Introductions to our sewing machine family, Part 1

It should never have happened really.

See, when I was turning 10 years old, I asked for a bike for my birthday.  When the day came around, the wrapped box looked suspiciously small to be a bike.

I got a sewing machine.  For my 10th birthday.  The relationship with that machine was doomed from the start really.

Singer 290C
Singer 290C circa 1984 – Machine with an identity crisis. It’s not quite a stylist, and it’s not quite a Touch and Sew. (Yes, I still have it, but one day I will put it on ebay or Kijiji and make room for another machine.)

Looking back now, maybe it made a little sense in my dad’s head.  It was after all, the middle of winter in Central Alberta, it’s not like I could use a bike then anyway.

And hadn’t I been trying, in vain I might add, to sew with the toy holly hobby sewing machine that he got me, and had to keep returning to the store to get a new one because the feed dogs would get stuck in the ultra up position all the time, and I’d have to cut the fabric out from under the presser foot all the time?

Holly Hobby Toy Sewing Machine
Holly Hobby Toy Sewing Machine

In retrospect, I guess it did make a little sense.

At the time though, I was angry.  As angry as a 10 year old athletic tom boy of a girl could be when receiving a sewing machine for their birthday.  What was next?  An easy bake oven for Christmas?  See, I grew up in a single parent – no siblings household. I often felt somewhat put upon when I had to come home from school and do all my chores, sometimes even make dinner too.  Now I had a real sewing machine too?  I didn’t really like the premonitions that was bringing up.

I had all sorts of problems with it, it would make nests under the throat plate, it would snap needles when I was sewing, or trying to wind the bobbin.  Oh! And trying to raise the bobbin thread?  I would rather get beat up at the playground.   My dad had that thing in for service many times.

Interestingly, he never did enroll me in sewing lessons.  When high school rolled around, I tried to register in home economics, and he wouldn’t let me!  I wanted to learn how to cook, and sew properly. He wanted me to spend my time learning more valuable skills, after all – and I quote – “When you’re a big important business woman, you’ll be eating in restaurants every night anyway.  Those are skills you can learn later.”

Uhm… and while I’m clawing my way to the top?  I digress.

I left that machine behind when I moved out of the house.  I know, shocking, right?  Not long after though, I realised that it may be important for me to have it, and asked for it back.

For years, I took my frustration out on that machine (kicking it when I’d walk past it, avoiding it, refusing to service it – after all, it’s not like I used it.  How would a machine that doesn’t get used need service?)   I hauled it with me from apartment to apartment, into my first house.  I used it from time to time, but had no end of frustrations with it.  Always the same problems.  Several times, I’d try to start some project, and fail (by giving up) because the machine and I would have a war, usually with me on the losing side.  Every time I used that machine, I’d stress myself out over it, and make it much worse on myself than it had to be.

Remember now, we’re talking about “pre-Internet” days.  I couldn’t just hop on the net and find out why that #$@ machine was so angry with me.  I just knew it hated me.

About the only thing I ever did on that machine that worked almost every time was make harnesses for the dogs out of that webbing material.  Looking back, that made sense too.  As best I can tell, the Singer 290C is fussy about tension.  The webbing would forgive me if my tension was too loose, because it was so thick.

How did I ever end up collecting and sewing by choice?

The collecting started extremely slowly at first.  I bought another machine probably 17 years later.  I remember calling Ryan the day I found it.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: “What would you think if I paid $145 for something that was broken?”

Him: *pause*  “Where ARE you?”

Me: “Antique store…..”

Him: *sigh* “What is it?”

Me: “A sewing machine.  A treadle.”

Him: “You’re kidding?!?!”

Me: “Nope.  You know I’ve wanted one for years.  They’re so nice looking.”

Him: “Yeah? How are you going to get it home?”

Me: “Uhm… in the back of the escort?”

Him: *laughing*

I did it.  I brought the machine home.  And for 9 years, she was here in one room or another, but I hadn’t gotten around to fixing her up.  It was really daunting, the amount of work she needed, mostly to her cabinet.  Everything turned on her, I assumed she’d sew. (Boy, don’t I sound like an ebay seller now.   🙂 How many times have I read this: “I don’t know anything about sewing machines, but it “works”.  Things turn and stuff” )

Fast forward to January of 2011.  I decided to take a sewing class.  I needed a change, and a stress reliever.  I thought it might be good to attend couples’ counseling with my sewing machine.  Yes, still the 290C.   (Sewing Class turned into Sewing Circle, and I still attend to this day.)  It turns out that once you let go of your own tension, and tighten it up on the sewing machine, that your relationship gets better.

Within weeks, I started looking at that pretty but neglected machine in the corner, and began wondering what would be necessary to get the old girl sewing.   I wandered over to the Singer store in town with the sewing machine head, and began inquiring about the bits and pieces I needed, and how to begin caring for her.   I left with my wallet much lighter, but with a working machine.  I put her back in her cabinet, and tried her out.

Turns out treadling is very relaxing, once you get the hang of it.   Now that I understood tension and how to recognise what needed to be adjusted, and when, I found it easy to give her a little tweak here and there and to get nice pretty stitches out of her consistently.  I even made a dog bed on that treadle. I bonded with her.   I named her Betty.  She just seemed like a Betty.

