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.

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