Antique Singer sewing machines of the 27-28 variety, and the 15 variety had special toolboxes that came with them, when they were brand new, back in the 1880s and 1890s. Made of wood, rectangular in shape, with a square cross-section, these boxes held all the main tools and accessories that one of these machines would need: Bobbins, needles, screwdrivers, various attachments and bits and pieces which were vital to the smooth operation of the sewing machine.
Made from 1889 until about 1910, these wooden boxes, called “puzzle boxes”, by collectors, are relatively rare. Rare, because they were made for a short period of time, and rare because they were only made for two different types of Singer machines.
A few years back, I bought, and have since filled up – a puzzle box for my Singer 28 portable machine.
Since then, I got my hands on another sewing machine…
…which is a Singer 15, the only other model of Singer machine for which a puzzle box was made.
After cleaning, fixing and restoring this machine, I thought:
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if I had a puzzle box for this, too?”
Then I thought:
Then about two weeks ago, I saw this…
That’s right! Another puzzle box!
It was empty, but it was cheap, so I snapped it up at once! I brought it home and started filling it up. So far, I’ve put in a screwdriver (left), a tucker (far right), a full packet of needles (far right, again), and a ruffler (Inner-right, top).
There’s still quite a few pieces missing (compare with upper box), but the main piece missing is the rack for the bobbins. Fortunately, this can be homemade. Bobbin racks for Singer 15 puzzle-boxes were shaped out of thin, steel wire, and once I’ve got the wire, I reckon it’ll be easy to shape it and simply screw it into place. Singer 15 puzzle boxes are even rarer than the 28 ones, or so I believe. I can’t wait to get this filled up and complete!
As Fats Waller said: “I’ve got my fingers crossed…”
This took a bit longer than I expected, but here’s the result:
Is it perfect? No.
Does that matter? Probably not.
The machine wasn’t in perfect condition when I got it anyway, so it was never going to look as good as brand new. But at least here it looks complete again, with a front panel back on and the missing pieces replaced. All in all, a very pleasing result.
And there you have it. A 1945 Singer 15 ‘Indian Star’ back to working order and saved from almost certain destruction.
Here is the interior of the new base:
And here is the new bed-support, to stop the damn thing from SAGGING whenever it sits down (which believe me is more important than you might think – it prevents you from opening the slide-plate!):
This is what the same machine looked like about two weeks ago, when I got it home:
The Indian Star! It sounds so regal. Like some great diamond hacked out of the dusty earth of the Subcontinent, back in the days of the Imperial Raj, which became the object of desire sought after by thieves and bandits and which played a key role in some dastardly Sherlock Holmes adventure!
THIS is the Indian Star:
It comes from this rather battered-looking Singer 15 sewing machine. My latest sewing-machine purchase:
At just $30 at the local flea-market, this thing was in a SORRY state when I got it. This is what the machine looked like after several hours of hard scrubbing and scouring to remove 70 years’ worth of grime!
That’s right. This machine dates all the way back to 1945! And for a machine that was missing its whole front panel, it was in pretty decent shape, apart from needing a damn good clean and a bit of rebuilding work. It came with its lid as well. Once I get the time I’ll rebuild the front panel and put in a new base for it (the base is absolutely dead), to keep this thing in one piece. It’s barely holding on as it is.
I replaced one hinge, the slide-plate and fixed a few other things, mostly by sanding or scrubbing off rust and grime.
This Singer is a ‘full-size’ machine. That means that it could fit into a treadle-base if I wanted it to. It’s an absolute beast and weighs a ton! It’s hard to believe that something like this (which weighs about 35lbs!) was ever considered “portable” back in the 1940s!!
I know this blog hasn’t been updated in over a month. That’s what happens when real-life affairs take precedence over online activities. From family events, looking for work and writing other stuff, I haven’t had much time to write much for here.
Well today I do.
