Learning to sew on a vintage sewing machine
November 24, 2014 9:17 AM   Subscribe

This recent post about picking a sewing machine has inspired me: I followed advice similar to this answer and bought a newly reconditioned sturdy metal Singer 301A a couple of years ago. I acquired a buttonholer and zigzag attachment, as well as a box of other theoretically useful sewing feet (I will be able to sew ruffles just like in Dick and Jane readers!).

But now what? I have a xeroxed copy of the manual, and I have managed to carefully follow it to do things like adjust the top and bottom tension and sew a few children's skirts that consist of straight seams only. I'd like to take a sewing class, but the ones I see advertised at local sewing shops and through the county rec classes all assume a modern computerized sewing machine, and I'm intimidated to try to lug my heavy metal antique into the room and ask for help. Would the average sewing teacher at a JoAnn's be able to help me, while also teaching a dozen people on new machines? Or if I can use a newer machine for classes (do they provide machines, or only BYO?), will the skills be reasonably transferable? Should I just advertise on Craigslist for a sewing grandma to teach me? Help me move beyond straight hems, MeFi!
posted by instamatic to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you want in person instruction, check with your local quilt shop. They may not have classes scheduled, but vintage machines are particularly popular with quilters, who prize them for their excellent straight stitch, so you're likely to find someone who knows what's up.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:27 AM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can probably borrow a machine at most sewing classes to save the lugging, but it might be worth it to take it to a class or two just to get help understanding it. I've taken many classes and there is a usually a variety of machine types.

Also, Crafsty has classes online.
posted by Duffington at 10:41 AM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also see if there is a local quilting or sewing guild. The 301 is a great machine, and second only to the Featherweight in popularity for a portable straight stitch machine. So someone in the guilds probably has one. From what I've heard, some are great groups, and others are terrifying, but these are people who love to sew.

A sewing class at a quilt shop would almost certainly not expect you to have a machine that does anything but a straight stitch. But it looks like you are more interested in garment construction. At least a quilting class would be something, and you might make some good contacts.

I'm teaching myself how to fix vintage machines and how to sew (quilting in particular). It is amazing what people can do with a straight stitch machine. Looking at learn to sew books from the library, realistically most things can be made with your machine. I've watched the online videos of a lady who uses hand crank machines that usually don't even have a reverse function to make clothing from vintage patterns. Here.

As for machine use, the operation of a 301 is different from a modern machine. Threading paths, tension adjustment, general feeling and behavior of the machine will all be different. New machines are more individually specific in instructions. Most don't require you to hold the thread when you start a seam, for instance. But aside from a few changes in the machine procedure, the actual sewing skills would be very transferable.
posted by monopas at 10:43 AM on November 24, 2014

I had a wonderful antique straight stitch only machine that I used for years and loved to pieces. Now I have a newer machine, but it's still old by today's standards and I love it, too. But to learn to sew with an older machine, I'd recommend ordering a used book from Amazon from the approximate time period that your machine was new - a beginner's sewing book, or, better yet, two or three of them for different levels or types of sewing (clothing or quilting, for instance). I have several of these older books and they are full of ideas and tips to make the older machines do some pretty amazing things.

I bought my granddaughter a sewing machine for her college graduation a few months ago and since I could only spend a couple hundred dollars and didn't know which brands were worth buying nowadays, I called a couple of stores that sell machines and asked. What I got was a wash of snooty remarks that made it clear I was wasting my time talking to them unless I was ready to purchase a $5K to $10K machine, a Pfaff or Bernina computerized model. So I bought her a Singer 100-stitch job that apparently works beautifully and she's very happy - and using it, which means it was a good gift. But I am going to get her a couple of good sewing books for the not-so-fancy machines.

Have loads of fun with your sewing machine, but be aware that it's addictive!
posted by aryma at 2:55 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sounds like you've got a great machine, and as mentioned, classes are a great learning option. Often independent sewing/quilting shops have an area set aside just for classes, usually with machines ready to go. And yes, the skills do transfer: modern machines are usually easier to thread, and may have some extra bells and whistles, but the actual basics of sewing don't change much.

