Lubricating your Sewing Machine – More Accessories!

In my ongoing quest to find bits and pieces to complete the restoration of my grandmother’s Singer 99k knee-lever sewing-machine, I have two kinds of lubricant, with which to tantilise you.

When you ambled into your friendly local Singer Sewing Center and left with your brand-spanking-new sewing machine, it would’ve come complete with all manner of wizzlewozzles and doohickies, doodads and thingdoodles.

Today, few vintage machines have these bits and pieces still with them. They’ve been used up, lost, thrown out, broken or just forgotten about, and you can’t just go back down to your local Singer shop to buy them anymore. So instead, you have to seek them out all individually and separately. It’s frustrating because you don’t always know what to look for. But sometimes, you get lucky.

Using the BRK motor-manual which I bought last week (see other posts in this category) as a guide for what to look for, I headed out into the world of the local flea-market. While there, in the pre-dawn chill of a Melbourne winter, with only my torchlight to guide me, I chanced upon this:

Holy mackrel! It’s a Singer oil-can!

After anywhere from 40-90 years, there’s obviously no OIL left in the can. But I bought it anyway, for a couple of dollars, for the sake of completeness. Why did I buy it?

Because, even though it’s as dry as the Sahara Desert, it is, nonetheless, the original style of oil-can that went with my machine when it was brand-new.

This is a a standard Singer bentwood case:

On the inside of that case, on the back left-hand side (if the ‘SINGER’ logo is facing you), is a little bent wire bracket, screwed into the paneling.

If you’ve got a Singer machine with a bentwood case and ever wondered what that bracket was there for…well…take a look at the picture of the oil-can up above. Keep it well in your mind, and then scroll down…

Yup! That little bent metal bracket is to hold the oil-can! See how nicely it sits in there and how HAPPY it is to finally be back home? You can tell it’s smiling. You can just tell.

When oiling your vintage Singer sewing machine, be sure that you oil all the moving parts which are MECHANICAL. That means NO OIL should go into the electric BRK machine-motor at the back/side of the machine. If you do that, horrible things will happen. It will heat up, start smoking and will probably catch fire and blow up, because the oil’s gone all through the motor, interfered with the electronics (such as they are on these old machines) and started an irreversible chain of catastrophic events.

Oil the pistons, shafts, cranks, levers, wheels, hooks…anything that’s mechanical. But do NOT apply sewing-machine oil to the motor. Or you’ll live to regret it.

But hold on. I told you I had TWO types of lubricant!…What’s the other one?

You might remember this manual from a previous posting:

Having read the warning, you’re sitting at your desk wondering “What the hell is this ‘motor-lubricant’ stuff?”

The motor-lubricant, which is the only thing that should be used to lubricate the BRK Singer sewing-machine motor, is a thickish, pasty substance. Originally, it came in this tube, which I purchased today for a paltry $1.00:

The tube is, structurally, in excellent condition, without cracks or leaks, and it’s almost completely full of its original supply of paste! This is the lubricant which you should use to lubricate your Singer BRK machine-motor.

If you can’t find any of these neat little tubes of paste, then nick down to your local sewing-machine shop (if you have one) or hardware store (if you don’t), and ask for good-quality motor lubricant. It should be like a soft, gel-like paste which can sit inside the motor and keep things nice and smooth, but without dribbling and leaking everywhere like oil would.

Once you have it, take it home and apply it sparingly, to the oiling holes either side of your Singer BRK machine-motor. The oiling-holes are these little metallic holes at either end of the motor:

See it? It’s that tiny little steel-lined hole, above the big, fat, black plastic screw-head. That’s why the nozzle on the paste-tube is so small, because it has to fit into that miniscule little opening.

Still hunting for more bits and pieces…


Grandmother’s Dressmaking Shears!

Why Granny! What big knives you have… 

Wonders never cease.

I believed that these had been lost when my grandmother moved to the nursing-home. But I found them under a whole pile of junk in a drawer at home. Right at the back. Probably why I never found them before, on previous sweeps around the house.

This fearsome-looking digit detachment-device…also known as HUGE GODDAMN SCISSORS!…is my grandmother’s original pair of dressmaker’s shears!

I remember these from when I was a little boy, and when gran used to scold me for snapping them around with innocent childish glee.

These cold steel hedge-trimmers were what my grandmother used to cut the cloth from which she used to make clothing back in the 50s. They’re professional dressmaking shears, not scissors…shears. And now they’re all mine, with which to flirt with the possibility of horrendous injury on a daily basis!

The shears, as far as I can tell, are about 60 years old. They’re made by the J. Wiss & Sons company of Newark, New Jersey, U.S.A., a respected German-American toolmaking firm of over 100-years experience and manufacture of bladed instruments. They’re the No. 28 bent-handle shears, meaning that they’re dressmaking shears, with an 8-1/8th inch overall length, and with a cutting-length of 3-7/8th inches. The bent handles at the end (which are deliberately bent upwards) are so that you can cut fabric while it’s lying on the table, without the bottom handle getting in the way.

Near as I can figure, these shears date to ca. 1950. I have found variations of the No. 28 shears in Wiss catalogues dating as far back as 1915, and as recent as right now, on a website selling J. Wiss products, but only the shears from the 1950s exactly match the ones I have on my desk right now. They’re stamped with the words:

NO. 28″

inside an anvil-shape, on one side of the pivot, and…

Newark, N.J.

…on the other, and WISS – INLAID, on the same side, along the blade.

They come with nice, black, Japanned handles, and the entire thing is made of steel. The shears are made of two parts (handle and blade – left, handle and blade – right), plus a screw and rivet at the pivot-point. There’s no plastic anywhere. That means that there’s nothing here which can snap off or warp or bend or crack and break. Solid, dependable and sharp.

These are not the biggest dressmaker’s shears you can buy, and nor are they the smallest. Wiss & Sons sell shears in sizes anywhere from 6.5 inches, all the way up to monsters which are a foot long! These are kind of like middle-of-the-road shears.

I had them professionally sharpened, and now, they’re back to being functional shears once more. Originally, the pivot was very stiff and squeaky. I tried to remedy this with oil, but it didn’t do anything to help the situation. In the end, I found that the best solution was to soak the scissors in an ultrasonic bath full of hot water. The heat and the sonic vibrations loosened up all the rust and gunk and dust and oil inside the pivot-point, and now the shears swing and slice cleanly, smoothly, sharply and most importantly, silently…apart from a quality-reassuring ‘schink!’ with each closure of the blades…

I cleaned the shears and have since added them to my growing pile of stuff that I need to restore my grandmother’s 1950 Singer 99k. Here’s a photo I took showing (most) of the stuff I gathered so far:

Looking for a pair of top-quality dressmaking shears like granny’s? Here’s a website with information on the company which made the ones I have: Joseph Wiss & Sons website.

J. Wiss & Sons officially lasted from 1848-1976. But the J. Wiss & Sons. brand is still used today, and you can still buy their marvellous, gigantic, all-steel dressmaker’s and tailor’s shears today.  


How to Service your Vintage Sewing Machine

Since posting my first sewing-machine piece here on my blog, I’ve received a comment asking for tips and tricks on how to service, clean and oil these machines. I figured I’d write up a posting here, to answer that question in greater detail.

Disclaimer etc: I am not a qualified, certified, expert, professional, master machine-repairman by any stretch of fact, fiction or the most rabid and erratic of imaginations. This is merely a small side-hobby of mine; but everything written hereafter, has been done so with the backing of research and experience gained from practice. I have serviced vintage and antique sewing-machines as a hobby, and have restored some for friends and family.

The information pertaining to sewing-machines as mentioned in this posting is strictly for older machines which are mechanically driven, and not those which are generally, post-1960s, which tend to be operated more via electronics and computerised systems instead of cranks, levers, cams and pistons.

How Does a Sewing Machine Work?

I figured I’d do a bit about this first, since it might bear importance later on.

Be they 100 years old, 150 years old, 50 years old, or brand new, all sewing-machines operate in the same basic manner.

Having prepared the machine for sewing, the following actions occur:

1. The needle descends and pierces the fabric. It retracts. As the needle rises up, it leaves a small loop of thread on the underside of the fabric.

