By Sue Caulfield
Much of the work I do requires a sewing machine. I use the sewing machine to create seams, put the finishing touches on pieces and, at times, do free motion quilting. Sewing machines are ubiquitous. Indeed, you can find them in many department stores, even our local Meijer store. A new sewing machine can cost between $70 and $10,000. The more expensive ones are computerized and offer the sewer hundreds of different stitches. Many of the high-end ones are also designed to do embroidery and follow computerized patterns. Several years ago, I invested in a computerized sewing machine, a Husqvarna.
My machine can do 140 different stitches. Mechanically, it is a well-made machine. It often does what I ask it to do, using the computerized screen. How many of these fancy stitches have I used over the years? One. I used a leaf pattern to embellish a small wall hanging. It was a nice addition to the piece, but I was never drawn to do any more of such embellishing.
A few years ago, a friend was selling (at a very good price) a short-arm quilting machine and frame. This specific frame can be as wide as 8 feet but due to space limitations in my home, I have it set up for a width of 4 feet. I have used this machine many times, especially for some exhibits where I was creating very large pieces, where this machine made it much easier to do the actual quilting required. The biggest advantage for me in using a short-arm quilting machine is that it allows me to keep the entire piece flat and move the sewing machine across the fabric rather than move the fabric through the sewing machine. Flat is very beneficial. Prior to the short-arm quilting machine, I was rolling and folding pieces in order to fit them in a very narrow opening of my sewing machine.
So, new machines have given me new opportunities to do my work. Yet, I rarely use these new machines. Instead, I do most of my sewing on antique Singer sewing machines.
I learned to sew on my mother’s Singer, one that came in a cabinet. You opened the top of the cabinet and flipped it to the side and the Singer (stored underneath on a slant) could then be lifted up and locked into place. You now had the sewing machine and the top of the cabinet extended as a table to the left of the machine. Instead of a foot pedal, this machine used a knee control lever. If you pushed the lever to the right with your knee, the machine would run.
My first sewing machine was a gift from my maternal grandmother, Elsie Foley, an accomplished painter. While I was in graduate school in upstate New York, I would visit Nana and Grandpa Tom in Eastham, Massachusetts and on one such visit, after I used Nana’s sewing machine to mend some clothes, she sent it home with me, encouraging me to put it to good use. That machine, a model 15, made in 1936, is still in good use and has served me well for more than 30 years.
Eight to ten years ago, after learning about Singer Featherweight sewing machines from a friend, I bought my first Featherweight. It is a model 221 and was made in 1933. I bought the Featherweight both for its classic features and because I wanted a second machine in my home studio. Many avid sewers have a second machine and for many of them it is their back-up machine for when their first machine has to be in the shop. With antique Singers, however, they are never in the shop and the key reason to have a second one was to be able to use them for different projects or to have different color threads ready to go when needing to alternate a lot on one project.
Why are antique Singer sewing machines never in the shop? Because they are built so well that if you clean, oil and lubricate them on a regular basis, they just keep sewing and sewing.
Antique Singer sewing machines are heavy, because they are made out of cast iron and steel. The model 15 includes a wooden base and cover. Their weight makes them difficult to transport. They were initially designed for industrial use and their design carried into home use for many years. The 221 model, the Featherweight, was a response to the need for a model that could be easily transported. This model has no wooden base, is compact in design, the sewing area folds up, and the entire thing is transported in a ready-made case. These weigh 60-80% less than the model 15 sewing machines and are easy to move around. Interestingly, the lack of a base with the model 221 led to an ingenious accessory – the Featherweight table. This table has a cut out that allows the Featherweight machine to rest inside it, flush with the table top, allowing for the entire table (card table size) to be the supporting structure for the sewing machine (see image above).
My antique Singer sewing machines do not have any fancy stitches. Indeed, all they do is a straight, plain stitch. I do have various attachments for these machines and have used the buttonhole making attachment numerous times. I have never used the zig zag attachment nor seen the need to do so.
My antique Singer sewing machines have a soothing sound to them. I discussed this in an interview in 2013 and you can listen to the Singer at this link: http://strandsofcommonthread.com/screen-print/
New machines, old machines, wherein lies the eternal? I have been sewing most of my life. Creating beauty out of fabric is at my core. Creating beauty out of fabric goes back to the early days of humankind. Thousands of years prior to the advent of modern fashion, people crafted their clothing in ways that reflected their culture. Textile arts have been practiced globally for millennia. Sewing needles have been dated as existing more than 40,000 years ago. Cotton has been spun, woven and dyed since prehistoric times. Tapestries have been used throughout the world to tell stories.
“Fiber art works are works of art that communicate some sort of message, emotion or meaning and go beyond just the literal meaning of the materials” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiber_art).
My most iconic print image is the Chartres labyrinth.
This image is iconic in that it reaches people at a very deep level.
[The image to the right is “Veil Between the Worlds,” a piece I created in 2011 that won an award at the 2012 West Michigan Area Show. At its first showing, it was sold to a very good home!]
People are drawn to the labyrinth and I will devote a future article to the labyrinth. Suffice to say at this point that creating imagery with fabric is an ancient practice. The tools used in this practice have varied over the millennia. While some people choose to adopt the latest technology and tools to their work, I am consistently drawn to these older tools.
These older machines not only sound better to
me, they feel better. Rather than made of thin
plastic, they are made of sturdy stuff. Also,
these machines have levers that suit me both
ergonomically and aesthetically.
The technologically advanced sewing machines have computerized touch screens. I have to press buttons to raise the foot or change the direction of the stitching. Sometimes the buttons do not recognize the touch and things do not go the way I intended. Often times, the computer has a default setting for something that is not what I want, such as defaulting to raising the needle up when I stop sewing, when I want the needle to stay down, in the fabric.
With antique Singer sewing machines, there are simple levers and it is easy to control the foot and stitch direction. Perhaps it is as simple as I learned on such machines and therefore they have become intuitive to me. Or, perhaps it is that there is a part of me that deeply connects to things less technological and rich in history.
P.S. How do I know the manufacturing year of my Singer sewing machines? Each one has a serial number on it. The 15 model has the serial number right below the stitch direction lever, while one of the 221 models has the serial number on the bottom.
There are two letters followed by a series of numbers. There are websites (including one by Singer) where you can look up this number. This is how I know that the model 15 on the left was made in 1952 and the model 221 on the right was made in 1951.