everybody - today is the day for heather's stop at my blog on her "blog
book tour". if you are new to my blog thanks so much for visiting!
when i was in new york a couple of weeks ago i had the pleasure
of attending a party celebrating the release of a fab new book - weekend sewing - more than 40 projects and ideas for inspired sewing
by heather ross. i spotted a vintage necchi sewing machine - in brown
no less - sitting on a table (the very one that you see in that second image). i desperately need to replace my total clunker of a sewing
machine (a sear's kenmore i purchased in 1987) and have had my eye on a
necchi but had never seen one in person - unless you count the one
that's behind glass in the design collection at MOMA. well of course
now i knew that i had made the right choice and couldn't wait to get
home and add necchi to my ebay saved searches (i did score a brochure - see previous post - but no sewing machine yet).
i complimented heather on her choice of sewing machine and she proceeded to tell me the most fascinating story about them. she then went on to tell me all about her grandfather's time as a singer sewing machine rep. you know i'm a sucker for crafty history so i was totally blown away. i knew that we had just the right topic for her stop at my blog on her tour! what follows (in bold type) is what heather sent me - i just love it and am sure you will too.
I am an advocate for vintage sewing machine, and have had a few great loves in my own life. The first was a sparkly teal-green vintage Singer. It belonged to my great grandmother originally, then my grandmother, and then my mother, who I believe still owns it.
I sewed on it so much in high school that I was allowed to take it with me to college. During my first year in the dorms I set it up on my desk (where my books and papers were supposed to go, this probably explains my less than stellar academic record) and sewed regularly, which I am sure really thrilled my room mate. I do remember one night, when I was lost on some project and keeping her awake, she finally sat straight up in bed and said “Heather. Enough. Sewing.” The machine worked really well, but at some point the little screw that held the presser foot in place became loosened. I would tighten it as best I could but as I sewed the foot would start to wiggle a little and then shake violently and then eventually get in the way of the needle and then, when the two collided, the needle would break and fly into my face. My solution, partly because the nearest Singer sewing machine dealer was an hour or more away and this model was such an antique that replacing the stripped screw hole was maybe not an option, was to sew with my ski goggles on. I was raised to improvise, not to replace.
My Singer had once lived in China. My grandfather worked for the Singer Sewing Machine in Asia during the late 30’s. America had already been introduced to home sewing machines, and Singer had developed (and had much success with) the first widely used “pay by installment” system in order to enable the average household to afford such a helpful tool. Now, with the depression on in the U.S., they were opening new markets in China. And not just in the cities, but deep into the countryside. My grandfather was one of their men, I think mostly sales and sometimes, debt collections. He travelled by car (there is a family legend of him also taking trips by elephant, which seems believable considering how many towns were not connected by roads at this time, and because an elephant could certainly carry a lot of sewing machines) but no one can say for sure. A record of his sales trips exist in the form of his letters and pictures sent my grandmother, who was living in Saigon. I thought you would like this little excerpt:
Mrs. H. L. Beemer
#45 Rue Garcerie
Tuesday June 13, 1939
Hello my love --
Arrived here late this afternoon after a hectic trip from Nhatrang. The car has been up to its usual stuff -- the water pump folded up about 100 km from anywhere & we had to do the stop & fill stunt every 25 km all the way to Nhatrang (the nearest place with a garage).
They worked till 10 last night making the pump over -- it was too late to go on so stayed there & got another early start today & all was OK till about 40 km out the fan belt broke. We hailed & bus & the little man wove a belt from some rope he had on hand & we limped into town. I sent you a dempo then took the bath -- put a wet towel on the old face to rest the eyes & now here I am guzzling an olive (not bad) & taking hand-in-hand to write to mine love.
Have been traveling through interesting country – from Phanthiet to Quinhon -- you skirt the sea off & on -- about 350 km -- with a few spots very much like Izu -- I wanted to go for a swim but inasmuch as you weren't there -- the punch wasn't in it at all so didn't go in. ...
and it goes on. What I love most about this photo is that he is pouring water into his cars radiator with his hat. He wore hats like that his whole life. So very dapper. My uncle has told me that in China you could not fully understand how many households depended on their Singer sewing machines until a fire tore through a city block or a mountain village, and the streets would fill quickly with Singer Sewing machines, vacated before any other belonging. I believe that the Singer I sewed on came to live in the US just a little while after this letter was written, which would have been about the time my mother was born.
