Sunday, January 23, 2022

Engineering to meet minimum needs

I've been thinking, recently.  About engineering and design to minimum requirements, and cost.  It's...not my field of expertise, by any means, and I've probably got a lot...well, really wrong.  

What started the train of thought was...honestly, that pair of pants I mended a couple of weeks ago.  

In short, the fabric they were made of--a heavy, drapey, sorta slick microfiber--had held up very well, but the stitching in the seat and the crotch inseams hadn't.  I wanted to fix the pants, rather than spend $30+ on a replacement pair.  I thought I had the equipment on hand: a sewing machine designed to minimum standards, not meant for doing anything more than sewing lightweight seams on lightweight fabrics, and only for a while.*  What I actually had was a piece of plastic that had had more demanded of it than it was capable of, which stripped the plastic gears.  I couldn't get the sewing machine I'd borrowed from my mother in in law (another plastic fantastic that hadn't been abused) to load and thread the bobbin at all.  Which left me with a couple of choices--I could spend $30 on a new pair of pants (I did), $75-$200 on a new sewing machine, or I could look closer at the antique that had belonged to my great grandmother...and spend whatever I needed to fix it.  

As it turned out, what I needed to fix the 123+ year old Singer 27 was a belt and some mineral oil.  The belt was $8.  The mineral oil was $4.  And I had a functional machine.  Which, with time and practice, mended the slacks.  I eventually spent another $10 and got an even-feed presser foot, which made doing quilting a lot easier for turning old jeans into pot holders and oven mitts.  I will be spending likely another $60 for one more shuttle and a bunch of bobbins ($20), and a zigzag attachment ($40).  I may potentially look for a buttonhole attachment in a few years, but that's a long ways off.  But at that point, I'd have spent about as much on things for this machine as I'd have spent on a new bottom-of-the-line machine, that I'd have had to replace again in a few years, but not as much as a new heavy-duty Singer. 

Back when the Singer 27 was new, it would have cost my great-grandfather $60-$100.  That was...pretty significant, for the times.**  But.  All of the guts are made of fairly high quality steel, and the externals are cast iron.  The only bits that need replacement every so often are the treadle belt, the needles, and potentially the pitman rod.***  It's a forever machine.  I will be handing it down to my daughter.  She will likely hand it down to hers. 

The thing is, it's a hell of a lot more capable than most modern users would need.  I've used this to make a quilted denim potholder--as in, two to four layers of denim (depending on where the needle was punching through) and a layer of batting.  The machine never hesitated or complained.   

A lot of modern households...would not be doing that.  Most modern users might need to re-do a seam on a shirt.  Some might need to fix a hem on a pair of dress slacks.  A few might need to do a hem on a pair of jeans, but not necessarily (a lot of people wouldn't bother putting in a new hem on jeans).  

A $75 dollar machine (a bit over $2 in 1898) is all most people would need.  The bottom-line machines with the plastic bodies are curvy and prettier than they used to be.  Most people would buy one, or maybe two, because they don't make things for their families, don't make their own curtains, pillows, potholders, and oven mitts.  

And honestly, a machine capable of doing those things?  One with metal parts and gears?  Would have cost less than $10 in 1898, and be capable things this one isn't.****  It absolutely wouldn't be as pretty--the Singer 27 is a beautiful machine, all swooping lines and curves.  The the heavy duty modern Singers are...a square-ish chunk of gray metal.  

It's a lot more than what a lot of people actually need for what they actually do.  And paying for one...yeah, they buy one machine once.  But a lot of those people won't buy more than one bottom-line plastic fantastic, and won't wear it out because they buy cheap clothes and don't do repairs.  Granted, I think that's a mistake that's going to be biting a lot of people in the ass over the next several years, but...that's just my opinion.  

Bottom line: for a total of $55, Odysseus got four pairs of work pants, and I have a working antique, rich with family history, capable of almost anything I need from it.  

And the next time a pants hem or seam lets go, I can just fix it. 

*The bottom line Singer sewing machines are made almost entirely of plastic...which wears out a lot faster than any kind of metal.  They're cheap, but designed to wear out and be affordable to be replaced when they wear out.  Which...honestly, is all most people need.  Or want.  

**That is equal, in today's dollars, to $2,015-$3,360.  About what you'd expect to pay for a bottom line industrial sewing machine.  

