Of Sewing Machines and Small Towns

For some reason, last year I decided I wanted a treadle powered sewing machine. I researched newer ones, but was frustrated to find that they don’t make the sewing table and treadle needed to operate it. You have to find an antique one and replace the old machine with the new one. I guess the customer base is mostly made of people who want to replace their antique machine to begin with, but, anyway, I quickly headed over to craigslist to find an old one.

I looked through several sections and was dismayed by the fact that most of the old Singers for sale had been changed into plain old tables and would need considerably more carpentry to adapt.  However, I did finally find a few working ones. One of which happened to be right here in town, complete with spare parts. It was more expensive and not as pretty as the second closest option, but I decided to opt for that one and called the owner.

After some scheduling mishaps, my husband and I headed over and my sewing machine adventure began. We got there and I noticed that the man seemed sort of familiar. I didn’t think to much of it, since I was there to look at the sewing machine. The lady discussed it with me and showed me the spare parts and such and I agreed to buy it. At which point we tried to load it into my husband’s car…and it wouldn’t fit. Realizing that it would fit fine in my mother’s car and it was late enough that she would be home, I called her up and explained that we needed some help.

So we hung out a few minutes and she came tootling over. She gets out, takes one look at the man and instantly recognizes him. He was a friend of my brother’s in high school and previous resident of my childhood neighborhood. I explain this to my husband and he says, “Wow, this really is a small town”. While everybody else worked on loading the machine we gave each other the brief summary of our lives since we last saw each other and parted ways.

The saga doesn’t end there however. First there was the challenge of where to put the thing, which was helped by its independence from outlets, but hindered by the sheer weight of it. Eventually it found a place next to my computer desk under the ridiculously low “dining room” light fixture. That wasn’t too big of a challenge, but then came figuring out how to operate the thing. I figured that since the new machines are pretty expensive and this one is perfectly functional, I’d just keep it. The hitch was finding the manual online.

I looked around for awhile, searching for manuals for sewing machines produced in the year it was made (1926) only to find that there were quite a few different models being made then. Since it is a Singer, I eventually turned to their site, where they have a nice, convenient archive of manuals that you can search by entering your machine’s serial number. What luck! I typed in the number and… No info on my machine. I had to actually email the company with the number. They got back to me and asked me to send pictures. I got some cell phone pictures and fired it off. Several days later they were able to provide me with a manual. Apparently my machine is a “C series” No. 15. The manual has rather grainy pictures and takes considerable deciphering. I’m actually half considering filming some instructional videos on how to operate this particular model.

So I finally had the manual and started playing around with the treadle only to realize, it wasn’t meant for use on carpeted floors. The treadle kept getting stuck in the carpet. I would need to get blocks to put it on. Of course, furniture raisers are stupidly expensive and I had had to quit working for USPS because of my health by this point, so I didn’t have money to waste on four lumps of plastic. I wracked my brains for quite some time before remembering that my mother had previously acquired some scrap wood at a local building supply store. So I decided that I would go there, but kept putting it off because I just wasn’t in the best mindset right then. Our financial situation was looking kind of dire and it was the middle of winter, so I wasn’t feeling terribly adventurous. On the day that I ended up going, fired off a rather cranky prayer to God ending with “Do you hear me?!”. Like I said, not in the best mindset.

So I go in, and the guys at the cash register are busy, so I walk around a little bit before a staff member notices me and asks if I’m finding what I want. Feeling somewhat embarrassed, I ask if they have a box of wood scraps I can raid. To my complete surprise, he not only tells me where it is, but offers to drop off what he’s carrying and make sure I found it. I did find it and start looking through it. He joins me and he asks me what I need them for and I explain. He looks with me for a minute before insisting that these wood pieces are pretty rough, so lets go look in the other box, where the cedar scraps are. So we go over there and he selects a couple of really big scraps. After he lets me pick the one that seems the appropriate thickness, he fires up of the table saw and cuts it into four blocks for me. Keep in mind, I’m not a paying customer, our discussion has made it clear that I can’t pay for anything. Yet he went to great lengths to get me clean wood blocks of the correct size. Afterwards he explained to me that a new factory was going in and my husband should apply there. Now, the factory isn’t hiring yet, so that lead hasn’t panned out, but it may yet. Either way I was very grateful to him and reminded how much I love living in a small town. Of course, I had to think of the fact that I ended up with four blocks of cedar and feel like God was telling me “Yes, I hear you. I’m going to take care of you”. Cedar, once used in the construction of the temple, was holding up my little sewing machine.

It would be awhile before I finally tried the machine out. I didn’t really have any projects, given I couldn’t afford fabric and knew that I would need something simple to start with. Eventually, the perfect project availed itself. Potato grow bags. I had several potatoes start growing eyes and figured I’d plant them in the spring, but was struggling to find anything to plant them in with my limited budget. I discovered that you could make grow bags out of landscaping fabric, which is quite cheap. So I hopped in my car and drove back to that same local business and got a roll of it, snagged a spool of polyester thread and opened up that grainy PDF of the manual.

It took a long time to get it working. First there was the belt, which I think I may have still gotten somewhat wrong, then there was the discovery that one of the bolts attaching the treadle to the legs was missing. I used some heavy duty wire leftover from a college art course to reattach the two parts. Then I tried to fill one of the extra bobbins that came with the machine. It didn’t fit in the winder, and neither did the other spare. I finally pulled the bobbin out the machine to find it was a totally different size. So my spare bobbins are totally useless to me. That was a bit discouraging, but I still have one bobbin of the appropriate size. I teased out how to get the machine properly threaded and set about working on the first grow bag.

It was a good thing I decided to start on something that doesn’t need to look pretty, because I found I could only keep it running if I got it going at a really rapid clip, which I don’t sew very accurately at. If I didn’t keep it going quickly, it would get stuck. I’m not familiar enough with treadle powered machines to know if that is a feature or a bug. The problem doesn’t exist when the timing wheel is loosened, so it doesn’t need oil. I’m suspicious that maybe the belt isn’t tight enough or I had it inside out. Still, it worked well enough for that project and I now have five grow bags with potatoes started in them.

This saga isn’t completely over, since I now need to begin a quest for additional bobbins and figure out how to make the machine work at a more manageable speed, but I got it working nonetheless. If I can’t succeed in finding more bobbins and fixing the problem, I’ll have to consider buying a newer machine after all, but with my new job I will actually be able to consider that. I don’t prefer that option though, since the original machine is quite pretty and has been well maintained overall. Either way, we’ll see where this journey goes.

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