Old Machines, New Tech, No Kitsch.


It always starts with one machine. My first belonged to my parent, and it almost put me off sewing forever. I hated that machine. It was loud, smelled like an overheating engine in Death Valley in August and sewing on it scared me. As with every part of my dysfunctional parent-child relationship, my parent gaslit me about it, told me it was fine and to stop being such a whiny little asshole. 

And yet, she persisted. 

Decades later, I realized what was so very WRONG with that machine. Like so much else, the problem was my parent. It was [BrandRedacted]’s attempt to lock their customers into a sick, twisted version of the Cheap Printer/Expensive Ink model of sales. Except that machine cost approximately 10% of the mean household income in 1958 when it thumped off an assembly line.  Imagine paying $5000 for a printer, and then having to spend $300 every three months for ink. [BrandRedacted] wanted owners to only use [BrandRedacted] branded needles and bobbins that were visually VERY similar to the market standard of the time (Singer 66 bobbins and 15×1 needles) but were VEEEERY slightly different, and just different enough to untime the machine and make it run like shit. My parent either never noticed the difference or decided the crappy running was worth the savings. Also, we were discouraged from changing the needles or oiling or cleaning out the dust and dirt and lint, because we’d break something. Just sit with that for a minute. 

My first major project was a Folkwear Kinsale Cloak. It was 6 full yards of light cotton brushed twill and sanded rayon twill lining, the fabric bought at the hole where fabric goes to die, gathered into a collar with a hood and probably way beyond my abilities; it was definitely at the far edge of my ability to wrestle through the demon machine. But I made it, crooked seams and poorly matched thread and nothing like period construction techniques and wore it for years. I made it without any adult supervision. And that got me hooked. 

I ran through a series of elderly electric thrift-shop machines during my desperately poor late teens and twenties, in the dark years of the baby internet, when there were only a few Geocities pages about any sewing machines. I crawled other thrift stores for ancient books on sewing — my favorite remains a 1957 copy of “Modern Sewing Methods” by Sylvia K Mager and Drucella Lowrie, for Necchi-Elna Home Arts Associates. I learned to clean them, maintain them, move them from crappy apartment to slightly better crappy apartment. I fixed my sewing posture after one particularly long night left me crying with muscle pain. I cursed and cried and slowly learned to press my seams, to sew straight lines, to not pin through the seam line. One of the very first grownup purchases I ever made with my own earned money was a new, semi-electronic entry level, Big Box Special portable. I had a love-hate with that machine, too. It was the very best machine I’d ever used, and it almost never broke down, and it was easy to maintain… but I knew there was more. 

That first Singer was followed by an entry level Brother SE-400 (which I still recommend for new sewists) and a mid-range Brother NS-40 (meh, but a solid backup) and my amazing robot, a Babylock Elegante (BLG), which can do everything but make me coffee. I added a Janome 8002D entry-level serger into the mix as I got more serious about knits. I am generally deeply pleased and loyal to my stable of regular machines, and can recommend all of them highly. 

So what about the treadles? Yeah. That’s where this gets complicated. I now sew primarily on a 1925 straight stitch Singer 99 head in a modified 1912 New Home treadle base. My base can accommodate my secondary de-electrified head, a Viking 33-10 industrial from just after WWII (which has zig-zag and reverse). I hope to add a Singer 66 to the mix eventually. My robots have very specific jobs now. 

I bought my Babylock robot from a nice machine shop that I expected to be perfectly fine. They gave me a long warranty and she sewed fine for the first nine months. And then her needle threader started getting flaky. And her stitches got strange. And there was something with her bobbin winder. My lovely Baby Robot was getting sick. Real sick. And I couldn’t fix her. In the meantime, while we were having a new romance, the nice owners of the shop decided to retire and sold out to a bunch of right cowboys from Wyoming. My Baby Robot and I limped along and cried together, and I took her to the robot hospital, under new management, to have her healed under her warranty. 

It took them six weeks. Worse, being in the now cowboy owned shop made me uncomfortable. I know my machines. I don’t fix my robots because I don’t have access to the parts, not because I don’t know how they work. I don’t like being patted on the head (metaphorically) and told not to worry my head over it (literally.) Then… there was my boobs. Call it being in my bubble, but it’s been decades since I’ve had a dude spend a whole conversation staring at my boobs. (Spouse excepted. But he has permission.) Even the douchiest dude-bros know they’re supposed to sneak looks, not openly stare. And it took them SIX WEEKS to fix my beloved robot. And the dude could not stop staring at my boobs. I’m still not sure which made me unhappier. All of the dudes in that shop stare. I’m horrified for the two women who work there. It feels like 1993 in terms of sexual harassment. 

