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The charm of old sewing machines
and why I like to sew with them.

I love to work with OLD sewing machines.
Whenever I make a shirt, of which I've made 5 this year, I always turn to an old Singer in a cabinet. The machine only does a straight stitch, but WHAT a straight stitch.  Also, the machine is so smooth and quiet and being set into a cabinet, there is support for my project all around the machine.  The only time I move away from the Singer is when I go to the serger or make the  buttonholes at the end.


You can see one of the shirts I made on an old Singer in my shop at the bottom of this article.  The fabric is a silk/linen, Ikat (pronounced ee’ kaht).  I matched the pattern down the front and around the pocket, too.  But, you can see how nice and even the stitching is on the pocket picture to the right.

Close up shot of Presser Foot and Throat Plate on Singer in my Shop, not the one I’m selling, but similar.
What I like about straight stitch machines, they have a narrow presser foot.  It gives maneuverability that I liken to the difference between roller skates and roller blades.  With roller skates, you have 4 wheels and you have to lift your foot to turn.  With a roller blade, you have all the wheels in a line, and all you do is lean to turn.  You can see in the picture to the right, how narrow the presser foot is.  Also, the hole in the throat plate, or where the needle enters the machine is very small, a circle rather than an oblong.


When you have a fine fabric, the small hole supports the fabric and keeps the needle from pushing it into the machine.  This can happen with the larger hole on zigzag machines or more modern machines.


So, the machine pictured at the top, is an old Singer Treadle machine.  It has a rare decal pattern called Lotus, or Egyptian /green.  I got this machine awhile back.  The cabinet it came in was a wreck.  It was so back that I threw it away.  I've been searching Craigslist, on and off, for several years, looking for a beautiful cabinet to place it in.  Recently, I came across a listing and acquired this beautiful cabinet, with carvings on the drawers and the side panels.  All I've got left to do is install the belt, and I can treadle to my hearts content.  It’s footprint when it is closed is quite small, yet, when you open it up, there is a nice support leaf to the left.  On the front, there is a shallow storage area that flips down and open, kind of like a glove box in a car.  It has storage storage there for bobbins and presser feet.  


If you do want a machine like this, but miss out, many people are selling these machines on Craigslist, not knowing their true value.  Grandma died and left a machine in the house.  Mom downsized and doesn’t sew anymore.  Yard sales and second hand stores are also a source for some old beauties.  I got a lovely portable machine over 10 years ago at an antiques coop.  It was sitting on the floor, being unobtrusive.  I paid $60 for it and it was in pristine condition.  Because it had a knee control for the power, I had my daughter use it as her first electric machine.  She was 4 or 5 years old then.  I still have that machine.  It only goes forward, no backstitch.



Silk Linen Men's Shirt Pocket detail

Common Troubles with Sewing Machines!

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010
Sue Hausmann & America Sews

The Hausmann's
This past Saturday, November 20, 2010, Nashua Sew & Vac hosted a day with Sue Hausmann.  She has a show on PBS, called America Sews.  She was in town to share much of her expertise and inspire us in our creative endeavors.  It was a little heavy on machine embroidery hints, but there were a few gems she gave us, that I must pass on to you!  And, I couldn’t help but elaborate on related troubles and their solutions.

Bobbins, how to wind them without damaging them.
plastic bobbins
First, Jan Bickford, our serger/sewing teacher, has been educating us to wind plastic bobbins at a medium, rather than fast speed.  The friction on the thread, as it goes from spool, through the tension discs, to the bobbin, causes the thread to heat up.  Sue elaborated on this info by showing us that the heat can be high enough to actually warp and distort the bobbin!!!  She showed us one that was damaged in that manner.  I have wondered why some bobbins are like this when I go to wind them, and now I know!  Warping will cause the bobbin to feed thread unevenly and therefore your stitches will not be consistent.  (This doesn’t apply to metal bobbins.)  Another thing to be careful of, whether using metal or plastic bobbins, is that high speed winding can stretch the thread.  So, NO lead footing allowed!

Problems for which the Solutions involve the Take Up Lever

Many of you have had problems with your sewing machine, and whenever they happen, you’ll say, “What’s wrong with this @#%$&   thing!!!!  %#^@&$*%!”  Often, the machine gets shoved into the closet and collects dust.

Well, here are some hints for you.  First, whenever you wish to stop your line of stitching and pull the fabric away from the machine, you must put the Take Up Lever to its top position. (See the photo and drawing above.)   If your machine has a Needle Up/Down button, use that.  If it doesn’t , then turn the hand wheel, (on the right end of the machine,) top toward you, until the needle is at its highest position and just starting to move downward.  Or, until the Take Up Lever is at its highest point.  I say “top toward you” rather than clockwise or counter-clockwise, because if you are sitting to the right of the handwheel, it turns counterclockwise, and if you are seated to the left of the wheel, you would observe that direction as clockwise.  Since the machine is usually in front of you, I say “top toward you” to eliminate confusion.  Did that help?  Or, did I just muddle your thinking?

