Make and Make Do  

By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA


Sewing for Manly Men - Part 2
Part 1

Those of you who mess with old outboard motors will feel right at home messing with sewing machines. The used market is quite similar in many ways, and working on them uses about the same level of technology as well. Like a motor, a sewing machine is both a power tool and a precision machine.

Modern home sewing machines will cost you $300 or more for a decent one, but they don’t have the guts to chew through canvas. (They handle polytarp with ease.) If you want to tackle canvas you need a commercial machine, and you can buy two new thickness planers for the price of used commercial sewing machine.

Fortunately, times have changed. Older commercial machines are still pretty expensive, but older home machines are much more similar to their commercial cousins than they are these days. Back then, home sewing was heavy-duty sewing.

Here again, the sewing machine market is like the outboard market. Collectors want the rare old treadle machines. But often these collectors wind up with some really solid electric machines they’re not that interested in. Search online for “treadle sewing machine” and you’ll find where they hang out. One such site is Check their flea market postings. You are very likely to find one of these folks in your area.

What to look for

Much like other power tools, a machine with no plastic parts is promising. Name brands are easier to find parts and service for. Singer, White, Bernina, Necchi and Pfaff are probably the biggest names among the old-line manufacturers. Bernina is considered the “Cadillac” and is priced accordingly. Viking, Elna and Husqvarna are reportedly excellent, but I’ve only ever seen newer (expensive) models. But sometimes the off brands aren’t bad either. Newer models are more likely to have plastic gears, but on some of the name brands you can have them replaced with metal gears. You can identify a model and get a manual at, and there are many online forums devoted to the topic.

Sometimes you can find a good deal on an industrial machine that has only one stitch option. If it is zigzag, you’re in business. Many commercial and very old machines were built with only straight stitch. The user fits a “zigzagger” accessory to get zigzag stitches. The good thing is that these machines are generally built brutally strong. The bad thing is that you had better stick with name brands or you’ll never find the zigzagger you need. They are not standard. For a 1920s Singer, this attachment should cost you $10-15.

I’d avoid the really antique machines with the very narrow bobbin. These are called “shuttle” machines and you can usually get a more modern “rotary” machine for the same money. Rotaries have been around since running boards were common, so there are plenty.


Before you buy a machine, turn the hand wheel through a few full turns. On most machines you rotate the top of the wheel toward you, but sometimes it is reversed on older machines to get around Singer’s patents. It shouldn’t lock up in either direction, though. If nothing locks up, it can probably be made to work. Make sure you do this with a needle and bobbin in place, since these are what often lock. Much like testing an old outboard motor, I’d pass on any machine that locks up.

Case Study

In my area we have a Yahoo group called “FreeCycle”. (I think it’s elsewhere too.) When someone wants to get rid of something, they post it as an offer. Sewing machines in any condition go fast, so I got lucky to get this 1950s White.

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I got lucky on this 1950's White.

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The owner stated that this one kept breaking the thread and she got tired of messing with it and got a new one with more options. This is promising, since it is probably a tension problem. And you can’t beat the price, of course. It is an all-metal machine with only zigzag and straight stitch. This too is a good sign, since the manufacturer was probably selling strength and reliability over features. I would have happily paid $50 at a yard sale. When I picked it up, it turned freely through as many revolutions as I cared to turn it, and the motor ran fine. So far, so good.


Identification was a little confusing. It also had a “White” nameplate and a “Deluxe Zig Zag” nameplate. These are two different companies! Hmmm… Comparing this machine to photos on, I determined that it is a White Model 265. This is mostly because of the strange sideways mounting of the needle and bobbin. I assume this was done to get around a Singer patent. I guess “Deluxe Zig Zag” represents a marketing name that had nothing to do with the actual model. After all, it is a zigzag machine. I’m assuming the other company of the same name was a cheap import labeled to cash in on similarity with a name-brand machine. (We’ve all seen the same tactic in power tools.) Unfortunately there is not a lot of information about older White machines, even though their mechanical quality is reputedly excellent.

You need a manual, which you can buy for most machines for about $7 from They show threading diagrams for free, but you need to know where to lubricate the machine. This is just as important as lubricating an engine or your trailer’s wheel bearings, so don’t imagine you can be cavalier about it. And don’t over-lubricate. It will fling oil into places it shouldn’t be.

By the way, I’m not really going out of my way to promote They just happen to have a repair section on their website that tells you in detail exactly how the sewing machine does its job. They also provide a troubleshooting guide. They are probably not the only website offering this information, but it was the first one I found. I’d just as soon give my money to someone who provides some useful guidance on their site.


First you need thread. I use V-69 polyester sail twine for pretty much everything. This is sewing for manly men, remember? Nothing dainty about a ¼” wide zigzag and high-strength thread.

