Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Restoring a 201-2: Interview with Elle Dubya of "My Sewing Machine Addiction"

Elle Dubya's restoration projects: One down, one to go

A month before I started this blog, California-based homemaker "Elle Dubya" fired up a vintage Singer blog of her own. Titled "My Sewing Machine Addiction," it chronicles her impressive mission of completely tearing down and rebuilding a model 201-2 that she acquired in May. Her blog went up in June, and I've been hooked ever since discovering it. "When I purchased this 201-2, I rushed into buying her," Elle admits, and it's a feeling many of us know well. "I was charmed by her decals, and it wasn't until I got home and into good light that I realized that she was in really bad shape."

The 201-2's condition earned it a nickname: "I named her Ms. Rusty," Elle says. "I couldn't move the needle, her gears were locked up, and she was in dire need of both aesthetic and functional repair.  At that point I figured I couldn't really do any more harm to her so I might as well try fixing her up...even though I was probably diving into the deep end of the pool."

Elle's 201-2 rescue project is fascinating and inspiring because 1) She's tearing down everything on the machine, and 2) she's never done this before. Although her grandmother taught her to sew at a young age, the 40-something Elle didn't get back into sewing until her thirties, and "the vintage sewing machine bug bit me just this year," she confesses. How did that happen? Read on for the Vintage Singer Sewing Machine Blog's first People Profile, the Elle Dubya interview!

VSSMB: You got into vintage sewing machines just this year. What's the story?
Elle Dubya: I was looking to get a Featherweight because they are such cute little machines and are easy to transport to quilting class.  Unfortunately, I'm also a cheapskate, or "bargain shopper" depending on your view… 

…and I didn't want to pay the $300-plus that most people charge for those babies. So I started cruising Craigslist and came across an old black Singer in a cabinet for $75 which just called out to me.

I bought it, but it wasn't until I did more research that I found out that I had a 15-91 Centennial edition that was worth more than I paid.  I learned a lot cleaning her up and refinishing her cabinet, and it wasn't long before I started trolling Craigslist on a regular basis looking for more bargains--or as I tell my husband, investments :)

And eventually you picked up the rusty 201-2 that would become the subject of your blog. How did that happen?
Well, I was trolling Craigslist like I usually do on the weekends and found a picture of what appeared to be a vintage Singer in decent shape.  I'm not yet familiar enough with vintage sewing machines to tell what the model was without more information, so I asked what the model and/or serial number was.  The seller was kind enough to tell me the serial number and using the Singer website I determined she was at 1941 Model 201.  I had been on the Yahoo Groups (Vintage Singers and WeFixIt) long enough to know that the 201 was a good machine so I made arrangements to check her out.

During my visit I found out that the current owner inherited her from his grandmother who bought her brand-new in 1941.  She was taken care of and used up to the day his grandma passed away, some 10 years ago.  During that time he had been storing her in his garage and was hoping at some point to learn to sew and put her to use.  Unfortunately, he needed more room in his garage and he decided that since he hadn't touched her in 10 years that it would be better if she went to a better home. 

We opened her up and discovered that she appeared to have some surface rust (I wouldn't realize how bad the rust was until much later), but we plugged her in to see if she would run.  I adjusted the balance wheel to bobbing winding mode so that only the motor would run without turning over the gears.  The motor hummed right along so at least the motor was in operational condition.  I then tried moving the balance wheel to move the needle up and down, but she wouldn't turn over.  Naively I thought she only needed a little oiling to get her back into shape.  Her decals were in excellent shape, and the cabinet was in fairly good shape - nothing that a bit of minor refinishing work couldn't fix.  The cabinet didn't come with the matching stool, but I figured between the cabinet and what was sure to be an operational machine with a little oil and TLC (ha!) she was worth the $55 asking price.

So far, so good. But then you discovered some problems with the machine?

It wasn't until I got home, took her out of the cabinet, and did a real inspection in good lighting that I found out the real problems she had and thus she earned the name Ms. Rusty.

Being stored in a garage only two blocks from the Pacific Ocean was not kind to her.  She had only surface rust on the chrome, but serious rust on the needle mechanism, the bobbin assembly, the inner gear shaft, and underneath the head.  The back of the machine was the worst and the rust was eating away at the metal under the japanning, causing it to come off in big flakes. The wiring to the motor was also a mess - its a miracle we didn't short the whole thing out when we turned it on. 

