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Sewing that's Retro, Geek, and Chic
I don’t know if anyone else has this tendency, but I have a habit of being generally curious and needing to know about random things. Because of this, I often find myself first asking my husband (because sometimes he knows) and then often turning to the universe (aka “Google search”) for answers.
There have been countless times that I have gone on casual internet searches about one topic, and then ended up following random link trails to learn all kinds of seemingly useless trivia (and yes, I do retain a lot of it – it’s just how my inquisitive mind works). Sometimes, my husband and I will waste hours randomly searching together and learning about new things.
And the harder it is to find information about something, the more I need to know. Periodically, some of those tiny bits of trivia will serendipitously* fit together to solve a mystery.
Well, just call me “Sherlock” because I think I’ve managed to piece together some really useful details in my search for information about my recently acquired vintage Wizard brand sewing machine!
So if you have a Wizard yourself or you’re just generally curious (like I am) about the history of old things and how things work, I’ve decided today’s post will share with you what I’ve learned, in hopes that others searching the web for the same information will not have to search quite as hard as I did.
(And if you have any further information to add about Wizard sewing machines, please leave a comment!)
You’ve met him before – this is my Wizard, Gandalf the Green:
He is an “Automatic Zigzag” sewing machine in teal & cream with shiny chrome accents, model number 3KC 8842 made in Japan (probably in the late ’50s or early ’60s). And he weighs a whoppin’ 37 lbs!
I managed to find the lady I believe owned Gandalf before me because my sewing machine came with an old maintenance receipt. The owner’s name was listed at the top, and I was aware that she had died right around the time I bought the machine. So a search for an obituary online produced one that seemed to line up with name, location, and date of death. I believe Gandalf the Green was previously owned by Linda Kay (Plant) Garrett of Abilene, TX. Thank you, Linda, for taking good care of your machine!
Wizard brand was a line of tools made by Western Auto which included sewing machines.
Apparently, lots of Western Auto files were shredded and disposed of at some point in history (mentioned in this old thread), so there isn’t much documentation left about Wizard Tools. But in my message board searching, I got the impression that the sewing machines made under the label “Wizard” were sold to Brother, a company that still makes sewing machines today. (Too bad Brother doesn’t provide good online records about their vintage machines like Singer and some other brands do!)
When I brought Gandalf home, I knew I wanted to find a manual so I could learn his wonderful vintage tricks. (Old sewing machines were not overly labeled like modern machines are, even though most operate with similar knobs and dials. I could probably make do without a manual, but I had a feeling I would miss out on some amazing & hidden features.) I also knew I wanted to replace the unmarked needle plate that did not appear to be original.
Eventually, I somehow coaxed the internet to give me the link to a website that sells old sewing machine manuals in both hard copy and instant download file form. On the site, I still had to convince a search to give me the actual results I wanted for anything Wizard brand. I finally achieved my goal of a being able to buy a manual with this pdf download for a Wizard 3KC 8841, which seemed to be nearly the same as my 8842 model (the “zig-zag width knob” is slightly different because it’s probably for the model just before mine).
Once I had the manual for the 8841, I learned there was a trick to turning the stitch selector (or “Automatic Pattern Selecting Knob”.) At first, I thought my machine’s knob was just stiff and difficult to turn from years of storage, but it turned very easily once I knew to hold the zig-zag width knob in the neutral position at the same time. This releases the tension on the cams, and it requires both hands – see photo example below.
With the 8841 manual in hand, I took Gandalf to my local service shop for a good cleaning and basic tune-up. Even the repair guy was unfamiliar with the unusual feature for turning the stitch dial, and after a little convincing, decided he would keep the manual with the machine just in case.
My next step in learning about my Wizard machine was a serious hunt for a new needle plate with measurement marks.
Part numbers and copyright dates seem to be impossible to find in old manuals, which are only about how to use a machine. So I just started looking at photos of any plates that websites bothered to post.
One service shop in Illinois posted a huge number of random needle plate photos. I was able to select about 3 by sight from the collage of photos that looked similar to the one on my machine. Then I discovered that selecting a photo for enlarging also gave me a unique file name. The picture labeled “B4139.jpg” appeared to be the best match.
I then did a search on ebay including “B4139” hoping it was a part number because I suspected the “B” stood for “Brother”.
Eureka! I got a handful of exact hits!
I chose to pay a dollar more for the needle plate from a seller who took very clear photos and included one of the underside of the plate – which made it unmistakable that it matched the unmarked plate currently on my Wizard. (I also discovered that part B4139 is the same as part number NZ3LG.)
