I need some advice.

That is my fine fine father up there, sewer of more Halloween costumes than I can count, starting with a pioneer girl bonnet. A bonnet! Of course we had no idea in 1986 that I might end up knowing a thing or two about eviscerating chickens, keeping a wood stove going for days, rendering lard, or judging the ripeness of squash. I just loved my palest of pink dotted swiss dress with tiny ivory rickrack at the cuffs and trusted my dad could figure out the rest.

I have watched the man figure out a heck of a lot more in the almost 30 years since that labor of love. He was strumming real chords on my guitar not twenty minutes after picking it up for the very first time.1 He drove us safely from Düsseldorf to a gorgeous apartment building off the rue du Montparnasse in Paris one hot July afternoon in 1996, with only a little navigation help from me and only a little panicked yelling from both of us as we managed those winding one-way cobblestone streets in the days long before GPS. He can drive a tractor, throw a vase, soothe a fussy newborn, build a porch, roast coffee. I am pretty sure he still remembers how to use the dative case in German. Need a washer moved from Philly to the Bronx? A dance floor for your wedding? A cheesecake? No problem. My dad’s talent, cleverness, and generosity are a mighty triumvirate.

Needless to say, when I bought this 1961 Singer Style-0-Matic 328K off Craigslist from a woman named Wanda just a few months after my son was born, I turned to my dad immediately. He helped me wind the bobbin and set the tension and thread the machine, and together we sewed some simple big bottomed baby pants for one very cute cloth-diapered bum. That was also, sigh, the last time I sewed.

I didn’t – and don’t – have what I’d call grand ambitions for myself as a seamstress. But our life is very home centered and from scratch, more so every day. In the last seven or eight years we have replaced so many “boughten” (remember that from the Little House books?) and outsourced items and jobs with things we can grow or make or do on our own. I resisted this for a long time – not because I felt ill-suited to all the trial and error, but because I want to need people. I seriously worried that if we stopped buying vegetables at the store or going out to eat, we’d be standing on a very slippery slope – would we soon enough find ourselves living in a cabin in the woods fifty miles from anyone, well fed and hale but alone? But I’ve relaxed. I’ve learned there are a whole lot of ways to need people. Sometimes you pay them for a product or a service: other people pay us to grow their food, for example, and we pay other people to fix our transmissions, find our firewood, install our electricity. Sometimes you knock on their door and ask for a cup of sugar. Sometimes you put your baby in their arms and kiss them on the cheek and go out for a walk alone. Sometimes they bring you lasagna and wine when you have run yourself ragged with packing. Sometimes they are waiting for you to walk through their front door so they can pour your coffee. Sometimes they write a letter, or laugh at your jokes, or let you cry.

My point is, learning to do some things for ourselves has not made me need people any less. It has only made me appreciate all of us more.

My other point is, I need to know how to sew. And I need some advice.

A thought occurred to me two or three weeks ago, and it is so unlike me that when I said it out loud I think my husband almost wondered where his (nostalgic, dreamy, whimsy-loving) wife had gone and who this strange woman sitting in the kitchen was. The thought was: maybe I should sell this beautiful sewing machine and replace it with a new, or newer, model, one that will fit in a case, one that can be put in the back seat and carted to sewing lessons, one that can be stowed in a closet or on a shelf when I’m not using it.

I grimace thinking about it. My Style-O-Matic makes me smile every time I look at it. It is good to have simple beautiful things around. From the limited research I’ve done, it’s a solid machine, from a good era in Singer’s production history. It was well cared for by Wanda and by her mother before her. I still have our series of emails; she says her mother used it to make all her clothes when she was young, that it is super easy to use, and that it brought both of them many years of fun. I can almost see a seven-year old Wanda at her mom’s side, learning to oil the machine or sew a pillowcase. Can I really let it go?

And yet, our new house is so small. I don’t know where we’d put it. A more compact machine makes more sense in a lot of ways.

I don’t want to do fancy or involved sewing – not really thinking about clothes for myself.  I know – even anticipate – my ambitions might change as my skills evolve, but right now, I just want to be able to hem pants (I do not come from tall stock), sew curtains, chop up old wool sweaters I’ve felted and stitch them up into longies, sew basic farmers market aprons, make a duvet cover. Practical things.