By the time I gave that Singer back to my mother I had learned to take it apart and put it back together again. Every part was metal, every piece stayed shiny and chromed, even when it lived with me in musty cabins and humid old apartment houses. I oiled it sporadically, but used it often. I think this is the trick with sturdy old machines: they long to be used. I had other interests for a while, horses, backpacking, not so much sewing.
When I wanted back in a few years later, I picked up an old industrial Singer. It was a powerhouse, capable of sewing just about anything. It was the most dependable and solid machine I have ever used. I sold it when I moved to New York, because it was far too big to ship and where would I put it? Besides, a modern apartment demands a modern machine. And I knew just the one.
Necchi is the sports car of sewing machines. If Featherweight is a VW beetle, and a Singer is more of a Buick, then a Necchi is really the Fiat or the Ferrari. In fact, the Necchi Mirella is the only sewing machine ever put permanently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, apparently because it is considered to be the most successful design, in aesthetic terms, ever produced. Necchi was the sporty sexy sewing machine, and was extremely successful in Italy. A young Sophia Loren was their spokesmodel (below). An effort was made to introduce the Necchi to the US markets, but failed when the man put in charge was preoccupied with the lovely ladies and high society in New York, and spent much more time out and about than in his office on West 24th street. The next time you are walking down 7th avenue, look for the enormous but faded painting on a brick building of the Necchi Silvia, its ultra modern lines looking avante garde even today.
I sewed most of the photo samples in Weekend Sewing on my Necchi Maximatic, which is the same chocolate brown model shown in my book. This is a fantastic machine, a little loud, but very reliable and sturdy. Once again, made exclusively of metal parts. I sometimes try to feed it plastic bobbins, but it spits them out. I paid about $75 for this machine on Ebay, and will likely have to have a new foot pedal put on it soon. While I am at it, I may just put a new motor in it. Maybe. I sort of like the gurgle-y sound this one makes. If you are looking for a machine that will look lovely on display, perhaps among your danish or post modern decor, this is a great choice.
And then, of course, there is the Featherweight. If you’ve never sewn on one, you really ought to try. It takes curves and corners with a surprising eagerness. Using these little machines is quite thrilling, a little like doing doughnuts in a volkswagen beetle in the high school parking lot in two feet of snow. I’m especially fascinated by the story that a recent reader sent in about her Featherweight, Bonnie. She was told that her machine, which is a “white” Featherweight, has a hint of green in it (like many of them do) because it was “part of a batch that was sprayed with paint from a machine that had not been properly cleaned first, and still had some green left in it from a previous job”. I wonder. Was it British Racing Green? Ammunition Green? Hmmm. Now that I have heard this story I will never stop wondering... And yes, that would make Bonnie a sibling of the little Featherweight on the cover of Weekend Sewing, who many of you have pointed out, is just a touch green. Take a look at what the pure white ones look like here and you will really notice the difference. For great help finding a Featherweight of your own, turn to Featherweight Fanatics.
I have long been on the prowl for a Singer Junior Miss. This is not a toy machine, just a model meant for small hands. I want it because I need a tiny machine that will travel with me for demos and signings and weekend trips. And because its freaking adorable. In exactly twelve minutes I will either be outbid or I will be the new owner of this little beauty. Fingers Crossed.
Also on my list?
The Elna Grasshopper, with its almost military (its Swiss, after all) sturdiness and innovative carrying case that turns into a work surface. I love the green. It comes in a red, too, FYI.
Another Green Machine, the Necchi Mirella. Look at the color of this sewing machine, like Baby British Racing Green!
wow - wasn't that amazing? thanks heather - i think you are world's leading expert on vintage sewing machines. i am so moved and inspired by heather's knowledge and passion. and i do hope she won the "singer junior miss". i am now going to go into my closet and pull out my mom's beloved singer (it's black and i think probably from the mid 50s) and take a good look at it.
if you would like to get a copy of heather's new book weekend sewing - more than 40 projects and ideas for inspired sewing please leave a comment (i will close comments tuesday 3/31@ 11:59pm pacific time) and share your memories of a favorite vintage sewing machine. one lucky winner will be chosen!
update: 4/1 thanks everybody for your comments. what amazing stories! let's all give a big cheer for the winner: amanda who is still using her grandpa's sewing machine!