What having the Take Up Lever at the top will do for you, is eliminate 3-4 problems that commonly happen to beginners and even more seasoned sewists. (I have to tell you, that I don’t really like the term “sewist” but as I write “sewers” it looks more like “soo-ers” than “Soh-ers,” not an appealing thought!)

Please click on this link to the How Stuff Works website. It will take you to a page on how sewing machines form stitches.  There are 2 animated drawings showing first, how a chain stitch machine works, then, secondly, how our standard sewing machines work.  When you look at the second animation, note that the needle penetrates the fabric and a hook grabs the thread and brings it around the bobbin.  You can see that the needle exits the fabric before the needle thread completes its journey around the bobbin.  The needle thread is made long enough to wrap around the bobbin, by the Take Up Lever giving slack to the thread.  It “Takes Up” that slack, after the needle thread goes half way around the bobbin.  Most people look at the needle when they sew.  So, they think that as soon as the needle comes out of the fabric, that you can pull it away from the machine. Unfortunately, the stitch is not complete, until the Take Up lever does its job and returns to its highest position.

What are the problems that occur when you try to stop before the stitch is fully formed?

Problem 1 You cannot pull the fabric away from the machine
Why?  The hook holding the needle thread has not released it from its journey around the bobbin case.

Problem 2 When, with great effort, you do pull it away, you end up with 4 threads coming out rather than 2
Why?  Again with the needle thread being trapped below, you are pulling the bobbin thread, the needle thread and the 2 sides of the loop around the bobbin, up with your fabric.  You cut all 4 threads and then pull the end of one thread and it comes out of the machine’s throat plate (this is the metal plate that the needle passes through and where the feed dogs pop up.)

Problem 3 When you start sewing again, the thread comes out of the needle and you have to reinsert it into the eye of the needle!
Why?  You cut the thread and the Take Up Lever still has to travel up, before it goes down.  So, it pulls the needle thread out of the eye of the needle and you say, “$@%#^$%%!” and rethread it and continue.
Problem 4.  ALL of these problems can be eliminated, if you do one thing!!!!
When you stop sewing, make sure that the take up lever is in its highest position.  (Circled in red in the photo above, most will stick out of the machine at the top)  If it is not at the top, ALWAYS, turn the hand wheel on the machine, top toward you.  Now, this is counter-intuitive for us.  We bicycle, and walk and crank things in a “top away from you” motion.  But, the motor on your machine turns the handwheel, “top toward you.”  It you turn it the other way, you can jam the machine.

Problem 5 When you start sewing, the machine makes an AWFUL racket and makes a mess of thread underneath, and gets stuck in place.

A.  One of the most common reasons, is that you have forgotten to put down the presser foot.  When you lower the presser foot, you also engage the tension discs, which grab the thread and let it go in a well-timed rhythm.  If the presser foot is raised, the thread flows freely (it isn’t grabbed at all) and when the take up lever rises, it takes the thread from the spool (the path of least resistance) rather than from below the fabric.  Meaning, that the loop that is being wrapped around the bobbin, doesn’t get pulled back up through the fabric.  This will cause a pile up of thread loops underneath.  It’s a domino effect.  Like those classic comedy sketches where a line of people are moving forward, the first person stops and everyone bumps into the person in front of them.  If this does happen to you, don’t just put the presser foot down and try to continue sewing, you’ve made your mess and you have to clean it up before you can sew again. You’ve plugged the drain and it must be unclogged.

Mickey Hudson likes to call this mess “bobbin vomit!”  Sometimes, it seems the most appropriate term for such a mess.
P.S. Another reason, that I overlooked for thread jams, is that whenever you start sewing, you must have the needle penetrate fabric.  The fabric holds the thread so that the loop comes back up from under the fabric.  If you have the needle go down before the fabric, the loop gets stuck underneath and the same bobbin vomit forms.  Yuck!  I do have an industrial machine that always leaves a small knot on the underside of the fabric, unless I hold both thread tales to the back, while stitching the first 2-3 stitches in the fabric.  If you are concerned about sewing all the way to the edge of the fabric, then start with a1/4″ of fabric behind the needle, go forward one stitch to establish the thread in the material, then backstitch/backtack/or reverse stitch to the edge and then go forward.  This secures the thread tales and keeps you from having a knotty mess underneath.

