Jan 23

My first sewing machine #2: Ruth Singer

I had such a good time writing up my first sewing machine experiences that I felt emboldened to ask some of the sewsters* I most admire to join me and reminisce about theirs. This should become a regular feature here on the Scrapiana blog. First up is, I’m delighted to say, Ruth Singer.

Ruth is a textiles designer and maker, and the author of a couple of sewing books (full details below) plus quite a few projects within other craft books and publications, including this one. A former museum curator (one-time medievalist at the V&A), Ruth’s historical costume interest is revealed by her choice of blog title: Mantua Maker. She now teaches workshops for all ages on everything from beginner’s sewing to advanced fabric manipulation, as well as taking commissions for one-off installations such as the African-inspired headdress pictured towards the end of this post. Do consult Ruth’s website for further details. I should just preface all by saying that Ruth is not related to the Singers of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which is a pity as that would have made a fine story. OK, take it away, Ruth!

Ruth Singer with trusty Husky {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

Most of my teenage sewing was done under the guidance of my step-mum. My dad’s partner was (and still is) a champion dressmaker who taught me dressmaking as a 12-year-old, and I soon graduated to a borrowed family Singer machine [below] on which I did most of my outlandish clothes construction. Once I had got the hang of the basics, I went straight to sewing patterns and whipped up some truly awful garments, gradually moving on to some rather nicer and more flattering things – but still with a few awful things thrown in. With me, it’s the actual clothes that stick in my mind more than the sewing of them. The machine hasn’t been used for years, but is lovingly oiled and cared for, and now back in my possession on long-term loan. I did love it’s little carry box and the test piece of fabric which has probably been with the machine for 40+ years.

singer 221K - 1

My step-mum's Singer {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

The little machine was a real workhorse, small but sturdy. I remember having it set up on my bedroom desk, which was really a large shelf attached to the wall with brackets – fine for writing but not ideal for a sewing machine as it bounced up and down a lot. When I could get away with it, I used the dining table which was much more suitable, although the lighting in that room was not set up for sewing. At least I had young eyes, I suppose. Cutting out was done on my bedroom floor, usually with the ‘assistance’ of at least one cat. Our big cat liked to lie on the fabrics as I was cutting, usually with his tail just where I needed to snip, and he would steal the tape measure.

singer 221K - 2

Small but sturdy {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

I got my own machine after my auntie died when I was 17, so it is tinged with sadness as well as excitement. It was a Singer, probably from the ’70s or early ’80s, and not one repair shop could ever find out anything about it – the model was very obscure and no manual could ever be obtained. A curiosity indeed.  It was a totally utilitarian beige plastic type, not awfully memorable, I have to say. But it worked, reasonably well. I used it for seven or eight years, making masses of clothes. I took it to university with me which caused consternation among my peers. Making your own clothes was seriously eccentric then.

I kept the Singer until I bought a fancier one with the aim of (eventually) becoming a professional stitcher (the machine preceeded the change of career by several years). I made masses of things with that machine, not least many medieval living history costumes, until I moved onto hand stitching for authenticity. So that machine saw miles of heavy wool and fine linen, as well as the fancier things I stitched for parties from hand-painted silk and velvet.  I have almost none of my teenage sewing, mostly because I lost or gained weight and cleared out my wardrobe regularly, disposing of the handmade as well as some amazing vintage stuff I wish I had kept (Horrockses dresses, anyone? I had dozens).

I finally gave that Singer away 10 years or so ago, once I had the new one – as moving house every year with two machines was getting a bit silly. I actually can’t remember who had it. My memory says it was my friend Robin who later moved back to New Zealand. I doubt it went with her, but I am sure it went to a good home and is probably still being used today.

I now have a Husqvarna Viking Lily which I bought second-hand from my local craft shop. It was a huge investment at the time, but I do love it. I’ve got a few others, used more for work, but this Husky is all I really need. It’s not pretty, it’s not fancy but it works really well, and hardly ever breaks down. Here’s a quick run-through of the features I love. Adjustable presser foot pressure, allowing easy sewing of thick & thin fabrics. Movable needle which makes zips super easy. I also like the machine blanket or overcast stitch a lot (good for dressmaking) and the 3-step zigzag and stretch stitch settings. I don’t use many of the decorative stitches but it does a satin stitch which I like to use sometimes, and the blind hemming stitch is WONDERFUL. I’m a big fan of feet too – blind hemming foot, rolled hem foot both good, I use the clear foot all the time instead of the solid metal, which makes life so much easier. The Teflon foot is great for leather. I wish I had a walking foot for this one, but I have one for the Berninas instead, which may have to change. I also like the foot with a gap underneath to enable top stitching. I’ve got a ruffler foot which I used a lot when ruffles were a key feature in my designs. There are so many amazingly useful feet; once you start to explore it’s like a whole new world of sewing excitement!