Later that year, I even decided to get the old 290C tuned up.  When I got it back, I was told, ” It has 6 month warranty on the labour we did.  No more kicking it!!”   I guess that’s what happens when you bond with the people who service your machine, you tell them things you shouldn’t.

Not long after that, I decided to look for a used serger.  Asking about it during sewing circle, I learned that one of the ladies had one that belonged to her mom, but that she’d found it too difficult to use, and that if I was interested, I could buy it off her.  I did some investigation, determined that it was a decent machine, and did end up buying it from her.

Singer Ultralock 14U64A
Singer Ultralock 14U64A – circa 1986

While I was in Sewing Circle around the same time, one of the quilters there brought the most adorable machine in to work on.  A Featherweight.  I’d never seen one before and I was fascinated.  Ryan had driven me to class that night, and he saw how taken I was with the little cutie.  Christmas and my birthday of 2011, I found a featherweight and a Singer Style box “under the tree”.  (I’ll admit it, there was a small flashback to my 10th birthday, but I managed to shrug it off eventually.:) )

Ronnie - 1950 Featherweight 221
Ronnie – 1950 Featherweight 221
Christmas Style Box
Christmas Style Box (Sometime between 1889 and 1915ish) As found – It’s since been cleaned up and filled.

How you see the style box (puzzle box) in the picture is how it arrived in my hands.  Ryan had found it on ebay.  The seller had included some pieces he found in the drawer with it (the pieces you see on the table in front of the style box.)

He’d actually given me a puzzle for Christmas.  I saw all of those empty spaces and had to know what belonged there.  We both figured I’d be looking for pieces for months.

The featherweight, he’d been haunting the antique stores in Edmonton looking for one.  He finally found one at one of the antique malls, and inquired about it.  The lady at the counter told him that he one he wanted to see didn’t have a bobbin case, but that she had one at home for sale that was whole.  Knowing that I was likely going to use the machine as intended, the bobbin case was important.  They made arrangements for him to come back, and he bought the machine from her.  I named her Ronnie.

I started learning everything I could about the featherweights and the style boxes.  I scoured the Internet for the things I “needed” to fill up the style box, and to round out the box for the featherweight.

I visited and sent emails to all of the antique dealers around town.  One name kept popping up.  If I wanted sewing machine stuff, I had to go see him.  I was 2 pieces shy of filling the style box by this time (and one piece short of filling the second puzzle box that I’d bought intending to rob parts from for the first, until it arrived and was in even better shape than the first.  So, now I had two to complete.), and close to paying the extortion price that one guy on the Internet had quoted me.

We made a trip out to this antique dealer.  100kms one way from home.  It was worth it.  He pulled out a couple of style boxes, and several green Singer boxes of attachments.    When I saw that his style boxes weren’t full, or arranged correctly, I asked him if I could fill them for him.  I think he laughed a little, perhaps thought I was a little strange.   He let me do it though.  While I was doing this, I found 2 of the pieces I wanted, but one of them needed to go into his box to complete it.  I put that one in his box.  He gave me the other piece.  He also mentioned that his brother serviced Sewing machines for years, and may have what I was looking for.  He gave him a call and made sure we could stop by.

Between the two of them, I managed to finish up both boxes that day.

A style box for a VS2 or Model 27 style machine ( holds long bobbins) on the left, and a style box for a class 15 or class 66 type bobbin equipped machine on the right.

I’ve been back to see Ron, the Sewing Machine repair guy several times since.  He’s serviced all of my bakelite feet, and my 403.

What 403 you ask?  Well, that’s a funny thing.   Something happened at Christmas.  I became a collector without ever consciously deciding to.

To Part 2

8 thoughts on “Introductions to our sewing machine family, Part 1”

  1. Thank you for a wonderful site. I have been given a style box and it has several pieces missing. It also has many pieces that do not seem to belong. I was wondoering if you are able to tell me where I can find more information about the style box, the use of the pieces, and anything that may help me to complete my style box.

    1. Hey Leia,

      Thanks for your kind words! My favorite resource for the style boxes is the smithsonian. I could spend hours there looking at the things they put online.
      The manuals show how to use the attachments as well. Some of them take some real practice, but once you get them,.. wow. Better than most modern machines.

      Try these:

      If you send me a photo of the box and the attachments, I can help you out a bunch too with what belongs, what doesn’t and whatever I know about the style boxes. My email address is my name (above this post) at this website’s address. Totally easy. I may try to drop you an email too, with the request for the pic, if I don’t hear from you. I’ve never been clear on whether the replies here go to people’s email addresses too.

      I have a post half written about them, but life keeps getting in the way of me writing as much as I’d like. Perhaps this is the kick in the rear end I need. 🙂

  2. Hi! I was just wondering if you have a tutorial on how to thread your Singer 290c machine. My Mom just gave me hers……but said she has forgotten how its threaded. Thank you!! 🙂

    1. Hi Kelly-Lynn,

      I think the best thing for you is a manual to refer to.

      Singer has it here:
      You can print whichever pages you want, and refer to it whenever.

      That 290C is a very versatile machine, and the manual will show you how to do way more than threading!

      I would have some trouble putting up a tutorial for it now, as I sold it about 2 months ago.

      Good luck! I’d like to hear about how you get on with the machine.

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