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Restoring my Grandmother's Singer Sewing Machine

Discussion in 'Skills and Smarts' started by Shangas, Apr 13, 2012.

  1. As some of you may know, last year, my grandmother passed away. She was a huge part of my life and without a doubt my closest and most beloved of all my thousands (no exaggeration) of relatives. She was a rich and impressive 97 years old when she left our mortal coil.

    Since her death in November last year, I was overcome by a huge wave of nostalgia and sadness. A cornerstone of my life for two dozen years was suddenly gone.

    My grandmother was, on the surface, nothing amazing. She was an ordinary, lower middle-class woman who lived and ordinary, lower middle-class life. She was not rich, and she never had many treasures. But when she died, she left the family with probably her most important treasure imaginable.

    Her sewing-machine.

    Grandmother was a tailor for thirty years, and fewer things could mean more to a dressmaker and tailor, than the machine with which she earned every single scrap of her bread and butter. That machine went with her everywhere, and she used it every single day until about 2000, when her health got too bad for her to continue. When she was moved into a nursing-home, my father put the machine down in the basement.

    Now that she's gone, I have undertaken an extensive restoration project. The machine is a huge part of my childhood - I saw her using it every single day that I can remember. And I wasn't going to let it rot in the basement for fifty years. Last month, I went downstairs and fished it out. This is my story of restoring a family treasure, and the things that I found out along the way.

    Step One - Cleaning the Case

    When I found it, my grandmother's machine was stuck in the basement for the last ten years, in the corner, at the bottom of a bookcase, covered in dust and dirt:


    A thorough cleaning with a wet cloth (and an even faster cleaning with a dry one!) removed the dust to reveal the shiny bentwood case underneath. It was relatively undamaged. There are a few scratches, but it is structurally sound.

    Step Two - Opening the Case

    For those unfamiliar with Singer sewing machines, some of them are stored in bentwood cases (so-called because the wood is literally bent into a U-shape to make the case). The cases are locked onto the machine-base. The lock is very simple, but it's also surprisingly effective.

    To unlock it, I had to squirt the lock with oil and then unlock it with a 3mm flathead screwdriver. Inside was the machine:


    I then sourced some keys for the case. Originally, I bought a similarly-shaped key at the flea-market, ground down the head until it fit the lock, and used that. But then a friend of mine who collects keys gave me an actual Singer bentwood-case key! So I was very happy with that. Here it is:


    Step Three - Cleaning the Mechanism

    It was at this point that I found out that gran's machine is a Singer 99k, and that it was made in Scotland in 1951. It is a centennial machine! Singer was established in 1851.

    The next step was to disassemble the machine and clean it. I had to remove the faceplate...


    ...and clean the needle mechanism inside...


    Then I had to clean the bobbin mechanism that performs the lockstitch:



    It was at this point that I discovered the bracket for the knee-lever, on the underside of the bentwood case's handle:


    The next step was to clean the handwheel assembly and the shaft inside:


    Last edited: Apr 13, 2012
  2. Before cleaning the handwheel shaft:


    After cleaning the handwheel shaft:


    I doubted that this machine had ever been cleaned or oiled or maintained properly ever since it left Scotland. The amount of gunk and fluff and dust and coagulated oil and other muck that I found was phenomenal! There was even a dead wasp in the lock-mechanism!

    In my quest to clean the machine, I discovered this little knob...


    Loosened, and the latch that it holds, turned anticlockwise, the machine can be lifted back on its base, to reveal the storage-compartment underneath:


    In there, I found this green 'SINGER' needle packet...with a spare needle still inside:


    Opening the compartment also gave me access to the underside of the bobbin mechanism...


    Step Four - Oiling the Machine

    After giving everything a thorough clean, I commenced the oiling of the machine.

    This took about an hour's worth of determination, testing and worry. Through all my examinations of the machine, I was 90% sure that it was not in any way, mechanically damaged. Just old. I was relieved when my belief was correct.

    Generous squirts of high-grade machine-oil on all the moving parts, as well as down the generously-supplied oiling-holes, and careful moving of the pistons and rods, finally got the machine running in the ways that it was used to. I ran the machine for several minutes, without thread, to get it moving again and to distribute the oil throughout the moving parts.

    Step Five - Cleaning the Outside of the Machine

    The machine's interior and mechanisms were clean, the machine was oiled and running. The next step was to clean the exterior. This was pretty easy, except for one issue.