I don’t drive. Never have, never will, can’t do it. Eyesight won’t allow it. Joy of joys. This greatly limits my mobility obviously, and I gotta rely on lifts from friends, public transport of questionable reliability, and a good pair of shoes. It also means I need a good bag. One that’s strong and which lasts. I don’t have the luxury of hauling half my house with me, dumping half of it in the car, taking what I choose, and then walking off somewhere and coming back later to get something else if I forgot. When I go out, I have to take everything I need with me, in one bag. This means that the bag has to be a decent size, good quality, and strong!
…What a pity that most of them aren’t.
In five years, I’ve had three bags, and they’ve all proved unsatisfactory in one way or another. They rip, they tear, they wear out, they fall apart…
I was so fed up with it that I decided to try and make my own bag. I researched fabrics and looked up designs online to try and figure out what my eventual bag would look like. I found a fabric warehouse in town which sells huge rolls of fabric to the public. They’re surplus from clothing-factories and they sell it off at so many dollars a square meter.
I showed up and got myself a healthy supply of denim fabric. I picked denim because I wanted a bag that was – first – blue, and – second – strong! Leather dries and cracks and flakes. And cotton just rips apart. I would’ve used canvas but I couldn’t find any, so I decided that denim would do as a suitable substitute.
I’ve never been much of a sewer, but I learned the basics from my grandmother – how to fold raw edges, how to sew seams, how to cut buttonholes and sew them by hand. How to measure, how to cut, how to make seam-allowances, and so-forth. I only do this stuff occasionally, so I’m still learning, but I felt that I had enough skill to try and make something which I would be comfortable using in public and carrying around. And so, I set to work.
Measurements and Calcuations
Before I did any cutting, the first thing I did was sketch what the bag would look like. I drew up a rough diagram and penciled in measurements on how wide, long, deep and high I wanted it, how many pockets, what the over-flap would look like, and so-forth. Now that I had the chance to make my own bag, I wanted to try and do it as best as I could. It wouldn’t look THAT professional, but still, I had a plan.
If you ever make a bag for yourself, like I did, one important thing to keep in mind with measurements is to decide what you’ll be putting in the bag, and to have those items near you when you’re doing your measurements. Measure the items you intend to put in the bag (laptop, iPad, umbrella, dead body, whatever…) and then proportion the bag accordingly so that whatever you put in will be housed securely and neatly. My big issue with a lot of my older bags was that they weren’t big enough to hold my bulkier items without compromising by chucking out other things which I might’ve needed. I was determined to make it and shape it to fit in everything I wanted.
Cutting the Fabric
To cut the fabric, I used my grandmother’s 8in. WISS tailor’s shears from the 50s. To get accurate measurements, I used one of those big, old-fashioned folding rulers made of wood, which have the measurements in inches. A modern plastic ruler warps and bends too much to be reliable when you’re cutting massive amounts of fabric. And this old wooden ruler extends to three feet long! More than enough for what I needed!
To try and minimise screw-ups, I measured how big I wanted the bag to be, then measured again, adding on extra inches, for seam-allowances, folding raw edges and for errors in my own calculations. To give the bag as much strength as possible, I used as few pieces of fabric as I could, and which pieces I did use, I tried to make them as big as possible.
The bag has eight pieces of fabric.
The first, huge piece was about a foot and a half wide, by three feet long. This gave me enough space to fold over the edges half an inch or so, to make space for mistakes, if there were any. The body of the bag is deliberately made of one big piece of fabric. The fewer seams there are, the fewer things there are to rip and tear, and the longer it’ll last.
Next came two side-panels for the end-walls of the bag. Then came pockets.
The bag has two pockets at the front, one big one at the back, two interior pockets, and one side-pocket for pens. I also cut extra red velvet fabric to act as a partial liner inside the bag, and some of the pockets. I didn’t have enough velvet to line the entire bag, so I just did the key areas. On top of that, I cut extra fabric for stuff like buttonholes, straps and so-forth.
