Geared up…

Last June, I took a class on how to repair sewing machines. It was an interesting adventure that enlightened me. Until that point I was a die-hard plastic clamshell type of sewing machine owner. If it wasn’t white and plastic I didn’t want it. I did own my grandmother’s black Singer 15-91, but I never found it really convenient to use. During the repair class I realized the power of these classics. With all metal gears and simple mechanics, a 50 to 100 year old sewing machine can still be serviced and sew well. However, the same can’t be universally said for something 5 to 20 years old. The nylon gears in these newer machines disintegrate over time. And don’t forget the computerized machines with their quickly outdated software. Don’t get me wrong…my go to machine is a computerized machine with nylon gears. Its just that for some sewing projects the “new” machine gets a little persnickety.

This fall, in my excitement of learning more about sewing machines, I bought a hobby mechanic’s collection. What better way to learn about machines, than repair a bunch of them? This purchase was somewhat of an insane decision, but I knew my goal wasn’t just about buying old sewing machines. My goal was to “learn” about sewing machines.

Last night, I proved to myself that I made the correct decision in buying this collection. Instead of watching “stupid tv,” I spent the evening fiddling with the tension of my mother’s old Singer 66-16, the machine I learned to sew on.

Up until the last few months, I feared messing with the tension assembly of the top and bobbin threads. It was a fear ingrained by several sewing machine mechanics, all sniping at me to “Don’t Touch It!”  I remember my dad and I having a terrible time with a machine, possibly the very machine I worked on last night. I remember the thread nests on the inside of his  pant legs where he tried to hem them. The mechanic blamed us for fiddling with things. It was frustrating. Then a few years later, I had yet another encounter with a stern mechanic, blaming me for my stitched woes. I gave in, put my hands up, and just accepted their mantra.

Then I started quilting and realized that tension was an important thing to adjust. Each fabric and batting selection will give you a different lock of the stitch. So I apprehensively started turning the tension dial on the top thread, but the hands continued to go up for bobbin thread tension. I would not touch it…

Well, until now! I’ve worked with enough of them now and I understand how a stitch is formed. It is a relatively ingenious process, given that even the new machines use the mechanisms that they did back in the early 1900s. Understanding how the stitch forms, is an enlightening fact for understanding thread tension issues when sewing. I get it.

I used the original manual to guide me in disassembling the top tension dial and the bobbin case.  Step by step, I took things apart and made adjustments. Then I tested the stitching and took everything apart again. After 2 hours of fiddling, this 60+ year old black beauty is sewing like a charm. I wonder if the mechanic that sniped at me had given up tweaking it, and that’s why he said don’t touch it. All I truly know is I now have a great bit more confidence and some pretty stitches.

Some may ask why are you doing this? Don’t you have enough on your plate? Well, one of my goals in life is to teach. By fixing up problem machines, I am becoming a better teacher. I understand what’s going on and I can processes through the machine issues much better. You have no idea how often a machine acts up in class. Knowing what is going on helps me to fix the problem and instill confidence in my student, because they know what’s going on. Sometimes it’s the little things that gear me up.


  1. Gail says:

    I can’t get over those shelves full of machines! I so thankful that you fixed mine and I’m back (somewhat) in the world of sewing!THANK YOU!!

  2. I love this post! You are inspiring! I have 3 antique Singers- a 301, an aqua early zig-zag made in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960’s, and an real Featherweight. Love them all!

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