I have two sewing machines. One is my ancient Singer “Fashion Mate” (circa 1968-1972) that I bought second hand and one is a newer model Singer “Simple” that was Joe’s mom’s machine (circa…? 2012-present?)
Joe’s mom passed away and he brought her sewing machine here for me to use and keep until he ever needed it. I was moved by that gesture, and when I finally unpacked it last month I was surprised to find it looked practically brand new, almost as if it had never been used! It has 18 stitch settings and what appeared to be a 1-step buttonholer (the holy grail!)
My machine has exactly two stitches — straight and zigzag. The machine is now faded and discolored from age, its clunky body is metal but the casing is plastic, and the yellowed plastic areas make the machine look oddly two-toned. I’m not sure what year it was manufactured, but I believe it was part of the first generation of portable Singers meant to be used without a cabinet mount. There’s no buttonhole attachment, just a little drawing on the top panel showing you the four steps to a manual buttonhole. It may look ghetto, but that machine has been a workhorse and I used it most of my life to make my own clothes.
A few weeks ago I took both machines in to be serviced at the North Hollywood Vac & Sew Center (6631 Laurel Canyon Blvd # 17, North Hollywood, CA 91606). I paid $79 each for a full cleaning, de-gunking of the internal gears, and general tune up. If you haven’t run your machine in years it will benefit from a cleaning. The technician also told me that you should run the machine once a month to keep the gears moving freely, just a few test seams on scrap fabric will do it.
With the machines all cleaned and ready, I was really excited to FINALLY have a sewing day. And I was going to use Joe’s mom’s machine for the first time. The night before, I read the entire manual cover-to-cover and even watched the instructional DVD.
Let It Sew
On the morning of my sewing day, I sat down at my table to wind the bobbin and start threading up the Singer Simple machine. Winding the bobbin was pretty straightforward, although I was a little taken aback that the thread spool holder was so flimsy. But I thought maybe they had created it this way by design so that the thread would flow more freely or something.
As you can see, at this point in the morning I was still super optimistic. This is called foreshadowing.
Once the bobbin was full, I removed the bobbin shuttle and placed the spool inside. My old machine has a drop-in bobbin which I still think is the best possible set up for the home sewer, but I’ve used side-load bobbins before. I was surprised how difficult this one was to maneuver. It was incredibly temperamental, and I had to really work with it to get it situated in the machine. I chalked this up to first-timer syndrome.
Next, I threaded the machine. I take pride in my threading skills and I nailed it first time out of the gate. Yeah things are going well! Sewing day!
And then I tried to raise the bobbin thread. Oh Lord.
FORTY MINUTES LATER I got the bobbin thread pulled up and got the tension right. At this point I recognized the machine was not as user-friendly as I had hoped for. Pulling up the bobbin thread was nearly impossible, and the thread got jammed about 40 times before I got it right. It was extremely frustrating.
I still had high hopes for all of the fancy stitches and started doing stitch practice on scrap fabric. Practice stitches went well and finally I started sewing my pajama pants.
THERE IS A BUT COMING
BUT. The big difference between practice stitching and real stitching is that you start a seam and then secure it with a back stitch. The backstitch handle on this machine is so flimsy and splashy that I had to maneuver stitch-by-stitch to get it to backstitch. The lever is plastic and feels like it’s a kid’s toy. Actually, toys are probably made more durable. What an embarrassment for a machine with the Singer name on it. I was afraid every time I touched the handle that it was about to break off.
I had to back stitch by holding the handle in one hand and turning the wheel with the other! UGH.
Finally I was sewing a straight edge stitch. I went very slowly, because the machine seemed to be struggling. The needle would feel like it was about to jam every few minutes, like the motor was seizing up. On the backstitch at the end of my seam, it felt like the machine was about to vomit up spare parts.
On the next long seam I increased my speed on the foot pedal because, well, it’s a long straight seam on a pants leg and if I’m going to use this machine I need to be able to sew at my normal speed. With the addition of a tiny bit of speed, the machine completely freaked out. The bobbin made a metallic clack (almost like the sound of a needle breaking) and then the feed dogs began to scrunch and eat the fabric and then the thread broke. That was when I gave up on this machine once and for all.
Singer, You Should Be Ashamed
I cannot believe the Singer company sold this machine as a home sewing tool. It’s barely functional. Pulling up the bobbin thread should not take an hour.
For a hot minute, I though maybe it was me. Maybe I’m at fault… did I load the bobbin wrong? is the tension off? Should I put in yet another new needle? That’s the worst part of this whole machine, it’s called a “Simple” machine and marketed to the home sewer. A company as iconic as the Singer brand name should be ashamed to sell a machine like this. What is the point of making something with 18 decorative stitches when the most basic back stitch function doesn’t work? I wish I could call someone and get my $79 servicing money back!
But at least I didn’t buy the machine. Maybe this is why it looked brand new– did Joe’s mom struggle with it on her first project? Did she also think it was her fault, or give up midway through her project?
I have been sewing since I was a little girl. Before I could afford to buy my second-hand Fashion Mate, I sewed on borrowed machines all over the rural southeast. I’ve used machines that are so old they didn’t even have a bobbin, just a daisy-chain stitch that you had to hand knot. I’m not an expert machinist, but I’ve always had a knack for being able to feel the right tension and get the thread in place easily.
If I struggled and had a panic of self-doubt, imagine the poor home craft enthusiast who bought this machine and thought it was their own skills and abilities at fault when trying to thread this Singer “Simple” machine. I went online and read the amazon reviews of this model… 53% are one-star reviews. Deservedly so. Shame on you, modern-day Singer company.
Fashion Mate FTW
After pulling the bobbin and thread off the other machine, I set up my trusty old faithful Singer Fashion Mate and plugged it in. The first thing I noticed right away was how much heavier my machine is than Joe’s mom’s machine. My fashion mate is sturdy and solid. It may be homely as hell and sure, it only has two stitches, but it is great at doing one thing: sewing! This is the kind of thing you expect in a Singer machine. You think of your grandma’s old Singer that worked for 50 years and still hems curtains perfectly.
It took about fifteen seconds to thread the machine and pull up the bobbin thread. I added a new yellow band needle and spent the rest of the day happily sewing. I backstitched like nobody’s business thanks to my heavy duty reverse stitch.
The craziest part about all of this is that I had actually considered giving my machine away just a few weeks ago. I figured that if I had Joe’s mom’s fancy machine, it wasn’t necessary to keep my old two-tone bessie. But I’m too nostalgic and I just couldn’t let it go. Every time I thought about donating my machine, I pictured me sitting at a table listening to Grateful Dead albums and making dresses.
My teenage and young adult years were filled with nights and weekends of me alone at a table with that machine, listening to music and sewing and creating skirts and jackets and dresses and pillow shams and even a full futon cover with piped seams and a long zipper.
I’d still love to own a fancy machine like a Janome (with a one-step buttonhole function!!) but I don’t think I will ever part with this old fashion mate. All these years later and it still runs like a beast!
Tomorrow I will post the finished project! I had a lot of help with my pattern and my sewing, as you can see.