B. Another time that this happens, is if you are trying to sew past a thick seam in the fabric.  If the presser foot gets tipped high in the front, it cannot move forward.  The pressure on the foot is in the back, if the fabric changes from thin to thick, the foot gets stuck in place.  The way around this is to make the foot level.  You need to shim the back of the foot to be even with the front.  If you do that, there is no problem getting past a thick area of fabric.  You can buy tools designed for this called, “Hump Jumpers” or Jean-a-ma-jigs.  I own these tools, but can never find them when I need them.  So, I improvise.  I find a business or index card, folded to the same thickness as the fabric, works really well.  (for those of you who are more adventurous or lazy, who like danger, use a sewing machine needle case, but wear your safety glasses)

Hump Jumper inserted behind needle to level foot over a thick seam.
Jean a ma jig, inserted before seam, to level foot.

How to level or shim the presser foot:  as the presser foot encounters the increased height of the seam, stop the machine, put the needle down and insert shim behind the needle.  Lower the presser foot, continue sewing across the seam.  It will pop out from under the foot when no longer needed.

Leveling Presser Foot, also does general sewing.

Some machines have a shimming mechanism built into the standard presser foot.  Do you have a presser foot that has a spring-loaded, black button on the side near the back, like the picture above?  Have you ever wondered what the heck that is for?  Well, when you sew and encounter a thicker area, let the foot start traveling over the seam, stop, put the needle into the fabric.  Level the foot and push the button in on the side so that it engages with an indentation in the back “ankle” area of the presser foot connection.  Hold the button in while you lower the presser foot onto the fabric.  Then, let the button go. It will stay pushed in.  The foot will remain level as you sew across your seam.  The button will pop out of place when you have passed the thick area.  It is quite amazing!

Now, for those of you, who have had a problem with the thread coming out of the Take Up Lever, this is for you!  I have been trying to figure this out for a long time.  I don’t have this happen to me, but it happens to a lot of my students when they use one of my sewing machines, in particular, the Kenmore model 16231.  Sue Hausmann talked to us about this and I was so happy to learn this, that it was worth attending the 6 hour seminar, if only for this explanation.

This usually happens for people who have a sewing machine which can stop the needle in either the UP or Down position automatically.  (Though, just today (11/23/10,) I had a student, whose machine doesn’t have this feature, have this problem, so all of you should read this!)

Many times, you may find that that AWFUL sound happens when you start sewing a seam.  When you stop, there are big loops of thread down below and you may or may not be able to pull the fabric away from the machine.  This is caused by using the handwheel, rather than the UP/DOWN button, to move the needle/takeup lever to their UP positions.  Sometimes, your machine’s UP position may vary a little bit from what you expect.  If you turn the wheel  by hand, you may not put it right where the machine would and it forms some slack in the thread, that allows it to come out of the take up lever.  Since I love the needle up down button (you can have it stop in the fabric whenever you take your foot off the pedal, so it acts like a third hand, holding your fabric in place on the machine while you adjust it to continue sewing.)  You can also have it stop in the UP position every time you stop.  If it is in the Down mode, make sure that at the end of stitching your seam, that you push the UP button rather than turning the hand wheel.  The designers of the machine want you to use the button rather than the wheel.

Another task that is effected by not using the UP/DOWN button, is threading the machine using the automatic needle threader. Most new sewing machines come with a needle threader.  How it works, is that you push a lever down, as it is depressed, it rotates forward and puts a teeny, tiny hook, through the back of the eye of the needle.  You draw the thread around a guide and then up the front of the needle until it encounters the underside of that teeny, tiny hook (like a minuscule crochet hook.)  You let the thread in your right hand go, at the same time as you release the lever on the left.  Spring loading allows the hook to draw a thread loop through the eye of the needle.  You then pull that loop all the way through to finish threading the machine.  Most needle threaders look like the one above.  None of them work right, unless the machine is IN the pre-programmed UP position.  If you are not sure if the machine is in the right place, hit the needle UP/DOWN button, until it is.  If you do not do this, it will bend the hook so that this will not work in the future.  Many people do not know this.  Remember………If all else fails, read the instruction manual.   Or, come to a class and we will show you what to do!

Sewing Machines, how they work

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Many of you find me online and are looking to learn how to sew or rediscover a lost skill. Now that is not true for everyone, since I do teach experience seamstresses, too. But, even if you have been sewing for a long time, you may not know how a machine works. We drive around town unaware of the mechanics of a car and we use computers while being technologically ignorant. And, that’s OK, because those machines are meant to be user friendly to those of us who don’t care to know how they work. As long as I can turn the key and go, I’m happy.

I do find that knowing how a machine works can be very helpful for understanding problems and overcoming them. Here is a website that you may find interesting for many items. This link will bring you to the sewing machine page. “How stuff works” is a great site for explaining and showing animated illustrations of how different mechanical items function. Make sure that you scroll down on this page so that you can see the animations.

