If I really thought about it at all, I may have thought that sewing was a dark art. Mum never swore, as I understand the term today, but she was known to explode with a heartfelt “Damn and Blast” when taking on a sewing machine. If Mum was doing buttonholes, it was time to disappear.
Sewing machines have been around since the mid 1700’s. After some technical adjustments and haggling over copyrights, sewing machines became popular for home purchase around the mid to late 1800’s.
These early machines had all the basic traits of today. There was a threaded needle, bobbin mechanism, presser foot and the lock-stitch. Electric motors were installed just around the the turn of the 20th century. In the mid 1960’s most manufacturers shifted from cast iron to aluminum and then around the same time, in 1964, sergers became available to the home market.
I have to admit too that homemade clothes looked and felt uncomfortable to me as a child. Almost my entire (home-sewn) wardrobe seemed to me to be a little rumpled, off kilter or asymmetrical that pulled me wrong. The fitting problems for me were likely due to growth or the fact that I was a bit of a tomboy and couldn’t stand dresses.
As far as I could see the sewing machine was a cold presence in our house with limited use (to be fair, I felt much the same towards my sister’s dolls). Even in home ec class when the girls were forced to make an apron or some such inane item, we were always warned not to touch the tension dial. And did these machines had a lot of serious looking dials! Finding the correct combination among so many switches and dials and levers was statistically elusive and made my mother cry. Maybe this explains why so few people my own age sew?
It seems I’m never satisfied unless I have a creative outlet of some kind. The details vary over the years, but its always there, niggling, picking at me unless I have a project. As an adult, I picked up knitting, baking, then on to computers, graphics, website design, crocheting, podcasting and even occasionally small sewing projects. I never really drop anything, just add on. My relationship with all things sewing though would likely have remained aloof and distant except for my desire to create something lead me down the path of exploration.
I wish Mum was here to talk about these cool things my new machine can do. I would love to go through all the frustrations she dealt with back then to create her garments and share her fun at seeing the new options.
Don’t touch that dial!
The tension dial was public enemy No. 1. It was in my memory a big round dial in the threading path. The thread was wound almost completely around and caught in a little spring-action hoop. It was never, ever to be touched. Today tension is not a thing. Change it or let the machine set it. Easy to click back to regular. In fact, it is hard to understand why it was ever an issue.
To fill the bobbin, you had to disengage the inner part of the turning wheel. I remember you had to hold the outer hand wheel and turn the inner wheel in the opposite direction until they were loose and ran independently. Then you had to push some knob in, pull another out, re-route the thread…something, something, something…eeyuhk. I have to admit though that watching the bobbin spin and fill at top speed was as satisfying then as it is today!
When the bobbin was filled, and the machine re-threaded, pulling the bobbin thread up was much the same as many machines today if a little more clunky somehow. I think she even had one model that required removing the bobbin with a small screwdriver. The latest innovation is to have a clear window into the bobbin lying on its side so it is easy to see if the thread is low. With the needle up and down button, the process is almost fully automated.
If you opened the machine cabinet side on the machine we had, there was a threading diagram. Here a diagram didn’t lessen the tedious threading task that ended with having to somehow get that thread through the eye of the needle. The light from the back was never quite enough for this task. Now threading in 6 seconds and automatic needle threading is actually a thing that works! I say that, but since I started using my bendy tweezers from the serger, even threading the needle manually is a breeze. Gotta love innovation!
Sewing machines (non sergers and non coverstitch) all use the lock-stitch. Each of the over 600 stitches are all a variation of this stitch. On the electronic machines all this is done with a couple of selections on the screen and prompting to switch out the presser foot. Other settings are set as recommended but most are further adjustable. This is so amazing. Never let anyone ever tell you not to get a computerized sewing machine!
This was another difficult task with a long black attachment case that itself had attachments. Not fun. Dark days. Best to go with a zipper. Now of course, a simple drop and click presser foot swap and selection of button hole variant from screen. I love it. Okay, I haven’t actually done one on a finished garment yet, but I have practiced a lot.
Speaking of attachments, it was just that much more annoying to change them back then. Often a screw on the side was loosened and re-tightened with each change. Simple enough, but it can actually be difficult to get a good grip on the screw head. In contrasts, it is so easy now with the shaft stays in for the vast majority of presser feet and a simple drop and click. The biggest issue now is where to store and organize all the cool little presser feet. Even cooler, you just select the stitch you want and the recommended settings including tension, stitch width and length are set. AND You are prompted with which presser foot to attach. Cool beans.
Machines in the 60’s ad 70’s needed regular maintenance including oil. There was always that little can of singer oil with its distinctive smell (that I spilled every time and spent the next week smelling like industrial oil) every time I walked past the machine. The new machines? No need to oil and the LED lamp never requires replacement.
Maybe it was because we were just too cool as young teenagers to embrace it but somehow I remember home ec was so boring. I may have also inadvertently conveyed such thoughts to my daughter too – Oops (sorry Lou). I don’t recall any of the exciting possibilities being even hinted at or discussions of how satisfying it is to wear a garment you made. Yet, this is such a wonderful thing! Mum knew. In spite of the sometimes tortuous relationship we can all have with a sewing machine, it is so personally and creatively satisfying. Damn and Blast!