But worst yet??? THEY DIDN’T FIX MY NEEDLE THREADER. In some ways, it got worse after six weeks in robot hospital. 

With the Elegante, you have to use the needle threader. It’s possible to manually thread it, but they don’t make it easy. And because it’s a machine that’s under the dealership model, and I am not a dealer, it’s extremely difficult to get any parts, or the diagnostic software, or the service manual. 

I didn’t want to go back to that shop. More, I didn’t want to go to any shop ever again. I had used other shops in the area before buying my Baby Robot, and I’d seen the same things (except for the creepy staring). 3-4 weeks to do a basic annual service. Lots of upselling and “trade-in” specials. All the things I hate about buying a car were involved in buying a sewing machine, except there’s more competition in car sales. I didn’t want to have to own three machines just so I could be sure at least one is working at any time. (I was so naive four years ago…) 

That’s when I remembered the old machines I learned on. I could fix those, and what usually caused me to give up on them had nothing to do with their mechanical stitching, and everything to do with their elderly motors. If I could just have one of those with either an upgraded motor, or no motor… And I could fix those in the middle of the night. 

And thus the treadle adventures. 

Also, in this long history, I got interested in knitting machines, because I love sweaters and I don’t have the patience to crochet them. I don’t hand-knit. If you show me a few sticks and a ball and some work, I nod politely and smile, and am lost. I can struggle through a 6″ x 6″ swatch without dropping stitches, but it takes me more than a week and more cursing than you can imagine. But machine knitting — I get it. It makes sense. And I love the technology of the machines, which are now between 20 and 80 years old for flatbeds and around 100 years old for all circular sock machines. They have a lot in common with old mechanical sewing machines. 

I still have my Baby Robot. I still love her. I found her a new robot hospital and I will work on a youth and vigor elixir to keep her brilliant, prompt and not asshole owners on the job. (They can fix her in under 24 hours. If they have to order a part, it takes 2 days. Seriously, Quality Sewing Inc in Longmont, CO. They’re the Babylock wizards.) She gets to do far more challenging work now — embroidery! — under her own supervision while I use Frika (my industrial Viking, in homage to her Scandinavian and military origins, VNV Nation, and “frika fracka” as vocalized @#% *&%^ swearing) and Bess (my 99) to do what they’re good at. 

Most importantly, I have learned to love the act of creation that goes into sewing. I want to share that with as much honesty and respect for beginner’s mind as I can summon. I still remember being a beginner, and there are still some aspects that make me feel like a beginner. (I only mastered machine sewn zippers a couple garments ago. Fly facings make me cry a little. Fitting can feel like torture.) 

What you’ll never find on this site: 

  • nothing about children. I don’t have any. I have niblings, but they live with their parents, and I don’t publish anything about anyone who is not able to consent to the publication. 
  • Trolls. I maintain a strict moderation policy. There are plenty of places where the asshats of the internet can harass people. This is not one. Further, if you do troll or harass me or anyone else using this site, I will publish every single piece of information I can find about you as a means of warning everyone else that you’re not to be trusted. Consider this and the moderation policy to be your warnings. If you can’t not shit on other people’s carpet, you can’t come play here. 
  • Twee shiplap shit. Nuff said.
  • Inspirational stuff. If faith works for you, great. It’s not my bag. 
  • Body-shaming. We have one body. It’s the only one we get. I happen to be extra-endowed. I’ve never been skinny. But I’ve seen skinny people be bullied for being skinny, and curvy people for being curvy, and fat for being fat. None of these are acceptable. Race, gender, national origin, primary language and identity are also protected here. Your politics are not protected — if you’re smart enough to do the math of sewing, you’re also bright enough to realize that the modern Conservative (Tory) and Repubican Parties are doing real and permanent harm to vulnerable people, and you’re choosing to endorse hate. Hate-speech on your own page, not mine. 
  • Supplements, essential oils, anything MLM, “natural healing”, diet and meal plans or anything that can remotely be called Complimentary Medicine. I have a no tolerance policy for any form of MLM, and if you are promoting your MLM, you will be banned.  
  • Edits that go into the memory hole. If I correct something, I will strikethrough the old language and add a note with the date of my change. 
  • All endorsements are my own opinion, based on hardware I personally use. If I hate something, you’re gonna know about it. 

I do use some advertising. Links to Amazon are always affiliate links. I use smile links as default. WordPress also puts some advertising on these pages. I try to keep all ads discreet and unobtrusive. If something is noisy, autoplaying, or obscuring the screen, please let me know via the contacts page.