2. The transverse shuttle/vibrating shuttle/rotating hook/oscilating hook (dependent on machine’s age and design) swings around. The nose of the shuttle or the swinging hook, catches the loop of thread left by the upper needle.

3. The loop of thread passes over and around the shuttle or the hook, which pulls the bottom thread through the loop as it goes along.

4. At the top of the machine, the thread take-up lever jerks upwards. This pulls the stitch tight and closes the loop.

5. The feed-dogs perform a four-motion movement. Up, back, down, forwards. This pushes the fabric up against the presser-foot, and shoves it back, out of the machine.

After those five steps, the whole process repeats again. Sometimes as slow as hand-sewing, or, as fast as you can run the machine.

Alright…let’s get to what you’ll need to do.

*SPECIAL NOTE: The instructions in this posting are on how to clean, oil and operate your machine. NOT on how to repair them or fix broken parts. By following the instructions in this tutorial, you understand that your machine is in WORKING ORDER, but requires cleaning and general maintenance*

Tools and Equipment 

This pertains specifically to old Singer sewing machines, but most of these things you can use to service any antique or vintage sewing-machine.

You will need…

Needle-nosed Tweezers

I cannot stress this enough. If you don’t have a pair of these…forget it.

You must have a pair. There is absolutely NO other way to get into the TINY little recesses of the machine to dig out the dust, lint, fluff, dead insects, broken needle-tips and other crap that builds up in a sewing-machine over the course of decades.

Forget about the Dyson or the Hoover or the Miele. They can suck like a tornado, they will not remove the bits of grime that are glued and stuck onto the machine, or which are hiding in tiny, inaccessible places. Without needle-nosed pliers, it’s almost pointless to start.

Tissues or Bog-Roll

Tissues or toilet paper to clean, wipe, polish, stop oil from dripping, etc. Don’t just take one or two sheets. Keep a box of the things next to you while you do this.

Cotton Buds

I think the Yanks call these things ‘Q-tips’. Everywhere else in the world, they’re called cotton-buds. Those little plastic shafts with fluffy cotton balls on the end, about two inches long.

You need these to clean, wipe or polish areas of the machine which a tissue or other polishing-cloth won’t reach.

A Powerful Torch

Personally, my eyesight is not good. But this would apply to anyone. You need a bright, powerful (preferably small) torch (‘flashlight’ to the Yanks) while you work. This is so that you can shine extra light into the really dark, tiny, tucked-away places of the machine where conventional lights won’t be able to reach.

A Miniature Screwdriver

Cute little thing, isn’t it? This little Singer screwdriver (or one like it) would’ve come with most vintage Singers when they left the factory, or your local shop. This is my screwdriver

Some sewing-machines come with these little wotsits already supplied. Very handy. I know for a fact that Singer machines were sold with their own personal screwdrivers. If you have one, good. If you don’t, toddle off to find the very smallest screwdriver you can find. A flat-head screwdriver, by the way. Ideally, the size should be 3mm wide.

*SPECIAL NOTE: For owners of Singer sewing machines with bentwood cases. If you don’t have the key for your case and the machine is locked inside, you can use a 3mm flat-head screwdriver as a makeshift key. It does not damage the lock and will serve the purpose admirably*

The screwdriver will be essential for…well…undoing screws and removing plates.

General-Purpose Oil

Get yourself a can of general lubricating oil. Something that’s used on things like hinges and suchlike.


The purpose of this oil is to lubricate the case-lock which holds the machine-case onto the machine-base. And this is just about the only thing that it should be used for.

Sewing Machine Oil

You will also need a bottle or can of sewing-machine oil. Ideally, you want sewing-machine SPECIFIC oil. But if you can’t, a high-grade, thin, runny machine-oil, suitable for sewing-machines, will suffice. Just don’t use 3-in-1 oil. It may say that it’s for sewing-machines, but I have it on good authority that this stuff is not the best thing to use. Personally, I use SuperLube machine-oil, which was the one recommended to me by my local repairman. You can buy this oil from your local hardware shop or your local sewing-shop in little 125ml bottles.

Eyedropper or Syringe

This is to distribute the oil around the machine. If you have a spray-can of machine-oil, of the type described above, then you can use the little plastic tube that comes with the can instead, but if the oil comes in a little glass or plastic bottle, then you’ll want something like an eyedropper or a syringe.

Some of the places that you need to apply oil to in a sewing-machine are quite inaccessible to a big, bulky bottle. This is where a local-application tube, or an eyedropper can come in handy.

A Bowl or Plate

Something that you don’t use anymore. This is to house any screws, nuts, feet, plates etc, that you remove from the machine during the course of your restoration. These things are TINY and they will roll away from you, given the chance. And if your machine is 50, 70, 90, 120 years old, chances are, if you lose a particular piece, you won’t be able to just go out and buy a new one.

Metal-Polishing Paste

You’ll also want a tube of metal-polishing paste. You can get this stuff from hardware stores and car-maintenance shops and suchlike. Personally, I use a German-made product called Simichrome, it does the job on most metals with ease (except brass, I think), and the results will look stunning.


If possible, you should get a hold of your sewing-machine’s manual. Now I realise that if you’re reading this, your machine is probably one that you picked up at an antiques shop, a flea-market, or which you inherited from granny (that’s how I got mine!) and that half the crap that should have come with it, is missing (just like with me!).

Don’t worry. You can buy (or sometimes if you search really hard, download for free) facsimiles of original sewing-machine manuals.

Having the manual is a big help for obvious reasons. It shows you how the machine goes together, how to oil it, what all the parts are, and most importantly, how to use it!

Right…Got all those things? Let’s get started.

Cleaning the Machine

I’m going to assume that the machine you have is a really old one. By that, I mean at least 60 years old. No later than about 1955-1960 (after that, the technology kinda changes a fair bit and this sort of information isn’t as pertinent to more modern machines). Most likely, it looks something like this:

My Singer 128 Vibrating Shuttle machine

This little sweetheart is a Singer 128 model, and is representative of the kinds of machines seen around the turn of the last century. For those not very good with dates, that’s ca. 1890-1910. Possibly, you might have a slightly later model, such as a Singer 99-series model, from ca. 1920-1960. They look like this:

My grandmother’s Singer 99k

Or perhaps you’ve got one of those big, old foot-driven treadle-machines, which look like this?

Singer 66 treadle machine that I snapped at an antiques shop

Regardless of what machine you have, if it looks like those (or is very similar to those) and is of advanced age, this tutorial should cover all the necessary directions for getting it running again.

The first process of cleaning is de-linting or de-fluffing the machine.

These old machines have a LOT of places where dust, broken needles, fluff, lint, loose thread, bread-crumbs, loose diamonds and other bits and pieces can fall in and hibernate. They jam up the machine and make it difficult to run (or make it run not at all!). It is essential to remove as much of this stuff as possible before moving onto the next step.

When cleaning the machine, you want to start with ONE area at a time. Broadly speaking, a sewing-machine is divided into four basic areas:

1. Needlebar Assembly

The needle-bar is the area of the machine at the head of the arm (the bit that you pass the fabric under). This is comprised of the…

– Faceplate.
– Needle-bar.
– Presser-foot bar.
– Foot-lever.
– Takeup-lever.

 2. Bobbin Area

The bobbin area is directly beneath the needle-bar and presser-foot. It is comprised of the…

– Bobbin
– Bobbin-case
– Oscilating hook/rotating hook/shuttle.
– Feed-dogs.
– Slide-plate/s.
– Needle-plate.

3. The Undercarriage

The underside of the machine is where all the secondary cranks and pistons hide out. This is accessed by unscrewing any securing-bolts or nuts, and lifting the whole machine UP and BACK on a pair of hinges. This is where you would traditionally store things like spare needles, manuals, bobbins, scissors, etc. Small fiddly things that you might need. You need to clean in here to ensure that the bobbin-case and the oscilating hook (or other stitch-making apparatus) works properly.

4. Handwheel Assembly

The handwheel assembly and clutch-wheel is the part of the machine right at the back, on your right. This is comprised of…

– The handwheel (big wheel).
– the clutch-wheel (small wheel inside the big wheel. Also called a stop-motion wheel).
– Bobbin-winder
– Drive-belt (if your machine is electrically powered, or a mechanical treadle-machine).
– Hand-crank (if your machine is manually-powered).