But classes are not your only option -- some sewing patterns actually have very detailed instructions, and may provide enough help to get you through projects on your own. Some indie women's clothing patterns that are great for beginners include Sewaholic Patterns and Tilly and the Buttons. (I should mention here that I'm female and primarily sew clothing for myself, so accordingly my suggestions skew in this direction.)

Sewing blogs and YouTube are full of tutorials as well, and make a great supplement to the pattern instructions. Just search for the thing you want to learn (for example, inserting a zipper) and up come a plethora of examples.

There are also a number of sewing forums out there, where you can search for answers (or ask your own questions). I'm a member of Pattern Review, but there's also the beginner forum at Stitcher's Guild and the Burda Style forum.

In the beginning, sewing can be frustrating because of the gap between what you want to do and what you know. When you first look at patterns that are out there, you'll probably think they are mostly out of reach. I recommend tackling one new skill at a time (e.g. darts, gathers, zippers, buttons, etc.) and with each that you get the hang of (even if you can't do it perfectly yet) you've increased the number of patterns that are within reach considerably. What's a bit harder to learn on your own is fabric choice and fit, but there's help out there for those things as well. A good book on fit is Fit for Real People and to start with, you can get advice on what fabrics to choose from pattern envelopes.

I've been sewing for six or seven years now, and though I came from a family of people who know how to sew, I mostly learned on my own as an adult. I use both vintage and modern machines. I've never taken a class, or gotten face-to-face help. I've learned by finding patterns I really wanted to make, and then building up the skills I needed to sew them via online resources. I still don't sew "perfect" garments -- very few people do! But I've built up a skill set that allows me to make the things I want to make, and I can reliably turn out things that I am happy with.
posted by Lost Cities at 4:22 PM on November 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Learning to *sew* is actually not very machine-specific—most sewing classes are as much about cutting and handling fabric and patterns, understanding how pieces go together, learning the logic and order of construction as they are about the actual sewing of things. I think a class at your local fabric shop or Joann's or whatever will be fine for teaching you those contextual concepts, and you can tweak your newly acquired mechanical sewing skills for your machine's quirks no problem. Like, you can easily use your machine's dial or whatever to change your stitch length rather than a touchpad, the important part is knowing how long your stitch should be in this part or that part. Or if you learn to sew a curved seam or a corner on a new machine you can easily adjust your new skill for your lack of computerized needle-down by sewing slower or turning the handwheel, probably without even really thinking about it.

If you would like to learn about your *machine* I suggest taking it in to your local vac-and-sew shop, the kind of place that might deal in used machines as well as new (and where you'd take it for maintenance anyway). Ask if you can come in and have someone show you how to use some of the attachments and show you the quirks. They will almost certainly have someone who can point out some features you didn't know you had and share some tricks for getting the most out of it.
posted by peachfuzz at 4:23 PM on November 24, 2014

I recommend checking out the archives at Male Pattern Boldness. Peter has many vintage Singers.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 5:55 PM on November 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions! You reminded me that I'd bought this 1961 Better Homes and Gardens sewing book a while back. I'll pull it out and try to be less intimidated than my last try. I think the advice to learn one skill at a time is probably the key. This week's skill: trying to sew a straight line. I made a super quick Lazy Days girl's skirt, which at least inspired me to get the sewing machine off the shelf again.
posted by instamatic at 9:03 AM on November 26, 2014

Response by poster: In case it helps anybody later, I just found the website How to Sew which seems to cover some of those "too embarrassingly dumb to ask" questions I was struggling with, like "why am I having such a hard time pressing a straight hem?" (Answer: I had the wrong type of hem gauge) or "how can I sew a straighter line?" (Answer: DIY a better guide with multiple pieces of masking tape). I think this is exactly the level of information I needed, and wasn't finding in other books or tutorials. Yay! Now I feel like I can actually start sewing with a bit more confidence.
posted by instamatic at 7:43 PM on November 26, 2014

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