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I am a mother, a grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon

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Friday, February 21, 2020

Vintage sewing machine attachment project: introduction

Thank you all for your feedback on the cover. This gives me something to work with, appreciate the time that those of you who left comments took to help me.

Now here is the introduction. I did these pictures myself by putting white paper on a shelf in the fridge and turning the inside of the fridge into a sort of light box. This was my own idea. Sewing teaches you to improvise.

So here we go. Let me know what you think!


Vintage sewing machine attachments for the modern sewist


The attachments designed for and heavily used by the home sewers from the early to mid+ 20th can still be very useful to the modern sewist.

 To understand why requires first that the sewing person of today consider one very interesting idea- that we might have lost touch with some of our best technologies. We need to think of what we may have have left by the wayside in the assumption that newer, by definition, is always to be better.

This is why I think a modern sewist could benefit from learning more about vintage sewing machine attachments:

·      Vintage attachments work so well. No human is capable of stitching a hem with the stitches consistently 1/16” from the finished edge with the accuracy and ease of an adjustable hemmer. And certainly not capable of doing it simultaneously with folding up the hem too to an exact width – all without pinning or basting.
·      Vintage attachments are made so well. First, all of these vintage attachments are made of metal, carefully. Secondly they tend to all be incredibly ingeniously engineered – to manipulate the fabric in intricate ways under the constant of a straight stitch (or in the case of mid ‘60s buttonholers, also some zig zag stitches. So often purely mechanical methods of manipulating fabric are simply more consistent and precise. Metal grooves, the cam, or template leave no room for movement. In my view fancy zig zag stitch made with a drop-in cam will always be more accurate than one driven by electronics, which doesn’t have the same direct steady control over the needle.
·      Vintage attachments are inexpensive. Compared to newer attachments vintage attachments are a bargain. Look on eBay and Etsy and in box of attachments sold along with older machines at yard sales.
·      Vintage attachments can be used on your modern machine. Many older attachments were designed for straight stitch machines that had a low shank. A low shank is means a presser foot bar fairly close to the throat plate, measuring about ½” from the bottom of the presser foot to the centre of the screw that attaches the foot. Many commonly available machines, and certainly many older ones, have a low shank and can accommodate these feet directly. 

However most industrials and upper end modern machines have a high shank – the bottom to the foot to mid screw measurement is about 1”. If you have a low shank machine you can just use the vintage attachments. To fit the old attachment to a modern high machine all you have to do is purchase a shank adapter, in this case basically a shank extender, that will allow you to fit the older low shank attachment to a modern machine. Take your time and search out the shank adapter for your model – I have had great success with online sellers like www.sewingmachinesplus.com

There are even adapters for Bernina’s, which have their own breed of all-in-one feet, as opposed to the snap on time. Using a Bernina adapter I have been able to use all my low shank vintage feet on my Bernina. Note there are two exceptions to this rule. Really old machines, like treadles or rotary hooks like the classic Whites, use feet that attach with a toe clamp.

These feet will fit only those machines and can not to be adapted to any others.

This is what toe clamp attachments look like:



Finally there is another shank style to consider these are the slant shanks used in a series of machines Singer produced in large quantities in their factories in the 1960’s. Slant needle machines were designed for the larger work area they were able to provide in front of the foot (a very nice feature actually) but feet with a slant shank can fit only on those machines.

Many vintage attachments were also manufactured in both low and slant shank  form – just be careful to but a specific slant foot when sewing on a slant needle machine, like the Singer Rocketeer or Touch and Sew.



·      Vintage attachments open up to the possibility of including a vintage machine your sewing arsenal. Older machines are so easy to find and so inexpensive. In many cases, since they were made of metal, a good cleaning, oiling and a new needle are all they need to get them up and running. One of my own favourites, a 1960 Singer Rocketeer, was stored in a garage and a six year old and I cleaned and oiled it to perfection. These older machines often have a superb straight stitch, either because that is all they do, or because they have a much narrower opening in the throat plate for the swing of a zig zag – both of which contribute to a more secure and reliable straight stitch. Once of course you have experienced the potential of vintage attachments you might find it handy to have an older machine set up ready to use them – many sewists do this with the buttonhole attachments.

Favourite vintage sewing machine attachments and how to use them

What follows here is not a definitive guide to all older sewing machine attachments, but a list of those that might be most useful to the modern sewist, sewing the clothes we wear today. References to other sources on the subject are included in the bibliography.