I also have an industrial Bernina which I don’t actually use any more. If I had the space I might because it goes like the clappers and whizzes through miles of straight seams in moments. Maybe that’s my dream machine – a domestic size but that goes fast! And maybe looks like an old black and gold Singer but works like a modern one. I think the key differences I noticed when I upgraded was the silence – the old one was noisy, so my dream machine would be stylish, fast and have a quiet motor.

Ruth's workshop Bernina

My workshop Bernina {Photo Credit: Ruth Singer}

I’m very fond of the old Bernina I use for teaching. It came originally from a London college, but I got it third-hand from an ex-colleague. It’s battered and basic but tough. I like that it is solid metal, like the little one I used as a teenager – not just the solidity but also the curves. Plastic ones are never so attractive.

The last sewing machine in my collection is Little Betty. She featured in my book Sew Eco, though in a purely decorative way. I bought her for 50p in a junk shop, just as a prop, and must admit that I haven’t actually tried sewing on her.

little betty sewing machine - 5.jpg

Little Betty {Photo credit: Ruth Singer}

Thank you, Ruth! That’s been a wonderfully comprehensive tour of your sewing-machine experiences. Before I forget, Ruth’s books deserve a particular mention.

Sew It Up, published by Kyle Cathie Ltd, 2008

I have and really love  Sew It Up (published by Kyle Cathie) which can be purchased here. The fabric manipulation and Ruth’s sense of colour really hooked me. I could tell that Ruth really knew what she was talking about too; this wasn’t just a lot of pretty pictures which told you little as a crafter. Far from it. The book was given a different cover and title in the US ( The Sewing Bible ) and can be bought here. Ruth also has another book out, Sew Eco (published by A&C Black in 2010), which focuses more directly on sustainable approaches to sewing.

Sew Eco, published by A&C Black, 2010

Late last year I asked Ruth to be my first guinea-pig for My First Sewing Machine, and was thrilled when she agreed. I was even more excited when she said she could probably dig out her first machine from the family attic and take a photo. A few weeks later, when Ruth showed me a picture of the little 1967 celery-white featherweight 221k Singer, I almost fell off my chair. I was delighted to discover that it was one of my absolute favourite sewing machines of all time, and amused that Ruth hadn’t twigged the significance of the model: the 221ks have almost cult status. They are particularly prized by patchwork-quilters because of their reliable straight stitch and their petite size and minimal weight (cast aluminium) – all perfect qualities for toting along to quilting groups. And the celery-white ones are especially sought after over in the US where they are harder to find (they were all produced in Scotland). What a cool first machine!

It just so happens that Ruth is selling her industrial Bernina machine. If you’d like to check out details, zoom over to her blog now. You’ll have to arrange collection, probably by robust vehicle or van, and it will require two strong people to lift it.

Some of Ruth’s most recent work (including the machine-stitched head-dress shown below) can be seen now at the Figures of Africa exhibition showing at Pickford’s House, Derby – until 13 February 2011.


Headstrong at Pickford's House, Derby {Photo credit: Gillian Spraggs}

If you still have your first sewing machine to hand, do feel free to post a picture of it over on the My First Sewing Machine group page on Flickr.

[*sewster is a long obsolete late medieval Scottish word for a seamstress. If you happen to write limericks, it carries the added charm of rhyming with  ‘boaster’, ‘coaster’ ‘poster’ ‘roaster’ and ‘toaster’ – or even ‘Towcester’. I’ve adopted it in preference to the written ‘sewer’ which can so easily be confused for the liquid waste conduit.]

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  1. joanna says:

    Hi, I have just arrived here after you helpful comment in Flickr. It was great to find an interview with Ruth Singer. I have just accidentally shrunk a woolen jumper but hey at least I have got some new felt!

  2. […] another interview in my continuing series. Do check out my previously posted interviews with Ruth Singer and Julia […]

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