I’ll just warn you. The thing most likely to get me to strafe the neighborhood with F-bombs, at least since the last election, is my sewing machine.
I basically like sewing. My old machine was acting up a little and I got this one—my “new” one—about twenty years ago. “I just want a reliable machine,” I told the salesman, who was eyeing my old antique steel Adler with something like lust. “Don’t need any bells and whistles. Just a good straight stitch and a zig-zag with no hiccups. I don’t need it to embroider or any of that other crap.”
Did I sew clothes, or quilt?
Both, but mostly quilting.
Aha, the salesman said. I have just the thing. This is a new Pfaff and it has a walking foot. In fact, he went on, Pfaff invented the walking foot. How about that!
It was rather plain. Definitely did not have any visible bells or whistles, and I saw no reason to be coy about the fact that I had never heard of a walking foot. Is it like a zipper foot that puts itself away? That would be cool.
No, a walking foot is like a feed dog except on top so that both pieces of fabric you’re sewing move together instead of the top bit lagging behind. Very good for quilting tiny pieces. You want that kind of precision, he assured me.
Which is true. I do want that kind of precision. I don’t want my seam line to be a race between the top and bottom pieces of fabric, with one side winning. I bought the machine.
The walking foot is nice, but the machine has been a piece of shit ever since. Sometimes it’s just fine, but I’ve had days when I couldn’t sew more than eight inches without the whole thing seizing up. Suspecting that somewhere inside that box the thread has left the tracks and struck out on its own, I’ll carefully rethread it five times in a row and it will keep jamming and tearing holes in the fabric and then—then—without me having done anything different—suddenly run smooth again, on the instructions of its Satanic masters that know exactly how many times my machine can fuck with me before I throw it out the window.
Sometimes the needle dives into the needle plate and doesn’t come back out. It’s a hostage situation with the bobbin case in complete control, all exits covered. I don’t know how a sewing machine works. I don’t know how the top thread and the bobbin thread get together to make a seam. So I have no idea what is hanging up the needle but it’s serious. Nothing moves. I usually have to break the needle to get it to confess. I mean come back out.
Other times the fabric suddenly quits moving forward and in no time I have a thread ball the size of a pencil eraser that needs to be surgically removed. I keep an actual scalpel next to my seam ripper. And sometimes the fabric down is forced down into the guts of the machine so far and so fast that retrieval is perilous. It’s a Baby Jessica Down The Well situation and no guarantee it’ll come out alive.
I should get a new machine.
And the reason I haven’t gotten a new machine is you can’t get one anymore without the whole carillon of bells and whistles. Try buying a car now that doesn’t phone ahead and park itself in front of a pizza place without your permission, just because you thought about pizza. They don’t make one. Same thing with sewing machines. And the price jump between my machine and the next one up is about three thousand dollars.
There are some useful things. You can get a machine to always shoot out enough thread when you’re done with a seam that you don’t need to rethread the fucker every other time, which would really fucking come in handy. Or you can get a drop-in bobbin, or automatic threading. But you can also get one to embroider a monogram in any of five thousand fonts. To construct a sleeve by itself if you toss it a kibble. To stitch an old English countryside scene complete with cows and clouds on your quilt top. You can get seat warmers and a cup holder and you can start it up from across the room. The highest-end model pulls diamonds out of your ass and knits a tiara.
It’s a computer, in other words. Which means it might go on strike for absolutely no reason at absolutely any time. I just want one that sews. And maybe keeps track of where I
threw put my tiny scissors.
As I’ve said, I HAVE sewn, in high school home-ec class, and did quite well. However, I HATED it. I will use a needle and thread to sew on a button or mend a sweater, but a machine? No.
That being said, have you considered buying an old used one, maybe from a garage sale or a thrift shop? I don’t know if you have NextDoor where you are, or if you are a member of it, but a lot of times people will post on it that they need something, and most of the time, others are only too glad to give them one that they never use anymore. I have given away porch furniture and various items, and I have also been on the receiving end with canning supplies. Yes, it can also be a gossip mill, but it has proven useful for things like recommendations as well. I think that the only way you’re going to find a sewing machine that ISN’T computerized is to get a used one.
True. Although that’s what I already have–a used one. Hm.
As someone who never learned how to thread a needle (much less own one) I’ve gotta say most of this sewing terminology went over my head. But I did enjoy those satanic Masters, and not that it helps of course, but last summer I was on the lookout for a new TV without all the bells and whistles. I just wanted a damn tv, a dumb one! Well, I lost the battle with technology and was forced to go with a smart one. But I’m very glad I lost, because I wound up loving it. Murr, hoping the same happens for you. 🙂♥️
We also have a dumb TV that we refer to as our new TV. In fact, all our TVs for the last fifteen years have been hand-me-ups from our nephew as he gets a newer and bigger TV. It’s quite small by modern standards and looks big to me.