Evidently, there are at least four Brother sewing machine models that use the same needle plate because the ebay listing titles included 4 different model numbers. Out of curiosity, I did a search to find out what the various models looked like.
Three were pretty generic looking vintage machines.
But then I saw the Brother 210 and *may* have squealed with joy. It was exactly like Gandalf down to every last knob and dial – only in pale pink!
And I now had another lead!
I began to wonder if my Wizard 3KC 8842 was the very last model to be called a “Wizard” before being sold to Brother and renamed the Brother 210 – even the brand’s name-plaque was the same shape on both machines despite a different inscription.
I decided to purchase a CD copy of the Brother 210 user manual (another “buy it now” on ebay) to continue my quest for more information. (I have since found a Brother 210 manual available for purchase in both physical and digital form on this webpage – scroll down to number 9 on the list.)
I received my two ebay items a day apart.
The needle plate was perfect. The B4139 (or NZ3LG) plate fits the Wizard 3KC 8842.
And the Brother model 210 manual revealed yet another surprise – “Knob B”. Knob B (aka “The Switch-Over Knob”) is what the Brother manual calls the zig-zag width knob that you have to hold in neutral to turn the stitch selector.
Knob B has a magical secret befitting a Wizard – it pulls out! According to page 15 of the Brother manual:
“This is the knob which allows you to switch the operation of your machine from straight to fully automatic zigzag sewing and vice versa. It also allows you to set you machine for semi-automatic operation. For fully automatic zigzag sewing or semi-automatic sewing – pull out Knob B. For manual sewing – push Knob B in.”
And I had to chuckle to myself when I first read the “Introduction” in the Brother 210 manual because they just don’t write manuals like this anymore (nowadays the first page of a manual is usually called “Safety Information”):
“You are about to make an exciting discovery! Sewing machines need not be out-of-date, but can be as modern, as efficient and well-designed as the cars we drive and the homes we live in.
“With experienced know-how and world-famous precision engineering, the Automatic Zigzag Sewing Machine has been created for you – today’s fashion-wise woman…
“…As you become acquainted with your new Automatic Zigzag machine, you will find the expert’s touch in its many exclusive features. It will often seem to do your thinking for you. Even the beginner enjoys the AUTOMATIC ZIGZAG sewing, and even the expert is amazed at its ease.”
I am going to have a blast experimenting with stitches on this machine! My first impression was correct – it truly is a Cadillac of a sewing machine! And all without a computer brain! I love vintage machines. =)
Please let me know if you have a similar Wizard or Brother sewing machine and have anything to add or would like more information about a specific feature. And if you have the Wizard 3KC 8842 model and are searching for a manual of your own, I would recommend the manual for the Brother 210 over the Wizard 8841, although both manuals are helpful.
UPDATE: Ryan sent me some photos to share of his recently inherited green Brother 210, complete with original sewing cabinet! He said the previous owner married a WWII vet after the war, and he’s pretty sure the machine was purchased in Japan and shipped over to the states shortly after. His wife is looking forward to using it. =)
(click to enlarge and view as slide-show)
Mary also has a Wizard 3KC 8842, but her’s is missing the push-reverse button in the middle of the stitch selection dial.
If you have the part or know where she can get a replacement, please email me so I can pass any information on to her. Thanks!
* Upon hearing about my discovery of sewing machine information, my husband said my middle name should be “serendipity”, which in turn, spawned another of my searches – this time for the origins of the word serendipity. It’s actually really interesting – check it out here and here.
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)
So much has been going on since I last posted, I’m not really sure where to begin! I guess I’ll just jump right in with the most unexpected news:
My sewing machine is terminal.
If I were superstitious, I could say that Macbeth killed my machine, but I know that I’ve made my machine work harder in a day or two than most sewing machines ever even come close to working after somebody takes them out of the box.
Honestly, I’m rather surprised that I’ve managed to make a modern, overly-plastic domestic sewing machine last for almost 14 years! I’ve had to sew things I knew would abuse my poor little machine many times. But I’ve seen modern domestic machines bite the dust after only 3 or 4 years of mileage in a costume shop, so I think I was pretty good to mine, considering.
I noticed a little weirdness with it near the very end of the Nike commercial shoot. I thought it was because I was sewing so many sports jerseys. That fabric had a residue to it, which I thought might have built up on my machine, causing it to protest.
Two days later, before I could even unpack my machine from the Nike gig, I got a last minute call to go sew for some promos for the show “Big Rich Texas”. They wanted a pleather cover for a mechanical bull to look like a Chanel purse (yes, I get paid to do the weirdest things!), and my machine didn’t give me any trouble then.
