A 1910s costume, part one: the machine

This post is the first in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.

The fateful day in 2012… 14 year old Rachel was basic

This project has been eight years in the making. In October 2012, my family decided to clean out the cupboard under our stairs and it was then that I realised that the large wooden box that had sat against the back wall for the extent of my living memory was not part of the fabric of our 1930s house. It was an antique Singer sewing machine. I could not believe it: an antique sewing machine – in my house?? it sang to my history-trash heart. The wooden cover of the machine opens with a key, revealing the classic cast iron machine, decorated in gold with Egyptian iconography. It is a hand-crank machine which still works very smoothly, each turn eliciting a gentle ticking from the machine mechanism. It has drama, it has elegance and I love it.

She’s just so beautiful

I found out from my mum that the sewing machine had been given to her by my maternal Grandfather’s cousin a number of years before. We believe it belonged to a lady called Queenie, my Grandfather’s cousin’s auntie (it’s had quite a journey!).

My research into the the machine didn’t go very far at that point. It had a manual but I didn’t have the skills or motivation to really look into it much. The attachments were covered in rust and were like nothing I had ever seen so I disregarded them as antique mysteries. I just about figured out how the mechanism of the machine worked but my own sewing skills were not advanced enough to know the importance of tension or any of the other intricacies of the machine.

I did managed to transform a shirt dress into a shirt using the machine but then it was put back under the stairs – awaiting a time when I would have the skills to restore it.

Fast forward to last year. Whilst on my intermission from university my mum and I sat down to watch a BBC documentary: The Singer Story: Made in Clydebank. It was utterly fascinating, following the development of the Singer brand and the innovation of both the sewing machines themselves and their marketing. It also followed the impact that the legacy of the factory had on the town of Clydebank, with recollections from some of its former employees.

The Singer Factory at Clydebank (source: https://www.heraldscotland.com/)

The realisation that my sewing machine could have come from this factory spurred me on to continue my research. My time at university had also developed my research skills so I felt more prepared to look into the history of my machine. Also, as I wasn’t at university, I felt like I had the time to look more into it. I looked up the serial number on the front of the machine on an online database (source: http://ismacs.net/singer_sewing_machine_company/serial-numbers/singer-sewing-machine-serial-number-database.html) which told me that my machine was a 27K, one of 65,000 manufactured in Clydebank between July and December 1907.

So my machine, passed down through generations, is 113 years old. I am not over it yet.

As the machine mechanism works smoothly, the biggest thing for me to confront was what the hell were all the attachments and how did they work?? Lockdown provided the next catalyst to continue this research.

To clean all the rust of them, I gave them a long bath in some vinegar and finished them up with brasso and polish (this may not be the best method in conservation terms but it was the best I could come up with – I would love to know if there are any better?)

Then I had to figure out what they were all for. I was able to figure out some from the manual included with the machine but the others eluded me. In a stroke of luck, I came across the most fascinating document from Super Sewing Machine and Supply LLC (source: https://www.supsew.com/catalogs-diagrams/): a price list of part for the 27K and 28K machines from 1902.

Looking all shiny and positively brand-new.

This document showed illustrations of each part of the machine, including all the attachments, so all I had to do was look for a part that looked like the ones I had and find its name. Using this document I learned that I had (from left to right, and top row then bottom):

  • a tucking foot
  • a quilting foot
  • a ruffling foot
  • a seam gauge
  • a cord foot
  • four sizes of hemming foot
  • a binding foot
  • two sizes of screwdrivers
  • the key for the box

I was most excited about the ruffling foot and I didn’t wait long before trying it out – with amazing results! I just need a project to use it in now.

one of my attempts with the ruffle foot.

As this machine is from the early twentieth century, the seed of an idea was sown in my brain to make a contemporary outfit using it. I watch lots of historical costumers on YouTube, and with being a history student it was only a matter of time before I decided to embark on a project like this. Look out for my next blog post where I’ll talk about the research portion of my project!

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