Previous posts have indicated that I have a collection of antique Singer sewing machines; three Red Eyes and a Memphis Sphinx. Three of them work; two of them are people-powered and one is electric. (The non-working machine is people-powered, but sticks somewhere in the stitch cycle.)
I am experimenting with a new product for the studio, a line of personal luggage. Progress has been a bit slow, given the distractions of finishing up a significant assignment, Thanksgiving, and the Studio Tour. However, that’s all behind me now and it’s time to see what it takes to get these cases out the door. I understand I will have to make several up-front and hone the design and production steps.
John put the new motor on the electric Red Eye Sunday night while I worked on the treadle machine, and Monday, I was set to sew with electricity. Except the machine wouldn’t go. The connection between the motor and the flywheel is not tight enough to drive even a denim needle (size 16) through several layers of silk and interfacing. The treadle machine has no trouble with this. Frustration.
A fair amount of people-powered progress is made, but I can also see that it’s going to be hard to turn a profit if my production line is powered by a treadle. It doesn’t take long to get back to Craig’s List, and lo and behold, there’s a newly listed used Industrial Singer machine for sale, in nearby Sanford! $425, with several bolts of awning fabric thrown in for good measure.
So here’s the question: How much do I spend to test the idea? What is “investment in a new product line that could, possibly, have a decent profit margin,” and what is “extravagant collection of equipment I won’t use to its fullest and will only drain my cash reserves, and take up precious, non-existent floor space in a house already giving shelter to five sewing machines, three with tables?”
The question is actually bigger than any particular machine, per se. The problem is, I don’t have a reliable decision tree. This has always been a bit of a problem for me, but with a steady job and regular paychecks, any mis-spending tending to get corrected in time. Now that I’m in bootstrap start-up mode and cash flow is king, the consequences are much more serious.
I made an appointment to look at the machine, and John and I talked about the problem, and the machine inventory. We can sell some of the Red Eyes and probably recoup what we have invested in them. (We’re talking pretty small numbers here, like $35. All less than $100 each, for sure.) John understands the problem.
I went to look at the machine, and the Muses* of Decision-making and Machinery smiled on me. The thing didn’t work. It ran well enough, but the thread kept breaking. For $425, I’m not going to decide that this is a minor problem I can fix myself. The owner had used it once, 18 months ago, and couldn’t figure out how to get the thread moving smoothly in the amount of time I was willing to wait. I did have time to notice that one oil port was packed full of sawdust, probably from leaving the machine uncovered in a wood shop, if not from actually running it in the wood shop. Lint in a sewing machine is to be expected. Sawdust is not.
*I know these aren’t muses.
While I was testing the machine, I was able to gather some additional data about my problem. A commercial Singer of this age (unknown, but I expect they’re all pretty similar) is in essense, no different from a Red Eye made in 1920. The commercial machine is larger, and heavier, but is otherwise built with exactly the same mechanical structure. The power and speed are a function of the electric motor, NOT of the machine itself.
And to tell the truth, I’m not so sure speed is what I need. That puppy is FAST. (Probably 3000 stitches per minute, and at even 10 stitches per inch, that’s 300 inches / 25 feet / 8 yards (rounding) a minute. Speed of stitching isn’t my problem. Running a needle through my finger would be. People who have heard my adventures with cast iron frying pans will understand why I might be hyper-conscious about working with a very fast and powerful sewing machine.
I need power, not speed. And I have power in my treadles–they’re handling the thick layers just fine. The problem is, it can be tricky to get a treadle machine started in the right direction. Perhaps more time-on-machine will fix this as my feet learn the rhythm; given that pretty much everyone who owned a treadle Red Eye switched to electricity as soon as it was available, perhaps not.
On eBay today, I could find at least three Red Eye or Sphinx-model machines fitted up with new motors, being sold as “industrial.” (Responsible sellers, and sewing machine resellers tend to responsible, do admit these machines won’t do saddlery, or anything thicker than 3/8″. 3/8″ is a lot of thick when it comes to sewing.)
Given more time to think, John came up with some possible solutions for the upgrading the machines I already own, including using a belt connection between the motor and the flywheel rather than a friction-driven link. (OK, belts are friction-driven too; what I have now is wheel-to-wheel, non-geared. Too much slip.) I also know a little bit more about commercial machines than I did. Do they really all use bobbins, or was I seeing older technology that has since been upgraded? I can’t believe the ladies on the Levi’s line are swapping out bobbins every few hundred yards of leg seam. Not sure where to go to find the answer to this question, but I expect it will come to me soonish.
I don’t know that I have any formal Lessons Learned to take away from this experience that are clearly applicable to the next shopping problem. I know a bit more about my ability to test sewing machines. I’m 2 yes, 2 no, and I could as well have said No to one of the treadle machines but at least I got a working table out of it. John can probably get the machine unlocked with a bit more attention. (I thought it was a trivial adjustment when I tested the machine in the owner’s garage, and it turned out to be a more systemic problem.)
One partial answer came to me overnight: If I change the assembly process, I won’t have some of the sticky spots that cause trouble with starting and stopping the Red Eye. Hmmm… Did Judith Leiber think this way? What about the Birkin bag design team? I’m sure they do…