When I came home from that, I cleaned my machine up a little, put in a new needle, and leisurely started sewing some mockups. It seemed to be just fine.
Then I did a 13 hour day, an 11 hour day, and a 12 hour day of Shakespeare sewing at my home shop (it became a rather big build when it wasn’t supposed to be that kind of show), and in my pedal-to-the-floor sewing, my machine started sporadically acting up – for no apparent reason.
I would be sewing a long straight seam (on two layers of cotton bedsheet fabric) and suddenly, halfway through the seam there was bobbin vomit. Now usually bobbin vomit (lots of loopy, loose stitching on the bottom of the seam) is easy to fix if you just unthread and rethread your machine.
So I did. And sew I did.
But it kept happening. On every. Single. Seam. ARG!
I just plain didn’t have the time (or patience) for it, so I put my machine aside with plans to take it to the doctor when I had a day off, and I pulled out my backup machine for the remainder of the build.
I finished the 31 costume pieces that needed to be built at home (it still looks like Scotland barfed in my sewing room), and I did a bunch of alterations at the theatre itself – they have a vintage Kenmore sewing machine for backstage repairs that I rather liked, even if it needs a little tune-up.
Since the play officially opened on Friday, my job on the show is finished. I have another job coming up in October for a movie shoot that will probably wrap around the first week of December.
So I suppose my machine picked the most convenient time to act up – I have work, which means I have the money to do something about it.
When I dropped my machine off at the “hospital” I was able to pick up one of my other machines that I had taken in for service recently. It is a vintage Singer Featherweight 221 that I inherited a couple of years ago from my grandmother.
When my grandmother died, I told my mom while she and her siblings were going through their mom’s stuff that I would take the sewing machine if no one else wanted it. No one did, and much to my surprise, they handed me two sewing machines – the modern one I remembered my grandmother using (which I used when I went to visit her) when I was a kid AND the little vintage Singer!
I had no idea she had the old Singer (it was probably in her closet for decades) and I *may* have squealed and jumped around for a few days after it was given to me.
The only reason I didn’t start using it immediately after I got it was because the casing on the power cord was brittle & cracked, and I was concerned I would end up shocking myself.
A couple of days after dropping off my workhorse machine, I got a call from one of the repair guys at the place where I took it.
It was sad news: my little modern machine had two “cracks” in the timing mechanism and 3 cracks in some other part I’ve forgotten. Newer Singers are essentially disposable because almost as soon as a machine is built, they stop making parts for it. So it’s not really fixable.
(Now before you start to feel sorry for me, let me just say that I had a plan and solution in motion 24 hours after I was given the grim diagnosis.)
Part of me got a little nostalgic about my machine. It was the first machine I bought for myself and it never gave me any problems until recently.
I used it for my wedding, my sister’s wedding, Camille’s wedding dress, and for at least 4 other wedding gowns over the years. But the very first things I built with it were two rabbit puppets I designed for a children’s theatre production of The Velveteen Rabbit my sophomore year in college.
I let some of the other theatre majors at the time do the distressing of the “older” version of the puppet and then I “patched” it up. They literally had to run over the poor thing with someone’s car just to make it look loved enough to be seen from the audience. (I’m glad I wasn’t there to watch!) Ahh, memory lane…
Anyway, back to my dying sewing machine. (Maybe like the velveteen rabbit, a fairy will come save it from the trash heap.)
But another part of me was really excited because this would be the first time I would be looking for a machine after having sewn on countless machines both new & old in a variety of industrial & domestic versions throughout my career.
Now I can confidently say what features I like and what I dislike in a sewing machine. And because I am so sure about what I want, I can almost immediately narrow down my choices by about 80% leaving only a few options to research fully.
My grandmother’s vintage Singer isn’t a good replacement option because it cannot do a zigzag stitch – it’s a straight stitch only machine (unless you use a fancy attachment). And I absolutely MUST have a zigzag stitch.
It’s also really tiny, which would make it difficult to do some of the bulky costume work I’ve been called to do – like, oh, pleather mechanical bull covers.
Who knows what it was that caused me to damage my sewing machine in the first place. I may have been sewing for years with cracked parts – they just weren’t bad enough to cause problems until now. My machine served me well and it worked hard for as long as it could. Even in the end, it kept trying.
I have my plan in motion to replace my workhorse machine – I’m just watching my mailbox for my next paycheck at this point.
Stay tuned for And here’s my solution… Even if you don’t sew, I think you’ll like it. =)