We only got a newer TV several years back because we could no longer stream Netflix on the “old one.” Which was only a few years old. We gave the old one to Paul’s Aunt Marie, who didn’t stream anything, so it was not an issue. She LOVED having a bigger set! We don’t use any of the “smart features”, as we hardly ever watch in the first place. Paul has two nights off, and that’s when we watch shows. Otherwise, I have my nose buried in a book.
Shameful admission: I piece my quilts with an anniversary Singer 160 machine I puchased in 2013 for its looks. Yep, as sewists go, I’m pretty shallow. It’s black and curvy and seductively styled to suggest that its driver makes costumes for Game of Thrones. It was also the least expensive computerized machine I could find. It looked fabulous sitting there waiting for me to take up sewing again after a thirty-eight year hiatus. Then a new friend visited and suggested I try quilting…rest is history, blah, blah. Quilters buy Expensive Machines, I learned. But the Singer sews a decent straight quarter inch seam, which is what’s called for in piecing. Bill built me a slide on, fitted extension table out of popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, and airplane glue. It’s black lacquered and curvy and sexy, too. I’ve made a lot of acceptable quilts on it. With the money I saved on the 160, I bought a used demo HandiQuilter Sweet 16 for the quilting part. When the Singer dies, I’m probably going with a simpler model Janome. I can’t blame my machines for my bad language, but I’ll try that now.
I appreciate how you refer to yourself as a sewist, so as to avoid seamstress (bleah) and sewer (double bleah).
Find your nearest or local quilting guild and put the word out you’re looking for a reliable machine without all the bells and whistles. There may just be a little old lady with a fabulous machine who is thinking of retiring and never making another quilt. You could get a great deal on a great machine.
Good idea. Of course, since I wrote this post, the thing has run like a dream.
IT KNOWS! It is terrified! Keep it that way!
When you talk about replacing a printer within the machine’s hearing, it folds its arms, says “Hrmph!” and quits working. I’m glad to hear that sewing machines are more easily intimidated!
I like my Pfaff a lot. That walking foot is the real deal.
Maybe I should have Maintenance done?
I lived a block over from where Baby Jessica Went Down The Well. Couldn’t get out of my driveway for a week for all the Looky Lous. I have a 1980 vintage Singer, and I will go to great lengths to hand sew everything before I resort to re-learning how to thread the thing. I have a 30+ year old standard shift pick up truck that will have to do until my dying day, because I sat in my husband’s new truck and the intellectual requirements to drive the thing were overwhelming for the likes of me. New fangled stuff brings out the bah-humbug in me.
It’s one IQ test after another, and we don’t always pass.
I, too, have had the machine flox-up on me for no damn reason whatsoever. I yell at it and threaten to bring to old steel Singer out of retirement. I have even had to go to the length of unplugging the “new” machine and dragging in the Singer. Then I give the “new” machine one more chance, plug it in again, and it runs as sweetly as it ever did back at the store. This has worked for me for a good eleven years now. Try unplugging it, waiting ten minutes, then plugging it back in. Can’t hurt, and gives you a chance to question why you ever wanted to sew in the first place.
I’ll unplug it and hang the cord right in front of the little light bulb. Wait, would that be threatening enough? I’ll mount an axe from the ceiling and set it swinging.
Hm. I had the good fortune of working with an old sewing machine repairman. He did sell me a Pfaff, just a 160S. No waking foot, though. It’s such a great idea, but I wonder if your machine is mid-calibrated. Can you find a good old grey rusty repairman?
Twenty years ago I lent my Kenmore sewing machine to a friend. Two years ago she moved to another state. I have never missed it – glad someone else can use it. This weekend I’m paying some money to have other people hem my pants. It’s worth it!
But you really can’t have someone else make your quilts. You really can’t.
Hmm, have you thought of searching for a rebuilt ‘old metal Adler’ machine? As a landlord, I have learned to buy older washing machines and dryers, because they are simple and sturdy enough to be worth repairing. Today’s stuff is way too over-complicated and built to last only 5 years or so……
You know, I miss the old things that got repaired. I don’t miss that they always needed it. TVs, cars…
I’m pretty sure yelling at it helps.
I’VE TRIED THAT.
I have my 42 year old Viking I bought new two months before Jordan was born. $800. I used it to sew the pie eating tent of movie stand by me. I love this machine. I also have my moms featherweight, another older Viking I bought for $45 and a sweet little light green singer for $75. So I have back ups. I have jerry take my machine when it breaks down because they never bug him to buy a new one. I will never by a new one because I have my back ups. Never say never. But I don’t want to use all the flashy machines and for me this works.
I need a little more than “the pie eating tent of movie stand by me.” Elucidate.