    The slide-plate on this machine (which covers the bobbin) has long since disappeared. You may have noticed in the photographs, that the less-than-elegant solution to it's absence was sticky-tape and a piece of balsa-wood.

    In removing the tape, I realised that it had left ugly, yucky glue residue all over the shiny base and beautiful gold paintwork. It took a lot of scrubbing and scraping and firm persuasion, but the glue has finally been removed, with no damage to the base (apart from what was already there, from 50 years of nonstop use!)

    Step Six - Testing the Machine

    With the machine running, I tested its various components. The light still turns on and off, the bobbin-winding mechanism still works and the sewing-mechanism is punching away like a jackhammer on steroids. Everything is hunky dory. Dad suggested that once the machine is fully restored, I should learn how to operate it and start repairing and making clothes like gran used to do.

    Step Seven - Finding Parts

    Running the machine with a missing slide-plate is like driving your car without the hood. You can do it, but you wouldn't want to do it for very long.

    So began the long hunt for replacement parts. Of about a half-dozen people that I consulted (two in the UK, two in the US, and two here in Australia), I was told by all six that replacement parts are extremely hard to come by. The only way to get them is to cannibalize old machines.

    Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for them, perhaps, they haven't heard of reproductions.

    I was lucky to discover that there are companies that do make reproduction parts for these old machines. So I went hunting.

    My first stop was the local sewing-machine shop where I purchased some extra, and original, vintage Singer bobbins for the machine.

    The next step was sourcing the original machine-manual. I found it online and printed it out. If anyone else wants it, it may be found here.

    After that, I bought another bottle of machine oil (I already had some at home, but that was a big, industrial-sized aerosol can. I bought a smaller, domestic-use bottle, which I can keep with the machine).

    Next, I purchased some extra needles, and tossed them into the storage-compartment along with a pair of scissors, a needle-threader, the spare bobbins and the three business-cards that belonged to my grandfather, which my grandmother had kept hidden away for the past sixty years:


    Although they only have my grandfather's name on them, they list both his place of employment (the Capitol Studio, which was a photography studio), and my grandmother's clothing-shop (the Kam Seng Beauty Parlour...she shared it with another business). Kam Seng is Cantonese and means "Golden Star". A very poetic and beautiful name.

    The next step was possibly the hardest. Finding the replacement slide-plate. I got lucky that I could purchase a reproduction online. Not having a credit or debit-card, this was out of my grasp. Sadly, dad doesn't seem to understand the significance of my project, and was rather slow on the uptake of helping.

    After a discussion with a cousin of mine, who lives in Singapore with a branch of my father's side of the family, I told him about my mission to restore our grandmother's machine. He willingly volunteered the $15 required for the new plate. He purchased it online as a gift for me and it's currently on its way. He said he'd keep me informed as to the delivery-progress. My odyssey to restore my grandmother's vintage Singer sewing machine to working condition is almost complete!

    Step Eight - A Family History

    A restored family heirloom is useless if there's no family to relate it to. So I made it my mission to write a small account of the machine, and its owner, and to place this in the storage-compartment under the machine, for the sake of posterity. Maybe one of my family's descendants will read it one day in the future.

    I wasn't sure where to start with this. But in some ways, my grandmother's death was a bit of a blessing in disguise. Because all her necessary life-details (date of birth, place of birth, family etc), were required by the Department of Births, Deaths and Marriages, my dad dredged up as many old family documents as he could find. They're now in a file amongst our important family papers.

    I pulled these all out to read through them. They were letters, immigration documents, passports and countless other things. I sifted through them to find the ones that were most interesting and most relevant and started gleaming information from them.

    I learnt things from these documents that I never knew before. I'd never seen them in my life. It was the first time I'd ever really bothered to look at them. I learnt things such as...

    - The names of my great-grandparents.
    - My grandfather's birth-year (I NEVER knew that).
    - The precise date of my grandfather's death (I also never knew that!).
    - The birth-dates and names of my aunts and uncles.
    - The birth-dates and names of my grandmother's three sisters.
    - A brief history of my grandmother's education (VERY brief. It was just one line long. Gran didn't have much of an education!)
    - The reason why I couldn't find my grandmother's birth-certificate.
    - The reason why I couldn't find my grandmother's marriage-certificate (it never existed!)
    - My grandmother's two different names, and the reasons behind their difference.

