Disconcerting Light Bulb Moment


Sewing away, if not merrily, at least busily, last night, I got a bit of a surprise. Before I explain, I ought to set the scene.

It has been a hot summer in Melbourne. As in I’m looking at the weather forecast and seeing a night coming up where the minimum temperature is forecast to be 30 degrees. That’s 86 degrees in the old speak, or American speak. It’s hot whichever way you look at it. My sewing space is a bunker – technically known as a store room – under the house. It has no windows, a door that doesn’t go all the way up and a low ceiling. It also catches the full heat of the north sun during summer, meaning that it is unbearably hot to be in there during the day. A mad rush finishing effort in the lead up to Christmas, spending 5 hours at the machines in 40+ degree heat confirmed that I need to sort out some other arrangements for hot weather. In the mean time, I try to restrict my time in the bunker to night times, and I only go down there for overlocking. It’s not ideal, but it does the job.

Except that my overlocker has also developed an issue. A while back, the light stopped working. It would flicker on and off for a while, but eventually it just went off and stayed off. I didn’t bother with replacing the globe, just adjusted a work lamp that I use anyway, and continued to sew. It wasn’t quite the same, but it did the job and didn’t need me to get out the screwdrivers to access the innards of the machine.

Last night I was overlocking the bottom edge of a very full skirt. I had layers of fabric flowing out the back of the machine, layers of fabric still waiting to be fed through, and I thought I felt a gentle thunk on the desk but ignored it while I finished the seam. I was focused on the leading edge of the fabric and not paying huge amounts of attention to anything else, really.

So it came as something of a shock when I finished the edge and moved the fabric, to feel something hard bundled into a middle of it. A little investigation revealed that it was the light bulb from the machine. Not what you expect to find but better than the spider that I found in my bedroom last week (another one of the perks of the Melbourne summer – hot nights and huntsman spiders). It had obviously stopped working because it had worked its way loose somehow, and finally the combination of gravity and sewing vibrations had been too much for it. Given that it’s a screw-in job, I’m curious about how this could have happened, but at least I’m aware of it now and now that it took about 8 years of hard sewing to go the first time. Once I unscrewed everything and put the globe back in place, it worked perfectly once again so there’s clearly nothing actually wrong with it. If the machine is still in use 8 years from now, I might splurge and buy it a new globe anyway.


Turning Green and Guilt Tripping

I’ve officially started my course this week, with my first classes on pattern making and garment construction. It is hte first time since I was 13 (about 1993, for anyone who’s counting) that I’ve been taking any sort of formal sewing instruction, so I’m curious to find out just how many bad habits I’ve picked up along the way. Given that the product of the 1993 high school textile classes was a rather hideous appliqued tracksuit top with matching pants and a great story about a friend sewing through her thumb, I have higher hopes for what I learn from this round.

The start of classes has rather neatly coincided with finishing my cleaning operation on Ethel’s innards. There is still work to be done tarting up her outer appearance, but she is now officially gunk free, and has a fully cleaned and re-assembled bobbin winder. It’s also just in time for her younger sister to start acting up, making unfortunate noises and shorting out her light on a regular basis, so I’m quite excited at the thought of having a straight stitch machine online that doesn’t require me to treadle. How I’ll cope with button holing when baby Singer gives up at last I do not know – I might just find myself forced to splurge for a new machine, heaven forbid. In the mean time, I’ve decided it’s time to give a photographic update on Ethel’s progress. Please excuse the shoddy photography once again – phone cameras have their limitations.

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And now that I’ve done all that work, I have a bit of a confession to make. I’m coveting new industrial machines. It’s all the fault of my class. I’ve had a taste of life with automatic thread cutting, of a setting that means you always finish with the needle out of the fabric, of speed control settings, of computerisation. And I’m left wondering if I can jury-rig some kind of steam punk creation onto the venerable Ethel to bring her into the modern age in style. I know that all sorts of things were done to these machine heads, making them look like something straight out of Jules Verne, but the truth is, I just want a shiny new Juki to play with for my own. And with redundancy rearing it’s head at work, I’m thinking pay out could contribute to one. But then I think of Ethel, and the guilt kicks in. Because she does the work just as well. She’s just lacking in the bells, whistles, and computerisation. And the shiny. Perhaps this weekend will see her get some of that back, though. I have plans to see what car polish and elbow grease can do for her. If they can create auto features, I’ll be truly surprised, but here’s hoping for a steam punk miracle intervention.

A slight delay in proceedings


There has been, in a fantastic phrase from Walk the Line, a hitch in my giddy-up this week. And it’s all Ethel’s fault. Things had been going so well – two days of scraping off 80 years of grease and gunk had certain parts of her underside looking, well, almost shiny. I know – miracle. And as for her bobbin winder, which was in several pieces, well, it was looking positively radiant. And then it happened. I decided that the last screw holding a bobbin winder bit to another bit had to come out. Except that it didn’t want to come out. And, in self-defence, it bit me. Or more to the point, it caused my screwdriver to bite me.


Feeling slightly faint, I did what any good daughter of my family does when bleeding – ran to the kitchen to run the affected limb under a theoretically cold tap (yeah, not so much on the cold front, when the pipe runs through the roof and it’s yet another in a looong run of stinking hot days) and wait for Mum to come in and minister to the pain with Savlon and Bandaids. Mum definitely comes from the more-is-better school of wound dressing. My thumb, still coated in grease and with a cut that to me looked like it would require stitches, if not outright amputation, was liberally covered with antiseptic cream that oozed everywhere when she was done and wrapped in 3 bandaids and some left over surgical tape that she had from one of her own medical emergencies.

