SEW I SEE!

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The Minnesota Comes to Alabama

Warning! 😉 
This is a particularly long blog post.  It’s essentially everything I know and want to remember about a new-to-me sewing machine, so it probably has a lot more information than anyone else (except possibly a budding fan of vintage sewing machines) would ever want or need.  Tl;dr version:  I bought a treadle sewing machine and am excited about it. 😁

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I’ve thought for a few years, now, that I’d like to someday try a treadle sewing machine.  It would be nice to know that I can sew even without electricity.  I don’t exactly expect to need to do that, but still, it would be good to know that it’s possible. 

I do live in a place where hurricanes can knock out power for days, if not weeks.  I probably wouldn’t feel like treadling away in the aftermath of a hurricane (it’s so hot and sticky, and you’re likely to be too physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted to feel like sewing!), but you never know. 

We also have frequent thunderstorms (more so in some seasons and years than others– lately, almost daily), and I always try to unplug expensive electronics to protect them from lightning.  That includes my modern, computerized sewing machine, so I can’t happily piece away while the thunder booms.  I could easily imagine using a treadle during those afternoon thunderstorms.  

Then there’s the connection to the past.  You don’t have to go back all that far, really, to find a time when women stitched either by hand or treadle, because there was limited access to electricity in vast rural stretches of the country.  I’m not much for hand-stitching, but the idea of “treadling across time” is appealing. 

And let’s not forget the fascination of these old sewing machines, themselves.  I admire the craftsmanship that went into them– their unique blend of durability and beauty.  Manufacturers cranked them out at an astounding pace, but so many of them were quality products that are still around today, a hundred years later.  Not just “around”, as relics of the past to be looked at but never touched, but fully functional, highly effective pieces of machinery.  That’s pretty impressive!  

About a week ago, I was browsing listings for vintage machines and found one that looked interesting.  I spent some time researching the model, comparing photos and prices, and being almost imperceptibly drawn in by the photos of that sewing machine.  Strange how even inanimate objects can do that!  It was almost like looking at a photo of an adorable puppy and slowly convincing yourself that destiny demands you have that specific puppy.  You can already see your life together, in perfect puppy– er, treadle machine-owning bliss.  Alright, I’m exaggerating, but it did start to feel like “my” machine, even before I’d decided to ask if it was still available.  

This sewing machine seemed a reasonably good deal for the price ($100 for machine and treadle cabinet/table).  It was only a 30-minute drive away, looked to be in good condition, and according to the listing, it still worked.  I figured it was worth a try.  I’m sure there are even better deals out there, particularly if you’re willing to wait and keep watching for bargains, but this one was close and available now.  Compared to the price of some of the junky, mistreated machines I also saw listed locally, this one was very fairly priced, in my opinion. 

I contacted the seller, and a couple of days later, we went to collect it, between showers of rain.  The seller, in Beulah, FL (near Pensacola), said that she’d inherited the machine from her mother-in-law, who had bought it in Maine.  They (or she?) had brought it down to this part of the country.  She and her husband were selling it as part of the process of clearing out some of the furniture their children didn’t want or have a use for.  They’d both had the experience of dealing with houses full of “things” after their parents passed away, and they were trying to spare their own children some of that stress by clearing out some of the un-needed possessions now, while they’re still around to do it themselves.  It’s something we all have to think about, at some point.  In the meantime, I’m happy to give this sewing machine a new home, and I hope that someday it will find yet another owner who will enjoy it as a piece of history.  

I’m not sure where this machine started out, but at some point it found itself in Maine, then it travelled down to the panhandle of Florida, and now it’s in coastal Alabama.  That’s quite a journey!  I also found a small bi-fold pamphlet titled “An Examination” from the League of New Hampshire Arts & Crafts in among the attachments. I’m not sure if that means the machine was in New Hampshire at some point, or if a previous owner just slipped it in there for some reason.  All I can say for certain is that the League of New Hampshire Arts & Crafts was officially formed in 1932, and it changed its name to the League of NH Craftsmen in 1968, so this pamphlet was printed somewhere in those 36 years.  (Really narrows it down.) 

The paper has a handwritten note: 52-12-7 (the date in YY/MM/D format? something else?), “Pig Board”, and “$1.00” . I’m not sure what the note means, but I did learn that a pig board is something used to steer pigs in the right direction when you’re moving them from one place to another within an enclosure. 

