Hard Won

December 6, 2011

These are my sewing machines.

Singer 15-88 Treadle

Singer 15-90 (with aftermarket hand crank)

I have a thing for old objects that are still useful. These particular machines were manufactured in the 50’s, using oscillating-shuttle technology that was introduced in the late 19th century. The oscillating shuttle was the last big breakthrough before the introduction of 1) fancy stitches 2) plastic gears and 3) computers, in that order. It’s  just that good: if you need a  simple, sturdy sewing machine that can be maintained at home, a class-15 is your man. In fact, clones of these machines are still manufactured in China for people in rural communities. (I once saw a documentary about Buddhist nuns in rural Tibet that featured just such a machine).

Plus, these guys are, as we say in the old-sewing-machine-interested community, people-powered. How satisfying is that?

The learning curve is steep, though. And I’ve never thought of myself as mechanically inclined. So I felt like a superhero when I used online instructions to disassemble, clean, grease, and reassemble the 15-88’s treadle mechanism. It took a few sessions with the tools and the synthetic grease, but by the end I had the foot pedal flying. (My cat thought this was *very* interesting).

My plan was to sew a couple of simple bags from this book, to get the hang of sewing with the treadle machine before tackling anything more complicated. (Everyone can use a cloth bag, right)?

I had some old upholstery-weight fabric, and I cut up some of my husband’s old khakis for the bottom of the bag. I resigned myself to spending time testing the stitches on sample fabric and getting the tension right. (No computer, remember)? I used the treadle mechanism to fill the bobbin. (OMG, so much faster than hand-cranking a bobbin). I inserted the bobbin and threaded the machine. I got a coupla scraps for testing, positioned, them, turned the wheel by hand to get it started and….

The damn thing got stuck.

Here’s what I did:

1) Fiddled with the needle tension.

2) Tried sewing again.

3) Fiddled with the bobbin tension until I got the bobbin tension screw completely unscrewed.

4) Dropped screw on floor.

5) Spent time searching for tiny screw.

6) Re-assembled the bobbin.

7) Tried sewing again.

8) Changed the needle.

9) Checked the upper and bobbin threading.

1,000,000) Took out the bobbin and watched the threaded needle travel down into the shuttle. Couldn’t help noticing the thread was catching on the shuttle instead of being released to form a stitch.

1,000,001) Downloaded the adjuster’s manual for this machine. Checked the needle timing. Learned the shuttle timing is a @%&!* to adjust.


This weekend I finally gave up and threaded the old trusty hand crank, only to find the stitches forming loose loops on the bottom of the fabric, despite the top tension being so tight as to make the machine difficult to start.

After an hour of fiddling, I finally remembered something that the old-sewing-machine-interested community recommends as a matter of course: hold on to your loose threads when you start sewing. It occurred to me that if I did this, I could tighten the needle tension at will and just use the hand wheel to push through the first stitch or two. It. Totally. Worked.

So, in a week of occasional hours spent with two different sewing machines, this is what I accomplished.

So there.


3 Responses to “Hard Won”

  1. Lynn said

    Yeah, that totally reminds me why I’ve neglected my sewing machine for months on end now. My machine even has a computer and I still what to throw it against the wall sometimes. I am such an impatient sewer though. Good for you for toughing it out. You are inspiring me to cut some patterns and go to town!

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