This story is about a sewing machine. A very old sewing machine. In fact, a sewing machine more than 100 years old. My story is also about sewing, dressmaking, and sewing machines I have used and owned over the years.
I learnt to sew from an early age.
I must have been very young when I first learnt to sew. Hand-sewing, that is. I’m sure my mother taught me long before I had sewing lessons at school.
As I recall, sewing lessons commenced in Grade 3. I was 8 years old at the time. I still have a linen sampler I made in Grade 3 and sewing samplers and accompanying hand-written instructions in botany books I produced in Grades 4 and 5. These samplers are evidence of my early efforts at hand-sewing.
Actually I didn’t enjoy sewing lessons at primary school. I found them boring. Uninspiring. Practising various hand stitches on samplers was not at all exciting.
I wanted to make things. Just like my mother. That’s what interested me.
My mother was a competent and experienced dressmaker. Like her mother before her, she made all her own clothes and those of her family too. She even made my father a suit. She made my brother’s clothes and mine too: school uniforms, shirts, blouses, shorts, skirts and dresses.
Every year, for the Rockhampton Show, my mother made me a new dress. I remember clearly the one she made for me when I was 10. It had a fitted bodice, collar and elbow-length sleeves trimmed with white guipure lace, and flared skirt. I loved the fabric my mother chose. It was pale blue gabardine-like material embossed with tiny white flowers. To complete the outfit, I wore a brand new white hat. (Everyone wore a hat to the Show in those days, the 1960s.) I thought I looked terrific.
What I really wanted was my own sewing machine.
My parents knew what I wanted. A sewing machine. One on which I could make clothes, just like my mother. Dolls’ clothes, of course. (I was 9 or 10 years old at the time.) And guess what? For Christmas, my parents bought me the cutest little sewing machine a little girl could ever dream of! It was bright red, made of die-cast aluminium and steel, strong, about 20 cm wide, 8 cm deep and 15 cm high.
It was a toy! But it worked.
My pint-size Vulcan “Minor” sewing machine was a real novelty. It kept me occupied, at least for a while. That is, until I realised that its chain stitches didn’t keep intact the little garments I made. I didn’t want my parents to think me unappreciative, but clearly I was disappointed with my toy sewing machine. My parents were too.
Vulcan miniature and toy sewing machines were manufactured in England by the Sydney S Bird Company under the trade name “Cyldon”. The first Vulcan sewing machine was produced in about 1948 and was inspired by the classic Singer 20 sewing machine.
By the mid-1950s the Vulcan range comprised of 3 models: the red ‘Minor, Blue ‘Junior’ and Red ‘Senior’. The main body was made of diecast aluminium with the name cast into the front. The backside of the body was enclosed by a pressed steel panel which clipped in to give the appearance of a solid body. The hand-wheel was made of aluminium.
All of the Vulcan toy sewing machines were simple, single thread chain stitch machines.
The dimensions of the Vulcan Minor (the one I owned) were: 165 mm wide, 135 mm tall and 75 mm deep.
When I turned 11, my parents bought me a “real” sewing machine.
It was one just like my grandmother’s. A treadle Singer sewing machine. I can vividly remember my parents ushering me to the sleepout that morning, to show me their gift. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This adult-size machine in its grand timber cabinet was no toy. “Is this mine?” I asked. “Is it really mine?” I was overwhelmed. This had to be the best birthday present ever!
My mother showed me how to use my new sewing machine. Of course, it was not new at all. It was a very old machine, but it sewed perfectly. And I learnt quickly. I soon mastered how to set up the machine, thread the upper thread, wind the bobbin, place the bobbin in the shuttle, fit the shuttle in its slot, thread the lower thread, insert or remove the stitch plate, replace the needle or presser foot, adjust the tension, clean and oil the machine.
I loved my treadle sewing machine and I put it to good use. Using material from my mother’s store of fabric scraps, I made simple items like drawstring bags, aprons, cushion covers, pillowslips and potholders. They made great gifts.
A treadle sewing machine is operated by means of a foot treadle, which means that its power comes from the user’s legs. Two feet are required to make a left-heel-right-toe (or vice versa) motion on the treadle pad. One complete down-up motion produces exactly four stitches. The faster the operator’s feet move, the faster the machine sews.