Edited to Add:  While skimming the contents of the pamphlet, I noticed that a director was named, so I put his name in a search engine.  Edgar Keen, an English woodcarver, served as director of the League of New Hampshire Arts & Crafts from 1936 to 1938, so that narrows down the date of publication for this “Examination” quite a bit further.  In that case, the numbers “52-12-7” must not be a date, though I’ve no idea what else they could be… Dimensions for a very hefty pig board, possibly?  No, probably not…

Though we don’t know this particular machine’s full history as to where it was and when, here’s some of what I do know about it:

It’s a Minnesota, which means it was sold by Sears & Roebuck.  ( Apparently, Sears & Roebuck had a number of contracts with different sewing machine manufacturers over the years, so there can be some confusion as to which machine was made by which company, but I found a forum thread where someone was trying to ID a machine that looks identical to mine, and they received feedback from some very knowledgeable sewing machine aficionados, so I feel confident that I (probably) have the correct information– namely, that this machine was made by Davis Sewing Machine Company.  

Sears sold a variety of different models over the years, but several of them included “Minnesota” in the name (“Minnesota A”, “Minnesota B”, and so on).  Mr. Sears was born in Minnesota and started his business there, I believe, so that evidently is the explanation for the name choice.  The Davis Sewing Machine Co., however, was located in Dayton, Ohio, during the period in which my machine would’ve been made, so that means my machine was manufactured in Ohio. 

Dating a Davis sewing machine can be a bit tricky.  It’s not as easy as dating a Singer, where you can just go to a website, type in the serial number, and get your answer.  However, these machines do have serial numbers, and it’s possible to get a rough estimate for when a particular machine was made (or at least originally sold), comparing against existing bills of sale, warranty certificates, etc.  If I’m not mistaken, my machine’s number (D1111005) dates it to 1902.  It’s nearly 120 years old!    

Unlike most (?) “Minnesota” machines, mine isn’t marked with a model letter– no A, B, C, etc.  To go back to that forum thread with the machine that looked just like mine, someone replied that the other machine (and mine, too, I assume) is an early Davis “Minnesota A”, made before they put the “A” in the name.  Except for superficial differences, like the decals, it’s the same machine as the Davis Model E, Underfeed.  For comparison purposes, this machine is Davis’ version of the Singer 27.  It’s what’s commonly known as a Singer 27 “clone”.  The Singer 27 was so popular and successful that many other companies copied its design as closely as possible. 

I found the listing for a Minnesota sewing machine in a very similar cabinet in an archived digital copy of a Sears catalogue from about 1902.  At that time, it cost $15.20, not including shipping. (Calculating for inflation, $15.20 would be about $480 today, just for curiosity’s sake.) The exact pricing is actually a bit confusing to me.  On one page, I see the 5-drawer option listed for $15.20, and on another it’s $17.40… On yet another page, it’s $15.40!  Maybe the cheapest price was a special sale or reduced price… 

Incidentally, it’s fascinating to flip through that old catalogue!  Of course, at the moment I’m particularly interested in what they have to say about the Minnesota and its cabinet… 

“OUR 1903 DESIGN CABINET.  The handsomest piece of wood work ever put on a sewing machine.  We call particular attention to the graceful, handsome design of this cabinet, distinctive in character and elegant in appearance. 

“The new swell front wood work which we now use on our Minnesota machine is a beautiful piece of furniture and will prove an ornament in any home in which it is placed. The wood work is of the best and most expensive quality, such as is used only upon a few of the highest grade standard machines selling at from S35.00 to $60.00. It is made of carefully selected, highly figured quarter sawed oak, and is given a finish and polish equal to the finish on a piano.”

“Guaranteed for 20 years”! 

I’m also interested to read that the wooden ornaments on the drawers are hand-carved…  

My cabinet has a different stand/set of irons, but the wooden parts look identical to one of the cabinets in this catalogue (the one in the catalogue scans above.)

With this offer, attachments were not included in the price of the machine and cabinet.  A complete set was available for an additional 75 cents.  My machine came with the black tin of attachments.  The tin is lined with purple velvet– still beautiful after all this time– and some of the attachments themselves are in pristine condition.  There are some pieces here that I doubt have ever even been used.  (I’m unlikely to use them, either!)

Of the seven-drawer cabinet:  “WE HAVE CHEAPER MACHINES, machines that are good, machines that we guarantee, machines that will compare with other machines that sell at double the price; but for a strictly high grade sewing machine, one that will last a lifetime, one there is no wear out to, a machine combining the good points of every strictly high grade machine with the defects of none, we recommend by all means our highest grade Special Cabinet Seven-Drawer Minnesota at $15.85.”