It became pretty obvious to me that she was going to need a lot more than TLC and oil to bring her back to functional condition or make her aesthetically pleasing, and hoping for both was a long shot.  That's when I decided neither Ms. Rusty or myself had anything to lose and everything to gain from a complete tear-down and overhaul - even if it meant breaking some rules established by more experienced and knowledgeable people than myself - like powder coating her instead of painting her, taking every single screw out rather than just the minimum needed.

And as you've found, there are plenty of experienced sewing machine wrenchers who'll tell you not to take a machine completely apart.
I put a "words of warning" page on my blog because there was more than one person that 'freaked out' when they found out what I was doing.  I thought it would be a good idea to let them know that what I'm about to do is probably stupid, but I'm going to do it anyway (LOL).

What made you decide to document the project in a blog?
Since I didn't really know what I was doing, I knew I would need lots of pictures to help me get her back together again--if I could even get her apart.  I also tend to take lots of notes when I do my restorations or projects of any kind (probably due to many years taking notes in class and in meetings).  I needed a place to store all those pictures and notes in some sort of organized way, so starting a blog was just as good a place as any.  I really didn't expect anyone to read my blog, but I figured if there was some slight chance that there might be someone that would find this information helpful, then it couldn't hurt to make the blog public.  Honestly, I'm shocked that there is anyone besides my husband following my blog and even more shocked at the number of page views my blog has had.  There are more sick people out there than I realized (LOL)!

Let's talk about your previous wrenching/restoration experience.
When I was 15, I worked on a 1967 Chevelle Malibu with my step-dad. That was my first restoration project. The car was covered in rust so I learned how to remove rust using a belt sander(!). I also learned how to use your standard tools, like screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, et cetera; how to polish chrome; and most importantly, I learned that perseverance and attention to detail pays off in the end.

When I was in my 30s, I found another 1967 Chevelle Malibu for sale. I bought it and restored it myself so I could finally drive my dream car. [Pictured up top.] It was my daily driver for a while and now I just drive it on the weekends and for shows. 

My first real sewing machine restoration is Ms. Rusty, the 201-2 that you see on the blog.  I had also done some work on the 15-91 Centennial, "Ms. C, "but that wasn't much more than just cleaning the surface, replacing the grease, and oiling her up.

After an Evaporust bath
Impressive before/after of the handwheel
You've showed us some pretty hardcore restoration steps on your blog, like bead-blasting and powder-coating. Your husband has an unusual hobby that has had a positive result on your restoration, no?
My husband's hobby is building experimental aircraft, which makes my sewing machine hobby look like child's play :) Some of the extra equipment he has is a sandblaster (beadblaster); a powder coating set-up, including oven; and a few welders (mig, tig, oxy-acetylene, etc.), and wiring equipment such as soldering gun and heat gun.  He's built and flown two airplanes so far and is nearly finished with his third.  He's also a professional diesel mechanic, so he is a good sounding board for my ideas and encourages me in my tinkering adventures.

I'm pretty sure I would have still dove into completely refurbishing Ms. Rusty if I didn't have access to all his equipment.  I just would have used more traditional techniques such as using paint stripper instead of sandblasting and using auto paint instead of powder coating.  It would likely have taken longer and may or may not have looked as good, but it certainly is more fun to use my hubby's toys for this project!

As the title of this blog suggests, I'm only interested in fixing up vintage Singers; but I think a lot of the readers are more interested in sewing in general, and a wider variety of machines. Can you tell us what you like to sew, and what machines you use?
As far as sewing, I really enjoy quilting because you can be creative and it always fits!  But I also like sewing clothes, hats,curtains, and other home dec items.  Last summer I did quite a bit of sewing and embroidery for my baby sisters wedding, including making and embroidering her veil, ring bearer pillow, flower girl basket, and several other items.  I'm still working on her quilt and hope to have that done before her 1st anniversary :)  The first project I did on my vintage 15-91 was a canvas booney hat for my husband.  It would have been difficult to sew through so many thick layers on my modern machines but old Ms. C went through it like a champ - I was impressed!

I use most of the machines I own, some more than others. Here is my current 'family:'

- Ms. Rusty, obviously, a 1940 Singer 201 in a Model 40 cabinet acquired from Craigslist.

- Ms. C, or Ms. Centennial - 1951 Singer 15-91.  She was the one who got me hooked on restoring vintage sewing machines.  She came in a Model 71 cabinet in really poor shape and I ended up spending as much time refinishing the cabinet as Ms. C.  She sews like a dream and is my second favorite next to Ellie (see below),  at least at the moment :)

- GiGi - 1946 Singer 221 Featherweight. My father-in-law (my husband's dad), upon finding out that I was collecting sewing machines, and actually using them, decided to give me his Grandma's (my husband's Great Grandma's) sewing machine.  I almost fell out of my chair when I found out it was a featherweight!  GiGi is short for Great Grandma.

