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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
I can’t say that I’ve ever used a vintage (read: anything before 1970) domestic sewing machine that I didn’t like. A few have needed a little cleaning/tune-up, but 50 or so years ago, the manual simplicity of sewing machines was perfect in so many ways.
Modern sewing machines have been cluttered with unnecessary stitches and too many automated “short-cut” features that tend to get in the way if you’ve moved beyond the basics of sewing.
Sometimes, I wonder if society’s need for instant results has caused sewing machine manufacturers to design machines that operate like a microwave – just load your fabric & thread, push a few buttons, sit back, and wait for the machine to stop. Ding! Now you have a new [insert craft item]!
Who really ever uses all 178 different decorative stitches you can get with a new machine?? I learned on a machine that came with only 4 stitch options, and even when I have a measly 25 options, I can’t say I ever use more than 5 on a regular basis – straight, zigzag, blind-hem, triple-stitch, and buttonhole. (Now, special presser feet and needle varieties are a completely different story – give me buckets of those!)
And don’t get me started about computerized sewing machines! I absolutely HATE them! Do NOT put a brain in my machine. *Ahem* Okay, mini-rant over.
Recently, I’ve even seen some interesting prototypes for new types of sewing machines like Sue and Alto. The “redesigns” might attract people new to sewing, but I know that I would be cursing and throwing the concept machines across the room – probably in a display something like this. Please don’t reinvent the “wheel” – just start building machines like they did mid-20th century!
At work I’ve actually used machines that I like but would never want to own. I have a rather short list of minimum requirements for a sewing machine if I’m going to own it:
One feature I prefer, but isn’t a must, is a drop-in bobbin. I really like being able to check the bobbin thread level when I’m in the middle of a seam.
For obvious reasons, I’ve been doing some sewing machine shopping this past week.
I have an old Singer Genie from the 1970s as my backup machine but I’ve never really needed it before now. I purchased it years ago out of nostalgia because it is the same model on which I learned to sew (and my mom still pulls hers out when she needs it).
When I had to pull the Genie out for a couple weeks ago, it was interesting. The sound of its mechanics really took me back. It has a different hum than any other machine (it’s more like a whir) and the pedal has a creaking that kind of sounds like a duck.
Memories and experience collided.
I can now see that the machine I remember so fondly from my youth is quite simply… well, a piece of crap. (In case you are curious, the two main flaws are terrible light placement and the quacking pedal, which is an awkward design that makes my foot cramp. I’ve also been told that replacement/repair parts are nearly impossible to find.)
The Genie serves its purpose just fine – you just won’t enjoy sewing on it for hours at a time. So it was clear that I had to buy a new machine when I learned my main sewing machine was shot.
At first, I considered buying an industrial, and then getting a cheapy basic portable machine that I could consider disposable. But I really want something portable that I’m not afraid will break in the middle of a major stitching job like the Nike commercial.
I started with a local search on Craigslist. It’s obvious that most of the people listing sewing machines don’t have a clue about how to operate them. Photos aren’t always good (close-ups of buttons and dials would be nice!) and it is often hard to determine if a machine does a zigzag unless it’s clear it does a gazillion decorative stitches. And just because the motor turns on and the needle goes up & down when you push the pedal doesn’t mean it works. (I even found a few computerized machines listed as “vintage”!)
I narrowed my search results down to 6 machines pretty fast. Two were industrials and four were vintage domestic machines. There were only two geographically close machines – at least one of the domestics was about a 3-hour drive away.
Based only on photos and vague descriptions, my top choice was a brand I’ve never heard of before now: Wizard.
My first thought upon seeing the photo was “Oh, my gosh, it’s a Cadillac!” It just plain looks like a classic car with its vintage teal & cream with chrome trim. The knobs and dials resemble an old radio that belongs in the dashboard of such a car.
I had never seen such a cool looking sewing machine!
The internet didn’t give me much information about Wizard sewing machines (mainly because I didn’t know a model number), but I did manage to learn that they were made by Western Auto. No wonder the machine looks like a classic car!
I printed the ads for the 6 machines with the plan to go pick up my dead machine as soon as the repair store opened in the morning and ask the repair guys a couple questions. I also wanted to see what my options were in the way of new machines that they carry there.
The store I went to is a Baby Lock dealer. I’ve owned a Baby Lock serger for about 11 years and I’ve used other Baby Lock sergers in costume shops, but I’ve never used or known anyone with a Baby Lock sewing machine. So I really didn’t know what they would show me at the store.
I told the sales lady what I needed and asked about the ability to repair the new machines. I learned that Baby Lock (unlike the Singer brand nowadays) is very good about continuing support of their machines – meaning, they make a real effort to keep making parts for repairs for years.
Bonus points for Baby Lock! Call me old-fashioned, but I like being able to repair anything that wears out or breaks in this world full of planned obsolescence.
The first machine I was shown was the model they usually sell to schools because it can do a lot and take a beating from students – the BL40A or “Grace” model.