“ASK YOUR NEIGHBORS ABOUT OUR SEWING MACHINES, for the best proof of quality is the actual test. There are some of our sewing machines in your town, in your neighborhood. Possibly a friend, a relative, maybe your next door neighbor, has one of our machines. If not, and you will write us, we will give you the names of a number of people in your immediate vicinity who are using our machines, purchased from us. Look at their machines, ask them how they like them, how they compare with other machines they know of or have used.”

That’s interesting!  I wonder if they asked people’s permission before telling their business to all the neighbors… 😆 Maybe Mrs. Minnesota-Owner wouldn’t be happy to have nosy, irritating Myrtle from across the river just showing up unannounced and expecting to be shown all the bells and whistles of her new sewing machine!  I suppose people were more likely to know all their neighbors in those days– and more inclined to be helpful, since you never knew when you’d need to rely on them for help.  

“The 500 sewing machine orders we receive every day come largely from people who know all about the Minnesota and other sewing machines we sell.” 

Five hundred orders a day sounds like a lot, especially for the population of the country at that time!  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, though.  A sewing machine was an important household investment, back then.  Clothes, curtains, towels, bedding– it was mostly all made at home, especially if you were not wealthy– and if you had a tool that made sewing faster and easier than doing it all by hand, that freed up more time for dealing with the other endless chores.  No wonder everyone wanted one!

So, we got it home.  It was in pretty good condition, from what I could tell.  It had the appearance of a machine that had been stored in a dry, clean place, so it had been spared lots of rust and dust, but it clearly hadn’t been used in a while and needed a little attention to get it running smoothly again.  I watched some videos, read some blog and forum posts, and decided to take a minimalistic approach to reconditioning “The Minnesota”.  

My view is that it’s an old machine, and it’s okay for it to look old.  The years show here and there, but it has aged gracefully.  Why not let it be?  I gently wiped it over with sewing machine oil and cotton balls (a nearly universal recommendation, from everything I read and watched).  I cleaned and polished the wood cabinet, then used more sewing machine oil on the irons.  There are places where I will probably do more cleaning, as I go, but unless it’s something that interferes with how well it runs, I’m satisfied with its appearance, at this point.  I’m just not bothered by a little patina of old, yellowed oil, if it’s doing no actual harm.  

I then liberally oiled everything as instructed in the manual.  (Here’s a link to a PDF of a manual for a similar machine –the Burdick, also sold by Sears– in case someone ever finds this blog entry after buying the same type of sewing machine.)  Then I let the oil work its magic while I crocheted a mini doily to go under the thread spool.  (A quick search turned up a few different patterns.)
Little by little, I familiarized myself with the workings of this machine.  There’s still more to learn, not to mention confidence to gain.  Donald helped me put on a new treadle belt, and I researched the bobbin winder and the shuttle.  This model has a vibrating shuttle and those brass bobbins that look like long, skinny spools.  Quite a change from the modern bobbins (the short, fat, round ones) I’ve been used to!  

Here are the old spools (not including the one that’s in the machine).  As you can see, they came wound with old thread.  I gave one or two of them a try, to see if I could skip winding the bobbin before my test run of the machine, but the thread kept breaking.  It was just too deteriorated, so I had to unwind them and throw out the thread.  It does make you wonder what they were being used to make, and as I unwound the old thread to make room for new, I was surprised to discover that different colors of thread were wound on the same bobbin.  This seems vaguely familiar, now that I’ve seen it, but I wasn’t expecting it. 
The center drawer has a little block on one side with holes drilled in it– five holes for the five bobbins (not counting the one in the machine).  I don’t know what it is about it, exactly, but I think that’s just so adorable! 😍

Here are a few old wooden spools of thread that were also left in the drawers.
With a little trial and error, I wound a bobbin and learned to work the treadle.  Once the treadle is going, it’s a breeze to keep it sailing along– though it’s less carefree than using my electric machine, because there’s more to think about, and I’m still afraid I’ll mess up with the treadle!  Getting the treadle started is the trickier part.  I think I’m getting better at starting smoothly most of the time, but for a few days, it was somewhat hit or miss.  Sometimes it started up just fine, no hiccups at all.  Other times, I got a bit stressed, panicked slightly, and had to take a breath and try again.  I was really worried about accidentally letting the wheel spin backwards– a big no-no with these machines– and breaking a needle. 

The needles are longer than usual/modern needles and can be relatively difficult and expensive to source.  I’m currently using the needle that was already installed.  (Hey, it’s working!  I’m satisfied!)  The machine came with several spare needles, but I haven’t looked at them that closely, yet.  Some of them may be a less-than-ideal size, or already used… (A few were tied together with a length of thread, for some reason– already used but saved for emergencies/other uses? a different size?)  Even if they’re all absolutely perfect, there aren’t that many to spare.  (Plus it’s bad for the machine, if you keep breaking needles in it.)  

