BY HAND

Antique machine treadles owner into the past

This antique sewing machine was new in 1887. It was purchased in the 1980s from a shop in Brewer.
This antique sewing machine was new in 1887. It was purchased in the 1980s from a shop in Brewer.
Posted Nov. 28, 2011, at 5:28 p.m.

I have in my care an elderly New Home sewing machine manufactured in 1887. Every so often, I use it. I put my feet on the fancy scrollwork of the cast iron treadle and I am transported back to a century I never lived in, but where I’m certain I’d be right at home — especially as a woman who sews.

I wind the bobbin by pulling forward a small device attached to the side of the machine. It has a grooved wheel that fits against the leather belt that powers the machine. I insert the bobbin into the bobbin case, or shuttle, a shiny silver metal tube with a pointed end and ingeniously designed slit through which the strand of thread is pulled and where tension is exerted on it. Often when I observe the cogs and flywheels of the machine, I feel as if I am looking inside the heads of the men who designed and built it.

With bobbin and shuttle in place and the machine threaded, it’s ready to roll. It’s all about the feet, one placed ahead of the other on the treadle, finding the rhythm that will make the needle move up and down in a smooth, even motion. Even so, the machine has a personality of its own — there are things one has to know in order to prevent the thread from snapping or a thread lock from bunching up under the presser foot. Because I know those things, I am the keeper of a technological and mechanical knowledge that is all but extinct.

The sewing machine came into my life in the 1980s when my parents lived off the grid at the pond. My mother and I found the New Home machine at a shop in Brewer that specialized in electric sewing machine repair and sales. The machine was in perfect running condition and had all its attachments, including its instruction booklet and an oil can.

Using the machine, my mother, sister and I once spent an enjoyable day constructing a “quilt-in-a-day” project cut from fabric we spread on the floor for lack of a better place. My mother also used the machine to shorten skirt and pants hems and to do mending. When her eyesight began to fail, she gave the machine to me.

Each time I use the New Home machine, I think of the first time, at age 13, I used the antique Singer machine that had been my great-grandmother’s. It lived at the end of the upstairs hallway by the north window. Without threading the machine, my mother placed a piece of paper on the throat plate, showed me how to put the presser foot down and said, “Make your feet go.” And soon I was treadling away. Then my mother gave me the best gift of all. She left me alone with fabric scraps and the “big shears” as she called them, to figure things out for myself. Right away, I began crafting gowns with poufy skirts to fit the 8-inch dolls I still played with. After that, I thought I could do anything when it came to sewing. Which wasn’t exactly true, but since I didn’t know that, it really didn’t matter. Later, my mother bought me a length of cotton print fabric and, working without a pattern, I hacked away until I had cut out and fashioned a pullover top with a boat neck and wide bell-shaped sleeves.

These days when I sew with the old New Home machine, my cat Sissy Too usually shows up to perch on it, to observe the needle going up and down and to purr in my face. It’s not the best place for a curious cat, but I don’t discourage her. Surely, she is not the first cat to have claimed a spot on the sewing machine as her own.

And so it is, because of this New Home relic from the past, I meet my sewing self both coming and going.

Snippets

Maine Fiberarts will present art and craft work created by its members during a special Holiday Open House sale 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 2-3, in the newly renovated Red Studio next door to Maine Fiberarts’ gallery, 13 Main St. in Topsham. Look for one-of-a-kind items, including handspun yarn, knitted goods, needle punch embroidery, art quilts, fiber from Maine farms, woven scarves and shawls, fabric bags, pine-needle basketry, hooked items, felted goods, patchwork balsam pillows, handmade tassels and more. A collection of used craft books will be available for purchase. The sale will continue through Saturday, Dec. 24, during regular hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays. For information, visit mainefiberarts.org or call 721-0678.

The big new thing is phone apps for knitters and crocheters. A knitters app provides the exact number of yards needed for sweaters, vests, mittens, gloves, socks, scarves, tams and hats. A crocheters app delivers yardage requirements for basic caps, scarves, bags, afghans, ponchos, baby sweaters, skirts and tops. For information, visit Interweave.com.

Call Ardeana Hamlin at 990-8153, or email ahamlin@bangordailynews.com.

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