Two features turned me off immediately – Grace had a digital screen (brain!) and the reverse was a tiny little button above the needle. No matter what people say about getting used to it, I never get used to the reverse being there and I always reach to the right automatically. It’s nice that the screen will indicate which foot to use and it has a huge selection of stitches (including 5 buttonholes) but I don’t need any of those features.
I like dials & levers and a regular push-and-hold reverse button. Grace reminded me of an iPod with a big round unmarked “wheel” dial and a couple little up/down buttons, kind of like volume buttons.
Nope, not for me. Next!
One step down is the BL30A model named “Molly”. She has normal dials, no brain, a standard push-down reverse lever, a drop-in bobbin, and a decorative orange stripe (one of my favorite colors). All-in-all, this Baby Lock model is very similar to the machine I was looking to replace.
The “upgrades” it has compared to my kaput modern Singer is a one-step buttonhole and the extra lift level on the presser foot (features I’ve liked on machines I’ve used elsewhere).
My only two nit-picky complaints are that it uses Class 15J bobbins (I have a drawer full of Class 66 bobbins) and it won’t sew quite as wide or as long a stitch as my dead machine. But bobbins are cheap (hel-looo, 50% off notions sale!) and I can probably live with slightly smaller stitches.
I left the store with plans to go back once I had another paycheck in the bank to cover the $350 cost of a brand new machine. (Ironically, the new Baby Lock is almost exactly the same price as my dead machine was when I bought it.)
I decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea to check out the vintage Wizard machine I found on Craigslist, too – it was only $65. Something about that machine was just calling to me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was in love – and I hadn’t even tried to sew with it!
I had to go see it, even though it was an hour drive from my house. So I called the number in the ad and made arrangements to check it out.
I packed a small sewing kit, stopped by the bank to get cash (just in case I still wanted the machine after trying it), and picked up my mom because she offered to make the drive with me. (Thanks, Mom!)
As expected, the guy who was selling it didn’t know anything about sewing. He said the lady who had owned it had recently died (I think he picked it up at an estate sale). He just knew it was a nice looking and well-maintained vintage machine – he was fascinated to watch me thread it, hehe.
I was glad I took my kit because the sewing machine didn’t have a needle! The bobbin in it was half-full of rotten thread that easily snapped when I pulled it tight. It had definitely been unused for a few years. But other than needing a good cleaning/tune-up to remove the dusty oil buildup, it was in great shape.
So I wound a bobbin and moved some dials to see what was what, since there was no owner’s manual. It just needs a little tension tweaking and it’s a pretty sweet machine. (I love the feel of the hand wheel.) And it is the quietest sewing machine I have ever heard! I mean strangely quiet – I think I could sew in the same room as my sleeping husband and not disturb him!
I happily handed over the cash and the seller loaded it into my car (I think it weighs over 35 pounds!) and my mom and I drove the hour trip back home.
Once I was home, I was able to research it a little more using an actual model number – it’s a Wizard 3KC 8842 that was made in either the 1950s or 1960s. I even managed to find a downloadable manual – it’s for the 8841 model but it’s almost exactly the same, from what I can tell. The manual answered the main question I had: how do you turn the stitch selector dial? The answer: there’s another dial that you hold in the “neutral” position while you turn the stitch dial. That is something I would not have figured out. (I’ve actually learned quite a bit more about Wizards since – here’s my more detailed post about them.)
I can tell that the needle plate is not original – it’s a different finish than the bobbin access door. I will definitely be replacing it again (if possible) because there are no measurement marks etched into it.
So I decided it was best to replace my dead sewing machine with not just one, but two sewing machines.
And guess what! Both machines use the same Class 15J bobbins! Both also have a low shank, so I can keep all of my dead machine’s feet and continue using them. =)
I don’t know why, but for some reason I never really named my broken machine – it was always just “my sewing machine”. And my serger was just “my serger” (which btw, is a BL450 and basically the same thing as a BL450A or “Lauren” model aside from the different decals).
I have dubbed my vintage Wizard sewing machine Gandalf the Green* – I thought it was appropriate considering it’s a Wizard, hehe. (I also thought of naming it Merlin or Yensid – the wizard in Disney’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice – but Gandalf was the first thing that popped into my head.)
And since Baby Lock has already blatantly named all their machines, I also have “Thoroughly Modern Molly”. I know, I know, it’s a bad pun, but I’ve loved that movie since I was a kid and it makes me laugh! (LOL – when I sew something wrong while using it, I’ll have to start saying things like “oh, pook.”)
I have a feeling that Gandalf will be my favorite, but Molly will be much easier to port around town for jobs and she has a pre-set for buttonholes. I think it’s the best of both worlds – old & new.
* I realize the color of the machine is actually teal, but “Gandalf the Teal” just doesn’t have the same ring.
Sewing Machine Serendipity (information about Wizard sewing machines)