Vintage Sewing 101: Care And Use Of Your Sewing Machine

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Welcome back to Vintage Sewing 101! Last week we got acquainted with the well-equipped 1950s seamstress and found out that, in comparison, my tools come up a little short (quite literally, since my main problem seemed to be insufficiently lengthy rulers). This week, I’m continuing to build my foundational 1950s sewing knowledge with a look at how to care for and use my sewing machine. Although a lot of this information feels somewhat self-explanatory (particularly to anyone with basic sewing knowledge), I’ve decided that my mantra for this series of posts is ‘Take nothing for granted’. In that spirit, we move forward!

Before we delve into the content, however, I thought it would be a good idea to check out what the typical 1950s seamstress would be using to sew. Since the sewing course specifically mentions the Kenmore machine (made by the producers of the course – Sears, Roebuck and Company), I thought I would have a look at those. Kenmore machines were run on electricity (rather than with a foot peddle). The most popular model in the 1950s was the Kenmore Model 117-169, made out of aluminium and relatively lightweight in comparison to other models. However, the Kenmore Zig-Zag Automatic 117-740 – released in 1956 – was the most up-to-date in its technology, offering the ability to zig-zag stitch (and so sew stretch fabric). Pretty revolutionary at the time! If you’re interested, there’s a great Youtube video showing how a 1950s Kenmore is threaded and used – plus it will give you a good idea of what the machines actually look like.

In comparison, I have a Janome New Home Machine with at least a thousand stitches and just about every bit of technology available to modern sewing machines. It comes with a digital screen and stitch selection and all of the standard operations. Suffice to say, my experience of getting to know my sewing machine will not be quite the same as for someone sewing with a 1950s machine. But no doubt I still have much to learn! So onto the course instructions…

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The sewing course places a LOT of emphasis on the sewing machine instruction book. Now, I’m not the best when it comes to reading manuals. I’m much more of a ‘throw myself in head first, whatever the consequences’ kind of girl. Since I’m a big believer in learning from my mistakes, this philosophy tends to really help me learn. But, true to my pledge of following this 1950s sewing course through from beginning to end, I dusted off my sewing machine manual and sat down for a read.

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In all honesty, I can’t quite meet the standards of Sears, Roebuck and Company who insist that I must “Keep this book in your sewing cabinet – and refer to it frequently until you know its contents by heart.” The Instruction book is 54 pages and, quite frankly, who has the time. That said, I did read it through and discovered a whole lot of stitches that I didn’t really know existed on the machine. So I must grant Sears et al a victory on this front since there are clearly some benefits to reading the manual before jumping in.

After getting to know the truly insightful Instruction book from beginning to end, it’s time to learn about cleaning our machines. I feel as though this sewing course is already beating it into me that I’m not the best or most attentive sewist. I very rarely (*read never*) clean my machine. I know. It’s not good. But, thanks to a forced perusal of my machine’s Instruction book, I am now armed with the knowledge on how to go about giving my machine a good clean. Trying to bring myself up to the rigorous standards laid out for the 1950s seamstress by the (now, in my mind) dictatorial Sears, I took to giving my machine a thorough cleaning – hook race, feed dog, and all…

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A clean machine is a good machine (Big Brother is watching)

With a clean machine ready to go, now it’s time to actually get to grips with using it. Since I don’t want to test your patience too incredibly, we’ll skip over learning to thread the machine – after two years of sewing, I’m pretty sure I’m doing this right. So we’ll hop straight on to learning to control and stitch. The manual first instructs that “Smooth (not jerky) machine operation is one of the ‘secrets’ of even, flat stitching.” I’m not quite sure why this is such a secret since it feels pretty self-explanatory. I will confess, however, that I had the biggest trouble with not jerking a sewing machine around the first time I sat down at one. I think I was about 12 and learning to use a sewing machine at school. I was so terrified of sewing over my fingers that I went at snail’s pace the entire time and, even then, took my foot off of the pedal every five seconds. Apparently I’ve grown out of this fear, although it’s pretty miraculous that I ever decided to sit at a machine again. Therefore, I can definitely verify the truth of what the manual is telling us – indeed, as the course promises, controlling speed on my sewing machine is now “as automatic as striking the right key is to a typist.” So I guess there’s hope for everyone.

