This is a little outside the normal realm of what I post on this blog, but I figured it might make interesting reading.
My grandmother was born on the 7th of May, 1914, in Singapore. She was a first-generation Chinese-Singaporean, her parents having migrated to Singapore from southern China. She had a mere five years’-worth of education at an English-language school in what was then Singapore Town, from 1921-1926.
She married my grandfather during the Second World War in 1943.
When the War ended, she occupied herself in looking after her husband’s three children by his first marriage. In 1953, she opened her own dressmaking and tailoring shop, in the Malaysian town of Batu Pahat. She shared the premises with a women’s beauty-salon, and consequently, it was called the ‘Kam Seng Beauty Parlour‘ (Kam Seng is Cantonese. It means ‘Golden Star‘).
When my grandmother opened her shop, she was gifted a beautiful, and brand-new sewing-machine. She used that machine for every single one of the thirty years that she ran her shop, and when my grandfather died in May, 1983, she closed the shop, retired, and immigrated to Australia.
She brought the machine with her, and continued to use it almost every single day, up until about 2003. She repaired clothes for friends, she took in alterations from her church-group, and she repaired the many rips and tears in clothing that will come from it being worn by two lively grandsons…one of them was me.
Gran and her sewing-machine were inseparable. I remember when my father purchased her a modern machine, she barely touched it, and went back to using her Singer. She was always a bit set in her ways, and while she was more receptive to other modern technologies (at the age of 85, she knew how to use Microsoft Word, type, and print on a computer), she was absolutely dead-set that the only machine she would ever use for sewing was her own.
Around 2000-2003 (I forget exactly when), my grandmother had to move into a nursing-home. Her Alzheimer’s Disease had become too much of a liability and a risk to house her safely at home. Alzheimer’s is a horrible, crippling illness. Unless they’ve seen it firsthand and had to deal with it for years on end, don’t believe anyone who tells you that “I understand” when you talk about Alzheimers…because they don’t. Unless they’ve seen it, or studied it, or treated it…they really don’t.
When gran moved to the nursing-home, her sewing-machine was put downstairs in the basement, where it has sat for the past 10 years.
My grandmother died on the 28th of November, 2011, at the impressive age of 97.
With her gone, and my father and I constantly discussing antiques and heirlooms and him telling me all the stuff that his family used to own, but which they don’t anymore, because they were thrown out, but which today would be worth a pretty penny…my mind was drawn towards gran’s sewing-machine.
That machine was her life. She carried it EVERYWHERE with her and it was her baby. She would let nobody else touch it (except me, because I used to set it up for her every morning. The machine weighs 31lb, 4oz…about 15kg…and it wasn’t easy for an seven-year-old boy to haul that thing around!). Now that she was gone, we had nothing left to remind us of gran, except her sewing-machine.
With all of my father’s stories ringing around in my ears, I began to wonder what would happen?
That machine was gran’s mainstay and anchor and rock for 50 years, or over half her life. And it was the one machine that represented her character and told her life-story better than anything else. Tough, simple, elegant, stubborn and impossible to destroy.
Be there as it may, I knew that it wasn’t going to last long rotting downstairs in the basement. So I decided to haul it out of that godforsaken hole in the ground, and restore it to a level where it was once again a functional piece of machinery.
STEP ONE – Cleaning the Machine
Carrying it as carefully as I could, I hauled gran’s Singer…because that’s what it is…out of the basement. It was locked up tightly inside the curved ‘Bentwood’ case, cocooned by wood and shrouded in the dust of a decade. I cleaned off the dust and then set about opening the case.
The cases are held onto the machine-bases by very simple, but surprisingly effective locks. Without a key, these cases are literally impossible to open. I squirted some oil into the lock and while I waited for it to settle, I went off to find the one tool that I would need to open the case.
Not the key, that was long gone.
A 3mm flat-head screwdriver.
If anyone reading this has ever tried to open a Singer bentwood case but doesn’t have the key…pay close attention…
The profile of a 3mm flat-head screwdriver perfectly fits the keyhole of a Singer bentwood case’s lock. A few generous squirts of oil, a few minutes of waiting, then I shoved the screwdriver, horizontally, into the lock. I turned it clockwise 90 degrees, until the lock was in the vertical “Unlocked” position.
Then, I shifted the whole top of the case to the left about a quarter of an inch. This is to disengage the other bolt or latch, which secures the right side of the case to the machine-base (the lock with the key is always on the left), and then lifted it up.