Assembling the Bag
To put the bag together, I used my antique Singer:
Friends have asked me questions about this machine for years.
“How do you use it?”
“Does it work?”
“How do you control it with only one hand?”
“Does it sew through thick fabrics?”
“Aren’t you scared about breaking it?”
The answers are:
“Yes” (although, not leather).
“No. It lasted this long, it’ll last a hell of a lot longer!”
I prefer using this machine to a modern one for all manner of reasons. It’s easier to set up, it’s much easier to operate, it’s HIGHLY portable and it’s forgiving of your mistakes!
The great thing about a manual sewing machine is that you can set it up literally ANYWHERE, regardless of light, space, and of course, whether or not there’s a power-outlet nearby! You just plonk it on the table, open it up, thread it, and sew!
The other great thing is that, since it IS a manual machine, you, yourself, decide how fast, or how slow, this machine is going to run. Not some electric motor with a gummy power-pedal which is as fidgety as a spooked stallion. This machine can go as slow and as fast as you want. Give it enough speed and a long-enough run-up, and it’ll punch through four, six, even eight layers of denim with no problems at all!
Because I can directly control the machine, I can decide precisely how to use it. I can run it at a snail’s pace if I’m doing something delicate, or as fast as I can turn the handle, to finish a seam. For someone with poor eyesight, it’s good to know that I can operate it slowly and precisely, when I need to get close and personal to my work and make sure that everything is lined up properly, instead of sewing my hands together!
Sewing the Components
Using my Singer, I sewed all the seams and lining and pockets, and then pieced everything together.
It’s easier to work with pieces and piece pieces to pieces and then put it together. That is, it’s easier to do that, than build the bag up, and THEN try and tack extras onto it like pockets and loops. It’s better to build up each component with all its necessities, before building the bag itself. That way there’s nothing leftover at the end to vex you! Some elements were easier to do than others, but I’m glad to say that about 90% of the sewing for this bag was done on my old Singer. The only hand-sewing I did was to sew on the buttons for closure, and to cut and sew the buttonholes by hand (I didn’t trust the sewing machine to stitch in the buttonholes reliably with its buttonholer-attachment, which has failed before now).
There was a time where I had considered sewing in a zipper or two on the bag, but in the end I decided to leave that to another project. I’d rather stick with what I knew for this project, and try that another time. I was much more comfortable with buttons and buttonholes, and I didn’t want the bag to be too ambitious, and screw it up at the last minute! That said, the button-closures I did make have worked very well!
I made the buttonholes vertical instead of horizontal. This would, I hoped, prevent the fabric from tearing from constant opening and closing. At the front of the bag, I made denim tags and sewed rope loops into them, to act as buttonholes, as I reckoned these would last longer than ordinary buttonholes, since they would be opened and closed more often than others. I used large, brass buttons instead of plastic ones. Plastic cracks and breaks and brass is stronger. To sew them in place, I used string instead of thread, so that they wouldn’t snap or wear out easily.
Attaching the hardware came next. To do that, I used more spare denim to cut tabs for holding down the D-rings for the shoulder-strap. I made everything here double-thickness and sewed everything back and forth, over and over at least two or three times on each side, since they would be taking the entire weight of the bag on just two points. I wanted to make sure that everything was secure.
When sewing, I used navy blue thread. I wanted a thread that matched the colour of the denim as near as possible. Admittedly, this was to camouflage my own deficiencies in sewing. If I was better Might’ve used white thread, but I didn’t want any mistakes or obvious screw-ups to stand out. And at any rate, I doubt anybody would be looking closely enough to really care. In the end, this was the result:
The Finished Bag:
Considering that this is my first real attempt at something like this, I’m pretty pleased at how it turned out, although the proof of quality will be in how long it lasts! We’ll see!
