I have been sewing on old Singers for a while now. I bought a modern entry level Janome machine when I was first married and tried sporadically to become a seamstress, usually (always) with disappointing results. I finally started to get proficient at sewing about 8 years ago when I began selling cloth menstrual pads (you heard me right) and was suddenly putting hundreds of hours on my Janome machine. Then I started to really get nerdy about sewing – pouring through new, then progressively older sewing books. If you really want to learn to be a seamstress, read sewing books from the 40’s and 50’s -the apparent proficiency of the typical housewife at sewing (and maybe even more impressively, properly fitting) her own wardrobe was mind blowing. Also, they will remind you to always put on lipstick and tidy your hair before beginning to sew, to never sew with dirty dishes in the sink, and offer useful warnings for brunettes like: “such types often make the mistake of wearing a drab, indifferent color, whereas a decisive color would be more becoming because it gives a real lift”. Good to know, good to know.
The next logical step from 50’s sewing books is 50’s sewing machines, specifically THE quintessential sewing machine, The Singer. NOT those sad white plastic things labeled as Singers now, but real Singers – the all steel, elegant, capable and refreshingly simple to work on classic Singers. I bought what was frequently proclaimed to be the pinnacle of sewing machine engineering and quality, the Singer 201. When my Janome gave up the ghost after about a year of production sewing, I put my 1935 Singer 201 into full time service. I couldn’t believe how all of the fussy machine problems I had experienced in the past – lousy stitch formation, tension issues, thread snarls, and stalling through layers all just… went away. My 201 only made a straight stitch, but it was such a beautiful straight stitch, and beautiful on ANY fabric, no matter how fine or sheer or heavy or layered. Except for my Juki serger, I don’t think I will ever own a modern machine again (okay fine, maybe a coverstitch machine). A few years later I bought a Singer 15-88 (the rather hard to find treadle version of the Singer 15, which is basically the vertical-bobbin sister to the 201) because I was curious about sewing on a treadle machine and I wanted to have a vertical bobbin machine for free motion quilting. Turned out that I loved sewing on a treadle and it replaced my 201 as my full time machine.
Now that I have gotten to the point where I sew almost all of my own clothes, and since I am apparently (my daughter tells me) an old lady, I have a uniform (dress! leggings! cardigan!) and am sewing on knits more and more. Finally, the limitations of a straight stitch-only machine have become apparent. I can use my serger to construct knit clothing, but it’s no help for finishing like hemming and topstitching, so I need to be able to do at least a twin needle straight stitch, and ok… maybe even the occasional stretch stitch. (One could say I have a zig-zag aversion. More accurately, one could say I have something akin to a zig-zag tic and a strong contrarian streak, but it would be very unwise of them to do so). So, I need more stitches but still want an old, gear-driven Singer. Enter the Slant-o-Matics, the family of 50’s all metal, gear driven, slant needle Singers. They make a variety of stitches by using stitch cams, and the fanciest ones have both a stationary cam stack to provide basic stitches that can be selected with the dial, but also an additional cam slot where you can put one of many optional stitch cams. You can even combine stitches from the cam stack and the optional cam to make a ton of composite stitches. Now, the icing on the cake… for just a couple of years there were a few models of Slant-o-Matics made in Germany that were almost bizarrely full featured, and of those, one stood out above all as seemingly the most perfect sewing machine for me – the 411g. It’s like the chimera of sewing machines: it makes a beautiful straight stitch, has the stationary cam stack plus the optional cam slot, is a true double needle machine and a chain stitch machine if you have the optional needle plate for chain stitching (chain stitching is that clever needle-thread-only stitch that is chained underneath and can be taken out by basically pulling the thread and unzipping the stitch – perfect for basting). It also has everything I prefer about newer machines – winding the bobbin on the top of the machine instead of that awful tire that runs (but more often slips) on the hand wheel, a horizontal drop in bobbin, a built in light, and easy off needle plates that can be raised and lowered. And, unbelievably… it has a knock out in the bed and a belt groove so it can be converted to a treadle. This is like sewing machine nirvana for me, people.
So, here she is. I stalked eBay and eventually found a cheap one with a bad motor in the UK (they seem to all be in the UK or Canada, and I only ever saw three in all the time I was looking). She showed up today with no accessories at all (and she doesn’t share feet with any of my other machines, so I am going to have to buy them. Luckily, that stuff is mostly cheap and I should be able to get a full set of stitch cams, feet and a buttonholer for $30-40 on eBay). I may never find the chain stitching needle plate, which is sad, but I am still so super stoked. I feel like this is the last sewing machine I will ever want. Well, except for a studio full of vintage Singer industrial machines, all on industrial treadles… but that’s for another post. Hey, look at all those stitches!
The machine arrived really disturbingly poorly packaged, and had come loosing inside the case and was sort of just bouncing around in there. It trashed the case, but the machine came through ok and is really in pretty good cosmetic condition. I opened it up to clean and oil it and everything looks very good – not too dirty, everything moving freely. I thought I was done at that point and would just pop it into my treadle cabinet and be good to go, but when are things ever that simple?
First of all, it didn’t quite fit in the cabinet. I thought it would just be a matter of removing the spacer at the end of the opening since the 411’s bed is longer than the 15-88’s, but even after I did that the 411 didn’t quite fit the other direction. Turns out the 411 has a shallower lip at the front so the little shelf on the front hinged part of the treadle that the machine sits on was about 1/4″ too wide. Easy enough, my husband took that strip off the cabinet with a jigsaw in a about 5 minutes. Then came the treadle belt issues. I had a brand new leather treadle belt, but it was way too big. This machine has this tiny little 1/8″ slot for the bent to run though. Some people have used a lathe to modify the groove, but I really dont want to do that if I dont have to. I tried a piece of thin cotton yarn, which fit, but it slipped. That’s when I started to notice that the hand wheel was perhaps harder to turn than it should be and I started to wonder if the dead motor was providing drag (apparently the answer to that is DUH, yes), time to roust the husband again. Yes, he assured me, keeping the dead motor in there was ridiculous, it was most certainly providing drag. We pounded the motor out (it didn’t exactly slip right out like Google assured it would) and sure enough, the hand wheel now turned easily. We hooked the cotton yarn back up and started treadling, it worked just fine but the yarn broke after a few minutes, it wasn’t nearly strong enough. Then we tried a few other types of string and twine I had lying around, but nothing was fit. I went back to Google and looked into spinning wheel drive bands since they are much thinner and settled on trying a #3/0 woven cotton candle wick that was suggested on a spinning forum as the best spinning wheel drive band material. Of course, there was none of that actually around, so I had to order it from Amazon.
In the meantime I ordered a set of cams, feet and accessories, and the professional buttonholer off of eBay for about $35 shipped, so that was nice. Today the candle wick showed up and I made a new treadle belt out of it by hand sewing the ends together and coating the join in Elmer’s glue. I also waxed the cord with beeswax for good measure and it seems to be working swimmingly. The candle wick is strong, has very little stretch and is nice and grippy. I don’t know if my join will last, but so far it seems secure. The only other issue I ran into is the thread spools really suck. They flop around because apparently they were meant to have some sort of plastic or rubber spacer under them which has long since disintegrated. Also, weirdly, they are on top of the flip-up stitch key on top of the machine, so to see the stitch pattern combinations you have to take your thread spool off or hold onto it when you open that flap. I am going to abandon the spool pins altogether and get a thread stand since I want to use cones anyway.
Ok, time to make leggings!