Now that I’ve labelled those areas, pick one, and start the de-linting or de-fluffing process. This involves disassembling the area to as far a level as you’re comfortable with/capable of, and poking around with your tweezers (the all-important needle-nosed tweezers I mentioned earlier!) to remove any and all fluff, dust, hair, lint and thread that you might find.

Take your time with this. These old machines gather dust and crud like the Amish gather weaving-looms.

Work through each part of the machine, area by area, systematically. After delinting/defluffing, you want to take your tissues and wipe the area as clean as you can. You might also like to squirt a TEENSY bit of polishing-paste to clean a particular area and give it more of a sparkle. This does a lot more than make it look nice – it helps the machine to run better.

A Word of Caution

 In old Singer sewing-machines (and, I believe, in other makes and models), there is often a piece of RED FELT hiding inside the bobbin-well. LEAVE IT ALONE!!!

It is NOT lint. It is NOT junk. It is part of the machine’s design. Do NOT remove it. It is important. Exactly why it is important, I will explain later.

This is the red felt. I’ve included these photographs at the request of a reader, who wanted to see its exact placement within the machine: 

If the machine looks a bit weird, its because I unscrewed and removed the needle-plate underneath the presser-foot to take these photographs.

In these photos, you can also see the bobbin (round spool), bobbin-case (thing that the round spool is housed in), bobbin-release button (round button with crosshatching on top) and the feed-dogs (the raised bits with little corrugations on top).

After thoroughly de-linting and wiping down every part of the machine where lint is want to hide (take your time with this, trust me, there’s a LOT of places!), then you move onto the fun part.

Oiling your Machine

Right. You’ve pulled the whole thing apart. You’ve de-linted the machine, you’ve wiped it down, you’ve polished it nice and clean. Now you need to oil it.

Do NOT skimp on this step. Trust me, it’s important. Don’t ever worry about putting in too much oil. Better that the machine should drown in happiness, rather than break it’s back from overwork.

Now that you have thoroughly cleaned the ENTIRE machine, you need to oil it.

Take out your bottle of high-grade machine-oil, made for, or suitable for use in sewing-machines.

If you have a can of the stuff with a local-application tube, even better. If not, then also take out of its place of secretion, your eyedropper or syringe.

What you want to do now is to oil your machine. This is not hard to do. And to be honest, it’s kinda fun. It may take a while, but don’t give up hope. Just keep squirting and testing, squirting and testing.

Oiling a sewing machine is easy. Just follow the golden rule: Oil anything that moves. And oil it more than less.

Now, your machine might run jerkily and stiffly, or, as was in my case, it literally would NOT run AT ALL, and that’s with considerable effort put into trying to rotate the handwheel.

In either case, the procedure is the same.

Take your oil and drip it into, and onto any place in the machine where something moves, or something rubs up against something else. The key spots to oil are the key spots where I mentioned earlier, you need to clean. The four main parts of the machine. The needle-bar area, the bobbin-area, the handwheel-area and the underside.

How long does all this take? I can’t tell you. It’s dependent on the machine. With my first machine, which didn’t move at all before it was oiled, it took nearly an hour (about 45-50 minutes). Yours might take longer, or shorter than that.

Don’t worry about getting oil all over the place. These machines are designed to put up with that. More oil is better than not enough. So squirt or drip it all over the machine in places where it needs to go.

Your machine may have a series of holes all over it. Such as along the top of the arm, around the handwheel-area, at the top of the needle-bar area, and so-forth. These are OILING HOLES. Yay! You can pour as much oil down there as you can fit. The oil will seep into places such as pistons, rods, shafts and cams, and get them to wake up and start moving.

A word, though. Be sure that you clean these holes BEFORE you pour oil down them. You don’t want a dead blowfly inside your machine-head oiling hole to be sucked down into the guts of your great-grandmother’s Singer, to be mashed up into bug-goo.

While you oil the machine, periodically operate it. Pump the treadle, press the foot-pedal, push the knee-lever or turn the crank-handle. This will encourage the machine to move, and this, in turn, will spread the oil further around the machine. Keep oiling, pausing, operating, oiling, pausing, operating, over and over and over.

Oh, and remember that red felt I mentioned earlier? The stuff that hides in the bobbin-area?

Drench it in oil.

It’s there to act as a sponge. Squirt a whole eyedropper of oil onto it. This will keep it moist and happy, and will stop the shuttle or the oscilating/rotating hook from scratching against the metal near the felt, and prevent wear, tear and possible damage.

When have you put on enough oil?

You’ll have put on enough oil when the machine runs freely. You should be able to put your foot down, you should be able to press the knee-bar, you should be able to treadle like an Olympic cyclist, you should be able to crank at the fastest possible speed, and the machine offers no resistance at all.

At the same time, the machine should be a lot quieter. It won’t rattle, squeak, jerk, groan or shake the entire table when it runs. If it does, then it needs more oil.

“I’m done…Now what?”

Okay. You’ve finished the entire project! Now wasn’t that fun?

Once the machine is running and you’re hankering to become the next Savile Row master-tailor, you need to keep your machine in good condition.

Basically, this means keeping the dust off it, changing any broken needles, finding accessories, spare parts and other doodads for it, and keeping it oiled.

These old machines drink oil. And it’s important to keep them hydrated. After any significant project (say you just finished making a whole new set of slip-covers for the pillows and cushions of that big, three-seater couch and two armchairs in the living-room), you should oil the machine all over again. Not much, maybe 2-3 drops in each place. When you’ve done that, run the machine at-speed for about 2-3 minutes, to work the oil in, and then put it away.

Given regular maintenance, a vintage or antique sewing-machine will run for another 100 years. These machines were incredibly tough and they were designed to sew together anything short of sheet-metal. They will EASILY chomp through canvas, leather, denim, or even multiple layers of paper (my record is 56 pages, or 28 sheets of paper…I used the machine to sew together it’s own instruction manual!). Being made of steel and wood, there’s almost nothing on these machines that will ever wear out, apart from tires, protective rubber feet, belts and needles. These can generally be easily replaced, either with reproduction parts, original parts, or from materials jerry-rigged for the purpose (I have seen people who re-belted their old treadle or electromechanical machines using nylon rope, to great effect, I might add).

Dos and Don’ts with Old Machines

DO – Take your time with cleaning and oiling it. Nothing was ever gained by trying to rush something, when restoring a vintage or antique *anything*

DO – Use the proper equipment, materials and tools. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t have the right stuff to do it with.

DO – make sure that you cover EVERY part of the machine when you service it.

DO – check for things such as broken and/or bent needles (if such, then remove them), worn belts or tires, missing plates, bobbins etc. Finding reproduction or original parts for your machine will depend on make, model and of course, age. Singer being the most popular brand, it will be easier to find parts for a Singer machine than almost any other).

DO NOT – run the machine with the presser-foot down, and no fabric between the foot and the teeth of the feed-dogs. This will cause the teeth to scrape against the bottom of the presser-foot, and cause unnecessary wear and damage.

DO NOT – force the machine to operate when it won’t do so. Just keep oiling it.

DO NOT – operate an electrically-powered machine UNLESS you are either damn sure that the electrics are intact, or unless you’ve just had the electrics checked by a certified sewing-machine repairman, or qualified electrician. Don’t forget, these machines are about 75% metal. You don’t want to zap yourself making a quilt.

To the person who inspired this posting (I’m going to assume you know who you are), I hope this answers everything you needed to know about restoring your Singer sewing-machine. If it doesn’t, you’re welcome to post a comment or a question and I’ll do my level best to answer it.


Lots of Little Singer Pieces!

No, I didn’t drop my grandmother’s sewing machine down the staircase, resulting in a carnage of wood, metal, rubber and broken tiles. What I did manage to do, was to get my hands on the first group of several attachments which I’m chasing after for my restoration project involving my grandmother’s 1950 Singer 99k sewing machine.

I already have the buttonholer, and now, I managed to get some more extra bits and pieces for it.

A poke around the flea-market today dredged up the following treasures from the sludge of the drudge:

Yes, some of it is hidden by the sticker in the middle (which was original to the booklet), but it reads in its entirety:

for using and adjusting
Singer BRK electric motors
with knee-control for
family sewing-machines

The Singer Manufacturing Co”

The bit in italics is the part that’s covered by the warning-sticker.