Despite my most determined efforts, and my initial success, it still failed to work flawlessly all the time. It kept jamming or loosening, and none of my adjustments worked well enough for it to be a lasting repair.
In the end, I completely disassembled the winder to see how it was put together, and what were its component parts.
My attempts to fix the jamming and loosening by adjusting the nut at the end of this assembly were unsuccessful. On a whim, I added a second, small, flat, round brass washer into the mix, between the bolt and the main wheel, but still kept the original washer (a flat, thin, slightly concave piece of metal) in-place. My guess was that the original washer was probably damaged or worn out from 70-odd years of use.
I reassembled the ‘new, and improved’ bobbin-winder, with the additional brass washer in place, and screwed everything in tight and firm.
And that has made all the difference, so it seems.
The addition of one small piece of metal has had the most remarkable, and pleasing result, in that the bobbin-winder now works 100% flawlessly! I’m very pleased with the results! Yay!!
Out of boredom, I decided to remove the dust-cover on my sewing-machine’s crank-assembly to see what it looked like underneath, and maybe clean it up a bit. This was what I found:
The crank-cover is held on by two screws. You can see them lying on the lid of the attachments-compartment under the balance-wheel. The screws are loosened and then the ring-shaped cover is simply slipped off and over the hand-crank to reveal the teeth of the gear-wheel behind it.
This was filled with old gunk and dried oil or grease. So I cleaned it out with some cotton-buds. Then, I put the cover back.
It’s nice to see the workmanship on something as simple as a pair of gear-wheels. The teeth are good and long, so they lock together really well. No chance of the gears slipping and failing to mesh together.
It has taken six months of searching, but I finally have a full set of FIVE BOBBINS for my Singer 128k puzzle-box! Huzzah! Here they are:
Five bobbins in their holder, all in a neat little row!
This is the full and complete puzzle-box!
From Left to Right:
1) – Tucker-Foot – Original green paper SINGER needle-packet. Filled with foil-paper, and complement of 12 needles in their little paper sleeves. (wrapped in tape to preserve it and prevent further deterioration. Needles are still accessible and usable, though). – Clip with the original complement of five bobbins.
2) – Braider-Foot. – Hemmer-clamp Foot. – Ruffler-foot. – Quilting Foot (not part of the original box. But chucked it in anyway)
3) – Rack of five hemmer-feet, ranging from 1/8th inch, to 1in. – Binder-foot.
This is more-or-less how the box would’ve appeared (there were variations on this throughout the roughly 30 years that these boxes were produced) when it was purchased, brand-new, ca. 1900. There were a total of fourteen different variations on Singer puzzle-boxes, and they were produced for Singer vibrating-shuttle machines (Singer VS2, 27-28 series) and for Singer 15 series machines. When and why they ceased production seems to be unknown.
Here’s the machine and all its other bits and pieces, along with the unfolded puzzle-box:
Other attachments include the buttonholer (big box in front of the case-lid), the blind-stitcher (left), zig-zagger (right, next to the machine-bed), and the unfolded puzzle-box! Now full and complete. And a traditional green “SINGER” attachments box stored inside the machine’s compartment under the crank-handle.
One of the BIG draw-cards for antique sewing machines are decals.
Decals are the decorative stencils and patterns which were transferred and printed onto the cast-iron bodies of these antique beauties back in the factory, when they were being made. Although most of these patterns were never given names, sewing machine collectors, restorers and users have given them names in modern times, to help us differentiate between them. Such as “Victorian“, “Egyptian Sphinx“, “Filigree“, “Indian Star“, “Lotus” and “Red Eye“, to name a few.
Antique sewing machines which have spent years and decades in rough storage can often have their decals dulled, gritted up and darkened by years of dust, grime and gunk which have gathered on the machine, and then dried and crusted over.
Some people leave the machines as they are. While others wish to buff them up and restore them. Understandably, some people are scared of doing this, for fear of simply scraping the paintwork off and losing the patterns altogether!
