Love at first sight
Sewing briefcases is a non-trivial use of a “fashion” sewing machine and it has quickly become apparent that my old machine (circa 1981) wasn’t going to hold up under the stress of pushing through eight or more layers of fabric. I did a few searches for “industrial” and “heavy duty” sewing machines; new, they run to $2000 or more; used.
And then I saw an eBay auction for an INDUSTRIAL STRENGTH SINGER 66 SEWING MACHINE 4 LEATHER (sic). The thumbnail picture caught my eye. On enlarging it, I thought, “Oh. My. Word.” It was a Singer Model 66 Red Eye, in excellent decal condition and as shiny as it came off the line 90 years ago (perhaps shinier. I am now not convinced they were sold with a high gloss finish). This one was electrified and the motor had been upgraded sometime in the past. It was being sold as “suitable for heavy sewing through soft leathers, denim, awning fabrics.” I put in a bid; the machine sold for $208 which was higher than I wanted to go at that point, having only just discovered that this model existed. That was Wednesday. It’s now Friday, and I may own two of them by tonight.
I saw a picture on someone’s website of a table built to hold five treadle machines—each had its own treadling station. The picture showed at least another 8 machines on shelves in the back of the room, presumably swappable for any of the machines generally left out on the table.
On Tuesday, BTW, I was in a Bernina store, listening to the owner talk about the latest embroidery machine, retailing for $12,000. I am certain it will not be working in 2098. While I was there, a couple brought a broken serger into the store. It had yellowed markedly, compared to the new machines.
In time, I will come to know the history of these machines. It’s been a while since I read Little House on the Prairie; will have to contact my niece to find out when the Ingals family bought their machine and whether the model is documented in the story. The Red Eyes carry that story in their decoration; of the industrial age reaching women at home, changing their lives even before electricity arrived on the farm.
The decoration becomes quieter on the 30s models; the 40s have a plain hammered iron finish that speaks of war. The headplate on the 50s models reminds me of Soviet art and Stalin’s wedding cake buildings. There is no romance in those machines.
I am still trying to find words to describe my aesthetic; (?) at best, I tell myself I am searching for the intersection of Martha Stewart and Cirque du Soleil. The Red Eye fits right squarely in the middle, as does the Singer Model 15. One of the machines I’m visiting operates with the treadle; it was made in 1921. I briefly searched for instructions on adding a motor, but found enough articles about the joy of using a treadle machine to put that idea to bed. I can buy more electrics if I decide that is the right answer. It is nice to know I will be able to sew the next time the power goes out.
I have been idly looking at sewing machines as I explore fabric stores in the area, wondering what was the difference between the $400 machines at Wal-Mart and the $X000 embroidering machines at boutique sewing stores. I knew I would need something else, and probably soon; my own machine was built in a “bad year” and servicing won’t help much. I particularly wanted to have a backup machine so I wouldn’t be left high and dry should mine decide to give up suddenly. It simply never occurred to me to look backwards in time, rather than offshore to China.
90% of sewing is in the person sitting at the machine. I don’t like machine embroidery. I don’t understand the finances that can cover a sewing machine that costs more than my truck. And so an answer appears to me, and I learn new meanings for words like “Red Eye” and “Memphis.” This is going to be interesting.
One year later:
I own four, including a Memphis. We raised the height of the table because I couldn’t fit my legs under the machine to operate the treadle on the two manual machines. Women were shorter 100 years ago. It is hard work (abs) to keep a treadle machine moving smoothly forward.
I bought a child’s history book by Laurie Carlson, Queen of Inventions: How the Sewing Machine Changed the World. Carlson makes the point that it was the invention of the sewing machine that allowed women the time to learn to read. When all clothing and home furnishings were sewn by hand, there was never a spare minute for education.
The patent battles between the various machine manufacturers rival the fights I hear about at the Office of Technology Development meetings today.
Not long ago, John and I spent the weekend getting my new PC working the way it needs to, transferring files from my old PC, and learning Vista. It’s all rather shiny and marvelous (and purple) and new. Great graphics, large screen, all the latest styling.
At the very same time, we had the base of my Singer Model 127 Memphis treadle sewing machine (Sphinx) disassembled so that we could increase the distance between the treadle and the sewing surface and give my legs enough room to work the treadle. This machine was made in 1922. It still works. It changed life for the families who owned one. It changed life for pretty much anyone who ever touched a textile, for that matter. I also own three Singer Model 66 (Red Eye) machines, two treadle (one working, one seized up) and one electric.
We take the sewing machine so much for granted that more people in my life know how to use a PC than a sewing machine, but if it hadn’t been for the sewing machine, most of the female people in my life wouldn’t have had the time to learn to read, let alone make the progress that let me and my cohort use our new PCs. Cast iron, machined parts, leather belts and people power and 90 years later, it still works. I will bet its cost that my PC will not still be working in 90 years.
I somewhat accidentally found myself owning four antique sewing machines, after finding a Red Eye on eBay with an industrial-strength motor, offered as a machine set up to sew leather. I will need an industrial machine for the laptop bags, and the pictures of that Red Eye were stunning. That lit the fuse. Two came home from Craig’s List ads; these are the ones with treadles. The electric Red Eye and the Sphinx were found on eBay. They are all beautiful.
I have one Red Eye set up with a leather needle. We used the leather needle to poke holes in the leather belt that runs the machine so that the ends could be connected with a staple. I have a new cell phone, indirectly the result of my new Vista PC, and it is slimmer than its predecessor and wiggled around in the old phone’s case. I was able to alter the cell phone case to fit the new phone.
There is something very comforting about using 90-year old technology to make a cell phone more useful.