Thursday, February 10, 2011


Earlier this year, I decided it was time to buy a sewing machine.

But not just any machine. I had previously inherited a small electric model, which had finally reached the point of needing to be put out of its misery. The rubber coatings on the electrical cord had all dry rotted to dust. Metal innards had corroded to a fine grainy green. In short, it looked like it had been left all alone in a swamp for a couple of decades. "Maybe you can fix it," was the advice from my grantor.

But you can't fix such problems, at least not without a significant investment in research, time, and new parts. New sewing machines, like most consumer gadgets produced since I was born in the early 1980s, aren't designed to be fixed. They aren't designed to be repaired, tinkered with, or adjusted at all, actually -- they're designed to last just long enough for the warranty to run out, so you'll have enough faith in the product to go buy another one. Anne Leonard's The Story of Stuff video cleverly illustrates this idea of "planned obsolescence."

But of course, I don't need to tell you that they don't make 'em like they used to. I just want to remind you that the antique mall, flea market, and craigslist are all better ways of finding stuff you really need, that's still in reliable working shape, than heading off down to Big Box Mart. For me, this meant eyeing up the beautiful 1927 Singer Sewer you see above, rather than plunking down even more money on an electric machine that will probably need to be replaced before my unborn kids make it to elementary school.

Treadle machines aren't just a thing of beauty. They're extremely durable, easy to work on, easy to repair, and it's surprisingly easy to find -- or fabricate -- spare parts. Singer makes a strong effort for many, many of their modern parts to be interchangeable with all models of singer machines. That means that the bobbin for a sewer made in, say, 1918, is exactly the same bobbin you can find on the shelf of Big Box Mart designed to fit a modern electric machine. I read a craigslist post recently where a woman selling hers (for an exorbitant amount of money, as an "antique") noted that you can't sew on it any longer because you can no longer buy a belt for it. What utter nonsense! First of all, if you desire, you can still buy treadle belts. But when I bought mine, it didn't come with a belt, and I didn't bother to order one. I took out an old pair of leather boot laces and slapped them on, with a little bit of fiddle rosin to make them slip less. Done.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad back when I was driving my very first truck across the country alone. My air conditioner compressor exploded for no good reason one day in the mountains. I couldn't afford a new one, and really just wanted to get off the mountain and get home before I went looking for a used one. I'd called him to say how frustrated I was that Dodge didn't make this model of truck without an air conditioner. I figured I could just walk into the local NAPA, slap the short belt on that would skip the air conditioner's pulley, and be on my way, but no. "Well," came the reply, "Have you got a pair of pantyhose?" Of course. Why hadn't I thought of that? If the auto parts store didn't sell a belt of the length I needed, I could fabricate one on my own.

It's this kind of ingenuity that I fear is rapidly being lost. It worries me not just on a nostalgia level -- though I do believe everyone ought to be as self-sufficient as possible, just because -- but also on a security level. My soldiers can't fabricate parts they need and don't have. They wouldn't even know where to begin. They have a difficult enough time trying to maintain the equipment they're supposed to know how to repair. The throw-it-away-and-get-another mentality that has so thoroughly permeated our entire society has far, far-reaching consequences.


  1. I have just about the exact singer sewing machine you have pictured. It was given to me by some old friends of the family.

    The belt on it was worn out so I went to the local fabric store and they indeed still stock them.

    I don't know how to sew, but will learn to use it one day. They sure don't make things like they used to.


  2. I am so jealous. That is beautiful :)