Restoring a Singer Model 27: rust, treasure and a guinea pig.

I’ve never had much luck with sewing machines. They loop stitches, they bunch cloth, they act erratically … they frustrate the heck out of me. I’ve developed a good distaste for machines with more than two buttons, and don’t even mention computerized machines.

I figured I should try a treadle machine, just to see if I liked it better than a modern one. A year ago I bought a 1902 Singer model 27 with Sphinx decals to play around with and see if I could get to work. There was so much rust that the wheel wouldn’t spin more than an inch or two before it made a truly horrible crunching noise. At the least, I loved how it looked, even if it was destroyed. That’s the steampunk part of me talking. The steampunk part of me also named it Nigel.

The Singer, before I began cleaning.

The machine in its cabinet, before I began cleaning a year ago. Rust, rust, and more rust.

Well, it took a good 30 days, a quart of mineral oil (I used that because it’s nontoxic), ten packs of steel wool, and a lot of frustrated putzing, but now it works. I credit the genius of how the machine was made: the individual parts are very simple and if they’re not bent or cracked, and if they’re oiled, they should always work. This machine is still 50% rust (no really, it looks like the wreck of the Titanic inside, except no fish) and it works perfectly. For broken pieces, this model uses some parts that fit modern machines, like the foot and many screws and nuts. For the rest you can find either modern reproduction parts or scrap pieces online, so replacing pieces isn’t crazy difficult.

The 1902, looking a little shinier. The bobbin winder is taken off.

The machine today, looking a little shinier. I think a previous owner was a smoker; it was covered in grime. The bobbin winder is taken off here.

The technology in this thing is kind of astounding. The bobbin is oblong and fits into a complex little shuttle, which sits in a chassis that swings back and forth. It swings against a horizontal concavity shaped like a half-moon. The needle comes down through a hole in the middle of that half-moon, and this is where the magic happens. The needle ‘hiccups’, or makes a little down-up-down-up movement, and the thread (if it’s the right weight) loops around the moving shuttle. It slips in between the shuttle and the chassis, which swing right through the loop. This makes a twist that tightens and becomes the stitch.

The bobbin and the shuttle.

The bobbin and the shuttle.

The bobbin, in the shuttle, in the chassis, in the machine …

Another incredible thing: it’s almost silent, it just makes a snickety-snickety noise. I can listen to music, I can have a conversation while I sew. I don’t need electricity so I could literally sew anywhere I have a square foot of table. I just pick it up by the arm and haul it where I need.

Speaking of which, this thing is SOLID cast iron. If you drop it on your toe … oh boy.

I haven’t restored it fully, so it’s still missing pieces and I haven’t attached it into its cabinet or used it with the treadle yet. I use it by spinning the wheel by hand. When it’s oiled, I can spin the wheel once and just the weight of the machine itself makes it take 5-8 stitches before it looses inertia.

The hugely complicated system for regulating thread tension. It's a mess of screws and springs that, once put together correctly, uses a nut to squeeze two metal donuts together. the thread runs between the donuts and the pressure of the donuts controls tension. The thread also runs through an annoying little wire loop that gets caught on stuff way too easily.

The ridiculously complicated system for regulating needle thread tension. It’s a mess of screws and springs that, if put together correctly, uses a nut to squeeze two metal donuts together. The thread runs between the donuts and their pressure controls its tension. The thread also runs through that annoying little wire loop that gets caught on stuff way too easily.

Some of the awesome Art Noveau decals. The machine's so rusty that I was originally tempted to take all the paint off and repaint it, but then I cleaned off the cigarette scale and these beauties popped up. I'm leaving it the way it is!

Some of the awesome Art Nouveau decals. The machine’s so rusty that I was originally tempted to take all the paint off and repaint it, but then I cleaned off the cigarette scale and these beauties popped up. I’m leaving it the way it is!

For more on the model 27, check out the The Franklin Institute if you’re in the Philly area. Their entire exhibit on simple machines (“Amazing Machines”) uses a Singer model 27 as an example of almost every simple machine they cover. They also have an 1890 Singer toy sewing machine which is adorable. There’s not much info online, though.

Because the Internet can never have too many pictures of animals being cute, here is a guinea pig on a sewing machine. Her name is Zubi, and she thought it smelled funny.

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About Amanda Goebel

I'm an Anthropology / Fashion History and Material Culture graduate from The University of Delaware, currently working on a Master's in Museum Studies. I'm a living historian interested in costume and culture from years before. I love researching the mundane and the everyday that has changed or disappeared since. I re-enact the 18th century, and I recreate clothing from that time. This blog is where I'll write about my research and projects. View all posts by Amanda Goebel

5 responses to “Restoring a Singer Model 27: rust, treasure and a guinea pig.

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