I’ve been reconditioning two old sewing machines this week.
Not that “reconditioning” requires any skill. These are 1950s vintage — the apogee, the ne plus ultra of sewing machine tech and quality. These were machines designed to last until the heat death of the universe.
“Reconditioning” has mostly meant degreasing, blowing out cobwebs, oiling, and educating myself. Each machine already ran as well as the day it was made. I discovered that each needed only one small part to make it fully operational. Given the ubiquity of these old machines, both parts were available for a few dollars on eBay, Amazon, and dozens of sewing sites.
This is the lesser of the two, a Singer 301A from 1956:
Though heralded as revolutionary by its makers, it’s a very straightforward beast. Straight stitch only. Doesn’t even perform a simple zigzag (without an attachment, also available on eBay). I got it for $20 at a church rummage sale, complete with original cabinet and a box of attachments (but not the zigzag one).
This is the champion, a German-made Pfaff 332 Automatic:
I don’t know its year of manufacture, but early-to-mid-50s. In my book, this is the ne plus ultra of ne plus ultras when it comes to sewing machines. It does everything the Singer doesn’t do and does it more elegantly. It’s so tough that even the heat death of the universe might not affect it — basically an industrial machine adapted for home use. I got it for $10 at a garage sale, complete with manual and original carrying case (which I tossed out, probably foolishly).
This puppy even threads its own needle, via a tiny device that slips into the needle’s hole and hooks the thread through. (The hook is almost invisibly small and plastic and I’m amazed it’s survived sixty-plus years.)
When I was a kid, everybody had Singers, but you had a Pfaff only if you were better off than people like us. I feel very hotsy totsy to own this now. I confess I’m a snob about sewing machines; I wouldn’t have anything made after about 1970, and any machine I own has to have almost supernatural simplicity, no gimmicks. Just pure functionality. Pfaffs rule.
Another thing I appreciate about the Pfaff: you not only can, but are expected to, get into its guts:
The Singer is more of a black box.
Of course, you can get into parts of the Singer:
And even the black-box Singer comes with a manual (available online) showing how to take various bits of it to pieces — tensioners and the like). Sewing machines presume a certain amount of mechanical aptitude on the part of their users, and women of the 1950s had it — or called in handy husbands.
My own first, and most loved machine was a White Model 764 (this one) — made by the same people who produced semi trucks. It was the first thing I purchased after getting a “real” job.
I knew that wonderful machine so well I could have operated it blindfolded. It’s long-gone now, left behind in one of my many moves.
I used the Singer to make a skirt yesterday — the first garment I’ve made in probably 30 years. When that final Pfaff part arrives this week, I’ll put the Singer away again and switch to the better machine.
I may (or may not) sell the Singer. This model, with its simple function and slanted needle to keep the work in better view is particularly beloved of quilters, which I am not.
Making clothes hasn’t been cost effective for decades. Quilters and crafters are keeping the fabric and sewing machine industries alive. Meanwhile fabric and clothing patterns have become shockingly expensive and nice, well-fitting readymade clothes are abundant and cheap — and mostly from China.
When I was a kid, making my own clothes was crucial. Back in the day (which was NOT the good old days), storebought clothes for blue-collar budgets were made for some “average” person who was not me. To cover my gangly wrists and ankles, as cheap storebought clothes would not, I learned to make my own outfits. Through high school, I made, and eventually designed, nearly all my own clothes.
The fact that I loved doing it (and believe it or not, considered becoming a fashion designer for some very short and no doubt insane while) was a plus.
Been a long, long time. But now that I have this pair of reconditioned classics, I’m now on the hunt for thrift store fabrics and notions.