Along with the cutesy little booklet, which is the one which my Singer would’ve come with when it was brand-new, I bought this:

It’s a box of Singer sewing-machine attachments…or some of them. I haven’t managed to find ALL the pieces I need yet, but good things come to those who wait. Inside the box, we have:

I know what about 3/4 of the objects inside that box are. Others, not so sure. For example, we have inside the box, a…

Seam Guide

The seam-guide, held in-place by it’s accompanying nut (which simply screws into the appropriate hole in the machine-base), is used to guide two pieces of fabric under the presser-foot during sewing and to make sure that the size of the seam is consistent throughout the piece. This is an older seam-guide and sewing-machine, so it doesn’t come with measurement-markings. If you wanted that, you’d need to use your measuring-tape as well.

Hemmer Foot

The hemmer-foot is used to create a hem along the edge of raw fabric (to prevent fraying). You feed the fabric through the machine and through the hemmer. As the fabric passes through, the curved bit at the top flips the fabric over to create a neat, even fold which is then stitched into a nice, crisp hem.

Adjustable Hemmer

This is an adjustable hemmer. It’s much like the one above…it does the same thing, it makes hems. But this one has a slide and gauge on it that allows you to make hems of different widths, according to your taste. Anywhere from a full inch, all the way down to 1/16 inch.

Binder Foot

The binder or binding foot does…just what it says it does. It binds. It’s handy for stuff like attaching lace, ribbons and other decorative things to the edges of clothing.


Isn’t this cute!? It’s a teensy-weensy-widdle-bitty screwdriver! And, it’s a Singer-brand screwdriver, too! It’s probably got a head of 2mm or something. Exactly WHAT one would use this for on a sewing machine…I’ve no idea…but it sure is cute. None of the screws on the Singer are this tiny, but I suppose I’ll hold onto it for the sake of completeness. And I can let the mice borrow it when they need it.

Finally, there are two mystery-feet inside the box. I haven’t figured out what they do or what they are.

They hold SIMANCO part-numbers 86177, and 85954. I’ve tried looking them up, but I can’t find any lists of serial-numbers that correspond.

If anyone knows, tell me!

In the meantime, my quest to complete the Singer continues.

In an unrelated note, I found an antique handcrank sewing-machine at the flea-market today. I had no intention of buying it, for a number of reasons (completenes, quality, manufacture, the list goes on), but I reckoned it looked kinda cool. So I took a couple of photos of it:

It came with it’s original coffin-style case and was dated to ca. 1900, made in Germany. Other than that…the seller had no idea.

Hand-crank machines such as this one were very common. Big companies like Singer were still making them, well into the 1940s and 50s when electronic machines had already taken over. I suppose they had an advantage during the War, when electrical supply was unreliable at best…

I’m still on the hunt for a Singer oil-can and more and more feet and fiddly bits. Here’s a group-shot of everything I’ve found so far:

The red box contains the buttonholer. The green box contains the feet and attachments. The manual balancing on top is how to install and/or remove the machine-motor that’s hidden around the back of the machine. The machine itself is a 1950 Singer 99k knee-lever machine.


Drifting over the Deep: The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste is one of the most famous ships in all history. It’s up there with the Titanic, the Lusitania, the Normandie and the Andrea Doria. It’s claim to fame was the disappearance of all its passengers and crew during a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1872.

How, and why the crew and passengers deserted the ship, never to be seen again, has been a mystery for over a century, and to this date, nobody knows the real reason, although there have been several theories, some more plausible than others. But what really happened onboard the ship?

The story of the Mary Celeste is so famous that there are dozens of conflicting accounts about what is real, and what isn’t. So…what is real, and what isn’t?

What Was the Mary Celeste?

The Mary Celeste was a sailing ship. To be precise, she was a square-rigged brigantine, a medium-sized ocean-going ship with two masts. She plied the oceans of the world as a cargo-vessel, transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean.

She was built in the early 1860s before and during the American Civil War, and was originally a Canadian ship named the Amazon. She ran aground in 1867, off the coast of Nova Scotia. She was floated, repaired, and then sold to the United States. The ship was restored, rebuilt and modified, and in 1872, it became a merchant-ship transporting cargo across the Atlantic…the Mary Celeste.

The Last Voyage

On the 3rd of November, 1872, the Mary Celeste’s new captain, Benjamin Spooner Briggs, wrote a letter which he addressed to his mother. In it, he wrote, in part:

“My Dear Mother:

It’s been a long time since I have written you a letter and I should like to give you a real interesting one but I hardly know what to say except that I am well and the rest of us ditto, It is such a long time since I composed other than business epistles.

It seems to me to have been a great while since I left home, but it is only over two weeks but in that time my mind has been filled with business cares and I am again launched away into the busy whirl of business life from which I have so long been laid aside. For a few days it was tedious, perplexing, and very tiresome but now I have got fairly settled down to it and it sets lightly and seems to run more smoothly and my appetite keeps good and I hope I shan’t lose any flesh. It seems real homelike since Sarah and Sophia got here, and we enjoy our little quarters…”

“Sarah” and “Sophia” are Sarah and Sophia Briggs, the captain’s wife, and two-year-old daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage.

“…We seem to have a very good mate and steward and I hope I shall have a pleasant voyage. We both have missed Arthur and I believe we should have sent for him if I could have thought of a good place to stow him away. Sophia calls for him occasionally and wants to see him in the Album which by the way is a favorite book of hers.

She knows your picture in both albums and points and says Gamma Bis, She seems real smart, has gotten over her bad cold she had when she came and has a first rate appetite for hash and bread and butter. I think the voyage will do her lots of good. We enjoy our melodeon and have some good sings. I was in hopes that Oli might get in before I left but I’m afraid not now.

We finished loading last night and shall leave on Tuesday morning if we don’t get off tomorrow night, the Lord willing. Our vessel is in beautiful trim and I hope we shal have a fine passage but I have never been in her before and cant say how she’ll sail. Shall want to write us in about 20 days to Genoa, care of Am. Consul and about 20 days after to Messina care of Am. Consul who will forward it to us if we don’t go there…

…Hoping to be with you in the spring with much love

I am Yours affectionately

“Arthur” is Arthur Briggs, the captain’s other child, his seven-year-old son (who at the time, was living with his grandmother, the captain’s mother, the ‘Gamma Bis’ mentioned in the letter).

At this time, the ship was docked in New York Harbor.

On the evening of the 4th of November, 1872, Captain Briggs and his wife, Sarah, have dinner with Captain David Reed Morehouse, and Mrs. Morehouse. The two captains have been friends for years, and coincidentally, are both sailing across the Atlantic to Europe, but on different ships, a few days apart.

It is the 5th of November, 1872. The Mary Celeste takes on its cargo for the voyage: 1,704 barrels of highly flammable industrial-grade alcohol. It is to be transported to Italy where it will be used in the manufacture of wine. It also finishes its provisioning for the crossing. It carries enough food for ten people for six months at sea. The ship is seaworthy and ready to go.

On the 5th of November, 1872, the Mary Celeste says farewell to civilisation. It weighs anchor, sets its sails and leaves Staten Island, New York, for the Atlantic Ocean.

On board are six sailors, all of them experienced. All of them level-headed, reasonable men, English-speaking and religious. Providing their meals is the ship’s cook. Their commanding officer is the captain, Benjamin Briggs, who has had several years experience at sea. Joining him on his voyage across the sea to Italy is his wife, Sarah Briggs. With her, she brings their two-year-old daughter, Sophia. Sarah is not afraid, and is not worried about the safety of her daughter. She is an experienced sailor, and is confident that this will just be another of several voyages that she has made with her husband’s company. She’s already been on at least four voyages with her husband before, and is a hardy woman, used to life at sea. Her husband has been a maritime captain for the past ten years. What could possibly go wrong?

The Mary Celeste leaves the safety of the New England shore and sets out into the Atlantic. It charts a course East-by-South, which would take it into the mid-Atlantic, and then straight across, past the Rock of Gibraltar and into the Mediterranean Sea.