I would be ever so grateful if the sewists among you would weigh in here. Keep the machine I have or get a new one? If I get a new one, what should I get?

  1. It should be noted I bought that guitar in 1999 and still don’t know how to play it. Will happily barter vegetables, cookies, or lard for lessons. []

15 thoughts on “I need some advice.

  1. Kristin

    I would say keep and use the one you love, at least at first. If it turns out that you don’t love it, it will be easier to get rid of. Also- there are so many you tube videos on how to sew- you may not need to drag it around for sewing lessons. Good luck! I love to sew and I bet you will too.

    1. Lisa

      Thanks! Sounds like you and Beth have similar advice. And I hadn’t thought of that — getting rid of it AFTER I know it’s not for me, if it turns out that way — no preemptive nostalgia for something that might not even be right in the first place, just making room for something that would definitely serve me better.

  2. Beth Marmorstein

    You would decide to learn to sew right as you are moving away. Grr…

    I can’t tell enough about the machine you have from the photo to give you good advice. Does it just do a straight stitch, or does it have other stitch options? In particular, I would look for a zig-zag stitch as a bare minimum – if it doesn’t have that, you will probably want a new one. Is it built into a cabinet/table, or does it come out and go in a carrying case so you can take it somewhere?

    If the machine you have has all the options you are likely to need and is portable (even if quite heavy) I would not recommend replacing it yet. A good, heavy, older machine will often last longer and work better than a newer one – particularly if you would be choosing a lightweight, compact new one. Lightweight is not always a good thing, particularly where sewing machine goes. Lightweight means weaker parts, less stability, less “umph” to handle heavier fabrics. Same goes for small, compact machines. I have a small, lightweight sewing machine I got really cheap ($25) and it’s barely usable. If I weren’t an experienced sewer, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get it to work at all. A good quality, sturdy machine is well worth the money and the space it takes up. I’m still primarily using the 50ish year old Kenmore I inherited from my mom.

    Also, until you actually learn to sew and get a feel for what type of projects you will want to do a lot of in the future, it’s hard to know what type of machine will best meet your needs. You could invest in a good, brand new machine… and then a few months into learning to sew on it, realize it’s lacking a feature that you would use all the time.

    1. Lisa

      Thank you, friend. It is a great loss indeed that I didn’t make the time to learn from you over the last four years — I have seen your amazing skills, and just think where I’d be if we’d worked on this for years. Sigh.

      All your advice seems so sound. You, and Kristin above, both make the excellent point that I should learn this machine before passing judgment about it either way. I totally hear you on the value of heavy, older stuff. That we live in an era of such planned obsolescence is a major frustration of mine. It’s not that I want to live in another time; I don’t. But there’s much about that approach to planning and design that sits opposite of how I want to live. I remember, before we were given our wonderful fancy blender as a gift from my parents, how I burned through two or three new ones in as many years. I ended up going to the Mottley Emporium (I LOVE it there) and buying an old Sunbeam from the 50s or 60s for $4. Amazing motor, did anything I asked with just a little more prep work than I need to do for my Vitamix.

      This Singer seems capable of a fair amount. It has interchangeable “fashion discs” that allow zigzag, multi-stitch, blind stitch, arrowhead, domino, icicle, banner, diamond, and crescent stitches. I don’t know what all those mean! But I do have the original manual.

      Thank you, thank you for your words of advice. Even though you’re going to be so far away now, I am still totally going to be peppering you with question after question as I get started.

      1. Lisa

        Also – I’ll have to look more carefully at how it’s attached to its cabinet. It came in the cabinet and without a case, but I imagine I could locate a case. I lug a 35-lb kid and 50-lb bags of feed around – it’s true I could probably haul this from the backseat of the car into a sewing shop!

      2. Beth Marmorstein

        If it has the pattern discs you describe, it almost certainly does zigzag and button holes and everything else you’re likely to need. A new $50 (or even $100) machine likely would NOT have as many features. You know this one is functional and has been well cared for (which you would not know, if you were picking up a “new” old one at a yard sale). I strongly recommend keeping it.

