A couple of weeks ago I read on the UKQU Social Group Facebook page a message regarding an auction which was happening in which there were some old sewing machines. It was said they rarely reach more than £10 or so each. Well, it would have been rude not to have a look.
I went to the website and it turned out to be at an auctioneers in Cardiff, close to wear I live, so I just couldn’t help it! I looked at the four lots containing the machines and, on a whim, put in a bid on a lot that contained two old Singer hand crank machines. Of the initial four lots, one had been pulled from the auction and there were three remaining. I could easily have put a bid on all three but I was afraid I’d have ended up with all of them so I did restrain myself with just the one bid.
Yes, of course, I won with a bid of £15… For two! Unfortunately, these needed collecting the same day as I was taking my youngest to Uni but luckily, my eldest had a day off. Promise of a takeaway kebab sorted the problem and the two beauties were collected and brought home.
Singers have a number which you can Google which will give an age. The first I found to be from 1939, a year special to me as it was the year of my grandparents wedding, and the second turned out to be from 1904. Wow, a true antique at over 100 years old. The 1939 machine came with the original manual, a little warped and stained with age but good enough to read and the original screwdriver, but this one was in the worse condition. Stained with some contaminate, I never thought I’d be able to recover her former loveliness.
First, research – Google again and there are several blogs which seemed to give advice. I have met Helen Howes, who has a website for machine renovations and is a great font of knowledge and is always worth remembering for parts. I also found a British based blog which seemed to give some good advice on cleaning these machines up. So, with some good old elbow grease, I began.
Before I go into how I cleaned up the 1939 Singer, here are some points to take note of. I take no responsibility if you have a go and it doesn’t work out well for you. I am not an expert, this is the first I have cleaned up and renovated and I thought you’d enjoy the tale. Any doubt, try your product or cleaning in an inconspicuous area. I also started with the newer of my machines which was in the worst condition. Worst case, I’d love them for decoration so I was happy to have a go.
I decided at the beginning, that my aim was to do a general tidy up and get her running smoothly, not do a complete restoration. These are old machines and I like the patina of age and use.
Tip number one – take photos, lots of them. I found I’d not taken as many as I should, especially as I was trying to remember which screw came from which slot. It also helps when putting the bits back together and I found them invaluable.
First of all I lifted the machine from the wooden base. There is usually a little lock device which turns to allow the machine to lift and tilt backwards. They can then lift off two bolt fixings. I then removed the foot and needle sections off for separate cleaning. Next came out the bobbin case, removing the base plates. The bobbin fixtures were unscrewed next and the handle and wheel. As the wheel is turned there is a drive shaft underneath which I also took apart. The 1939 machine had a drop in bobbin and came with a few. The 1904 had the older style shuttle bobbin.
Now came the cleaning. I used a mild dishwasher liquid and a soft cloth as this will dissolve old grease. I did test a small area and everything seemed fine. Using the cloth I worked across the machine. Slowly with gentle rubbing I managed to clean off a lot of the dirt, being VERY careful across the decals, the gold decoration, which is distinctive to the Singer brand. There is a clear coating over the machines which protects these delicate, twining, decorations which you need to be particularly careful about. If you loose the coating then these wear off very quickly.
I moved onto all the other mechanical parts. Cleaning, sometimes with a toothbrush to get into and around the parts. Next came the silvered sections. For these, you can use a mild polishing agent. I visited our local automotive shop and had a chat with them – Autosol was the recommended product, designed for polishing on cars and motorbikes. I opened the tube and years old memories came rushing back. My Dad and Grandad both were engineers and frequently were holed up in their respective garages. This was a smell I remembered from those days – it was a lovely surprise to taken back to my childhood with two people I have lost. Again, be gentle, but it worked wonders. For the wooden base I wiped it out with a damp cloth and used a beeswax polish which brought out a lovely shine.
Once cleaned, next you need to oil. Only use sewing machine oil which is designed for the purpose and is cheap. Use it to actually polish the machine itself, it leaves a lovely shine on these glossy black beauties. I had a face flannel which is doubled, like a glove, so was a perfect polishing cloth. Then I put her back together. I was generous with the oil and worked it into the mechanisms by turning and turning the hand crank. I underestimated how much both oil and turning were needed. At one point I did think she was never going to loosen up, I took her apart again, reassembled, added more oil. Eventually I was saying to my husband ‘Oh well, she still makes a lovely decoration’ whilst turning the handle when the oil finally worked it’s way in and suddenly, the handle freed up and she spins like a dream. I was so chuffed.
I did have a little trouble with the bobbin winder fixing until I read the manual. The bobbin wouldn’t reach the wheel and I presumed I’d not put it back together correctly. The manual mentioned a rubber washer which is missing, I guess it had rotted away over time, but I did breath a sigh of relief at that..
This was my first attempt at renovating a machine. I have another three which also need attention; the 1904 Singer, a Jones which is completely different in that it’s a gunmetal hammered finish but might be an older one as it has a shuttle bobbin and lastly I have a Hexagon. These were made between around 1916 and 1924, also a shuttle bobbin, which is truly beautiful.
So, the lessons I have learned as I tackled my first restoration? First be gentle. As time went on and the machines changed and advanced, the polishes and top coats changed so what worked on one machine might not work on another so always do a test patch. Only ever use sewing machine oil. This doesn’t dry out leaving a mucky residue. Take lots of photos which will help with reassembly. Another thing I did, which was very sensible, was to work on an old towel and have a tray to my side to put all the screws on as some can be very small and easily lost. As I tackle each one I’ll share my results on my website as I really enjoyed the process I’m really looking forward to finishing them all. Now I just need to find somewhere to keep them!