- Ellie - a Baby Lock Ellisimo sewing and embroidery machine.  She is the most modern and versatile of all the machines I have.  Not sure I would want to be without her!

- Sergio - a Baby Lock Evolution Serger.  This is the only machine that has a male name, but it seems appropriate given that it is less delicate and ornamental than any of my other machines and also is the only one with a built-in knife.  He was my present for graduating from business school.

- Jem - a Janome Jem Platinum, which is perfect for taking to classes but is not nearly as cute as a featherweight.

- Blossom - a purple Janome Blossom.  I found her on Craigslist.  As a children's sewing machine she isn't very versatile, nor very practical.  But she is purple, and since that is my favorite color I just couldn't resist buying a purple sewing machine!  I suspect she will eventually go to one of my nieces if they ever get the sewing bug.

- Connie - a Consew Model 18. She was given to me through a friend of the family and will be used when I do the upholstery for my husbands airplane.  I haven't sewn with her yet as I find her a bit intimidating for some strange reason.

- Bernie - 1980 Nova 900 Bernina.  I got her when someone at work heard that I liked sewing and thought that their baby might have a good home with me.  I then called my mother-in-law for her advice and asked if she thought I was being silly to purchase yet another sewing machine.  Her reply was "You don't really expect me to tell you NOT to get a sewing machine, do you?"  When Pops (my mother-in-law's husband) overheard that, he told her that we both belong to the SMAA club - or Sewing Machine Acquisition Addicts club.  Since then, my mother-in-law and I are proud members of the SMAA, adhere to the 12 stitch program (instead of the 12-step program), and don't really have any plans to stop acquiring sewing machines any time soon.

- Several battery operated 'hand' sewing machines, if you really want to count them. 

- I'm still cruising around yard sales and Craigslist looking for my next project.  This past weekend I added another machine to my brood: It's a 306k - not sure of the year as I can't seem to locate the serial number, but it has the model number on a plate below the stitch regulator so it's likely 1960 or older.  She doesn't have a name yet, but since she was made in England, I think she should have a British sounding name, like Gertie or Pippa. 

I recently picked up my first 306 as well. So you'll continue acquiring vintage Singers?
Yes.  I'll likely stay with the black electric motor models, although if the right treadle machine comes along I might reconsider.

Now that you've got nearly three months of the Ms. Rusty project under your belt, what are the best and worst parts of doing a complete sewing machine restoration?
Best parts: Accomplishing something that you didn't really think would be possible.

Worst parts: 1) Finding out that one of your "good" ideas [to solve a particular problem] isn't so good after all, and 2) It taking longer than I expected.

As far as Worst Part #1, that's one of the reasons your blog is so instructive and inspiring: You readily admit and show us when something's gone wrong. I think something that stops a lot of people from attempting repair or refurbishment is this fear of making mistakes. It's encouraging to see on your blog that you can make mistakes and it's not the end of the world. As for Worst Part #2, how long do you anticipate it will take you to finish? Also, do you care how long it takes?
Ha!  Excellent question. My life is pretty crazy right now with work, and I've just started a garden, and we are going to completely remodel our kitchen and living room this fall; if you haven't noticed, I usually bite off more than I can chew.  With all that in mind, I hope to be done by Thanksgiving, but who knows what life will throw at me.  As long as I'm having fun and learning along the way, I don't really care how long it takes.

Thanks again for doing the interview!

Everyone, be sure to check out Elle's progress at My Sewing Machine Addiction.


  1. Thank you so much for this blog. I'm getting ready to tackle the work on my Mom's 99, and I can sure use the inspiration.

  2. What a day. My two favorites blogs melded together (don't tell Peter...).

  3. Mom's machine arrived today-- and the case is pretty much trashed. Any advice about replacing it? It had the red and tan leather and linen case, not the bentwood case.

  4. Needed to send this to you. I live in this area & didn't know there was a connection.

  5. Great resource, thanks both of you!

    I have a 66-16 thrift store find, which I partially dis- and reassembled. Veteran sm fixers may say this is a no no but I know how my machine works and that it's in good shape. Plus it was fun :)

  6. how did you get the wheel so clean

  7. this is such a great blog! I'm trying to figure out how to wire up my 201 which used to have a knee control so that it works with a foot pedal. It has a light as well. Its the best machine EVER. The answers are probably in here somewhere - I do hope i won't have to take the motor apart tho .....