        Be wary of the Janome Mini. At 5lbs, it will NOT be able to handle more than the very lightest fabric. Reviews on amazon back that up. For those who are using it to piece quilt tops (which involves sewing just two layers of light-weight quilting fabric) or making doll clothes it is just barely functional. Move to heavier fabrics or more layers, and you’re out of luck. It also will not do button holes easily. So while it might be okay to get started on, it’s not going to let you do very much. Waste of money, in my opinion, particularly since you already have MUCH better machine. Janome is a good brand, but a mini machine like this just can’t do much. To use a farming analogy – would you buy a 20 lb tractor? Of course it would be nice for it to be that light-weight, smaller, easier to store… but you know something that light just won’t get the job done. As far as Singer as a brand, I believe the old ones are generally reliable work-horse type machines. I don’t have any experience with newer Singers though – they may have gone down-hill a bit. I’ve heard mostly good things about Brother machines, which tend to be on the cheaper side, but I would still stay away from the really light-weight/cheap ones.

        And yes, send me your questions! I’m also just starting to get into the world of online patterns and tutorials… so if there is something you would like to make and you can’t find a good tutorial for it, let me know and maybe I can come up with one 🙂

  3. kimberlee

    Lisa, such a timely request. Last week someone posted they got a new machine for $50. It’s a great brand, the one I use actually and it is only 5# so it is so easy to drag to classes and it’s such a nice size to easily store in a closet!! http://www.hancockfabrics.com/Janome-Sew-Mini-124-Sewing-Machine_stcVVproductId48446188VVviewprod.htm

    I’m tempted to get one myself to bring to classes as mine is a monster! (Over 20#) My MIL had an OLD brother machine she was using and I showed her one on sale at Thanksgiving, also a brother, but it was $150. Lots of nice features. But if you can get a new machine for $50, I say, go for that! But I have learned from a very experienced “sewist” (giggle) that Singer is the worse brand of machines, tons of repairs needed. She recommended so strongly against them.

    Ok, I just have to say reading all this about your dad has me misty-eyed. I LOVE this picture of him at a sewing machine. Holy smokes, a man that can sew?! I have pondered lately how the 2 local quilt stores are owned and operated by men, they are the ones who fix all the machines. So basically, it is just a power tool. 🙂 Anyway, I am just blown away by your dad. Wow He is one in a million for sure!!

    This was such a beautiful post. I want everyone to read it. xoxo
    kimberlee

    1. Lisa

      Thank you, thank you, mug ruggist extraordinaire 🙂 Will definitely look more into that Janome.

      My dad is pretty amazing indeed. Check out this photo from our wedding 🙂

  4. Erica Wolfe

    Oh, this is a hard one. First of all, I’m a total craft hoarder. Seriously. Total.craft.hoarder. However, I have the (albeit rapidly vanishing) room to do so. I’ve been trying very hard to be ruthless lately with my clutter – even the clutter I love. I still regret donating a set of antique dining table chairs…even though they were falling apart and taking up WAY too much room, etc. See, they’re gone and I still can’t “let it go”!

    But on to your actual question…I would get rid of your current machine. *GASP* I know.

    Let it go. Move to your new space. Get in your new groove. And then if the desire to sew is still there, find another machine. Yes, there are plenty of online tutorials/classes/etc. However, before L was born, I took a year of quilting classes at a local shop. It was wonderful. I went each week. I completed homework. I made progress and finished work. And I’ve hardly quilted a single thing since.

    If you really want to learn, find a sewing community. A local quilt or sewing shop is a wonderful place for that. Maybe you’ll luck out and move next door to someone like my mother who loves to sew, is a natural teacher and takes you under her wing. She’s talked me through many a “sewing issue” via phone. The internet is wonderful, but you’ll learn so much faster with someone there to guide your hands, show you an example, help adjust bad tension, etc.

    I have a pretty simple Kenmore sewing machine (probably about 15 years old) and I don’t NEED anything fancier. You’ll want a machine that can straight stitch, zig zag, do buttonholes (maybe). I use my “satin stitch” a lot for reinforcing and for applique. I agree that old machines are sturdier (less plastic), but sometimes it can be harder to adjust tension and stitch length. Mostly it just depends on the machine and your familiarity with it. I like how portable mine is. I took it easily to my quilting classes and can move it around the house…although it has an official spot now.

