Sunday, 9 December 2012

Why learn to sew?

Well, the answer is because you've been unemployed for a ridiculous amount of time, developed an obsession with vintage sewing machines that you require an excuse to keep collecting more of, and your grandmother was an amazing seamstress. The fact is, though, I'm a male and the whole thing seemed a bit stupid.
In Australia we pretty much don't manufacture anything, and in the 1980s when the tariffs were abolished (remember the buy Australian campaign?) we all said "bugger buy Australian: that Chinese garbage is really cheap!!" and the first of our industries to suffer was clothing manufacture.
This all fills me with sadness. The Chinese made garments we put up with today are every bit as crappy as 25 years ago, and we still buy them because they're that much cheaper than good clothes. Our clothing manufacturers are nearly all gone as are the machines to make them (most were bought by Chinese factories and are lost forever to us). I bought Australian and still do. Only way to now is to buy second hand. Op shops are full of cheap Aussie made shirts, suits, jackets, coats etc. and they sit on the same racks as the later Chinese stuff - handy for quality comparison. The local garments still look good up to 50 years later, whereas the Chinese made are faded, rough, out of shape and obviously not very well put together or finished.
Off the soap box now. I thought long and hard about reviving the industry in any way possible (including thinking about investing in a factory a while ago) but we just expect to get paid too much money, and the Chinese are practically slaves. There's just no competing with that.
I discovered a really good tip shop a few months ago, and they had a load of discarded sewing machines. I was looking for one for my daughter (9 YO) so she could learn to sew, and they had a 1968 Singer that looked very suitable. I couldn't believe I got the machine for the grand sum of $7. After cleaning it up, I had to test it. Well, how do you test a sewing machine when you have no idea of how they even work? You ask someone who knows. Luckily I have one of those. She didn't know about Singers, really (well, her mum had a '30s electric one) but she worked it out and showed me. Here is the model I got:
Singer Stylist 498
So, a few weeks later I went to the tip shop again and there was a very attractive old machine that had "craftamatic" branded. Hmm... $7 or so later and it was mine, and someone happened to have just returned one. The guy said it apparently didn't work so I could have both for $7. Yes, got them home, worked them out and fixed both. A month or so ago I bought another three, seeing as the first was $7.50 and he said he'd give me $1 off for each subsequent machine. So what do we have here? Six working vintage sewing machines. My shed is filling up quickly now.
Below are two of them. I don't have the Princess any longer: It was just too pretty for the shed so I passed it to a young lady who also loved vintage. The others were all either Craftamatic or Pinnock, both Australian brands. Pinnock was a great Australian brand who made machines for nearly all of the 20th century in Adelaide. Not all that much information is available on the Internet about them but when I bought the last tip shop machine, it was a Japanese Pinnock from the '70s. This was the nicest, smoothest machine I'd used yet. Last weekend there was a car swap meet on north of Melbourne (Whittlesea) and someone was selling an Aussie made Pinnock in almost mint condition for $30. Yes I bought it, so that makes seven and this one takes over the title of smoothest. It also came with all the original accessories, spare needles, bobbins etc.
The HG Palmer Princess

Craftamatic (Pinnock copy) with zig-zag
Latest Pinnock in remarkable condition

Over the months I learned how to oil (anything that moved except gears, only use sewing machine oil) and grease them (gears only, only use sewing machine grease), then started testing them so I knew they worked. I needed to know what the bits did and how it all worked. The best way to learn all this is to learn to sew. Daughter needed a dress for "Italian Day" so I made it (with a great deal of guidance from the resident seamstress, of course). The learning curve was very steep indeed and I figured it'd all be worth while when I got around to re-upholstering the Valiant seats.

There had to be a reason for all of this, and I felt the urge to learn the art of sewing. It seems that mens wear is a different art form to women's, and my main problem is that I don't know anyone who can teach me. Also, there are much fewer publications on making shirts and suits than there are dresses. I started looking for patterns in op shops, and around 98% were for women. Nearly all women 50 years ago had a sewing machine and could use it. Men's wear was almost all made in factories.
After making the Italian dress, the bobbin gear broke. This meant the bobbin wouldn't move at all and I had to switch to a different machine (the Singer). Sewparts (Wm Jackson) in Vic Pde (East Melb) have been amazing  in supplying parts (cheaper than anything you'll find on the Internet - really!) but they didn't have spares for Pinnocks. So, I looked inside all the craftamatics and one of them had the same drive gears, only solid steel! Changed it over and the machine is as good (better, in fact) as before. After changing it over the bobbin timing had to be set. If I get around to taking pictures of this I will but it's very important, or the machine won't sew. Just one millimetre out is enough to prevent threading.
The whole sewing thing is quite a skill. In today's time poor world it's no wonder nobody learns it. I bought my niece a book on first principles cooking because she raved about how good my cooking was a few years ago, and she was less than impressed when she saw how 'complicated' it all was (more than moving a packet from the freezer to the microwave). I imagine said book is still in mint condition somewhere.
As the old saying goes aim for the top, but don't expect to fly there. You need to do what you probably couldn't when you were young: be persistent, be open to new concepts, don't take short cuts, read the instructions thoroughly. I'm a little embarrassed about nearly all my interests being traditionally female pursuits (cooking, sewing, car restoration - I did say nearly all) but learning constantly seems to be a great way to spend your down time.

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