You might think that one sewing machine should be enough for anyone. I have a very nice, modern, computerised, Janome sewing machine (not to mention an overlocker for finishing seams and sewing stretch fabrics), and I’m very happy with it. It sews all kinds of stitches very competently (including zig-zag stitches), and has some useful features like stopping with the needle down (or up), so that you can easily pivot around corners, pulling the bobbin thread up automatically, and even snipping the threads automatically. And yet, I found myself browsing vintage straight stitch-only machines.
Now, nobody really needs more than two sewing machines (an overlocker is a different matter, as it does a unique job). However, there is merit in having both a zig-zag capable machine and a straight-stitch machine. For one thing, it’s often useful for efficiency reasons to have two machines set up if you are sewing seams and also topstitching with a different thread, as it avoids having to re-thread continually and adjust the machine. Straight stitch machines also have superb stitch quality. Zig-zag machines move the needle side-to-side to accomplish the stitch, which means that when you are sewing a straight stitch, there is often very slight variation in the horizontal placement of the stitches, and the bobbin thread side of the work looks slightly less neat than the top thread side. It is minor, but noticeable enough that you want to topstitch seams from the right side of the work, which isn’t always the most practical way to do it. Finally, to accommodate the side-to-side movement of the needle, zig-zag machines have a wider opening in the throat plate, through which the needle pierces the fabric. This can mean — particularly with very lightweight fabrics — that the fabric can pucker as it isn’t well supported, or even get dragged down towards the bobbin and become snarled up.
Long-time readers may be thinking, “hang on, don’t you already have a Singer 99?” Yes, I do indeed, and it still works nicely. However, for dressmaking (rather than constructing cushions or curtains), it has some drawbacks: there is only one stitch length, the tension knob has no markings, so is difficult to adjust, and the hand-crank propulsion makes it difficult to turn the flywheel and control the fabric around tricky seams one-handed.
I love the cast-iron Singer machines, and had been mooning over the Singer 201. This — everyone seems to agree — is one of the finest straight stitch machines ever made. It creates a beautifully even stitch, and will sew everything from very fine chiffon to leather or canvas, with no fuss. They were made from the mid 1930s to the early 1960s, with only superficial changes, and were always expensive machines, equivalent to about 6 months wages at the average wage. Most people bought them on hire purchase (HP), and I expect that many of the people who bought them used them for their livelihood, either in tailoring, alterations or sewing piecework from home. Now, you can find them for good prices, as they are heavy machines (particularly the treadle-driven ones in cabinets), which people sell when they clear a house.
They were originally sold either as hand-cranked machines, or treadle driven, or with an electric motor, but the beauty is that the basic machine is exactly the same. All the propulsion unit has to do is turn the flywheel, and the gears, rods and levers inside the cast iron hulk of the machine do the rest. The electric motor was always external and turned a belt on the flywheel, so it is very easy to replace it with a modern motor that bolts on in the same place, which is how my Singer 201K has been updated. I quite like the fact that the motor has a white casing, as it is an obviously new addition. It’s a bit like those house renovations you see, where someone has added a very modern extension to a 17th Century barn, but separated the two with a glass link so that it is clear what is old and what is new.
The rest of my beloved 201K (nicknamed Rosie) is a good age. She left the Kilbowie factory in Scotland in December 1945, but she is still purring on. I can’t tell you how beautiful she sounds at speed. The motor is quiet, so you can hear the lovely sounds of precisely made and beautifully-oiled mechanisms working exactly as intended. She sews a gorgeously even stitch, and goes very fast at full tilt, while remaining very easy to control stitch-by-stitch if necessary. The narrow foot and feed dogs that are characteristic of a straight-stitch machine mean you can sew curves smoothly and effortlessly. I’ve tried her with very lightweight, slippery material (I sewed the lining for my French Dart Shift Tunic on her), as well as layers of heavy denim, and she sewed both equally beautifully. I’m defintely going to enjoy sewing jeans on her, as my Janome struggled a bit with multiple layers of denim.
I love the fact she is over 71 years old and still going. I love thinking about all the garments she has sewn or mended in her long life. As you know, I love a dart, and I bet she has sewed a lot of darts in her time with fitted 1950s fashions. In fact, a sewing a dart on her made me remember that you have to do a few things differently on a non-computerised machine. In order to get a nicely shaped dart, with no puckers at the tip1, you need to sew in a dead straight line, and stop right at the edge of the fabric, rather than leaving a gap. You also need to somehow secure the ends of the thread, so that they don’t unravel over time, again without pulling the thread taut and causing a pucker. Somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) I found a tip about sewing darts with a computerised machine. You can just go straight off the edge of the garment, and keep going, and the threads will neatly knot together. Once you are within a few centimeters of the point of the dart you need to hit, and lined up properly on it, you put your foot down and go full speed, which makes it much easier to keep a straight line and not chicken out and swerve away at the last moment. I tried this and found it worked really well, and at some point, I started thinking of it as “Thelma and Louise-ing it”: you line up, put the pedal to the metal and sail out over the edge. Sewing darts is fun, but sewing them this way feels epic. Anyway, I discovered pretty quickly that you can’t Thelma and Louise darts on a mechanical machine, as the top and bobbin threads get horribly tangled if you don’t have fabric under the foot. Once I had learned that lesson, making darts was easy on the Singer, and with the precise control you have over the fabric and the needle, they come out beautifully. No puckers.
I am loving having a modern machine with all its convenience functions and variety of stitches, and this gorgeous old machine, but its her — Rosie — that I can’t take my eyes off. She is absolutely stunning, and I tend to give her a friendly pat on her cast iron bulk when I pass her. She will need more regular and more extensive maintenance than the Janome (those mechanical innards have a lot of oiling points that need attending to after every 8 hours of sewing), but I’m really happy to have her in my sewing room.
- Seriously, there’s nothing worse than a picker at the tip of a dart. ↩