Above is the box with the needles (inscribed with “Davis S. M. Co.”).  There were a handful of other things in the box, too.  The key to the cabinet… An unusual-looking needle of some sort, which I think is probably a bodkin… Flat, very blunt-tipped, with some simple symbols “carved”(?) near the eye… A few screws, tacks, and brads… Also a few gold star stickers (though they look more coppery than gold, at this point) and some tiny 48-starred American flags.  I did a little searching online, and I think they may be “seals”.  You can buy similar ones (not curled up like these are) on eBay and Etsy– “gummed patriotic seals”– some apparently dating to the 40s/WWII-era.  (I guess that makes sense.  At what time was patriotism stronger in the U.S. than during the 1940s?!)  I assume they were meant to decorate your mail and provide a little extra security against the envelope opening before it reached its destination.  

Nestled under the patriotic flag seals is the tiniest silver-colored cross pendant I have ever seen.  No idea when it’s from, but it made me smile.  This little box feels like pure early-to-mid-century Americana to me!  Old Glory, the cross, and… whatever those other little paper things are.  They’re small circles that are cream on one side and purplish on the other, with… something… sandwiched in between.  There’s a dot of something inside each of these pieces of “confetti”, it’s not just a mark of color.  I can’t figure out what they are!

Above are a couple more photos of the assortment of things that came in the machine.  Some of these are attachments that weren’t in the box with the rest, maybe a spare part or three, but then there are some things I haven’t yet identified.  There’s a metal ring that looks almost like part of a canning lid, except there’s not really a lip on one side to hold a removable center piece down…  There are two plastic strips with holes in them… And those metal discs with holes in them look a lot like the buttons from a cardigan I wore back in the 90s.  (I still have those buttons, in fact!)  For now, I’m just keeping it all in the drawers, just in case the unidentified pieces have some actual use I haven’t yet grasped.

Okay, back on topic…
I’ve bookmarked a forum thread where someone talked about a possible workaround for the rare needles, but I need to go back and read it more closely to be sure I understand.  In the meantime, I’m treating these needles like gold, and I feel just a bit paranoid about the possibility of letting the wheel spin the wrong way.  😱

But on a more positive note, the machine sews beautifully (to my eye, at least).  Even stitches, good tension, as far as I can tell.  I didn’t have to adjust anything.  As I mentioned before, I still find it more nerve-wracking to use than the Brother, but that’s only to be expected.  I bought it thinking I would use it for string piecing and anything else that is less stressful and less needful of precision.  The machine is capable of great precision, I’m sure, but I’m not so sure I’ll be proficient enough at operating it.  Let’s face it, I’m not the most precise piecer at the best of times, and sewing with a treadle is unlikely to bump me up any closer to perfection.  I have nothing but respect for anyone who is or was capable of sewing intricate articles of clothing on a treadle!  At the moment, a straight-ish line is the most I can hope for– but fortunately, that’s all I need to do string-piecing.

To start with, I used a spool of thread, but I really wanted the option to use a cone, instead, because it’s so much more cost-effective (and it’s convenient that a cone seems to last forever).  For the Brother, I bought a heavy thread stand, and that works very well, but space is limited behind the sewing machine in this treadle cabinet, so I needed something smaller.  Plus, I’ve since learned that you can make one yourself that will work just as well as the store-bought ones, so why waste money?  I was going to rig up something myself, but Donald very kindly offered to make a thread stand custom-sized to fit the small space available (about 2.5 inches behind the machine).  He used some small pieces leftover from his other projects.  I believe he said the base piece is African purpleheart / amaranth wood, and I’ve forgotten what the other pieces are– just a couple of things we had around the house that were the right size/shape.  It’s a perfect fit.  (It’s very handy to have a husband who does woodworking!)  

I took some photos, but I didn’t get the focus quite right and don’t want to further delay publishing this blog post in order to take better photos… They get the point across.

Without a cone of thread:

With a cone of thread:

Now that I had a thread stand/cone-holder, I switched over to a cone of 100% cotton thread, making sure to wind a bobbin first, since I thought it was best to use the same thread on top and bottom.  The first bit was okay, but then I started having frustrating tension issues.  I tried again with a cone of 100% polyester, but had the same kind of unbalanced stitches, despite playing around with the tension setting.  At first, I thought it might be a problem with the quality of the thread.  I’ve used these Connecting Threads cones on modern machines with success, but they’re cheaper than some brands, and I’ve seen people say that some machines just don’t like certain threads.  
Fed up with the whole situation, I switched back to the spool I’d originally been using.  Ta-dah, the tension was magically fine again!  (My temper was not.)  This spool of thread was just some generic stuff I’d bought at Walmart, years and years ago.  It was nothing remotely fancy, so was the problem somehow due to using cones instead of spools?  I knew other people had used cones without issue…  It was very confusing!