The thumb remains attached. The dressing has been downsized somewhat to a point where I can bend the knuckle now without having to work too hard. I have even been to my usual personal trainer sessions this week. What I haven’t been able to manage, though, is anything requiring pressure on the ball of my thumb. Now I’m not sure how much you use your thumbs in home/handy ways, but apparently I use mine all the time, for anything from turning the key in the front door, to holding a bowl steady when I’m making dinner. And it’s been rather difficult when said thumb looks like this:


Updates on Ethel’s progress, and my attempts to tame her resistance to a good kerosene bath, will follow when I’m certain that I’m not going to be causing either pain or infection by going back to work on her.

The New Arrival

96kI am pleased to announce the arrival on Saturday of Ethel, a bouncing baby 96K10 Singer industrial machine. Weighing in at far to much to be comfortably moved, Ethel joins baby sister 66K in the stable of ancient singer machines that I have been accumulating. As far as impulse buys go, I think this one is a winner.

I’ve been wanting an industrial machine for a while now, but could never justify the expense. It seems I’ve been hanging around with too many accountants, because “I want” is no longer enough to tilt the cost-benefit analysis in favour of a purchase. But then I found a gumtree listing, and suddenly my way was clear.

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The 96K and it’s slightly smaller version, the 95K, have been the workhorses of the industry for a long time. I have heard that there are still factories in India and China that use these machines, if only because of their reliability. Parts are still available fairly readily as a result. They do exactly what an industrial plain stitch machine is supposed to do – they sew simple stitches very quickly, for hours on end without breaking down. Ethel herself – don’t ask where the name came from. I don’t usually name my machines, but for some reason she is Ethel, just as my dress form is the latest in a long line of Esmeraldas to be used by my family – rolled off the factory floor in 1922, one of over 15,000 made that year. That she still works is nothing short of fantastic, when you think about how much use and abuse she has no doubt suffered through in that time. It would be fascinating to work out where she has been – fascinating for me, anyway – and to compare her life with the much more straight forward existence of the 66K.

Sure, Ethel needs a bit of a facelift. She has been living in a shed for the past few years and, after all, she is around 90 years old. Her workbench has been destroyed beyond recognition, there are no drawers to speak of, and she is missing almost all of her original accessories. But she runs, miraculously, and she can be given a good going over to return her to her former glory – not least of which will involve sourcing a new work top for her. And I’m quite happy to do it. A little spending, a little time and she will be perfect. She may even look as good as one of her much more expensive cousins that I found on ebay.


But until I finish giving Ethel a thorough going over, she is living in my parents’ garage, waiting much more patiently than I am. I have also been waiting for the Melbourne heat wave to end so I could get back down into my bunker without losing a few kilograms in fluids. Jockeys could use it as a sauna at the moment. On Saturday night, I got sick of waiting and overhauled the 66K. She too has seen a lot of wear and tear over the years, as evidenced by her worn out decals. She runs like a dream now, though, provided I can keep my treadling up to speed. I then spent a happy evening sewing in front of the airconditioning. Yep, I’m such a sewing nerd…

Tools of the Trade

Sewing requires accessories. I have to admit, I’ve spent an extreme amount of time playing with the toys that go with my machines, that can be used for hand sewing, that I have no clue what they do and no memory of ever buying but somehow find in my toolboxes. After all, whseller respecting geek canresist the allure of toys? I certainly can’t.

One of my biggest and least used toys is in fact a family heirloom. Originally purchased by one of a pair of great- great-aunts, my beloved Singer treadle machine would have ended up in the local tip when they passed away in the mid 80s, if not for my mother seeing its potential and diverting it to our house. Once there, after a brief time when I was allowed to play with it as a ten year old, it served such useful purposes as fish tank stand and pot plant rest. When my parents downsized a couple of years ago, I took it with me to my flat and it has moved twice since then without experiencing anything other than the back of two moving vans,and serving as a handy place to store the mail in a series of shared living arrangements. Its current location means its inconvenient for that purpose, so I’ve started to look at it again and think, “I really should use that.” Truth to tell, it’s more accessible than my normal machines of choice right now.

So recently, I actually took steps to getting it usable. I went through the drawers and found any number of attachments, as well as the original instruction manual – helpful, as I have no earthly clue how it actually works anymore. The manual is also helpful in dating. Like all good nerds, I like to know about my tools. Googling the serial number tells me that this machine was built in 1920, One of about 70000 turned out in Newcastle in June/July of that year.  It’s a model 66k, one of the most popular models ever produced by Singer, and in production for decades. It is the forerunner to today’s machines in ways earlier models can only dream about, and the first appearance of many features we take for granted now.

Thats what I can learn from Google. The manual is a slightly different prospect. It was stored in one of the drawers of the table where oil leaked onto it, making it incredibly difficult to read. What I can gather suggests that it might be worth attempting to get my hands on another copy. It disagrees with Google in one respect though; it is dated 1922, the year before my grandmother, the niece of the original owner, was born.

I plan on finding out how it all goes together, though. The great-aunts and their siblings sewed for their whole families. Nana still talks about her mother’s feats of dressmaking, and my aunt’s collection of original Barbie dresses backs up the claims to greatness. And, as a period piece, the machine is invaluable. I know it could fetch a few hundred dollars but even in my poorest moments I’ve never considered selling it, something that can’t be said about anything else I own (except perhaps my bed).

So there you have it, a working antique that I intend to put to the purpose it was intended for – making a 1920s – or at least vintage – wardrobe. Pointless? Perhaps. But as a fan of all things vintage, my sewing can only be improved by going back to the days where the average wardrobe involved more than a trip to the nearest shopping centre. Anyone with any clues how to use the attachements to a 66k would be welcome to get in touch!