***The treadle belt was what needed replaced--and is leather.  I could also replace it with a longer-wearing rubber or silicon belt for...not much more.  The needles need replaced every so often, anyway, because they go dull.  The pitman rod is easily replaced--it's wood.  And if I wanted, I'm sure I could find someone to machine a metal one for me.  

****A heavy-duty Singer sewing machine today costs about $175-$225, and can do zigzag stitches, button holes, and reverse-stitching.  It also uses electricity and goes wicked-fast, which I don't necessarily want. 


  1. We are going to do some heavy fabric work to recover one cushion and make two other cushions from scratch.
    As you said, the plastic Brother won't do this, and I'm going to use the Kemore machine from the mid-seventies that we got from my niece.
    It's all metal, the gear train is steel/iron and it should do the job perfectly.

    I'd done a bit of research on the Kenmore cabinet sewing machine that we have yet to bring up from my MIL's basement, and I found that it was made by the White Sewing Machine Company and it is really a White Rotary Electric driven machine.
    I found out that the attachment mount for my White treadle from 1889 is exactly the same system as the Kenmore badges electric machine of the late forties.
    I will have to get around to trying the White pattern Kenmore buttonholer on the White treadle machine.
    The only downside is that the newer Kenmore machine has a "super high shank" and needs either an attachment that matches that, or an adapter.

    We will never wear out the older machines.

    The next step in my sewing machine adventures is to bring

    1. Most consumer machines are low shank, straight shank machines. My Singer's a low, straight shank. It will need an adapter for modern, snap-on presser feet, but anything that screws on to the shank will work, for the most part. And an adapter for the snap-on feet? Less than $5.

      The adapters *are* out there--you just have to know what you're looking for.

    2. I thought exactly that until I started bringing my Mother in Law's Kenmore out of hibernation.
      As yet, no adapter to go from the White system that looks like a wire connector spade, to the modern Singer style low shank presser foot.
      Her mid fifties Kenmore was made by the White Sewing Machine company and uses the White system.
      The mid seventies Kenmore looks like a standard Singer shank until you put a Singer attachment on it and realize that the attachment will not lower enough to make contact with the fabric.
      I did find and adapter for that machine, and it's on the way.
      After a bit more cleaning, wiring replacement, and a test, the mid fifties Kenmore will be back in service and ready for use.

      A couple of months ago, I knew little about vintage electric sewing machines, and less about treadle machines. This voyage of discovery had been a bunch of fun.

      I find myself wanting a more modern treadle machine made by Singer. Perhaps one that's only a century of so old. :)

    3. Sounds like it might have been a high-shank machine.

      Look for the year range you want in the Singer serial number ranges, and then look for that range of serial numbers. Or look for a machine that can be adapted to a treadle (has an external, bolt-on motor, and is run with an external belt). Those might be easier to find.

  2. Those old Singers will run forever! My youngest has my grandmother's treadle Singer and still uses it, especially with two kids...LOL

    1. It is a forever machine. It will run as long as she keeps a belt for it, keeps the moving internals oiled, and can run the treadle.

    2. She learned, and can get the rubber belts. The leather ones aren't available in Kommiefornia... sigh

    3. Not even through Amazon? It's where I got mine from.

  3. I received a high school auctioned Singer Scholastic 717 for a Christmas present in the mid 80's. (as a guy, it's not something on the most requested list) In 89, when I re-enlisted, I took it to Germany, and made a killing with it sewing patches on uniforms, hemming pants, making curtains and other items for the women in the barracks. While I took a bit of heat from the guys for owning it, come inspection time I was their best friend at $1 per patch. The machine, and my ability to use it, helped me get a lot more dates than the guys who gave me crap for owning it. It even made a pretty nice wedding dress in a size 4 back when my tastes were more of an 8-10.
    That Singer would sew through 7 layers of denim without slowing down, back when denim had some weight to it and the needles were made in Germany. Lately, with the crap needles coming out of 'other' countries, it'll do 3-4 layers of the new stuff. It's still my go-to if something needs repaired, made or I just get bored. At 30#, it's a plastic cased hunk of steel and nowhere close to the lightweights of today's machines.

    1. Awesome, isn't it? I'll likely use my great-grandmother's until I physically can't, anymore, then pass it to my daughter.

      As for the needle...a friend of mine recommends leather needles for multiple layers of denim. Just fyi. He says they're stronger and pointier than the newer "heavy fabric" or denim needles.


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