I’ve sewn on a Bernina 807 for decades. Brilliant all metal machines that you can keep running by yourself. The one I’m using now is about 60 years old and I bought it when a local college stopped offering sewing classes and sold all their machines. It had been used Hard but still sews perfectly.The Berninas have zigzag when you need it and a few other stitches but not the hundreds of styles that you will never ever use. I’m not as impressed with modern Berninas.
Another excellent vintage machine is a Singer 201. This is my backup machine but is even more vintage. I just looked online and in Australia both these machines are still going to set you back hundreds of dollars unless you can find them at a garage sale or op-shop where their worth isn’t known.
I also have a Janome 1600 which was $1500 and is great for binding and has a larger throat space. I love the automatic thread cutter but for piecing I won’t go past my vintage machines for accuracy and simplicity. My sister pieces on her Janome 1600 but it tends to eat the triangles if you’re not careful. And then of course there’s the Gammill longarm…
Oh I hate when my triangles get eaten. I’ve started sewing either side of diagonals on paired squares and slicing afterwards. I’d need a bigger house for a good longarm and we wasted all our extra space on a big-ass piano. Choices, choices.
Either of you still playing that piano?
I’m sure you’ve already thought of this, but have you had your machine cleaned? My (very very) old dusty-pink steel Kenmore 158.47 misbehaved every which, including the ones you described. Impossible to get it professionally cleaned, since it was during covid lock down when nothing was open, and everyone (including me) was trying to make masks for nursing homes. So I found the manual online and cleaned it myself. Now it purrs. A truly amazing transformation. In addition to my beloved Kenmore, I have many other sewing machines: my brother’s, my mother’s fancy one for quilting, my mother’s old Singer that we gave her for her 40th birthday when I was 5, and about 5 Singer featherweights. (My father thought we should each have our own featherweight.) The simplest (and lightest and most satisfying) are the featherweights, but they only do forward and backward straight stitch – no zigzag. I could probably live with just one featherweight and my beloved Kenmore. But why would I want to do that? I love them all.
Sure, I’ve thought about cleaning it…I’ve *thought* about cleaning a lot of things…
Don’t you know anyone’s mother in her eighties who finally had to give up sewing—combination of arthritis, loss of eyesight and no real motivation for new, pressing projects—and would be thrilled to gift it to some salty seamstress? That’s how my wife got her latest Stretch and Jeans machine. I highly recommend it.
It’s getting to where my friends ARE their mothers. In terms of being in their eighties…my own mom would be 108 now. I’m starting to imagine Eli’s cleaning and oiling recommendation might be the way to go. Who knew they were so fussy?
Have you considered off shoring/out sourcing your quilts to China? You’ll have more free time once you shake off your creative projects.
[visualize me very still in a chair staring straight ahead, a wee spider working on her first attachment to m elbow]
Maintenance is what it probably needs. I too have a slightly elderly Pfaff and since I do a LOT of sewing, it just stopped working one day. Took it to the Pfaff hospital ER and I’d actually worn down some metal parts that needed replacing. The guy couldn’t actually believe his eyes. Some warped feed dog thingy and the part where the tread goes through the upper loop and always gets snagged (needed a new one). Cost me about $200 for parts and labor, which is quite a savings from buying another Pfaff.
I’m sure you’re right. It’s not cranky, it’s filthy. Although I am proof you can be both at once.
I would look for a used machine from an estate sale or auction. Many women in their 80s and 90s surely have dependable, straight forward machines stored in their spare room or attic.
True. Of course this one IS a straightforward old used machine, so I’m not sure I’d be gaining anything.
You are absolutely hilarious. all your posts make me laugh and we all need more of that so thanks for giving us a reason to smile whether we sew or not.
PS so sorry I gave my basic old simple sewing machine away 10 years ago. Havent found a replacement since and they just opened a fabulous fabric store in my town. May have to go on an adventure to find a machine.
Let me know what you come up with.
Hi Judy! Guys, Judy is my webmistress. Hey, I wrote a post about you, or sort of about you–I’ll put it in one of these days.
Is life without a decent sewing machine worth living? Examine that.
I feel your pain. When my Viking threw a shoe 10 years ago, I tried to replace it with similar basic features. And like you, the new version I was full of cranky bells and whistles. The loaner machine seized up every 20 stitches, and drove me to tears. I mutinied against the formerly reliable brand and didn’t buy another Viking.
I DID buy a Janome, basic, reasonably priced, and easy to use. In 10 years, I don’t think it has jammed twice, nor has it made me swear or cry either. (Computers do like to make me cry.) I would recommend Janome for basic quilting and household sewing.
Life without a sewing machine would be… sigh,.. tragic. Good luck!
Thanks. Janome duly noted.
Hi, Very insightful thanks for sharing this and hope you like my articles below
It was around the beginning of the internet that everything became unfixable without a degree in computer science.
I have friend up north who lives off the grid. She still uses a treadle sewing machine. It’s probably a hundred years old and still works.