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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Vintage Sewing 101: Sewing Tools And Their Uses

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Welcome back to Vintage Sewing 101. Hopefully you’ve already read my Introduction to the series and know what to expect from these posts (if not, be sure to have a quick read!). As per my pledge to follow the 1950s sewing course through from beginning to end, I’m starting where the manuals tell me that I should – by determining whether or not I’m well equipped to begin.

Since I’ve already been sewing for two years, I obviously have an advantage over the amateur vintage seamstress – not to mention that my tools are likely a little more advanced than hers would have been (I assume). From a historical standpoint, however, it’s interesting to think about what would have been considered ‘well-equipped’ from the perspective of 1950s sewing companies. Since this sewing course was produced by Sears, Roebuck and Company, we’re obviously working with one of the major sewing retailers. So let’s see what they have to say…

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Starting off with the absolute basics of the basics. The course promises that having the right tools to measure with “will save hours of work that can be lost by careless, half-guess calculations.” I already feel that I’m not quite a Sears-standard seamstress since – although I assume that I’m doing pretty well in the realm of sewing tools – careless, half-guess calculations are honestly just part of the process for me. Perhaps this course will help me mend my ways.

With regards to measuring tools, the course recommends that we be equipped with:

  • A stout (non-stretching) cloth tape 60 inches long
  • A short, 6-12″ ruler (preferably steel)
  • A yardstick
  • Wax chalk and/or tailor’s chalk (for marking)
  • A full length mirror

As well equipped as I thought myself to be, I’m surprisingly under-equipped by 1950s standards. I gathered all of my measuring tools together and realised that this journey is going to be a definite uphill battle.

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Laura’s Measuring Tools:

  • A 60″ measuring tape (giving myself a mental checkmark here)
  • A 6″ plastic ruler (probably half a check mark since the sewing course recommends a 6-12″ steel ruler and mine is plastic)
  • A curved ruler (not recommended but I think invaluable. This is the nearest I come to having a yardstick. Since a yard is 36″, I’m definitely no way near where I should be)
  • Some tailor’s chalk (another check mark!)
  • Mirror (unpictured)

Ok so I didn’t do too badly on this front, although I’m missing a whole load of steel and about half a yard on my rulers. I’m also not entirely sold on the need for a mirror as a measuring tool – I guess maybe required to check even hem length – but who am I to question the wisdom of Sears?

On to Tools to Cut With. I think we can all agree that these are amongst the most important pieces of equipment for any sewist. A good pair of scissors can see you through practically anything. As the course indicates “Nothing slows work more than poor cutting tools.” For cutting, the well-equipped 1950s seamstress requires:

  • A large pair of shears with raised handles
  • A pair of 3-5″ scissors for close work
  • A pair of 7-8″ pinking shears
  • A razor blade for ripping seams
  • A cutting surface

Admittedly, I had to do an internet search to determine what raised handles are. As it turns out, they’re pretty standard to fabric scissors (where the handles are tilted, rather than straight like most regular scissors – see my picture below for a better idea). On to my cutting equipment:

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  • Large fabric scissors (2 pairs) with raised handles
  • Pinking shears
  • Seam ripper

Confession time – I own no small pairs of scissors. This sounds almost catastrophic for anyone who considers themselves an avid sewist. I’m very aware that I need to get a pair but I just never seem to get round to it (*update: since writing this post, I was motivated to go out and buy myself a pair of 3″ scissors. Thank you Sears for pushing me to do the right thing.*). So, on that score, I’m not so well equipped by 1950s standards. I also traded in a razor blade for a seam ripper, but I figure that it’s a permissible exchange. In terms of a cutting surface, I use both my sewing table (which is super long) or our big wooden floor – since the course informs us that “it’s better to use the floor than try it on the bed!” I think I’m doing pretty well.

So measuring and cutting-wise, I’m not quite up to par.  Although I’m only deficient on a couple of fronts, writing this post almost 70 years after the fact means I had pretty much assumed I’d be surpassing the manual on every front. Instead, my performance is just a little lacklustre. The 1950s obviously had pretty high standards. Perhaps I will fair better when it comes to pressing and sewing:

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“Press as you sew!” exclaims the course. This is a point that I wouldn’t contradict. I used to be terrible when it came to pressing my seams but I’ve definitely learnt the error of my ways. Pressing, by 1950s standards, requires a few different tools:

  • A light-weight, easy to handle iron (2-3lb in size)
  • An ironing board
  • A good pressing cloth
  • A sponge and dish of water (unless you have a steam iron)

Now, I haven’t actually weighed my iron so I can’t verify whether it falls within the bounds of the appropriate 1950s weight. I imagine conventional modern irons are lighter than their 1950s counterparts since they’re predominantly plastic (don’t quote me on this because I genuinely don’t know – if you have any insight on the subject, please share!). Anyway, my pressing equipment:

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Pictured are:

  • A Singer Steam Iron
  • An ironing board (very sturdy)
  • A pressing cloth (ok, truly I’ve never used a pressing cloth. But I imagine this would suffice, so we’ll just imagine that it’s used for that purpose)

I finally checked all of the boxes! Since I have a steam iron, the course permits me to forgo the bowl of water and sponge. I can’t imagine how using water and a sponge would turn out – I guess that it would be pretty slow going and a bit messier than using the iron. I may give it a go just to see how well it would work in comparison to a steam iron. For now, however, I consider myself very ready for all the pressing that must be done. And, apparently, the 1950s would agree.