When I was 12, I learnt how to use my mother’s electric sewing machine.
Once I mastered my treadle sewing machine, my mother let me use her electric sewing machine. Under strict supervision, of course. She was a good teacher, and I soon learnt how to use that machine too.
My mother’s was an electric Singer sewing machine Model 99-13. It was portable, had a wooden carrying case and was operated via a knee control. I think she must have purchased it in 1946, after the war, when she and my father established a dressmaking business (Evelyn Frock Salon) in Rockhampton.
The Singer Model 99-13 was a portable electric sewing machine. Operated by means of a knee control, these machines were sturdy, reliable and easy to use. The Singer 99-13 was a ¾ size version of the established full size Model 66.
Model 99-13 machines produced a good straight stitch and had adjustable tension and stitch length controls. They had wooden bases with a small compartment under the balance wheel to store bobbins, accessories etc. What set them apart was their lockable “Bentwood” (polished plywood) cover, or carrying case, and handle.
The overall shape of these machines was the same as previous Singer models. They had Japan black lacquer paintwork and gold Filigree design decals.
At 13, I began to make my own clothes.
At high school, one of my first-year subjects was Home Science. It was a compulsory subject for all Grade 8 girls, and included sewing lessons. We learnt how to take body measurements, draft patterns, cut out garments and use an electric sewing machine to put together each item. Drafting was totally new for me, and quite a challenge, but the rest I had already conquered. And, believe it or not, the first item we had to make was an apron! It was for use in our Home Science cookery classes.
However, we did make some challenging garments. One was a front-buttoning cotton blouse with a collar and short sleeves, using a self-drafted pattern. Unlike primary school sewing classes, I found sewing classes at high school useful and motivating. From Grade 8 onwards, I made almost all my own clothes using my mother’s electric sewing machine (with a little help from my mother, in the early days).
In the photograph below, I am pictured wearing one of the first dresses I made for myself. It was a mid-blue cotton A-line shift with a wide frill, scooped neckline and short puffed sleeves.
Fast forward 10 years. I was still using my mother’s electric sewing machine.
I was 23 and engaged to be married. As an engagement gift, my parents bought me a brand new sewing machine. An electric sewing machine. Given that I was soon to be married, they wanted me to have a sewing machine of my own.
I had given my once-loved treadle machine to my grandmother several years previously. I was no longer using it and my treadle machine was in much better condition than the one my grandmother owned. Surprisingly, my grandmother, then in her late 70s, was still making her own dresses!
My parents bought me an Elna SP (Special) sewing machine. It cost them $259 (equivalent to $1,285 today). It was the first electric sewing machine I owned, and the third sewing machine my parents had given me as a gift. This generous gift was much appreciated.
One of the first items I made using my new Elna SP was my own wedding dress. Actually, it wasn’t a dress at all, but a three-piece suit comprising skirt, jacket and blouse. Ours was a late-afternoon winter wedding, so I chose white silk velvet for the skirt and jacket and silver and white twinkle crepe for the long-sleeved blouse. I bought the fabric and the silver braid I used to trim the skirt and jacket from Kirbys, a popular drapery store located in East Street, Rockhampton, at the time. To complete the outfit I wore a beret purpose-made out of the same velvet (I didn’t want to wear a veil) and silver high-heeled platform-sole shoes. One might say I was a stylish, although non-conventional, bride of the 70s!
For the next 35 years, my Elna SP sewing machine served me well.
I have no idea how many garments I made using my Elna SP. I guess it is in the thousands. Like my mother, I made my own clothes and clothes for my family too. I have never made my husband a suit, but I have made him many shirts over the years! I’ve sewn garments for my children, mother, mother-in-law, friends and (more recently) my grandchildren. I’ve made curtains, bed-covers, quilts, cushion covers and tablecloths. And I’ve produced countless gifts using my trusty Elna SP sewing machine.
The Elna SP (Special) free-arm electric sewing machine was Swiss-made. It is operated via a foot control. A solid all-metal machine, it is portable and comes in a sturdy metal carrying case.
I find my Elna SP to be an extremely reliable machine, easy to use and maintain. It sews straight and straight reverse stitches, zigzag stitch, stretch blind and edging stitch, scalloped edging stitch, overcasting stitch, multi-stretch stitch and blind stitch. The machine has a free arm which is ideal for sewing collars and cuffs, for example. An accessory box slides nicely underneath the arm of the machine when not in use.