For three weeks, the voyage is uneventful. The weather was unremarkable and there were no storms or especially strong winds. Onboard the Mary Celeste, everything is calm and normal. The crew man the ship, and Mrs. Briggs tends to her husband and daughter. On the 25th of November, Captain Briggs notes in his logbook that they have sighted the island of Santa Maria (“Saint Mary”), part of the collection of islands known as the Azores…and then…


As far as the world is concerned, the crew and passengers of the Mary Celeste abandoned their ship on, or shortly after that date, for reasons unknown. For the next nine days, the ship wandered the ocean, in a vaguely eastern course. With no-one at the helm to guide the ship, it started a northward tack that it never pulled away from, and just kept sailing…

Onboard the ship, in detail, were… 

The Captain. Benjamin Briggs. An experienced sailor of several years experience. He is 37 years old.

Sarah Elizabeth Briggs. The captain’s wife. She is 31 years old. They have been happily married for ten years and have two children. A boy, Arthur, aged seven (then living with his grandmother, the captain’s mother back in Massachusetts, U.S.A.), and a girl…

Sophia Matilda Briggs. The captain’s youngest child, and daughter. She is two years old. She is being brought with her mother on this voyage across the Atlantic.

Albert Richardson. First Mate. Twenty-eight years of age, and a capable and trustworthy seaman.

Andrew Gilling. Second Mate. A Danish man of 25.

Ship’s Cook and Captain’s Steward: Edward William Head. 23 years old. Not part of the deck-crew, his job is to provide good, wholesome food for the captain, his family, and for the crew of six, strong young men whose job it is to sail the ship safely across the Atlantic Ocean. The remaining crew are four German sailors:

Volkert Lorenson (29), Boy Lorenson (23), Arian Martens (35), and Gottlieb Godenschall (23).

Discovery of the Ship

As if by fate, the ship that stumbled across the Mary Celeste was the cargo-ship Dei Gratia, loaded with petroleum and bound for Europe. It had left New York on the 15th of November, sailing East-by-North. It too, had had a rather unremarkable, and ordinary voyage. It was on a southerly tack that the ship’s helmsman, John Johnson, noticed something out of the ordinary.

Let’s be honest. Standing in front of a ship’s wheel for hours and hours and hours on end…is…boring.

So what would you do?

You’d find ways to distract yourself from your boredom.

For a helmsman at sea, the best way to distract yourself was to go sightseeing.

Johnson, probably bored with standing at the ship’s wheel for ages, popped out his telescope and had a peek around the ship. Eventually, his peekings glanced in a southerly direction, off the starboard side of the ship. It was at this point that he noticed a ship several miles away. Even at that distance, he could guess that something was wrong. It was not so much ‘sailing’ as it was just ‘floating’. It sloshed around and only seemed to be making a show of keeping to some sort of course. It wasn’t sailing, it was yawing. ‘Yawing’ is when a ship’s bow swings from side to side as it moves forwards. No ship with someone in control of it would ever do that, since the bow would always be pointed straight ahead. Johnson knew at once that something was up, and called Second Mate, John Wright to have a look.

Wright agreed that the ship was acting weird, and together, they alerted the captain.

The captain ordered the ship turned southwards so that it would meet up with the phantom vessel. When they were within shouting distance, the captain took out his telescope to have another look. He recognised the ship at once as the Mary Celeste.

How could he do that? Not just by the name painted on the bow, but because he’d actually seen the ship at anchor in New York! The captain was David R. Morehouse, the man who had dined with Captain Briggs on the night before the Mary Celeste’s departure.

To say that Capt. Morehouse was surprised was to put it lightly. The Mary Celeste had a ten day head-start on its voyage! It should already be docked at the Italian city of Genoa by now! …Instead, it was floating around like a tin cup in the middle of the ocean…

As they drew even closer, they noticed nobody in the rigging…on deck…and nobody manning the ship’s wheel. By now seriously perplexed, Captain Morehouse ordered First Mate, Oliver Deveau overboard. Deveau lowered one of the Dei Gratia’s lifeboats and rowed across to the Mary Celeste. He made his boat fast against the side of the ship and climbed aboard.

He called out for the captain, his wife, and the crew…but nobody answered. With the Dei Gratia sailing alongside, Deveau began making an examination of the ship.

First, you have to understand that the Mary Celeste is not an isolated incident. Ships were found abandoned in the middle of the ocean on a regular basis. Deveau’s examination of the ship was to determine whether or not it was seaworthy enough to sail it back to land. If he could, then he and the rest of the Dei Gratia’s crew would get salvage-money! By law, any persons who found an abandoned ship at sea in usable condition, and returned it to land, was entitled to salvage-payment. Salvage-payment being a paid out as a cut of the ship’s insurance-claim.

But as Deveau explored the ship, he found more and more things curiously wrong. He, and other subsequent investigators noted that…

– The ship’s one lifeboat was missing, its davits empty.
– Two of the ship’s three hatch-covers were open to the sea.
– The hatch to the hold was sealed and shut.
– The ship’s cargo, highly flammable alcohol, was tied down and secure and undamaged.
– Nine of the 1,704 barrels had sprung leaks. Alcohol had dribbled out of them.
– Two of the ship’s three emergency water-pumps were out-of-action.
– The ship’s papers, apart from the logbook, were missing.
– The ship’s chronometer (sea-clock used for navigation) was also missing.
– The ship’s sextant (another navigational-aid) was also missing.
– The ship’s stove in the galley (kitchen) had been shifted from its foundations.
– There was a 3ft-depth of water in the ship’s bilge.
– Most, if not all, of the crew and passengers’ personal possessions had been left behind.
– The glass shield over the ship’s compass was smashed to pieces.
– The ship flew no distress-flags of any kind.
– The ship carried no alcohol at all (Capt. Briggs was a teetotaler), except for its cargo.
– The ship’s provisions of water, food and essential supplies were undamaged.
– A single length of rope trailed off the ship into the water.

Captain Morehouse did not understand at all. He knew Captain Briggs well. He had been his personal friend for years. They’d eaten dinner together just a few weeks before! He knew Briggs to be a steadfast, intelligent man of sound mind. Religious and a teetotaler. And yet, he, his wife, his child and all of their crew had left the ship, gotten into the lifeboat and just gone!


The ship was in no danger of sinking. The ship had not had a fire onboard. The ship’s cargo was not in any immediate danger. There was six months’ worth of food, fresh water and other provisions stored safely away below deck. It was all unspoiled and perfectly good for eating. What would make a seasoned seaman, an experienced set of crew and a hardy and trusting wife leave a perfectly good ship and trust their lives to a small, wooden, six-oared lifeboat?

Neither Captain Morehouse, nor any of his crew could figure out why.

After a thorough examination of the ship, First Mate Oliver Deveau determined that…apart from the water sloshing around in the bottom of the ship, which could easily be pumped out…the vessel was in no immediate danger of sinking, fire, breaking up, or any other potential emergency.

Captain Morehouse decided to claim salvage rights on the ship. He ordered a skeleton crew aboard the Mary Celeste, and escorted the mystery ship to the Mediterranean Sea.

On the 13th of December, 1872, the Mary Celeste and the Dei Gratia arrived at Gibraltar. At once, an inquiry was held into the condition of the ship, its cargo, its insurance, and of course…the mystery surrounding its lack of crew and passengers.

The Admiralty Court in Gibraltar questioned, examined, cross-examined and interrogated every witness they could find. This included Captain Morehouse, his officers, and James Winchester, principal owner of the ship (of which the late Capt. Briggs was a partner).

Hundreds of questions were asked about the captain, the crew, the crew of the salvaging vessel, the type and condition of the cargo, conditions onboard the ship, and what might possibly have caused an experienced captain, his family and crew, to abandon a perfectly sound vessel.

Theories of the Mary Celeste

There are as many theories about what happened to the passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste as there are hairs on your head (or grains of sand on the beach, if you happen to be bald).

I won’t list them all here, but they ranged from the possible, the plausible, to the outright ludicrous. Everything from krakens (giant, squid-like sea-monsters), to the Bermuda Triangle, to the Black Death and pirates.

What REALLY happened will of course, never be known. All we can surmise is what we can gleam from the evidence. But what were some of the theories that were put forward, both at the time, and later on?


An obvious theory. Pirates attacked the ship. They kidnapped and/or killed everyone onboard, and then sailed off.