Finally, on to arguably the most important set of tools in a sewists arsenal, those required for sewing. The course doesn’t beat about the bush on this, telling us simply that “good sewing tools are a must.” In the 1950s, a good seamstress would require:

  • A generous supply of needles
  • A thimble
  • Plenty of pins
  • A pincushion
  • Mercerised thread
  • A sewing machine

So, where do I fall on this count?

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In my kit:

  • Needles (pictured are embroidery needles and ones for my sewing machine, so I’m actually exceeding 1950s standards)
  • Pins, stuck in…
  • A pincushion
  • Thread
  • A sewing machine

Here I fail on just one count – no thimble. I actually had one when I was still living in the UK but found it incredibly difficult to use. Although, admittedly, a thimble would in theory save me a lot of finger pain, I couldn’t get to grips with it. I also had to do an internet search to find out what, exactly, ‘mercerised’ thread is meant to be. According to the source of all wisdom, Wikipedia, “Mercerisation is a treatment for cellulosic material, typically cotton threads, that strengthens them and gives them a lustrous appearance.” In modern production, cotton is bathed in sodium hydroxide and neutralised in acid. According to Wiki, “this treatment increases lustre, strength, affinity to dye, and resistance to mildew.” I have no idea whether or not my threads are mercerised, but I’m going to assume so. Most sewing threads have a definite sheen to them that would suggest mercerisation. So I’m going to give myself a check and say that the only piece of 1950s sewing equipment I’m lacking is a thimble.

It would seem, then, that the 1950s had pretty high standards when it came to being adequately equipped for sewing. Although we should bear in mind that this sewing course has been put together by a seller of sewing goods, I’m still surprised by the number of contemporary tools that were in use back in the 50s. Although we’re only 60 years on, technology has clearly developed by leaps and bounds. Other than the sewing machine itself – which is undoubtedly a totally different experience from those in use in the 50s – we’re still relying on much the same equipment. Hopefully, I have the appropriate foundations for moving forward on my 1950s sewing journey.

Make sure to join me for the next Vintage Sewing 101 post when I’ll be following instructions on how to care for and use my sewing machine!

Vintage Sewing 101: An Introduction

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Welcome to a new post series – Vintage Sewing 101 – here at Sew for Victory! I’ve been planning this out for a while and am super excited that it’s coming to fruition in 2018. As long-time followers of the blog may remember, a while ago I came across one of my best vintage finds to-date:

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This eight book set, published in 1953, is a complete sewing course intended to take you from clueless to crafty. The series is the most informative instruction guide I’ve seen when it comes to vintage sewing techniques and I’m still surprised by its comprehensiveness. For a while now, I’ve been using the book series as a curiosity. It became something that I would refer to for inspiration or simply to get back in touch with the vintage side of things. But I’ve barely scratched the surface of what these books have to offer.

In order to better understand the world of the vintage seamstress, I’ve decided to work my way through these books one-by-one and get to know every aspect of sewing in the 1950s. I’ll be teaching myself the techniques, applying them to my projects, and getting acquainted with a whole host of skills that have been lost to modernity. Aside from getting a better understanding of vintage garment making, I’m really hoping that this challenge will help me develop my own approach to sewing.

It’s always struck me how (relatively) simple sewing can be in today’s world. There’s virtually no need to learn to sew by hand – I’m living proof of that fact because I’m still absolutely terrible at hand stitching anything – or understand the hows-and-whys of the process of making clothes. I’m incredibly guilty of following pattern instructions without really considering the details behind what I’m doing or how everything comes together. While part of me would be perfectly happy to go on this way, I’m ambitious in my sewing and I want to expand my knowledge as much as possible.

I’m also hoping that this series of posts will help all of you reading them to learn alongside me. Having read through these manuals, there are a whole host of skills and techniques that I’ve not encountered before and certainly never considered integrating into my sewing. I want to see where our modern approach to sewing might benefit from a return to old methods. At the very least, I might finally learn how to do some hand stitching!

So, what better way to begin that at the beginning, with the promises made by the course itself:

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“Every woman – and man – admires the woman whose clothes are a perfect blend of individuality, good taste, and current fashion. Whether she wears expensive dresses with  famous couturiers’ labels, or is, herself, a clever stylist – the effect is the same. But it is all the more to her credit if her own nimble fingers and ingenious contrivings have stretched a small budget and touched with magic her own home fashioned ensembles.

You can be this woman. Your hands can create detail-perfect garments, accessories and home decorations which will add dollars to your savings. Besides, it’s fun! All that is required is willingness to learn – and determination to do.

This is the first of a series of eight books designed especially for the woman who wants to ‘sew with distinction’ – quickly and easily. The key to all of the ‘magic’ is here – in simple, completely illustrated, short and to-the-point instructions. Each book is a successive step towards your goal – and each is arranged for quick reference back to any forgotten topic, in years to come.”

Already this sewing course appeals to me. It promises the ability to “sew with distinction” (although whether this means I’ll sew well or distinctively, I’m not sure) in a way that is both quick and easy. Since I have both willingness and determination – which are apparently all that I need – I feel very prepared for everything that this vintage sewing journey will ask of me.

I hope that you’re all excited to join me. The first proper post is going to be a trip into the world of vintage sewing tools and I’ll be seeing whether I’m properly equipped by 1950s standards (*spoiler alert: I’m not*).