Eventually, after watching a few more videos, I decided to try yet another cone of thread (a sample cone of a slightly more expensive brand that came with the quilting machine).  It worked perfectly, but more importantly, in the process of testing that thread, I identified the cause of the problem.  It wasn’t too-cheap thread or a temperamental machine.  It wasn’t the full moon, or because the stars were aligned against me, or even a lingering curse.  It was… you guessed it, user error. 😔  (The shame, the shame!)  

To confirm my “discovery”, I switched back to the less-luxe cone of polyester.  Yep, that worked just fine, now!  The problem was that I wasn’t setting the thread correctly in the tension discs.  (What a rookie error!)  With this machine, you need to press a little paddle/spoon-shaped piece on the tension discs to open them up sufficiently to seat the thread between them.  I’d noticed the paddle (tension release, as I now know) before, wondered what its purpose was, but them moved on to the next thing without properly researching it.  I guess I’d just been lucky when I’d threaded the machine those first few times, with the spool, or maybe the spool is easier to thread correctly, or more forgiving…  In any case, I hadn’t been setting the tension correctly, and that was the reason the tension wasn’t right.  (Shocking, isn’t it?  That the tension has to be set the right way to avoid problems with tension?  Yes, that’s what I thought, too.)  What a relief to have that figured out!   And it only took me the better part of a day to do it!  😖  Oh well, I guess I won’t make that mistake again (on this machine, at least).  
Here are the first things I sewed on the Minnesota (not counting a piece of paper and a scrap of fabric folded in half):  
One final thing that came in the Minnesota’s drawers is this Singer trade card.  It has a different color print on front and back, with a sales pitch on the inside.  You can just barely see, at the bottom of each illustrated side, the words “Copyright 1900 by the Singer Manufacturing Company”.  I’m not sure if the trade card has been with this machine for the whole time, or if someone who also had a Singer eventually owned the Minnesota and put the card in one of these drawers for safekeeping.  Maybe the original owner considered buying a Singer before settling on the Minnesota… Or maybe she just liked the pictures on this trade card and kept it for that reason.  

I did a little searching about the trade cards and learned that Singer first had trade cards made to distribute at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair), and the cards proved so popular that they continued to make them and give them to customers (and potential customers, I’d imagine) for years after that.  I found a different design of trade card/brochure with one of the same illustrations (“The Reader”) on a brochure that was handed out at the Pan-American Exposition, which was a World’s Fair held in Buffalo, New York, in the summer and early fall of 1901.  There seem to be quite a few different prints on these trading cards.  While the one we have isn’t in perfect condition, I think it’s worth framing and hanging somewhere in the sewing room.  
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I’ve been writing this blog post for a while, a little at a time.  I believe we picked up the Minnesota on July 11th, so I’ve had it for over two weeks, now, though the new treadle belt took a while to arrive and wasn’t installed until the 16th or 17th.  In the time since, I’ve done a fair bit of string-piecing, and I think I’m a lot better at running the machine than I was even a week ago.  

There were a few places around the house where the treadle cabinet could go, but ultimately, I thought it made the most sense to keep it in my craft room, since that’s where all my fabric and tools are.  Why cart things back and forth if I don’t have to?  I can always move them around again, if I change my mind, but for now, the treadle cabinet is in the only place it fits in my craft room in its current configuration– right in front of the window.  This also happens to be the place that makes the most sense, because there’s plenty of natural light there.  I’ve put a couple of little lamps on the table, so I can sew comfortably even at night, and when I’m sewing at the treadle, I pop up a TV tray to my right, to give my mini iron somewhere to go.  (I really prefer to sew with an iron at my side.)  

This set-up is working out pretty well, so far!

I believe that covers just about everything I can think of in relation to the Minnesota.  (And looking at how long this blog post it, I bet you can believe it!)  Owning this vintage treadle sewing machine has been an exciting and interesting experience, so far, and I hope to be using it for years to come.   

Welcome!

I’m Michael (a female Michael, to remove any doubt).  I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast with my husband, Donald, and our crazy American Eskimo Dogs. 

I love to fill my spare time with various crafts and other hobbies, and this blog is where I share photos, record my progress, and ramble endlessly.

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