As I’ve mentioned previously, I am a professional singer who loves to sew. I also get a kick out of the fact that one of my sewing machines is also a “Singer”, a Singer-66 to be exact. This wonderful gem and family heirloom was made in 1908 and is fitted within a beautiful, quarter-sawn oak cabinet complete with a cast iron treadle mechanism. The original owner of this machine was my maternal great-grandmother, Lydia. I’m not exactly sure what kind of sewing she did with her machine, but I’m guessing Lydia made clothing for her family and various things for her home, including quilts. Similar to my maternal grandmother, Katherine, my great-grandmother, Lydia, was a talented quilter in her own right. Both of their names are hand-embroidered on a (circa 1930-31) “Dresden Plate” quilt my mother passed down to me when she died. Here is Lydia’s “signature” block:
My mother’s machine of choice was a “Featherweight” Singer sewing machine from the 1950’s and this is what I orginally learned to sew with when I was in Middle School. What a great little invention that machine proved to be; simple to operate and wonderfully portable as well. I created my first sewing “room” in one of the closets in our home and loved having a quiet, designated space where I could sew with the Featherweight and work on my various projects uninterrupted and without having to move everything at the end of each day.
Around that same time, Lydia’s Singer-66 was passed down to my mother from one of her (Lydia’s) daughters, my great-aunt, Edith. The machine’s original oak treadle cabinet was fifty years old by then and badly in need of refinishing. My parents elected to paint it with an “antique white” finish. “Antiquing” wooden furniture was all the rage in the late 1960s. As I remember it, the technique included applying a base paint color which was followed by brushing on a patina/gloss layer. This second layer was then rubbed off while still wet and the residual gloss pigment remained in the crevices and carved bits of the piece. The finished result reminds me of what one sees in “shabby chic” decor and surface “distressing” methods currently in vogue today.
As it happened, after the “antiquing”, the treadle cabinet (and Singer-66) was moved into my lime-green with white trim bedroom, a color scheme reflecting my personal taste at the time. I don’t remember any machine cleaning or maintenance done on the 66 at that point, but I know my dad installed a new leather belt to facilitate operating the treadle mechanism and flywheels. Once this was done, I taught myself how use the machine utilizing the treadle action soon following.
A few years later, when my sewing skills improved, I started making my own formals (often out of velvet!) for our High School dances and proms. Right before Christmas, during my Sophomore year, my Mom bought me my first brand-new machine, a Singer “Genie”. It had bright, orange and yellow “flower power” decorations and could sew zig-zag stitches! I had such fun sewing with that machine and enjoyed using it for many years following.
Back to the Singer-66; I’m sorry to say that this cast-iron, industrial-grade workhorse and model of ingenuity became neglected once I began sewing with newer machines over the years and became increasingly dependent on the various bells and whistles each model would subsequently provide. The old 66 and it’s treadle cabinet stayed in my former lime green room when I went to college, moved into my first apartment, married and eventually became a mother myself. After my Mom died, we moved the then, seldom-used, antique white treadle cabinet and 66 to my home in Southern California where it was stored in our garage until our cross-country move to Minnesota in the early 1990s. It had always been my intention to re-finish the treadle cabinet myself at some point, but after nearly twenty years in our MN basement, I finally bit the bullet and started searching for a local refinishing shop in the Twin Cities. Old Science Restoration in Minneapolis came highly recommended, so in late 2014, the process of bringing this family treasure back to life finally began in earnest. Here are some before photos:
When the treadle cabinet and cast-iron assembly were being prepared to be striped and stained, I was asked if I was interested in also having the machine restored while it was out of the cabinet. Fortunately, Terry at Old Science had an excellent recommendation for this work, Steve at The Bobbin Doctor in St. Paul. What a find!
Steve is a self-described “old school” craftsman who truly loves working on vintage sewing machines. Not only did he lovingly and carefully bring my 1908 Singer-66 back to life, removing decades of “grint”, soaking, releasing and re-engaging previously frozen parts, and miraculously preserving the machine’s original “lotus” decals, he proved to be an astonishing source historical information about this particular era of machine and its uses. For example, Steve told me that Singer-66 sewing machines were widely used in textile factories in the early part of the 20th Century. Using New York as an example, the majority of sewing factory employees in that city not only had to provide their own machines, but were also paid by the piece. On a typical work day, these factory employees would carry their sewing machines (weighing approximately 24 lbs each) into work (often on the subways) then take them back home at the end of each day to finish sewing more pieces after hours.
Back to Singer-66 decals; although one can still purchase beautiful replacement decals for Singer-66 machines, I remain grateful to Steve for successfully preserving the orginal “Lotus” decals on my machine.* The various machine decals serve as identity markers in association with where a particular machine was manufactured. For instance, the widely- popular “Red Eye” decal is linked to Singer manufacturers located in the United States (Chicago for one). The so-called “Lotus” decal (which looks like more of a thistle to me) indicates that my machine was most likely manufactured in Clydebank, Scotland near Glasgow. Here are “after” photos:
For maintenance, the owner’s manual of the Singer-66 machines advises the user to lightly rub down the outside of the machine with sewing machine oil after each use to prevent rust. (this seems like wise advice as many early home sewing “studios” used to be located in poorly-insulated attics and damp basements). In addition, there are at least twelve different oiling contact points throughout the machine mechanism that one should put a drop of sewing machine oil into just prior to each sewing session (Steve advised it’s a better practice to oil right before sewing instead of after each use because the excess oil one might apply prior to storage may attract dust in the interim between uses).
Apparently, for quilters, nothing sews a straighter line than the Singer-66. I have since pieced some of my grandmother, Katherine’s, previously unfinished quilt blocks using my 66 and it worked wonderfully for this purpose.
As for other uses, in addition to lighter weight fabrics such as cottons, knits, wools, silks, linens etc..it seems that with the right needle and foot, the Singer-66 can also steam right through leather, thick upholstery fabrics and canvas without struggle.
In the age of YouTube, I’ve discovered more videos than I can count regarding how to repair and maintain these types of sewing machines. There are also numerous tutorials about how to utilize the many foots and amazing assortment of attachments available. Through eBay, I was able to track down and replace many of the missing parts for my machine that had been lost through the years such as a “back clamp” presser foot, specific types of screws and the belt release spring mechanism. While it’s true that many people have seen fit to re-purpose the old treadle cabinets into tables, desks and vanities, discarding the rusty old machines into landfills, there also seems to be a large group of people who treasure the process of restoring both the cabinets an machines as well. There is even an impressively large group of people, male and female, who prefer sewing exclusively with these vintage machines on a regular basis.
In closing, the restoration process of my great-grandmother Lydia’s Singer-66 treadle sewing machine has proven quite an educational odyssey. Even though I don’t use it regularly, it still feels wonderful to respect this particular family heirloom in such a positive way.
The following “Song of the Sewing Machine” seems a fun way to end this blog: