Psst! Lady, Wanna Buy a Sewing Machine?

September 1, 2010 at 8:28 am 3 comments

I had a request for this story after mentioning it in passing in my last post, so here goes.  Sorry for the length, but it is all true, and decidedly stranger than fiction.

I can’t title this, “my first sewing machine,” because that title belongs to my mom’s Bernina, which continues to be her one-and-only.  Despite its being nearly as old as I am, it still sews like an absolute dream.  She likes to tell the story that when I took a home ec elective in 8th grade, I raised my hand and told the teacher my classroom machine was broken.  When the teacher came over and checked, she said it was working fine.  I said, “but it’s making that horrible noise.”  She responded, “that’s what sewing machines sound like.”  I said, “not my mom’s.”  “What kind is it?”  “A Bernina.”  “Well, that explains it.”

1976 Bernina 800

My mom's Bernina 800, purchased in 1976 and still going strong

I can’t even call this story, “the first sewing machine I bought for myself,” because that distinction belonged to a 50’s- or 60’s-era store branded machine, mounted in a cabinet, that I bought for a dollar at the Monday night auctions in Annville, PA, where I went to college.  What a great place for college students to find furniture!  Many of the ugly couches on campus were purchased for under $20 at the auctions, back in the days before Craigslist and Freecycle.  I used that machine to make a duvet cover and some curtains for my boyfriend at the time, but the tension was so far out of whack that I had to run each seam between my fingers after completing it to distribute the gathers the stitching caused.  It’s possible that a trip to the sewing machine doctor would have cured what ailed it, but I lacked both transportation and funds.  Also, this particular machine was straight stitch only, and a zigzag is nice to have.  So that poor machine went to the curb rather than continuing to fight with me.

By the following summer, I was dating my now-husband, and I wanted to make costumes for us to wear to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire.  I knew better than to try for another $1 special from the auctions, but I didn’t have the disposable income to spare on a new machine, even a cheap one.  Knowing what I know now, it’s undoubtedly for the best that I couldn’t afford a new cheap machine, as by the early nineties they were mostly plastic construction and not worth the money.  I know of far too many new sewers who make the mistake of buying an inexpensive machine from Target or Costco after being inspired to sew by watching Project Runway or DIY Network, only to find they spend more time fighting with their machines than actually sewing.  I know of nothing that discourages a new quilter more quickly than a “bargain” sewing machine.  What I now normally recommend to someone who wants to sew but either can’t afford, or doesn’t want to make the commitment to, a high-quality new machine is to hit Craigslist, eBay, the repair shops, and the yard sales and find a good, solid, metal machine, a Kenmore or a White or a Necchi or a Singer from the 1960’s.  Not only do these machines tend to be adorable, but they’re indestructible as tanks.

Vintage White sewing machine

A vintage White sewing machine from my own collection. Atomic cute!

So:  back to my story.  I wanted a sewing machine for less than $100 that would actually form a reliable straight stitch and zigzag.  I looked through the local Pennysaver paper (remember those?), expecting that any sewing machines I might find would be from estate sales or attic cleanouts, and therefore might not be in working condition.  However, I found a listing from a sewing machine dealer who said he had second-hand, freshly serviced machines starting at $29.  I called, expecting to be given directions to a shop.  Instead, the man who answered said that he’d come to me.  I gave him directions to the campus and we set up an appointment.

Once again, my expectations were confounded.  I expected to meet a van or a panel truck.  Instead, a rangy older man pulled up in an avocado green, two-door, seventies sedan that was packed to the absolute gills with sewing machines.  There was literally only room for him to sit in the driver’s seat:  every other available space was occupied by sewing machines.  The seats were covered, the footwells were full, some machines in cases but most without, with cardboard boxes of footpedals, light bulbs, power cords, and who knows what else balanced precariously wherever they’d fit.  I tend not to find myself speechless as a rule, but this was definitely one of those rare occasions.  As he explained, he didn’t have a shop of his own; rather, he went around to sewing machine repair shops and bought up abandoned machines which he then resold.  I deeply regret not having had the inspiration or the opportunity to take a photo, but suffice to say the mental picture has held up well these 17 years.  Made an impression, you might say.

We got down to business:  I explained what I was looking for and what I was willing to pay.  He opened the trunk (apparently the location of his “zigzag machines under $100” department) and sold me a two-tone brown-over-tan Kenmore for $79.  It had the mounting brackets from having formerly been housed in a cabinet, but I always used it on a desk or tabletop.  He somehow managed to get the trunk closed again — even minus a machine, it still appeared impossibly overfull — and went on his mysterious way.

That sewing machine and I had some grand times.  Not only did I make Dan’s and my Ren Faire garb, but I made Halloween costumes, sorority letter sweatshirts, the previously mentioned friendship quilt, and even one of those poet blouses that were so popular in 1993.  I also learned quickly that having a sewing machine in one’s dorm room is an excellent opportunity for practicing saying “no” to the myriad people who suddenly think you’re going to be thrilled to do their mending for them.  That selfsame old workhorse Kenmore was the machine I made my wedding gown with, years later.


Our wedding day, May 24, 1997.

I finally had to sacrifice the Kenmore; its zigzag gear cracked in half and could not be repaired or replaced.  By that point, I had moved several times, graduated from dental school, and had rediscovered quilting.  The tiny throat space on my Kenmore was ill-suited to machine quilting, and I had found a 1920’s Featherweight at an antique mall for a surprisingly good price, so I didn’t need another straight-stitch-only machine.  When we moved to our current house, in the interests of decluttering, I got rid of it.  I can’t say I regret that decision; I don’t want to be the kind of person who lugs around a heavy, bulky, not particularly attractive, broken appliance out of pure sentiment.  (The third season of “Hoarders” starts on Labor Day!)  But I will always have fond memories of that machine and the experiences I had with it.

And I’d like to think that somewhere, in the wilds of central Pennsylvania, an old man is still driving around in his old green car packed perilously full, making matches between young women and old sewing machines.  Like some sort of enchanted peddler out of a fairy tale, he certainly had exactly what I’d wished for, to help me reach the next chapter of my story.


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My First Quilt Gearing up for Quilting with Machines

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cindy Leen  |  September 2, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Hi, Sarah.I just spent the last 2-1/2 hours catching up on your blog -obviously I haven’t checked in in a while. Found it to be great fun and interesting, as usual. Loved your descriptions of your cat’s stomach problems. As someone who shares living space with three cats, two of whom have those same problems, and have also not been able to associate the act of eating cat hair, grass, bugs, etc, with the eruption of their stomach contents, I can only say that your cat’s troubles seem to be much more amusing than mine. Luckily for me, my cats tend to vomit from chair height, rather than six feet above the floor, so clean-up is not usually too hard.
    Anyway, enough about vomit. Sounds like you are healthy and happy, despite this blistering hot summer. Good news – Fall is coming!
    I’ll be on vacation on guild night this month, so I hope to see you in October. Be well!

  • 2. Barbara Colvin  |  September 7, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I have been so busy I just now read the sewing machine story.
    LOVED it!!!!!!!!

  • 3. Finished! Halloween Buzz Saw « Sarah Loves Fabric  |  October 31, 2011 at 9:31 am

    […] much a natural. My sisters and I always had homemade costumes thanks to our loving, creative, Bernina-having mom, and as soon as I was able to contribute in any way to the construction of my own costumes, I […]


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