Here’s the bentwood case:
Here’s the keyhole:
That rectangular thing is the keyhole. It’s 1mm high by 3mm wide. You can also see the bolt underneath, that you have to throw over, to unlock the case
And this was the machine as it looked when I broke open the pharaoh’s tomb:
I’m no expert with sewing-machines. I just like old, vintage, antique-y things. And this is the closest thing we have in my family to an heirloom, so I decided almost immediately, to try and get it running again.
In all honesty, this thing probably hasn’t been serviced by your friendly local Singer Man since it left the factory back in 1950. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for, but I started, anyway.
‘Singer Manufacturing Company’ factory; Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland, U.K (Photo ca. 1901).
Gran’s machine was made here
First, I had to clean out all the gunk and fluff and crap that was inside the machine. Over the decades, this machine built up an enormous amount of dust and fluff, lint, loose thread, dead insects, coagulated oil and other…crap!…which rendered it totally unusable. I basically had a really awesome boat-anchor sitting on the living-room floor.
So, off with the face-plate…
The faceplate is that pretty steel plate with all the patterns on it that you see in the photo above. It was held on by one screw, and one nut. Somewhere in there is a bad joke…
Behind the plate is the crankshaft mechanism that powers the needle-bar (along with everything else in the machine apart from the light). It looks like this:
It’s quite simple, really. The crank turns around. It simultaneously lifts the needle-bar and lowers the uptake-lever (that’s the doohickey sticking out on the right with the hole in it), and then does the opposite when it completes one revolution.
As you see it there, the machine was completely immovable. It was covered in gunk and crud that I had to pick out with tweezers and wipe down with tissues to remove. It’s not just taking out the Dyson or the Hoover and sucking all the crap out of the machine…a vacuum-cleaner wouldn’t be able to remove 90% of the gunk inside here, because it’s stuck in really inaccessible places which only tweezers are able to reach, like behind levers, rods, shafts and plates.
Once that was done, I then had to tackle the handwheel assembly, at the other end of the machine. The handwheel is this big shiny wheel:
The handwheel spins around thanks to a belt-drive wrapped around it, which hooks up to the machine-motor at the back. You can see it here:
That black lump at the bottom left is the machine-motor. Above it, you can see the black light-shade. To the left of the lightshade is the drive-belt that runs the machine.
Anyway, I digress. I had to remove the clutch-wheel, also called the stop-motion wheel, which is that silvery wheel in the middle of the handwheel. You might notice that it’s held on by a single, but surprisingly effective screw, which took quite a while to loosen up. Once it was loose and I could unscrew the clutchwheel, I was confronted with this enchanting scene:
This is a part of the machine that NEVER sees the light of day, and yet it’s full of fluff, lint, gunk, dried oil and other crap. This is why complete disassembly of the machine was necessary…it’s this stuff that stops it from running, because it jams up the works. I took off the washer (that’s the doughnut with the three nubs sticking off it), and cleaned it, the crankshaft and the wheel, thoroughly. This is what it looked like when I was done:
This is the other (non-shiny) side of the clutch-wheel, with the washer sitting on top of it:
If you’re reading this as a guide on how to clean and fix your Singer (provided it’s the same model that I have!), you’ll notice that there’s a little nub sticking out of the clutch-wheel, around the 9 o’clock position. That’s the screw that holds the clutch-wheel onto the larger handwheel. It’s sticking out there because it doesn’t (and is not supposed to) be removed entirely from the clutch-wheel. It’ll unscrew a few milimeters and then it will stop. Do NOT force it…you won’t achieve anything at all, and what you want to have achieved (which is removal of the clutch-wheel) should be well within your capabilities by then.
Anyway, next step was to clean the bobbin-mechanism:
The bobbin mechanism is what holds the…bobbin. The bobbin being that shiny steel spool with the three big holes and the one small hole in it. It’s what feeds the thread to the underside of the machine to make the classic lockstitch.
Oh, and a warning note here…
See that nice fluffy red felty cloth on the right?
If you’re fixing, cleaning or repairing a sewing-machine, and you see the felt…
LEAVE IT ALONE!!!
The felt is your friend. It is there for a purpose! So DO NOT touch it! Without the felt, you’d have the oscillating hook (that catches the thread and pulls it under the needle to make the lock part of the lockstitch) scraping against metal inside the machine, and that would wear everything down and eventually just break it.
Fortunately, I”d read this warning on another blog before commencing work on this machine, so no undue damage was done to the intricate inner workings of this Singer by my hands.