On a whim, I conducted a small experiment today.
My Singer 128k is my ongoing restoration-project. And for a while, the gunky, grimed up decals have been an eyesore to me. Pondering how to clean them, I discovered a very simple and easy method:
To buff the decals and polish and scrape off all the accumulated grime, dust, grease, cigarette smoke, nicotine and other gunk that has built up on the surface of my Singer, I used extremely fine-grit steel wool.
You can buy this stuff at your hardware shop. It comes in lumps in cardboard boxes like cotton wool. Buy the FINEST GRADE steel-wool – nothing else. Finest-grade steel-wool is specifically for polishing and buffing and removing gunk and rust.
Tear off a small lump, about the size of your thumb. Roll it into a ball or mash it into a pad, and then simply buff and polish away on the decals to remove the grime.
Here are the results:
Here’s the decal at the base of the head:
Here’s the main “SINGER” decal:
After a buffing with steel-wool, it looks like this:
This is the decal on the other side of the pillar:
The set of decals on this machine are called the Victorian.
Gosh this is satisfying 🙂 How’s that old Brylcreem ad go?
Steel wool, A little clump’ll do yah, Use more, only if you dare, Watch out, the re-sults may surprise you, You’ll want to try and use it everywhere…
A box without hinges, key, or lid, A golden treasure, inside, is hid. What is it?
A Singer “Puzzle Box”!!:
My father and I went out antiquing today. Today being Australia Day, we did what all red-blooded Aussie blokes do!
We went to the annual Fryerstown Antiques Fair.
Nine hours of father-son bonding. And in the 30’c heat, we almost bonded permanently! Phoof! It was hot!
The Finding of the Box of Power
I’ve been mesmerised by these things ever since I saw pictures of them on the International Sewing-Machine Collector’s Society (ISMACS) website. And I figured I’d like one for my own long-bobbin Singer 128 sewing machine. I remembered seeing such a box at the previous year’s antiques fair, and went off today in hopes of finding one.
I knew that my chances were slim. Such things are rare in Australia. We never made this stuff, we only ever imported it. Whatever exists today is whatever hasn’t been thrown out, smashed, trashed, lost in floods, fires or tornadoes, and which has been lovingly stored in someone’s attic or basement.
We perused the market and saw many interesting things, took pictures and bought a couple of trinkets. But nothing was there that made us go “oooh…”. Or at least, not for the prices they were asking! I don’t go ‘ooh’ unless I get a good return on my investment!
Chugging home, we passed through a small-town antiques shop. We stopped and went inside. And, laid out on the table like some ancient tapestry was the puzzle-box…
I was enthralled and I almost did a wild little skip of joy. But then I saw the price and the skip of joy might’ve led to me twisting my ankle as I came crashing back down to earth again. But, I was lucky enough that the owner let me knock off a third of the price. So, I rolled it up and trotted it back home.
What is a Singer ‘Puzzle Box’?
Collectors call these whimsical little containers ‘Puzzle Boxes’. Probably because the only way the box folds up properly is when EVERYTHING is in its correct position (otherwise the lid won’t close). But, when these were introduced in 1889, they caused a sensation. The design was so ingenious that the designer, John M. Griest, a Singer Manufacturing Co. employee, was granted a patent for it.
They were originally called “Style Boxes”. And they were designed to hold a complement of attachments and other accessories (bobbins, screwdrivers, needles, thimbles etc), which would be used with the new, improved Singer vibrating-shuttle line of sewing machines. In all, 14 variations of the ‘Style Box’ was created. And they were accordingly named sequentially. There are no markings on my box to tell me which of these fourteen variations mine is. If anyone can work it out based on the photographs, please let me know!
The puzzle-boxes came with all kinds of attachments and bits and pieces. Bobbins, screwdrivers, hemmers, binders of varying sizes, seam-guides (an essential attachment if you can’t hold your fabric straight to save your life), and all other manner of nick-nacks. They are without a doubt, one of the greatest things ever invented for a sewing machine after the point-eye needle.