Now onto stitches…

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We begin with a bit of straight line stitching. According to the sewing course, it is incredibly important that we first learn to position our hands correctly on the machine. I demonstrate:

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DON’T [emphasis mine because I feel this is how Sears et al would desire it to be read] place the hand that is guiding the material directly in front of the needle. You might get careless and run it under the needle! Keep it off to one side where it can’t be hurt.”

It’s strange to me that the course is referring to your hand as something of a separate entity. But I do agree with this very common-sense approach to sewing with your machine. It is, after all, a really bad idea to run your hand under the needle – as my 12 year old self would agree.

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DON’T reach around and pull the material from in back of the needle. This can bend the needle so that it doesn’t go down into the hole meant for it, and it may snap in two.”

I’m not even going to try to be facetious about this advice because, for quite a while when I first started sewing, I did have a habit of pulling the material through. I guess I thought that it would speed everything up. It didn’t.

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So, what’s the right way to do things? The sewing course informs “When the machine is running, material travels through without help from you, but your hand is needed to hold it straight. Preferably use your left hand, keeping your right hand free to straighten folds of the material in front of the machine, to hold the wheel for stopping at a point…and for similar tasks.”

My first thought reading this is that the end of the sentence feels incredibly ominous. Why the ellipsis? What other tasks is it referring to?! Am I right to slightly afraid of what Sears has planned? Otherwise, all good advice.

Now that we know how to position our hands, it’s time to stitch. The manual recommends that we start out with the very basics – learning to stitch in a straight line. As instructed, I didn’t draw lines on my piece of fabric and instead followed the seam guides on my machine. I was concerned that, after basically mocking the course for the entirety of this post, it would turn out that I actually couldn’t sew in a straight line. But I actually did ok.

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I even did two lines – one at 3/8″ and one at 5/8″ – just to show off.

That’s all very well and good, of course, but are curves such an easy go? The course says that I should follow the same technique as before.

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Granted, this is a pretty steep curve. I wanted to get more ambitious just to check my skills but the sewing course warns against this. It suggests that, when I become more advanced, I might “practice following wavy lines, then tight curves and lines like those used in an embroidery pattern.” But “don’t draw lines for the first stages of practice.” To avoid getting too big for my britches, I thought I should calm down and stick with some nice, calm curves.

Having mastered most of the basics, we now have just a couple more skills to learn (thankfully) – the joys of turning corners and learning tacking!

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Learning to turn corners was one of my favourite skills when I first came to sewing. I still get a strange instinctual satisfaction from pivoting my fabric and sewing a right-angle. It’s just so neat! I particularly enjoyed how emphatic the course gets when talking about turning the corner – “Again stitch a straight line; but this time, stop exactly at a desired point (right hand on wheel) with the needle down.” I choose to read this as the course instructor being incredibly excited by the upcoming pivot because, if you haven’t felt the joy of a needle pivot, you just haven’t truly lived.

To stop myself getting too overly excited about right angles, I only sewed one…

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And, for the first time, I was also able to backstitch at the end of my line. I’ve avoided doing so thus far since the course is very clear about skill-building in the appropriate way (and apparently tacking is the pinnacle of basic sewing techniques). Despite leaving it until the very end, the course is detailed on the importance of learning to tack. I will say that, on this point, I truly understand how much easier we have it with contemporary machines. Where the sewing course presents a few different options for tacking at the end of your stitches, for most of us it’s simply a manner of using our reverse stitch button. What a miracle this button is! I won’t take it for granted again.

Thankfully, Sew with Distinction has now talked us through all the basics of caring for and using our sewing machine. It closes out with an emphasis on learning to use machine attachments (I’m skipping over the diatribe on not wasting thread. To paraphrase – “save thread”) and, since I’m now so well acquainted with my sewing machine’s Instruction book, I’m off to get to know each of my attachments and what they actually do (since I only use about three of them on rotation). The next Vintage Sewing 101 post will take us away from learning the sewing basics (hallelujah!) and onto assessing our bodies for pattern making – a quick spoiler, “Are you tall?” and “Are you short?” are key phrases. I feel that this is where the course really comes into its own. So join me next week as I continue my 1950s sewing adventures!

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2 thoughts on “Vintage Sewing 101: Care And Use Of Your Sewing Machine

  1. Sew Old Fashioned says:

    This is taking me back to when I got back into sewing and was face to face with a sewing machine for the first time in years. That first row of stitching always feels like such a victory! And yes, turning corners is rather thrilling. I have some 1950s machines that even have a special guide for your fabric so you know precisely where to stop and turn.

    Like

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