Once the topside of the machine was cleaned, polished and defluffed, I had to tackle the underside of the machine. To do that, I unscrewed this nut, and swung back this catch:
That allows me to lift up the whole machine and tilt it back on hinges to access the storage-compartment underneath the machine:
This handy little compartment is where you would store things like thread, spare needles, bobbins, the machine-manual and all that other stuff. But more importantly, it was where I could get my hands on this:
This is the other side of this:
And it had just as much fluff, crap and mostly…loose thread…as the topside did.
Once the entire machine was completely cleaned, inside and out, topside, downside, upside and underside, it was ready to oil it.
STEP TWO – Oiling the Machine
Singers were made to be idiot-proof and user-friendly. To that end, they are incredibly easy to use, and look after. Especially a machine like this. The next step was to oil the machine to unjam all those frozen pistons and rods and cranks. To do that, you need high-grade machine-oil. You can buy this stuff at sewing-shops, decent hardware shops and whatever. Ideally, you want sewing-machine-specific oil. But if you can’t get that, any really thin, runny, high-grade oil (which will work for sewing-machines, and says so on the label), will do.
For this, I used SuperLube machine-oil.
And a LOT of it.
It took about an hour to fully lubricate the machine to the point where it would move as it once did. Oiling it is pretty easy. Just remember to squirt oil where-ever something moves. On a sewing-machine, that’s a surprisingly large number of places!
Fortunately for us, Singer thought about this, and provided us with these:
Those holes (next to the ‘T’ the ‘The‘ and under the ‘i’ in ‘Singer‘) are just two of several oiling-holes. You squirt or drip the oil down those holes to lubricate the machine!
What’s in there?
Why the crankshaft that runs the machine, of course! But before you do that, make sure you stick your needle-nosed tweezers down those holes first. There might be some unexpected surprises in there (like dead insects or dust, lint and fluff), that you don’t want to get all over the insides of your beautiful vintage sewing-machine.
Once the machine was generously oiled, I ran it by hand for several minutes to work the oil into the mechanism. You can do this easily by just turning the big, black and silver handwheel anticlockwise to work the mechanism. It doesn’t damage the machine, so don’t worry about that. Now that the machine was running, it was time for…
STEP THREE – Testing the Machine
This is a Singer 99k knee-lever machine made in Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland, in 1950. It’s called a knee-lever because it uses one of these to get it running:
That’s the knee-lever. And this is the socket that it slots into, on the right of the machine:
So, you plug in the power-cord, you stick in the weird, twisted “?”-shaped crank-thingy and you let ‘er rip!
And boy does it ever.
The machine was running like a jackhammer on steroids. In other words…perfectly!
Then, I had to make sure that, not only the sewing-mechanism was working, but that the bobbin-winding mechanism was working.
The bobbin-winder is this little thingo here:
It’s used to mechanically wind thread back onto the bobbin (that little steel thread-spool from further up in the posting) when the thread runs out. It turns a task that would take several minutes, into an event that’s over in about 30 seconds. You work the bobbin-winder by loosening the clutch-wheel (turning it anticlockwise), slotting a bobbin onto the rod:
Setting the release-lever against the bobbin (to stop it flying off the rod when this thing gets moving!), threading the bobbin, and then pressing the knee-lever to do the rest.
The automatic bobbin-winder will keep spinning, and the bobbin will keep filling, until such time as the thread in the bobbin fills up to such a level that it pushes away the release-lever. This automatically disengages the flywheel, which stops the mechanism dead in its tracks. And you have a full bobbin.
STEP FOUR – Accessorising the Machine
The next step was to accessorise the machine, or to find extra bits and bobs for it. These aren’t essential things, but they’re things that would be nice to have…like…extra needles…extra bobbins…original packaging…oil-cans…all that stuff. When the machine was brand new, it would’ve come with all kinds of nick-nacks and doodads and whizzle-whozzles that would’ve allowed the owner to attain a mastery of the machine good enough to make a suit.
I got lucky at the local flea-market and picked up a whole heap of needles and bobbins (eleven bobbins and two packs of original Singer needles) for a good price. Here they are, along with the one bobbin and the one Singer packet (with the one extra needle) that came along with my machine when I found it in the basement:
In time, I do hope to get other bits and pieces to make the machine more complete.
Along with the needles and bobbins, I got my hands on an original Singer bentwood key, for the case, kindly given to me by a friend…
“SIMANCO” is the “Singer Manufacturing Company”. The number next to it (96507) is the part-number for the key.