But why did they take the ship’s chronometer? It was a valuable scientific instrument. Maybe they hoped to sell it. But why the sextant? Surely they had their own. And what about all the charts, maps and documents?

On top of this, there was no violence seen onboard. No blood, no gunshots, no damage to the ship other than what might be caused by the sea. Under the captain’s bed, his sword remained sheathed and unused. Surely if the ship was attacked, he would’ve used it to defend his family and men?

Any valuables that the ship might have held were untouched. Jewellery, men’s personal effects such as their pipes, clothing, pocketwatches, rings, money…were all left as they were. In the captain’s cabin, Mrs. Brigg’s sewing-machine, in the 1870s, a valuable piece of household equipment, sat untouched. A dress that she was making for her daughter was still laid on it, the thread unbroken.

Sea Monsters!

Another popular one. This theory supposes that a giant squid, octopus, kraken or other equally horrific and ugly sea-creature attacked the ship and snatched off all its crew and passengers, which it then either drowned or ate.

Fascinating…but unfounded. If it was a sea-monster…why was the ship’s lifeboat missing? Why was the ship’s master timekeeper, it’s chronometer, gone? Why was half the captain’s paperwork missing from his desk? And the sextant? A sea-monster would have no need for such things.

Mutiny and Drunkeness

Perhaps the crew mutinied against the captain and his family, killing them, dumping them overboard and then sailing off in the lifeboat?

But then why didn’t they take clothes? And food? Money?

On top of that, the captain was sailing with his wife and young child. He wouldn’t have just Shanghaiied a bunch of men, chucked them onboard ship and sailed off across the ocean. Indeed, the crew were carefully chosen for their temperaments, skills and experience. Furthermore, Capt. Briggs was a teetotaler. There was not a drop of alcohol aboard his ship, apart from the barrels in the hold. And the alcohol there was of an industrial quality, quite unfit for regular consumption. Although it’s not mentioned anywhere what it was, it’s likely that it was methanol, a highly concentrated alcohol that would’ve been toxic to humans.

The Bermuda Triangle!

Absolute rot.

The Bermuda Triangle is located off the south coast of North America, several hundreds, thousands of miles, from the course and position of the Mary Celeste.


One of the more plausible theories, although not one given very much serious consideration back in the 1870s, was that of a seaquake.

A seaquake is like an earthquake. Except…it…happens at sea. This theory supposed that the ship sailed over a seismically active area of the sea. Without warning, the tectonic plates shifted. The resulting abrasion sent off shockwaves through the water, which threw the ship around. Fearing for their lives, the passengers and crew dropped everything, boarded the lifeboat and sailed off!

The Azores, the last recorded sighting of land in the ship’s log on the 25th of November, is a seismically unstable part of the ocean. The Azores themselves were formed of volcanos and earthquakes. Such a jolt might explain why the ship’s stove, a solid iron structure bound to weigh several dozen pounds, was thrown off its mountings.

But ships are designed to cope with stuff like this. And even if the ship had sprung a leak, it had three pumps to drive the water out! Abandoning ship was done only as an absolute last resort. A captain such as Briggs would have to have had a truly stupendous reason for abandoning ship. And his vessel being rocked around  a bit by the waves was not deemed sufficiently life-threatening to allow this to happen.

Fume Explosion

The theory given the most credence by the evidence, apart from the possible seaquake one, is that of an alcoholic explosion.

This theory supposed the following:

Faulty barrels stored within the ship’s hold sprang a leak. When the ship was discovered, nine barrels of the 1,704 were found to be leaking or empty.

The alcohol within the barrels, no-longer contained, spread out across the floor of the hold, which was tightly sealed to prevent damage from water. Fumes from the alcohol seeped throughout the ship. This possibly caused a panic. Capt. Briggs was not used to transporting such dangerous substances such as alcohol…in fact, this was the first time he’d done so!

To prevent a potential explosion, from the alcohol-fumes coming in contact with a spark or naked flame, or possibly, because of a naked flame igniting the fumes, fear of, or the result of an explosion blew off two of the hatch-covers.

Fearing for their lives and the safety of the ship, the captain, crew and the captain’s family lowered the ship’s lifeboat into the water. There might be a fire onboard caused by the deadly alcohol fumes. The captain took with him what he judged to be the most important documents, along with the ship’s marine-clock. In the panic, he forgot the logbook.

The boat was secured to the side of the ship with a rope. Once the fumes had dissipated and the danger had passed, the decision would be made to pull on the line and draw the boat back to the ship and resume their journey.

During the wait, the rope securing the boat to the ship snapped or came undone, possibly due to a change in the wind, or a storm. The ship, being under sail, would be moving too fast for the occupants of the boat to catch up with it using the lifeboat’s oars. The passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste would’ve drifted rapidly out of sight of the ship, and would’ve either been wrecked near the Azores, drowned in the Atlantic, or died of starvation and dehydration in the packed lifeboat.

This engraving of the Mary Celeste, made according to witness testimonies, shows how the ship’s sails were set when the vessel was found adrift. In their haste to abandon ship, for fear of a fume-explosion, not all the sails were trimmed. This left the ship with enough surface-area to pick up significant amounts of speed if the strength of the wind increased, causing the single lifeline that held the lifeboat to the ship to snap under the strain, setting the ship’s passengers and crew adrift in the open ocean.

The Inquiry into the Mary Celeste

Shortly after the two ships, the salvager and the salvaged, reached Gibraltar, an inquiry into the Mary Celeste disaster was held at the Admiralty Court by the British Royal Navy. Witnesses, experts, sailors, friends, business-partners and acquaintances were all questioned and interrogated. It was a slow, frustrating process.

Not least of all because of a man who’s name was Flood.

Frederick Solly-Flood, to be precise.

Frederick Solly-Flood was the Attorney-General of Gibraltar at the time.

During the inquiry, the judge listened acutely to everything that was told, and praised the crew of the Dei Gratia for their attention to detail, their bravery and skill in rescuing the ship (if not it’s crew and passengers), and bringing it safely back to land.

Frederick Flood, however, had his own agenda.

Flood was hell-bent on proving that the passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste had all met with some horrible, violent, bloody end. It was he who first suggested the theory of a drunken mutiny. He even rowed out to the ship to find evidence!

He found the broken, leaking barrels, the alcohol, the captain’s sword and cut-marks along the railings. He proposed the theory that the crew got at the alcohol, drank themselves blind, murdered the captain, his wife, his daughter, his first mate, chucked them all overboard, then got into the lifeboat and rowed…away…from a perfectly good ship…

…Yeah it kinda…fell to pieces in court.

Indeed, not a single piece of ‘evidence’ that Flood submitted was found to be what it was! The barrels were empty because they were leaking (they’d been built of red oak, a porous wood which would’ve explained the empty barrels). The damage to the railings? Ropes rubbing across the wood.

The blood on the captain’s sword?

It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t even the captain’s sword…that sword was stored under his bed! The sword that Flood found was an old, rusty knife lying on the deck. Scientists examined the blade and determined that the red substance on it was nothing but rust and old paint. It was probably used to lever open paint-cans and stir coagulated paint around!

Flood dreamed up even more insane theories. He suggested that Capt. Briggs had drawn Capt. Morehouse into an insurance fraud of some sort and that they were both in this together. Perhaps Briggs tricked his family and crew off the ship, hid somewhere on an island, while Morehouse found the abandoned ship, towed it away, took all the money, and then when the storms had died down, gave half of it to Briggs?

The idea was so preposterous that it was considered insulting and was denied by Capt. Morehouse and his officers.

Yet another madcap idea Flood proposed to the court was that it had been the crew of the Dei Gratia themselves, who had dispatched the crew of the Mary Celeste, along with the three members of the Briggs family…another theory that fell on deaf ears!

But the damage was done!

Crime-fever swept around the world! The idea that a madman had killed the entire ship’s company and then stole away in the ship’s one boat, captured the imagination of thousands, millions of people!

The alcohol-fumes explosion theory, which was put forward at the inquiry by none other than the Mary Celeste’s owner and principal shareholder, James Winchester, was disregarded as fanciful rot! Flood’s ruthless questioning, cross-questioning and wild accusations had painted a red mark over the memory of the Mary Celeste.