Fifteen years or so into our marriage, I bought another sewing machine, an Elna L40 Overlocker. This machine complemented what my Elna SP could do, and greatly enhanced the garments I made. In fact, after 27 years, my Elna L40 Overlocker is still in perfect condition and a much valued sewing aid.
In 2008, I made the difficult decision to buy a new general-purpose sewing machine. I wanted one that gives me a wide range of embroidery stitches (not available on my Elna SP). I purchased a Bernina Aurora 430. I’m happy with my Bernina, but I have kept my Elna SP. That machine, which served me so well for 35 years, is like a dear friend. I cannot bring myself to part with it.
My story is nearly ended. But the punch-line is yet to come. I have to reveal what happened to my treadle sewing machine.
I’ve already mentioned that I gave my treadle machine to my grandmother when she was in her late 70s. She lived until she was 94. After she died, my mother asked me if I would like to have my grandmother’s sewing machine (my old treadle machine).
“Of course,” I replied, without hesitation. “I would like my children to learn to sew on it.”
And they did. Just like me.
Thirty years or so have passed and I still have the treadle sewing machine I received as a gift so many years ago. In fact, I walk past it several times every day, as it stands proudly on display in our hallway.
In researching this story, I’ve discovered it’s a Singer Model 27, made in the USA in 1900. It’s more than a century old. And it still works! How is that for good workmanship?
My treadle Singer sewing machine was one of 35,800 Model 27 machines produced by the Singer Manufacturing Company at its Elizabeth Port Factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, USA, from May 1900. Made of all steel, these machines were designed to be repaired rather than replaced. That is why many remain today, some in collections, others passed down through families and many still in perfect working order (just like mine).
The sewing machine is mounted in a timber cabinet about the size of a student’s desk. The cabinet (or table) has 7 drawers, 6 with embossing, making it an attractive piece of furniture. The 7th drawer is a flip drawer at the front of the cabinet, useful for storing needles, bobbins and accessories. The treadle (foot) pad is built into the cabinet base, near the floor. A looped round leather belt connects the treadle and the hand-wheel, through the cabinet. When not in use the machine can be stored in the cabinet, and the table extension folded back to become the lid or cabinet top.
Model 27 machines were painted in Japan black lacquer and ornamented with eye-catching decals. The Tiffany Decal #25 is the decal decoration on my machine. Not surprisingly, over the years some of the paint has chipped and most of the decals have worn off my machine. A feature of this model is its flat chrome faceplate, attractively embossed with grapevines.
Two identifying features of the Singer Model 27 are a circular chrome stitch plate that covers the feed dogs and the two split chrome slide plates that run from front to back of the machine to cover the shuttle mechanism.
The Singer Model 27 machines were the first Singer sewing machines to use a vibrating shuttle as the bobbin driver, instead of a transverse shuttle characteristic of earlier models. The bullet-shaped shuttle moves in a segment of a circle. Bobbins used in the Singer Model 27 machines are long and thin and made of metal. Once threaded, the bobbin is placed inside the shuttle.
Although a basic machine that is only capable of straight-stitching, the treadle Singer Model 27 produces a perfect lockstitch.
When I told my adult son I was writing this story about my old treadle sewing machine, he reminded me that he made several oven mitts (gloves) when he was learning to sew on the treadle machine. Then he wanted to know if I still have the oven mitts! Unfortunately, I do not.
At 11, 9 and 9, my grandchildren are old enough to learn how to use a sewing machine. A treadle sewing machine, that is. Next time they visit, I will give them a lesson or two on my machine. It’s the one on which their mother learnt to sew when she was 10 or 11, and the one on which I learnt to sew when I was 11.
At 117 years old, what a grand old sewing machine it is!
PHOTO GALLERY: 1900 Singer sewing machine Model 27
If you would like to learn more about your own sewing machine, or vintage sewing machines generally, here are some useful websites:
http://www.singersewinginfo.co.uk/index/. About Singer Sewing Machines, 1865 – 1970.
http://ismacs.net/index.html. ISMACS: International Sewing Machine Collectors’ Society.
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