But test your thread. A lot of problems arise from bad thread. Unroll three feet or so of thread and let it hang between your hands like an electric wire between poles. Now bring your hands together. Does the tread immediately wind itself into a twist? If so, it’s bad thread. A few turns are probably tolerable, but sewing machines hate anything more than that.

The reason for this is obvious once you look over some diagrams of how the stitch is formed. As the needle travels upward it forms a loop. This loop is vital to the stitch because the “hook” has to grab it and drag it fully around the bobbin case to form the knot.

So no loop, no stitch. If the thread is so twisty that it wants to wrap around the needle instead of forming a loop, the stitch will never be reliable no matter how perfectly you tune the machine.

This sort of problem is hardly unfamiliar to a sailor, of course. Just think of the trouble caused by kinky, cheap three-stranded polypropylene line. It makes a terrible tangled mess no matter what you do, and it’s so springy that trailing it behind the boat doesn’t straighten it. Unfortunately, the remedy is the same for bad thread. Pitch it.

I should also note that sail twine doesn’t come on normal spools. It comes on big commercial spools that won’t fit home sewing machines. Here’s a spool and the cheap adapter that lets you use them.

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Spool & adapter


Needles too can cause trouble. They should be dead straight. Roll them along a flat surface. If there’s any wobble, pitch it and use a new one. A bent needle will sooner or later skewer the bobbin case and break. Probably sooner.

Use the smallest needle that will pass the thread. For V-69 polyester sail twine I use a #16 sharp. (Make sure you get the kind that fits your machine!) Sometimes these are marked as “denim” needles. You only want ball end needles for stretchy fabric. If you are breaking a lot of needles there is either a lot of old thread in the bobbin machinery, or the bar that holds the needle is bent. Replacement parts are available for major brands.

Tension Adjustments

The first step is to confirm the problem. You shouldn’t need to mess with the lower tension (on the bobbin case) unless you change thread size pretty radically. But if everything is really messed up, the bobbin should be set so that it can be held up by the thread, but only just barely. A slight jig of the hand should cause it to let out thread. In extremely heavy canvas work it might need to be a more forceful jig of the hand.

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Bobbin Case

Adjusting upper tension is something you have to do every time you change thread or cloth thickness. Rather like welding. Run a seam, examine, adjust. If the stitches are loose on the bottom, you need more tension on top to pull them tight. And vice-versa, of course. I couldn’t get a very good photo of what it looks like when stitches are loose, but almost every sewing machine manual provides diagrams. So does the link above.

Sometimes you can’t get enough tension with the knob turned all the way up. Just pull the knob off. Usually there’s a gear-like knob underneath that you can tighten a lot further. Once you get it adjusted, put the cover knob back on set to somewhere in the middle of the range. The numbers are only there to help you reset to a given tension so you can more easily switch between different setups. Pros avoid this by having several machines. I avoid this by only using one kind of thread.

Back to My Old White

Thread breaking is likely to be a tension problem, so I had a closer look at the tension adjustments. These are simply a screw knob pressing against a spring. The spring supplies the tension to the plate that squeezes the thread. Any burr or slot worn into that plate can break the thread. In fact, this true of any part of the machine that touches the thread. When making a stitch, the thread gets dragged back and forth maybe 8 or 9 times over any given part of the machine. You can see how it doesn’t take much of a burr to saw through the thread.

Be careful when taking apart any part of a sewing machine. Even these older mechanical machines have lots of little parts that spring out when you remove anything. Be aware and don’t lose any parts or an eye.

I got lucky in this case. I got it to balance without much trouble, though I did have to pull off the knob to get enough tension. But when the tension was at the right setting, I noticed that it was impossible to rethread the machine. The plates were so tightly pressed together that the thread would not slip between them unless I loosened the upper tension know, threaded, then re-tightened. Neglecting this would make it look like the thread was between the plates, but it really wasn’t. This means to upper tension and an immediate mess of giant loops clogging up the bobbin mechanism.

Maybe that’s the trouble the prior owner was having? Hard to tell. It might be that those plates are wearing unevenly. Time will tell.

Another possibility is the lower tension. It feels a little like the tension changes depending on which side the bobbin is feeding from. This can be caused by uneven wear on that little spring that applies tension to the thread as it exits the bobbin case. A bobbin case is a $5 part, so it’s not a bad idea to start with a new one so you know that’s not the problem.

For now, though, I seem to be getting good stitches.

Hotrodding your machine for canvas

Assuming you’re starting with an all-metal machine, you can add quite a lot of power. Here I can do no better than to refer you to the hints provided by SailRite. One thing you can’t get for a home machine is a walking foot. These help to feed thick fabric. But you can set up an incline. Sailmakers often have a sort of ramp – maybe 8 degrees or so – to help the fabric feed by gravity. Plywood and a little ingenuity can facilitate some very large projects if you’re so inclined. ( pun intended.)

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

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