After the Inquiry

In the end, Capt. Morehouse did get…some…of the salvage-money that he hoped to receive from returning his late friend’s ship safely to land, but he never got all of it. In total, he received about 1,700 pounds sterling. As for the Mary Celeste? She was deemed to be a cursed ship. She passed from owner to owner to owner, before finally being burned and wrecked on the coast of Haiti in 1885…this time, in a real insurance fraud!

The Mary Celeste was not an isolated incident. Back then, before the days of the internet, cellphones and wireless radio, ships regularly went missing out at sea for various reasons, and were never seen from again, or were found, abandoned. But what made this ship so famous?

In a word, the mystery. WHY did the crew, the captain and his family flee the vessel in such haste, entrusting their lives to a tiny lifeboat? What happened to them? Where did they end up? How did they die? Why did they do what they did, if the ship was in no danger?

The stories of the ship that leaked out of Gibraltar and which were telegraphed around the world as fast as cables could send them, and which were splashed across the newspapers of the day, made the ship famous. And not least of all because of a story that appeared in a literary magazine of the age.

In 1884, a short story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine.

The Cornhill was not some soppy farthing-rag that tittery housewives bought and which grandmothers used to line bird-cages with. It was a famous and well-respected literary journal. Some of the biggest names in 19th century literature started off writing to this magazine. Names like…Charlotte Bronte…Thomas Hardy…George Eliot!…Alfred Lord Tennyson!

In 1884, a short story appeared in the Cornhill Magazine. It was unsigned and submitted anonymously to the magazine, but was published nonetheless. It was given the rather flashy title of “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement“, supposedly, a true story about a ship found abandoned at sea. The ship was called the “Marie Celeste“, and it had been found floating around in the middle of the ocean with nobody onboard. Hot food was still on the table in the galley. Tea was still steaming in the teacups. The lifeboat was lashed to the deckhouse roof. A bottle of machine-oil was left balancing on a sewing-machine in the captain’s cabin. But there was nobody there!

Sound familiar?

The story was supposed to be a fictional account of something that never really happened. It was inspired by, but was not written about, the mystery of the Mary Celeste. How do we know this? Because the story’s author was a rather famous person, you know…

At the time of writing it and submitting it to the Cornhill Magazine, the author was a struggling Scottish physician. A general practitioner of the medical sciences, who had no patients, little money, a lot of time and who was incredibly, incredibly bored.

If you’d gone to the doctor’s surgery, the plaque you might’ve seen nailed on the front door probably read something like this:

“Dr. A. C. Doyle. Consultant Physician”

It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of the famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, who wrote that story! Perhaps foreshadowing his great success as a mystery writer, Doyle’s ghost-ship story was so incredible that people thought it was real! It wasn’t, of course, but it was that story which captured the world’s imagination, and which kept the mystery of the Mary Celeste alive to this day.

Whatever happened to Capt. Briggs, his crew, the ship’s cook, Mrs. Briggs, and little Sophia Briggs?

Nobody will ever know.

What caused them to abandon a perfectly good ship and risk their lives in an open rowboat in the middle of the ocean?

Nobody will ever know.

There has been all kinds of conjecture about the fate of the Mary Celeste’s passengers and crew, but just like the colour of the Queen’s underpants, it’s something that we’ll never know.


Singer Attachment No. 86718 – Buttonholer

Well, I said I’d keep you folks updated with what I found for my Singer sewing-machine, and this is the first of those updates.

First, my sewing-machine restoration-adventure.  

Okay. This posting is about the first attachment which I purchased for my Singer. It is a buttonholer. It is Singer Part No. 86718. This attachment is designed to fit onto Singer 99, 99k and 66-model machines (and other Singers with a single square slide-plate in the middle of the left side of the machine-bed). It came in a handsome red box…

And has a pretty red and cream colour-scheme, with ‘SINGER’ on top:

The bit that you see on the right is the dog-cover. It covers the feed-dogs underneath the presser-foot, to stop them shifting the fabric to where you don’t want it (on older machines like this, dropping the dogs isn’t an option).

The two red knobs at the back are to adjust SPACE (size of the buttonhole) and BIGHT (closeness of the stitches that form the buttonhole outline). The big red knob at the front is to adjust the position of the sliding foot at the front of the buttonholer, to determine where you want the buttonhole to start.

Just like everything else made by Singer back in the ‘Good Old Days’, this thing is solid steel. All it needs to work is oil.

After I bought it, I took it home and opened it up. In this photo, you can see (…or not, it’s REALLY small…) that the cream-coloured cover is held on by one tiny little screw, to the right of the big red knob:

It was moving very stiff and jerkily, and after I opened it up and wiggled it around a bit, I found out why. It was full of this thick, grey, gummy oil that was acting more like paste than lubricant. So I wiped off as much of it as I could before re-oiling the whole thing using machine-oil and putting it back together.

This is a very simple buttonholer. It doesn’t do fancy keyhole-buttonholes or buttonholes of different lengths and whatnot. It just does buttonholes. And in the end, that’s really all you need. You can adjust the size of the buttonhole manually anyway, by turning the red knob on the side as you go.

Oh, and for the Americans who are looking confused right now, my research tells me that this style of buttonholer was manufactured in the 1950s and was prevalent in Australia and in the United Kingdom and Europe. But it appears not to have been exported to America or Canada, which will probably explain why folks stateside are unaware of its existence.

How to Use It?

Your guess is as good as mine. When I bought it, it didn’t come with a manual (although it did come with a sheet of “anti-corrosion paper“). To figure out how to use it, I mostly watched videos, read blogs and just used common sense. But for anyone else who picks up one of these things without the manual…

1. Screw Down Dog-Cover

The feed-dog cover/plate is the rectangular thing with the black bit dangling off it. The black dangly bit goes over the two holes that you’ll find in the machine-bed, to the right of the needle-plate. In the attachment-box, you’ll find one or two small screw-bolts. Poke one of these through the hole in the middle of the black dangly bit, and screw it into one of the two holes in the middle of the machine-bed (it doesn’t matter which one).

Raise the presser-foot and slide the main body of the dog-plate over the feed-dogs and needle-plate.

There is a small rectangular hole in the dog-plate. This is where the NEEDLE goes through, to make the lockstitch under the needle-plate. Make sure that this tiny hole lines up with the hole in the needle-plate. Otherwise your needle will just be smacking its head against solid steel and going nowhere. Once it’s lined up, tighten up that little nut from earlier, to make sure the plate doesn’t wriggle away.

2. Remove presser-foot and attach buttonholer

This is a little easier said than done.

First, you gotta unscrew the bolt that holds the presser-foot onto the foot-bar and remove it. Put it somewhere where it ain’t gonna walk off on you.

The attachment hooks onto the presser-foot bar from the back. There’s a hook in the middle of the front of the attachment that goes around the presser-foot bar, and a ‘fork’ that sticks out, which should go above and below the needle-clamp on the needle-bar. Best to shove it in at an angle. It can be fiddly, so take your time.

Once it’s on, drop the foot-bar lever, and screw the attachment firmly onto the presser-foot bar using the supplied bolt (it’s the bigger one, about an inch long). Once it’s in, adjust the buttonhole guide so that it’s at its outermost setting.

Note: When preparing your machine to put the attachment on, be weary of the orientation of the thread-breaker (that’s the little clampy-piece that’s stuck onto the presser-foot bar). You may need to twist it around so that it’s out of the way of the front of the attachment, otherwise it’ll scratch against the buttonholer, like you see it had in mine.

Raise the attachment, feed in the patch of fabric that you want a buttonhole to be made in, and drop it.

3. Run the Attachment

Once it’s in and bolted on, drop the foot-lever, and then run the machine SLOWLY. Running it too fast will tangle up the cloth and lead to all kinds of strife. Better slow than sorry. The attachment will pull the fabric in, punching in little holes and driving the needle and thread through them, making neat stitches. It’ll then move the fabric to the right, stitch across, and then stitch back, and then shift the fabric over to the left, stitch across…and that’s a buttonhole! Some people like to run the attachment through again, to make the buttonhole nice and thick.

Whatever you do, make sure that the thread-tension discs are set correctly. If not, you’ll end up with snapping thread, and huge masses of loose thread on the underside of the buttonhole. That not only looks messy, but it jams the machine.

