Things used to be built to last. Our oldest industrial sewing machine just turned 116 years old! I can pretty much guarantee you that the iPad I’m typing this blog post on won’t work in the year 2139 like our 1907 Singer 29 patcher does today.
They’re remarkable machines. We use them because they work, are relatively inexpensive to procure, and can easily be fixed. Parts for that 116-year-old machine are still readily available. They might be worn and quirky, but they’re not obsolete as long as we’re using them.
And they are symbols. They represent our refusal to participate in the throw-away culture. They are iron declarations that we have the right to repair our stuff, that newer isn’t always better, that old stuff has value, the past is worth remembering and respecting. You get the idea.
They’re cool. I want you to meet them. Here’s the four machines we’re using the most these days. You’ll meet the others in a future post.
Singer 31-15 (1921)
This belonged to a seamstress who used to work in a custom sewing room in Philadelphia. Apparently the company gave the 31-15 to her, maybe when they replaced their floor machines with something newer (and probably less pretty.) I was told more than a few costumes for the Mummer’s Parade were made on this machine.
Born in 1921 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Apparently the old Singer factory building is still sitting there.
The Singer 31 is the classic tailor’s machine: straight stitch, no reverse, adjustable stitch length. It’s incredibly versatile and easily the most-used boat in the Spartan Made fleet. The 31 shares some DNA with the stalwart Singer 15, long-prized by home sewists for it’s tractor-like build and ability to sew till the cows came home.
You often see an old 31 (or a similar 96) in alteration shops today. It can’t sew heavy leather, but it can sew our #0 cotton duck canvas (a 32 oz. textile used for conveyor belts in industrial bakeries) with ease. Smooth and makes a great sound. We often pair it with #16 cotton button thread made by Bedford and still wound on wood spools.
Consew 225 (Date unknown, probably 1950s)
When If found this machine head on the second floor of the now-defunct Keystone Sewing Machines in Northern Liberties, I thought it was a Singer 111w155. It didn’t have any decals and the model nameplate, which would have given it away, was long gone. But it spun nicely and I added it to my salvage cart. It wasn’t until I started working on it that I realized it wasn’t a 111W but a Japanese copy of it, made by Seiko in the 1950s or 60s and sold under the Consew brand in the US.
The 111W155 is almost as famous and ubiquitous as the 31-15. It was one of the earliest of the triple or compound feed machines in which the inner foot, needle and feed dog move the fabric in unison, with the outside foot coming down just in time to secure the material while the other three reset their positions and begin the next stitch.
It’s pretty brilliant, and the machine is a favorite of canvas and leather workers. It won’t sew the heaviest leather (we’ll get to that) but it’ll sew a bit heavier (and cleaner) than a 31-15 to be sure.
I had some work to do on this one to get it up and running nicely. It needed a few parts, all of which were easy to find. One of the advantages of the 31-15s and 111Ws (and their clones) is the abundance of parts, many still produced new in Asia.
I added a few accessories to this one: a double-fold bias tape maker that mounts on the bed, and a swing-away roller guide that makes straight lines and corners on leather a breeze.
Singer 68 (1941)
This machine was also born in the Elizabeth, NJ, factory. Singers were actually made in several locations around the world, including Kilbowie, Scotland. Machines with a ‘W’ in them are from Elizabeth, while machine models with a ‘K’ in them were from Scotland. A ‘G’ model is made in…Germany. Now you know! It was a huge multinational corporation at one time!
Machines like the 31-15 and the 111W series are fairly generalized tools, adaptable to lots of different kind of sewing. On the other end of the spectrum are specialized machines that do one thing only. This Singer 68 is a good example of that niche machine; it does one stitch only, a 3/4” x 1/2” box-x pattern often used for securing straps to bags.
It’s actually based on the Singer 31, but the magic is a plate and clamp driven by a huge drive cam in a pattern. Different patterns are possible, but apparently it’s not simple to change a machine from one pattern to the next. So we better like the box-x stitch!
This machine was made by Singer but carries the Gellman name (even some of the parts, like the shuttle race, are marked Gellman). Long gone, this NYC company made a variety of 68 class machines that expanded on Singer’s original patterns.
The modern version of this is a computerized pattern tacker, a servo-driven machine that can be programmed to make any one of hundreds of stitches. I love the old machines but if anyone has a pattern tacker to off-load, hit me up. We’re not luddites here and one of those would be a game-changer for our little workshop.
Not to say I don’t love this 68, another store-room rescue from Keystone. It’s a brilliant machine.
Viking 22 (1956)
This is the only non-industrial machine on the list and one of only three in our workshop. Made in the height of the mid-century era, it’s reminiscent of the Pfaff 130. It’s a straight stitch and zig-zag machine. No fancy stitches. It has a reverse, and it’s built like a tank, and I believe in cases it was used industrially in tables. She’s a lovely green color; I call her Vera. It’s an uncommon machine, but a real tank. No belts anywhere, the whole thing is driven by shafts and gears with little grease cases around every junction. Let’s just say this machine doesn’t take any lip from the other machines during rec time.
That’s not all! We’ve got a bunch more machines, but they’ll have to wait until the next Machine Spotlight. Coming up, a Singer 112 double-needle machine, 78-3 walking foot machine we’re modding to use at craft fairs, and the oldest machine we have and use, a Singer 29 patcher.