Puzzle boxes were manufactured for both Singer round-bobbin No. 15 domestic machines, and for Singer, long-bobbin No. 27 & 28-class domestic machines. The puzzle-boxes catering to each style of machine varied slightly, due to the size and style of the bobbins used in each respective machine.
I love the ingenuity of design with this box. But one thing I love even more is just how solidly its built. Steel parts, purple felt, and solid wood sides. These days, we’d get something like this made of plastic parts in a plastic box that cracks and warps and melts. This has held its shape and integrity for at least 100 years.
We Interrupt this Program to Bring you some Breaking News…
Here are some of the antique sewing machines which I saw for sale, while I was out antiquing today:
Then I saw this, next to it…
And then I saw this cute little number…
This was a cute little thing I saw in an antique shop on the way home…
For fifteen quid, you don’t expect much and don’t generally get much in return. Such was the case when I purchased a “display-purposes only” interwar-era Singer 128 vibrating-shuttle machine in London.
Over the last year or so I’ve been steadily sorting it out, bit by bit. Finding slide-plates, keys, extra bobbins, even a case-lid and attachments. But for all my progress, one problem eluded all my attempts to fix it.
I had tried cleaning, oiling, tightening, loosening, disassembly, reassembly…I’d just about given up hope of ever getting it working. But the problem is, it’s a huge pain in the ass winding a bobbin on these antique long-bobbin machines, without the bobbin-winder.
The issue was that every time the winder was engaged and was operating, the large, central screw (in the middle of the heart-cam) would rotate and shift, and either become too loose, or too tight against the winder. This creates a lot of friction, jamming or disengaging the winding-mechanism as a result. The only way for the mechanism to work was to hold the screw in-place, with a screwdriver, while you operated the crank. Hardly an ideal situation.
If the screw holding the bobbin-winder could be placed in its optimum position, and be induced to STAY there, then the jamming and friction would cease to be an issue. All previous attempts to address this issue had failed. Until today.
Taking a closer look at the mechanism, I determined that this big central screw is held in-place on the machine via a nut at the back, which holds it onto the winder-body. If I could adjust the nut (which is fiddly, because it’s right at the back, where you can’t see it. You can only feel it with your fingers), then the screw at the front would cease to move. Problem solved!
So, I positioned the screw in its ideal position. I held it in-place with a screwdriver while I tightened and loosened the nut behind it, with a pair of pliers. I was doing this entirely by trial and error, trying to get the right tension on the screw and nut. It has to be loose enough that the wheel and heart-cam spin smoothly, but not so loose that the wheel doesn’t engage the winding-thread connected to the bobbin-wheel.
It took a while, but I finally got it! Now, I can run the bobbin-winder without it jamming. The winder-arm now runs smoothly from the right…
…to the left…
…and back again, over and over and over, without the screw coming loose, turning around, and jamming up the works anymore! The addition of a bobbin and a spool of thread to the equation causes no problems at all!
Winding a Bobbin on a V.S. Machine
Winding a bobbin on a vibrating-shuttle machine is a minor adventure.
Unlike later round-bobbin machines (Singer 99, 66, 201, 15, etc), which have automatic-stop toggles built into the winders, V.S. machines (27, 28 & variants) simply wind the bobbin. They don’t do anything else.
Round-bobbin machines have toggles or catches built into the winder. As the bobbin fills with thread, it presses against the toggle. When the bobbin is full, the thread forces the toggle back, disengaging the winder automatically.
Some GERMAN vibrating-shuttle machines came with mechanisms such as this, and I believe, so did some American ones. But as a rule, Singer vibrating-shuttle machines did not. So when you wind a bobbin on one of these machines, you have to be careful not to over-wind it. Otherwise the bobbin will be so full of thread, you won’t fit it into the shuttle!