Note many of these feet work by exaggerating the natural action of the feed dogs, either by pressing the fabric into them to force pick up as in the case of the shirring foot, or to use stitch length to form tiny pleats that look like gathers or mini pleats in the ruffler.  

Others are essentially elaborate devices to hold or set up fabric so it can be stitched with greater control, accuracy and regularity than is possible by a sewist operating free hand. The edge stitcher, narrow hemmer and adjustable hemmer fall into this category.

Finally a few other attachments are template driven mechanisms in themselves that actually move the fabric with precision under the needle, enabling highly accurate stitching of complex functional and decorative embroideries like monograms, motifs and of course the legendary template buttonholes, yet to be surpassed in quality by even the most expensive modern computerized machines.

Of the feet listed here the narrow hemmer, binder and ruffle are still manufactured and sold for contemporary machines. Of these only the ruffler, and some of the narrow hem feet made now, are the same as their vintage counter parts. (Modern binders are quite less sophisticated). All the other attachments listed here exist only in their vintage form – all excellent examples of “lost technology.”

Note although some of these attachments can just be attached just like any other presser foot some of the more complex ones with a lot of movement – the ruffler, buttonholer and monogrammer as examples – need to be both screwed onto the needle bar as well as having a stabilizing fork hooked over the needle screw. I find it always easier to fit this fork over the screw first and then screw on the rest of the attachment. 

Attachments will moving parts, like the ruffler and buttoholers also benefit from the occasional oiling with only a drop of oil at any points where you see metal moving against metal. 


12 comments:

Lizzy said...

Thanks Barbara, I had no idea. looking forward to the rest of the story.
Elizabeth

Mary Ann McGrath said...

I like where this is going. Years ago, when my Nanny taught me to sew, she used these feet all the time. I have 3 older machines and all came with these attachments but sadly, I've forgot some of the finer points of using them. I am really looking forward to your posts on this and getting back to using some of these feet.

Thanks - Mary Ann

Janet said...

Personally I do not like the word sewist. Just looked on line. Threads has quite a discussion on the word. To sew is a verb. Is Sewer a noun? If I were you I would avoid sewist, as many people who sew would not consider themselves artists. It sounds contrived to me. I don't like seamstress as that sounds as if the person is much more accomplished than I am, and actually gets paid to sew clothes. I just like to say "I sew", or I "like to sew". However, whatever you decide to do I look forward to your book on older attachments; I have a lot, I have never tried to use. & Yes I know the English language is constantly changing, a little too fast at times, for me! :-)

Carroll Thatcher said...

Thx Barbara,

In my sewing room is an old Singer buttonholer with the templates that I hope use again. Today’s blog has given me an idea of how to use it.
Thank you for sharing. Best wishes with the e-book

Carroll Thatcher

MaryEllen said...

Sew interesting - thanks for alll your hard work & great information

reighley said...

Such useful information and, as always, your enthusiasm is contagious! I may fire up my vintage Singers in the near future. A few typographical errors popped out at me--do you want to know about them?

Anonymous said...

I have a ton of vintage attachments that are a complete mystery! I’d love to find out what they all do.

Xpresso said...

You are a national and international treasure. I have a separate folder for your emails which I consider to be both entertaining and educational. Thank you for all you do to support and feed our hobby/passion/obsession/pick a word. I am grateful.
Teri, on the Wet Coast

Chabe said...

Looking forward to the rest of it!

Editor's mind at work here...
Second to last paragraph, in the first sentence I would drop one of the "just"
In the very last paragraph, I think the opening sentence was meant to say "Attachments with moving parts" instead of will?

JustGail said...

I sort of agree about the term "sewist", yet understand why others cringe and using "sewer" due to many thinking first of the waste removal system.

Anyway, is this an all-inclusive list of presser foot types, or the most common? If so, there's also the back clamp version Singer used on *some* vintage 66 machines. The attachments are hard to find and can be pricy, however the bar in the machine can be swapped out with a low shank version. It's something to keep in mind for those looking at vintage Singer 66 machines. Or those who find those attachments. I can send you a photo if you'd like.

And that's an excellent point about the moving parts needing a bit of oil.

lsaspacey said...

Loving this! Thanks for this project! Having helped edit two of sister's thrillers, I highly recommend having a real person do the first round checks but a great general resource for checking the nitty-gritty grammar is a free Grammarly.com account that you can send everything you write through. You can even set it for the style of writing you wish to use, business, casual, formal, etc. We use it at work for everything!

Yoga with Gaileee said...

Thanks for delving into the attachments!

Always good to know that these devices can do.