    I admit I’m often tempted by the antique sewing machines I see out and about, but the thing I can tell you – even if you sell your current machine, you WILL have the opportunity to buy another old one if you want. They are everywhere. So, if you really aren’t emotionally attached to your current machine, sell it. Find another when you’re ready.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Lisa

      Thank you so much, lovely lady!! So many compelling reasons to keep it, so many compelling reasons to let it go.

      I love what you say about classes, community, and mentors. I know myself pretty well and I NEED that – I’m creative and patient and detail-oriented, but I am NOT self-motivated. I love being accountable to other people, being part of a team, being given assignments and then feedback. This makes it sound like I want to go back to school, and I so don’t! Well, I don’t want grades anymore, anyway. But I do love classes. I’m excited to hunt around and see who I meet up there. Hoping too, very, very much, that the population density will make it much much easier to take advantage of local resources. I don’t know how much our location here affected my sluggishness with learning to sew, but I’m sure it played a part. It played a part in other kinds of loneliness as well.

  5. Tamika

    Wonderful blog post!!
    I agree with Kristin and Beth! I have what I consider a ‘passable’ machine that cost $260. and an old 67 Singer.. which I adore! (though it needs a real tune up for long haul use, like yours probably does). Use your machine until you’ve really gotten the basics down, UNLESS you find actually sewing with it trying. Sewing should be pleasant, if you find your machine frustrates you (I’m there!) then replace it. For now you need straight stitch, zigzag, pinking sheers (and learn french seems fussy, but pretty and holds well). Your machine will handle the probably sturdy fabric you’d make market aprons with (can I help you?? I’ll trade for veggies!) and other ‘farm’ needs. There are all sorts of tutorials you can watch, and sites like Craftsy, sewing blogs, and perhaps some neighbor where you’re moving will have mad sewing skills to enrich you with. over coffee.
    When you are at a point, (like I am), where your skills need a new machine, then ask us all again! (No to the cheap machines as replacements. Janones are great in the $400 and up category).
    Have a GREAT move!

  6. Annika

    I have an old machine that was handed down to me by my husband’s aunt and I had to make a decision recently whether to have it repaired or to buy a new one. The man in the shop told me to hold on to it as long as I could, as newer models are not that well-made anymore, apparently. I’m not a fancy sewer myself, and I agree with what other people have said. Use the machine you have and if you get really into it and realize you’d like to upgrade, do it at that time. Sewing is so rewarding, by the way, even just little things like mending a pair of jeans or making a straight curtain. I hope you’ll love it!

  7. Julia Timmons

    I have a bit of history/advice on machines. This according to my machine repairman who is quite old, quiet experienced and quite practical. First, there are NO machines made in the US any more. Singer is no longer a good brand. The modern brands he recommends are Janome and Bernina. Older machines actually last longer as many of your blogger replys state. They don’t have the state of the art attachments and tools and zip and zap but they last much longer. They take a beating and keep on kicking. They don’t mind thick material and don’t come out of alignment when you sew with it. They are heavy and generally all metal. They are rugged! They don’t have computers in them, but then again they don’t need them to be basic. There aren’t as many repair people who know how to fix them or tune them up, but my guy loves them! Most will do a basic forward and reverse, zipper, zigzag. Some will do button holes, and if they do, they are generally FAR better than modern machines.

    I made the mistake of making a purchase before I met and worked with this man. I got a Singer through Joanne fabrics. The machines they sell are “dumbed down” from those sold directly from Singer. Thats a bad thing since the ones sold directly from Singer he does not recommend. By dumbed down, I mean they aren’t made as well! After spending $60 to have it serviced twice in a year to get it aligned I started looking. David found a Janome for $100 on Craigslist that was originally $250 and had been used twice. You can purchase a brand new basic Janome for around $150, but why not go used! The one feature mine does not have that I wish it did was a top loading bobbin.

    So, do you keep or sell. Well my Janome is heavy and getting a good machine all metal or mostly metal means it will be heavy. Mind is portable however and came with a case so could be put in a closet. However I agree with your friends – use this one and figure out if you like to sew and if you use it much. As long as it is working well (not knotting up and breaking thread, etc) you should get a good gauge of your interest. If you find yourself interested and find yourself needing to take it out and put it away or go places, then maybe look for a new used one!

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