doing everything the "right" way.


Catch stitching is pretty much the most ridiculous kind of sewing I can think of. The whole point of it is to keep the seam allowances laying flat and pretty on the inside of the dress, and it has to be done by hand because you only want to sew to the organza and not have any stitches poke through to the outside. What this means is that I've spent several evenings painstakingly hand-sewing a part of the dress that not only won't be visible on the outside, but will be covered by the lining. However, it really does work, and since I'm planning on hand-washing instead of drycleaning this thing, it's probably pretty important that my seam allowances be secured.

Catch stitching with giant stitches
For this hand sewing I took the advice to use wax to keep the thread from twisting and knotting. I dug up an old beeswax candle from my basement and pulled my cotton thread past the surface, and it works really well. Even when I used enough thread to do the entire length of the skirt in one go, I didn't get any snarls.

Although I am itching to get started on my actual wedding dress, I am happy that I decided to work my way through this course on a less important project first. The biggest lessons I have learned so far are:
  • Grainlines are as important as everyone says they are. Do not be lazy with grain alignment!
  • Interlining is amazing for all sorts of reasons: changing the way the fabric behaves, giving you a surface to mark up, and providing a layer to sew on without having to go through to the outside.
  • Beeswax is awesome for hand sewing.
  • Anything on a curve should be pressed on a curve. I don't know why I never thought of this before, but it makes perfect sense. I bought a tailor's ham for this project and I'm going to use it a lot in the future.
So, did I solve my grain alignment issue? I'll tell you next post.