When I sit down with a new student, whether they have experience or not, I try to show them how a sewing machine functions. And I explain how every standard household sewing machine is threaded in the same order. It may look different on different machines, but the function is the same. The first workable sewing machine was invented in the mid-1800′s. It is a fascinating history, for people like me who love to sew, and you can learn more by following this link to Another history of the sewing machine is written on the Singer website.

The household sewing machine we use today is called a lockstitch machine. It is the one that has a thread on the top and one down below called a bobbin, which looks like a mini spool of thread. Each machine has a bobbin winding mechanism on it so that you can wind your own bobbins from the spool of thread which will be feeding from the top of your machine.

In the How Stuff Works illustrations, the first one is for a looping stitch, or chain stitch. That is done with one thread fed from the top. Your home sewing machine doesn’t do this stitch. But, this kind of stitching is like a chain stitch in crochet. It is a loop pulled through a loop and if broken, can come undone easily. Have you ever bought a paper bag of potatoes? There is a line of stitching at the top. It you cut the right end, you can just pull and all of the chain comes out.

There are other machine, used with fabrics, that produce a chain stitch. A Serger has multiple cones of thread and all of the stitches formed are made by the threads looping around each other. If pulled just right, they can come off. Of course, most people who use sergers, know how to secure the threads at each end so that this is unlikely to happen. If you look inside your clothing, you will find that the seams are all covered with thread, this is made by a serger, or overlock machine. If you want to see what one looks like click here The image you see is the model of serger/coverstitch machine I own. I wasn’t sure which one to input and there are so many brands. Just because I bought this one, it isn’t the only one I would recommend. If you want to read about the functionality, read here.

There is a series of videos I came across in my web search. It has thorough instructions on its use and how to thread and run it. The website is called Expert Village. This link leads you to the first video in a series about the serger. So, if you have a serger and need some help, visit this site to see if the video explains what you need to know. If you do not have a serger, but are curious about it, you can glean something from this, too.

If you have taken your clothes to be hemmed at the cleaners, especially dress slacks, the stitching will not show on the outside. This is because the tailor is using a blindhem machine. Often done in invisible thread, you will be hard pressed to see any stitches on the outside of the garment. These machine may also be used with curtains and other items. You may also find that it you catch your heel on the thread inside the hem, one too many times, that once the thread breaks, all the stitching comes out. The blindhem machine uses a loop stitch, and once it is no longer secured, it unravels.

So, the home sewing machine, is a lockstitch machine. 2 threads, one on top, the other below, are intertwined so that they are locked together and will not give way like a chainstitch will. has a page of interesting sewing links. I will link it here so you can go exploring, too.

If you have an old Singer, you can find out when and where it was made, by visiting the Singer website. All you need is the serial number off of the machine. They even show you how to find it. So, if you want to know when Grandma’s machine was made, visit Singer here. Or, there is one link off the About page you can explore, which will tell you the history of the brand of machine you own, or for which you are interested. It is called the International Sewing Machine Collector’s Society I have this linked to the Singer information page on About/ISMCS, but the left hand column sports links for all the old brands of machines. Some of the companies are still in business. And, some you may never have heard of. And, some of the current brands are not listed. But, it can be fun to jump around to learn what you can.

I have many sewing machines. Some are very old. My grandmother left me her old treadle machine, but it is in Minnesota, so I am not sure when I will be able to retrieve it. I have some early, electric, portable machines; my first sewing machine from the 50′s, plus some from later than that to modern computerized machines. Also, I have some industrial machines for my accessories business.

The majority of your sewing is a simple straight stitch. All of my machines from before 1960, have only a straight stitch function. In fact, I started on a “New Home” that my mother used, and it did a zigzag. Then she bought me a Viking which only did a straight stitch. At first I was upset, because I was ready to make buttonholes on a shirt I was finishing, and this machine couldn’t do it. But, it came with a buttonhole machine which had cams of various sizes and shapes of buttonholes. It makes the nicest buttonhole you have ever seen. I used that machine for several decades for all of my clothing and quilting. It was only a few years ago that I started using a more modern machine for those projects. And, it was only because I was wanting to be able to blind hem or overcast without changing machines.

I plan to put up another post about what I like in sewing machines. What to watch out for and what features are really helpful to have. I will also talk about Sewing Machine Dealers vs. big chain stores vs. online purchasing, including auction sites. Also, I am looking into posting some video instructions for “How to thread your sewing machine;” “How to wind a bobbin;” and other helpful items. I hope to have you be able to visit my site and get answers to questions you can’t find elsewhere. Or in a format that makes it easily understandable for you.

So, keep in touch and check back with me. If all else, just come to class and have me show you what you want to learn.