    If anyone's interested in reading the account that I wrote, the 'time capsule', as it were, which I intend to put into the storage-compartment under the machine, you're welcome to ask.
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2012
  3. Not only is that a beautiful piece of machinery, but it's made all the more so by the family history surrounding it. The wonderful thing about some of these old machines is that, if properly cared for, they will last nearly forever. Don't let it just sit on a shelf, though: the simplest way to maintain an old Singer is to actually use it regularly. So long as the moving parts have a chance to move around every so often, they'll pretty much lubricate themselves. It's only when you try to stash it away "safely" that you risk the pieces binding up or rusting. Once it's in working condition, be sure to use it yourself!
  4. Hi Doc,

    The machine is nearly complete. I still need the slide-plate (on it's way in the mail, yay!) and a box of Singer 99k attachments (also, hopefully on its way). Then the machine will be complete!
  5. Stearmen

    Stearmen I'll Lock Up

    Almost 20 years ago, I helped sell off an estate of an elderly lady that altered uniforms for the local GIs. Towards the end, her son asked me if I wanted anything, not much was left, but I spotted the Singer like yours, so I took it. It sat a few more years when my neighbor asked me to sew a lawn mower catcher, two layers of canvas and two layers of webbing, no problem, like sewing silk! If you go on ebay, they call them The Leather Machines. You are lucky, have fun with it, don't be afraid to use it.
  6. rocketeer

    rocketeer Call Me a Cab

    I have both a 1970s ZigZag electric and also a similar hand model to yours. The hand machine I always use for delicate or experimental work. I made myself a 1930-40s Harley style riders cap with mine. And it fitted me!
    You can buy all sorts of attachments for these including a walking foot for heavy work suck as leather. I used to have one but they are very expensive even on eBay. I just didnt know what mine was, it was actually a ZigZag attachment for my hand machine, then another enthusiast told me about the walking foot after I had sold mine(£70+:eeek:). OK it was nice to add the £££ to my holiday fund but I wish I still had it now.
    These machines are still quite plentiful and sell for next to nothing at car boot sales in the UK. The hand sewers are often bought by Africans to send back to their homeland which may not have electricity, they rarely sell for more than £10 at these open air sales as virtually no one makes their own clothes or does alterations these days unless it is a hobby.
    I'm always on the lookout, not so much for the machines but boxes of attachments and have picked up lots. Hemmers, button holers, rufflers, quilters. I even have a 'vintage' tube of singer machine grease.
    Be careful with the oil though as sewing machine oil is a lot thinner than standard lubricating oils and does not tend to gum up if the machine is not used for some time.
    Cheers, Johnny T
  7. Hi Guys,

    Yes, I'm still waiting for the slide-plate, which is currently on it's way from the Deep South of the U.S. I'm also expecting a box of Singer attachments from another source.

    I used SuperLube machine-oil to get this thing running. It was the one recommended by my local sewing-machine repair-center.

    Stearmen, I've heard many stories about the strength and power of Singer sewing machines. As far as I know, my grandmother never used this for anything other than dressmaking and alterations/repairs. But it might be interesting to see exactly what it can put up with.

    I'm well aware of the fact that this machine is NOT worth a great deal of money. Singer was a VERY popular brand and every household had one. But I'd never want to sell this machine. I'd like for it to become a family heirloom.
  8. Nick D

    Nick D Call Me a Cab

    When they say, 'They don't make them like they used to', this is the used to.
  9. Why thank you, Nick!

    And yes, I do agree. I'd be hard pressed to find a modern sewing machine with this much metal or wood in it. Or which would run this perfectly after years of use, abuse and neglect, after just cleaning it and oiling it.

    Everything today is made of plastic. There is not ONE thing on this machine that's made of plastic, apart from the protective covering of the steel lightshade. That, and the power-plugs, are the only plastic things here.

    The frame, bed, pistons...everything else is made of steel or iron. And what ain't made of that, is made of rubber and wood. The only rubber things here are the belt-drive, and the tire on the bobbin-winder wheel. Both of which are marvellously intact.

    I'm pretty damn sure, this thing'll still run perfectly in another 60 years' time.

