I was due for lunch with my friend Carrington. On a number of occasions we have aimed for lunch but instead hit yard sales, which in Nashville are a never-ending opportunity to contemplate the arc of life, the human compulsion to collect pointless crap, and to negotiate the price of something from $1 to a quarter.
This time, we ate one granola bar and hit four sales in 90 minutes. It was high-density work.
Every single yard sale I have attended with Carrington involves a moment when I unearth the Craft Zone. Estate sales these days tend to involve women’s homes that have been inhabited since 1966. There are always unfinished cross stitch kits, Simplicity patterns, and a mending basket. There is usually a plastic bag filled with straight knitting needles, crochet hooks, and yarn ranging from Red Heart to Bucilla. It can be kind of great to adopt a departed lady’s Gingher scissors. But this last trip really pegged the meter in my estate sale experience with Carrington.
I bought a sewing machine.
Carrington, whose crafting impulse tends toward writing, boys, chickens and her garden, had two comments: “That thing looks like a trip to the sewing machine repair shop to me.” And, seeing my crestfallen expression: “Well, plug it in.”
I removed the cover and was hit by a powerful scent I recognized: machine oil. It smelled like that old Soviet submarine we visited in Estonia. It was metal, heavy as day-old sin, and it was pale blue.
You have to understand that I have never recovered from the disappearance of my mom’s 1950s Necchi Supernova sewing machine. It looked like this:
Sometime after Mom died and before I got out of college, back in the ’80s, her sewing machine vanished from my dad’s attic. As happens with many transitions, stuff gets lost along the way. I don’t have much rancor about what happened to Mom’s sewing machine, but I miss it. Phantom limb. Wish I could have learned to use it. It would have been a link to her.
Do you remember watching your mom do stuff? Mine was a spectacular seamstress, would crank a dress overnight for me, a flapper costume for my fourth-grade play, my favorite girl dresses. I played with her sewing machine and its box of strange attachments a hundred times. I pretended to sew. I raised and lowered the presser foot.
I have been thinking about buying a sewing machine for about ten years now. I’ve never used one. It’s the sort of quest that has waxed and waned, usually after seeing one of your quilts or wandering around a place like Craft South. I’d think: wow, a sewing machine looks like fun in a box. But every time I did my studying and narrowed down to a likely machine, I just couldn’t do it. They all seemed too modern, too computerized, too good.
The only sewing machine I wanted was my mom’s.
So there Carrington and I were, on the floor in a back bedroom of a vacant house in West Meade, googling “Singer Style-Mate 348,” trying to figure out if this was a thing that was worth forty bucks. Or ten bucks. Or anything at all. It was made in 1967, I learned. eBay showed one that had sold for $90. It was said to be a sturdy workhorse.
When I plugged in the sewing machine, nothing happened. Carrington found a knob that said ON, and she turned it. A small light under the machine lit up, as bright as a flashlight. I took the foot controller in my hand and pinched it. The machine made a sound I recognized from years ago: a mechanism groaning into its work. The needle chugged up and down in a plausible way, and my heart soared at this old, familiar sound. It was mechanical, kind of loud, and if there were ever a moment of memory stirred by a sound, this was a powerful one.
I didn’t even negotiate. Forty bucks.
Once I got home, I sat down with the user manual to figure out how to use the thing.
On the cover, I found this:
Sometime, long ago, a girl wrote “Mother” on the cover of her mom’s sewing machine guide.
Maiden Voyage: 1967 Singer Style-Mate
Well, I had to see if this 1967 Singer Style-Mate 348 would actually work. Turning the ON knob while sitting on the floor of a back bedroom at an estate sale is not exactly a real test of whether this sewing machine would actually connect two pieces of fabric faster than I could with a needle and thread.
In 1967, diagrams didn’t really need to be all that clear. A woman just knew how to thread a damn sewing machine the way a man knew how to drive a Chevrolet Corvair.
This thread tensioning knob has a lot more slots and grooves in it than this diagram lets on. I slid the thread in there and hoped for the best.
This thread, by the way, is from Hubbo’s mom’s collection. Missing her! Her craft was public policy and child welfare, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have a mending basket like everybody else.
I dug up a stack of Anna Maria Horner fabrics that have been patiently waiting for their destiny. Fabrics, your time has come.
By the way, in 1967, the Singer Company was making TV sets. “Battery pack available at moderate extra charge.” That’s the battery pack behind the TV set—it’s the same size as the TV set.
This is so much like my mom’s Necchi Supernova.
You have control over stitch length and width. You can wind a bobbin. You can go backward or forward. You can use plastic wheels called cams to create decorative stitches that I have never seen used on a piece of clothing, ever.
That’s about all. Whatever adjustment you want to make, you move a lever or turn a wheel. It is 100 percent analog.
Here’s what happened when I lined up the fabric, lowered the presser foot, and stepped on the foot controller:
A jillion tiny stitches! What a blast!
The back side, however, revealed a significant problem with the stitch tension. My user guide told me the needle thread tension was way too loose. So I turned the knob from 4 to 2. Maybe half as much would be the right amount. Whatever.
The next run of stitches resulted in smaller loops but still not the perfect interlocking of two threads at equal tension. This looked a WHOLE lot like the embroidery couching we did at our Tilleke Schwarz workshop, except that this took ten seconds instead of an entire week.
Unintentional couching. I could never repeat this, I’m sure. But it looks kind of cool.
More adjustments, getting closer. At this point, studying the threading diagram, I diagnosed my problem as Not Following The Diagram. I missed at least two eyeholes, including the crucial one directly above the needle, which meant that my thread was never going to behave properly no matter how much I fooled with that thread tension knob.
Once I threaded the machine properly, it was smooth sailing. I zigged, I zagged. I attached these two pieces of Anna Maria Horner fabric so thoroughly that it was impossible to turn it right side out. I kind of like the quiet side of these vibrant fabrics.
At this point, I began to worry that I was going to burn out my old/new sewing machine. Who knows when it had its last maintenance? 1987? The user manual tells me exactly where to apply the drops, so I’ve ordered up Singer Oil and Singer Lubricant. NOT the same thing, people. Do not be fooled.
Until then, I’ve found a new world of vintage sewing machine enthusiasts. There is a lot of strongly held opinion in the world of old sewing machines. I love discovering yet another community of people all in about something fairly esoteric, especially when the overall agreed-upon premise of the group is “love your gear.” Now, with my 1967 Singer Style-Mate 348, I’m right in there.
I actually do believe there’s a ghost in this machine, or in the room, or in my head. My mom would be laughing her ass off at my fooling with this machine—she was always quick to try new technology, bought an early home computer just to see what it did. I can hear her saying, “Why don’t you get a Janome, Ann? What is wrong with you?”