Once you’ve done one buttonhole, raise the needlebar, raise the foot-bar, shift the fabric over to the next space, and do it again!

Easy as pie.


The Story of the Rape of Nanking

“Nanking”. A beautiful name, isn’t it? In Chinese, it means ‘Southern Capital’, similiar to how ‘Peking’ means ‘Northern Capital’. In the 21st Century, the city of Nanjing (it’s modern spelling) is one of the biggest and most important cities in all of China, just as it was back in the 1930s, when soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army overran the city and murdered, burned, raped and pillaged it to the ground in one of the most horrendous war-crimes in the history of the world. The infamous ‘Rape of Nanking’ is one of the most brutal and controversial war-crimes ever. But what actually happened?

For the purposes of continuity, the original Wade-Giles spelling of ‘Nanking‘ will be used throughout this posting.

What Was Nanking?

Nanking was and is one of the most important cities in China. Built along the famous Yangtze River in southern China, it has been a major center for culture, trade, commerce, politics and government for centuries. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the last of the great Imperial Chinese dynasties, which for countless centuries, had ruled over the lands of ‘Zhongguo‘…the Central Kingdom…the new Republic of China nationalist government, the Kuomintang, set up shop in Nanking. This ancient and proud city was to be the capital of the new, capitalist, democratic China. After much thumb-twiddling, um-ing, ah-ing and foot-shuffling, in 1927, Nanking became the new capital of the new China.

Nanking, like almost every other major city in China at the time, played host to a significant Western expatriate community. Just like in Peking and Shanghai, Western businessmen, religious leaders, reporters, journalists, artists, writers and families descended on Nanking, carving out their own portions of the city where they lived alongside the local and native Chinese population.

The Second Sino-Japanese War

In 1931, the Japanese began their assault on China. By degrees, they claimed larger and larger swathes of Chinese land for themselves, starting with Manchuria in 1931. In 1932, they unwisely attempted to invade the city of Shanghai, an important sea-port. The Chinese Nationalist Army fought them off and kept the city safe for another five years.

In August, 1937, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Chinese Shanghai. The city was then divided into two sectors – the Chinese sector on the outsides of town, and the famous Shanghai International Settlement, the vast expatriate zone, in the heart of the city. Not wanting to draw Western powers into the war (yet), Japanese troops only attacked Chinese Shanghai. After fierce fighting for three months, the city fell in October of 1937. Thousands of Shanghai Chinese fled into the Settlement, secure in the knowledge that the Japanese would not dare attack them within its boundaries, for fears of bringing British and American troops on their heads.

After the fall and occupation of Chinese Shanghai, and the road now clear into the interior, the Japanese headed westwards, seeking out the Nationalist capital, the ancient Chinese city of Nanking.

The Battle of Nanking

Nanking was the next great city that the Japanese attacked, after capturing Peking and Shanghai. The battle started on the 9th of December, 1937.

Back in September, the Japanese had carried out extensive air-raids on Nanking, softening it up for the impending invasion. Heavy raids were carried out for weeks on end. When Shanghai fell in October, the Nationalist Army abandoned the city and retreated to Nanking, to try and defend the capital.

It was soon realised that defending the capital against hardened Japanese troops was pointless. Although most Chinese officers had received the most modern military training (mostly in Russia), the majority of regular soldiers were uneducated peasants or working-class Chinese with only mediocre training, hardly fit to take on the strength of the Japanese.

Rather than risk his entire army being gobbled up by the Japanese, Chiang Kai-Shek ordered it to retreat even further into the Chinese interior, while leaving a small force behind to stall the Japanese.

By November, bombing-raids on Nanking had intensified and it was at this time that everyone who could leave, did leave. Wealthy Chinese of means, businessmen, Western expatriates and anyone who could find a car, boat, bicycle, horse and cart or had a decent pair of shoes fled the city to escape the Japanese.

The Japanese overran Nanking in a matter of weeks. The Chinese defense-strategies collapsed as inexperienced Chinese soldiers fled from the Japanese. Although there were pockets of resistance, the Japanese annihilated Nanking even easier than Shanghai. In early December, the city was placed under siege. The Chinese defenders were given an ultimatum of surrendering the city, or facing an all-out Japanese assault. When a surrender was not given, the Japanese began their invasion-proper, of the city of Nanking.

The city’s ancient defensive walls were blasted aside by the Japanese. Once they’d gained control of the city by mid-December, 1937, the most infamous Japanese war-crime in history began.

The Rape of Nanking

It’s called by many names. The ‘Nanking Incident’, the ‘Nanjing Massacre’…but most people will know it by its most famous name.

The Rape of Nanking.

Starting on the 13th of December, 1937, and lasting for six weeks until the end of January, Japanese soldiers raped, killed, pillaged, looted, burned and destroyed anything and everyone left within the confines of the city of Nanking. Men, women, children, the elderly, the babies, the walking-wounded, were all shot, clubbed, bayoneted, raped, burned alive, buried alive, decapitated or drowned in an orgy of destruction that went for a month and a half without end. Estimates of victims range from 40,000…to 200,000….to 320,000 Chinese civilians of all ages. That sounds even bigger when you consider the fact that in 1937, the population of Nanking about a million people.

It was the most horrific Japanese war-crime ever. And even today, seventy years later, it’s still not taught in Japanese schools. Japanese schoolchildren have never heard of it. Never read about it in their textbooks, and their teachers have never told them about it. They’ll learn about the battle and the siege and the invasion…but the rape is suspiciously absent.

During the war, the Japanese Imperial Army was notorious for ignoring the rules of war, more commonly known as the Geneva Conventions. Chinese prisoners of war were executed along with civilians, and no quarter was given to anyone.

The Chinese civilians still left within the confines of Nanking would search for anywhere to hide. Cellars, bunkers, bombed out buildings…but most famously, about 250,000 of them managed to find security…for a time at least…in the unofficial D.M.Z. in the middle of Nanking.

The Nanking Safety Zone

With the Japanese invasion imminent, Western expatriates still within the city (mostly religious leaders, diplomats and medical staff) took it upon themselves to try and set up a D.M.Z within the city…a demilitarised zone.

It was given the rather misleading title of the “Nanking Safety Zone”.

It might be a zone.

It might be in Nanking.

But it certainly didn’t guarantee safety.

The Japanese were not willing to attack Western institutions or persons, for fear of bringing Western powers into ‘their war’. To try and use this to their advantage, the Westerners attempted to set up a safety-zone in the middle of Nanking. The Japanese had said that they would not attack any part of Nanking where no threat existed (i.e: Where there weren’t any Chinese soldiers).

To that end, Chinese soldiers evacuated an area of the city about 8.5 square kilometers in size. Within that space were established about twenty to thirty individual refugee-camps, which took up about 3.8 square kilometers. For the sake of comparison, Central Park in Manhattan is 3.4 square kilometers in area.

Into this space was crammed roughly 250,000 Chinese refugees. Surveying the entire project were all the Western expatriates then left in the city, about 27-30 of them, all told.

One of the men who was central to the establishment and operation of the Nanking Safety Zone was a German. His name was John Rabe. He was a businessman, which some people might know…and he was a Nazi, which some people might not know.

Despite the name, the Nanking Safety Zone, the zone did not automatically provide ‘safety’.

The Japanese agreed not to attack any place which did not pose a threat to their interests. But at the same time, they did not recognise the fact that the Safety Zone existed at all. To them, it was just another part of the city for them to loot and pillage. So remaining within the Safety Zone did not mean that you were entirely secure. The Japanese were well-known for entering the Zone when it took their fancy, snatch up a few hundred men and women and either haul them off and execute them or rape them, or just shoot them dead where they stood. Unlike the International Settlement in Shanghai, the Japanese had no qualms about just going in and causing havoc.

At the end of January, 1938, the Japanese claimed to have ‘restored order’ to Nanking. The Nanking Safety-Zone was forcibly disbanded and everyone was made to return to their homes. Although not entirely effective, John Rabe, commonly known as the “Good Nazi of Nanking“, is credited with saving the lives of approximately 250,000 people.

Want to know more?

I suggest you read this website dedicated to the Battle of Nanking.