    My dad said that my grandmother received this Singer as a present, back in the 1950s, just before she opened her dressmaker's shop. It's been in the family ever since, as far as I know.
  10. rocketeer

    rocketeer Call Me a Cab

    Since the 1970s some of the gear drives in the Singer Zigzags(did they make any other model?) are nylon. My Singer dealer showed me a machine that is a 1960s version popular with homeworkers, that had metal gearing and a box of different cams you fitted for a particular stitch patten.
    It is nice to keep it as an heirloom, lets hope it will be appreciated in the future.
    A clothing company in the UK was buying up hundreds of these for shop displays. I cant recall who they are but there is one in Lakeside Essex and another at Westfield Stratford. I counted 150+ in just one shop alone, not just Singers but all sorts.
    I love all these but Singers are are the Classics in the real sense of the word. I just wish I had not sold that walking foot attachment :-(
  11. Right now, I'm just learning how this machine works, and what all the bits and bobs are for. So far I've figured out how to set the thread-tension and the foot-tension and it's sewing really nicely now. Can't wait for those other bits and pieces to finally show up...
  12. W-D Forties

    W-D Forties Practically Family

    Your machine looks identical to mine! I bought mine from an old lady who used to do alterations and used it for sewing heavy denim. I originally bought it (for £10!) as I needed to repair the handle on a crocodile handbag - which it sewed through, along with two other layers of leather - like butter.

    They are brilliant machines, almost completely bomb-proof in construction, and will sew pretty much anything. They even compare well with the very expensive Pfaff machines I used to use to sew the uppers when making shoes.

    Do you still have the instruction booklet? mine came with it and it's very useful as they are slightly different to modern machines.
  13. Hi WD40s.

    I don't have the ORIGINAL booklet, no. I had to print out a copy off the internet. But the machine isn't that hard to use.. These things were designed for home-use, so I expect that they were designed with the idea that anyone should be able to use one, without any difficulties.
  14. If you get heavily into sewing, the best investment you could make is the Singer buttonhole attachment --


    Best buttonholer I've ever used, and absolutely indestructible. An outstanding gadget for any of the traditional Singer machines.
  15. Hi Lizzie, thank you.

    I have had words with a lady at the local flea-market. She's the one who sells all kinds of sewing-supplies. She says she has boxes of old Singer attachments at home. I told her to bring some along and I'd buy them from her. We're gonna meet up on Sunday, and hopefully she's brought them along.
  16. Still waiting for all the various little nicknacks, doohickies, wotsits, thingimmies and doodads to show up to complete the machine. While I do, I continue trawling the local flea-market for Singer bits and pieces to 'accessorise' the machine. Things like original green paper Singer needle-packets...with needles...and original steel Singer bobbins:


    ...and trying to clean up the metalwork...


    I must be weird, but I reckon the bobbin-winder mechanism is the coolest little contraption ever. I keep fiddling around with it and filling up bobbins with thread because I find it that neat.
    Last edited: Apr 23, 2012
  17. 59Lark

    59Lark A-List Customer

    Dear lounger; I restore old sewing machines for a living, the k stood for kilbowie clydebank scotland, and I have a original slide plate if you find the new chinese chrome one looks too wierd next to the nickel finish. When you install you need to put on backwards. The plate will go under the pressure foot fit the spring into the grooves on the one end. Then pull it back. I took a 99-13 from the twenties and de electrified it on the weekend, put a spoke wheel on it and then modified the bobbin winder to work with the different flywheel and put a chinese handcrank attachment on it, now it will got to Haitia and work for the rest of it life making clothes. I also took a 29k shoe patcher and re build it and its 110 years old and it also going to Haitia. The old machines are the best for going to the end of the earth and working poor, and I always try to send spare parts as they cant find them there. We have 200 machines in our cellar for parts. 59LARK who studebaker will not run right? think i need to look at the rotor and points.
  18. Thanks Lark. I've already ordered a plate. It should be arriving sometime this week.
  19. 59Lark

    59Lark A-List Customer

    Shangas; your machine is actually a 1950 the letter in front of the serial no indicates what year the machine was made, yours is an EG 1950 all machines made in 1951 had the anniversary blue badge 1851 1951 a century of sewing. yours does not have that badge, definetly a clydebank machine. A chap that worked at the factory after the war, told me a funny story once, involving 99k handcrank, they made a lot of them to sell in africa.
    some employees tried stealing some by putting them on big beams that floated, pushing them across to someone else across the water channel, but so many fell off that one day a barge got stuck and when they went to dredge it, found all these rusty singers and they werent impressed, so says the teller of this tale. 59 LARK yes that was where your machine was made.
  20. Hi Lark,

    Thanks for that information. I was well aware of the commemorative plaque (with the blue border). I wondered why it was that my grandmother's machine didn't have one. So you're sure it was made in 1950? That would then make it 62 years old.

    For those who don't know what the blue-bordered plaque is, it looks like this:


    It was put on all machines made in 1951, to celebrate 100 years of Singer.

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