It was now that I also started looking at the bentwood case which housed this machine. It had all these weird little things inside it which I had no idea what they were for. That was when I found the bracket to hold the knee-bar:
This bracket is directly under the handle on the top of the case, and in the apex of the arch. You stick one end of the knee-bar into the socket on the left, then slot the rest of it into the slot on the right, and swing the catch (which will then go up and over the bar) to lock into place, to stop it wriggling around and falling off. Also inside the machine is a little black, wire bracket. It would have originally held a dome-shaped Singer oil-can, which would’ve looked like this:
Unfortunately, I don’t have a dome-shaped Singer oil-can (…yet…), but that’s what that bracket is there for, if you’ve ever wondered.
At the time of this posting, I’m still searching for extra bits and bobs and thingummies for the machine. If and when I find them, I’ll probably post about it here on the blog.
STEP FIVE – Replacement Parts
The next step was to find replacement parts…or to be precise, one part.
The part that goes here:
As you can see, the jerry-rig solution was a piece of balsa-wood held on with tape. Hardly the best substitute for the machine’s slide-plate, which is supposed to cover the bobbin-mechanism. Fortunately, I found a reproduction slide-plate (and yes, there are modern reproduction Singer parts), which I found on eBay (and that’s where you can get them, if you need them. There are also websites out there which sell original spare Singer parts. It’s just a matter of how desperate you are and what you want to pay). It was purchased on my behalf by my cousin, Hansen, who lives in Singapore, and which was hurried off to me with all due speed. It arrived…today, actually…and now the same part of the machine looks like this:
Yes, the slide-plate has a different metal-finish to the needleplate next to it, so they don’t match exactly, but it’s close enough for my purposes. And the important thing is that it fits and it does what it’s supposed to do!…Slide!:
All modern replacement slide-plates for Singer 99’s, 99k’s, 66’s, and 66k’s (and any other Singer models that take the square slide-plate…Singer parts were surprisingly interchangeable!) come in this same matte-finish, and not the shiny mirror-finish of the originals. But we should be thankful that there are reproduction plates at all!
The machine is now essentially complete. And I mean that literally..all the essential parts are present and correct. Needles, bobbins, plates, thread, machine-oil…the machine has been cleaned, oiled, tested, and it’s back to operational condition. I’m still after other Singer bits and pieces (attachments, extra feet, button-holers etc), but as it sits now, this machine will do, without any kind of hindrance, the task for which it was built when it left Scotland 60+ years ago…sew!
This is my grandmother’s Singer 99k knee-lever, as it appears now:
A Note on Construction
During this little adventure of mine, it occurred to me how fantastically-built these old Singers were. Of ALL the components on this machine, a grand-total of…FIVE…are made of something OTHER than cast iron, steel or wood. The plastic (bakelite?) shield on the steel light-shade…the lightbulb itself…the tire on the flywheel for the bobbin-winder, the drive-belt on the handwheel, and the power-cord and plug (also bakelite, I believe).
The Singer 99k was one of the MOST popular Singer machines ever made. They were produced from 1920 until 1962 and they’re incredibly simple, robust and powerful. Their simplicity is obvious. The motor is only there to power the drive-belt, and the light. Literally everything else on the machine is mechanical. And there’s no plastic on there at all. Nothing to crack…melt…warp…twist…shrink…expand…It just WORKS. I can’t think of a damn thing made today which was this solid when it was new, and which would still be that solid 60 years later. The Singer 99k was originally a handcranked model:
When it was released, it was a manual, hand-cranked machine, but an electrically-powered variation, with the knee-lever attachment, or the electric foot-pedal attachment (depending on variant, of course), were also available. These machines are so tough that they just NEVER break down. If you have an electrical one like I do, you might need to get the wiring checked if it’s spotty, but otherwise, they just never stop working.
And a Singer like the 66 or the 99/99k was a big investment. 11 pounds, 3s in 1930s Britain, or about a hundred and twenty dollars in America at the same time. Even in the 20s and 30s, a lot of people (mostly women) still made their own clothes, or clothes for their family, at home. Having a solid and dependable sewing-machine like a Singer was part an essential, and part a luxury, because their quality meant that they were priced pretty high. Even today, a sewing machine like my grandmother’s Singer 99k will easily sew through things like…
Multiple layers of cloth.
Things that would probably kill a modern machine…
Here’s some additional photos of the machine, now that it’s complete:
The machine in its entirety!
The slide-plate doing what it does best – sliding!
The name of the beautiful pattern on the Singer 99k was called the ‘Filigree’
The Singer Manufacturing Company
Filigree + Plates!
Presser-foot, needle and feed-dogs (the little bumpy things)