Category: Vintage sewing machines

Aug 27

A nifty fifty


There’s no getting away from it. I’m 50. Well, how on earth did that happen…?

I’ve rounded the corner and am most definitely vintage now: absolutely midway between BNWT (that’s ‘brand new with tags’) and antique. But I’m holding up pretty well, though I say so myself. If I had to grade my condition as an antiquarian book, I might flatter myself with a VG (very good): my spine is still straight, nobody has scribbled on me, but I’m looking a little careworn, my edges bumped. You don’t live this long without collecting a few knocks.

There seem to be several approaches to facing these bigger, rounder numbers which I’ll summarise as:

( Read more )


Nov 16

Support SecondhandFirst Week



SecondhandFirst Week

SecondhandFirst Week


Tomorrow (today if you’re reading this on the email feed) marks the first day of #SECONDHANDFIRST Week, 17-23 November 2014.

The week aims to encourage people to commit to sourcing more clothing and other resources second hand. It’s organised by TRAID, the charity doing tireless work to ensure sustainable and ethical practices in the clothing chain. It’s hoped that this will become an annual event.

Here in Bath, the Big Mend is delighted to be acting as a partner organisation, and we’ve arranged one of our Flash Mend events* in Bath Central Library on Monday 17th November. We’d love it if you’d join us any time from 1-4pm with some hand-held mending: darning would be ideal as we’ll be hoping to quietly impart mending skills to passing library users. If you’re in Bath and would like a quick darning lesson, come down and say hello, pick up a darning mushroom and try out some stitches with us.

Here are ways you can support the week:


Flash mend event

A Big Mend Flash Mend event


*Mass mending events in public places





Nov 11




Lamsbwool upcycled hottie cover

Lamsbwool upcycled hottie cover


With her brusque but generous heart, Win fed me and brought me those English-homemaker panaceas – hot-water bottles and hot drinks.

From Ardent Spirits: leaving Home, Coming Back by Reynolds Price


My making this winter is indulging an affection for that great English cure-all, the hot-water bottle or hottie. Cosiness, warmth, comfort, consolation, care, motherly love – it’s all there. And for extra heart and soul, I’ve been upcycling soft cosies individually from old knitwear.

I start with an old sweater – usually fine lambswool or cashmere – that’s been shrunk (intentionally or not) and possibly developed the odd hole or other flaw. Happily, I’m keeper of what I laughingly refer to as ‘the National Sweater Collection’, having been compiling old knits for some time now. So, there’s plenty to pick and choose from. I meticulously launder and treat each source garment individually (often washing by hand in lavender-scented wool wash), dry it carefully, comb or brush it, then send it for a short stay in the freezer in a ziplock bag to ensure there are no unwanted visitors. By the end, I’ve completely revived and refreshed it, ready for its new life.

Sweaters for upcycling

Sweaters for upcycling


Then I make a bespoke pattern for the particular hot-water bottle as I want it to fit nice and snuggly. Each raw-material garment requires unique, thoughtful treatment.  It takes a little while for me to figure out how best to convert it – quite often I make the bottom of the garment into the top of the cover, for example. Then, once I have my pieces cut, I stitch each cosy together on a vintage Singer sewing machine. I’m now selling these rather sophisticated, soulful and sustainable hotties in my Etsy store. Each comes with a rubber bottle too so is great value, as well as being hugely cuddlesome. Perhaps using one will enable you to turn the central heating down a notch, so buying one may even save you money in the long run. This fabulously soft green cashmere hottie is available over here.  12/11/14 Just sold, but more are in the pipeline. Please get in touch if you’d like a particular colour or style. Thanks. – E x


Cashmere hottie with pompoms

Cashmere hottie with pompoms


And if you’d like a bespoke hottie, I can make something to your particular colour/style requirements from my stock of upcycled garments, or from a piece of knitwear you supply (perhaps something with sentimental value). So get in touch if you’d like one made especially for you. Convo me through Etsy, or take a look at my About page for my email address. There’s still plenty of time to get yours before Christmas.




Mar 20

Would the real Mrs Beeton please stand up?



I’ve been reading a biography of Mrs Beeton, arguably the nation’s first domestic goddess. The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton by Kathryn Hughes was published by Harper Perennial in 2006.


Hughes’ biography of Mrs Beeton


As recent events have served to illustrate, the life lived behind the edifice of a lifestyle brand is rarely as it appears, and this book has been an eye-opener. Some interesting things I’ve discovered about Mrs B:

1. Isabella Beeton’s image was the first ever photographic portrait accepted by the National Portrait Gallery. Maull & Pollyblank’s 1857 plate, which the NPG accepted from her son Mayson in 1932, reveals a slim, striking 19-year-old Bella, not the stout, flour-dusted matriarch with a rolling pin that you might have imagined. Mrs Bridges from Upstairs, Downstairs she definitely was not.

2. Her first baby died a few months after birth, very likely of syphilis: a disease which she appears to have contracted from her husband in the early days of their marriage.

3. Bella’s husband, Sam, originally a printer by trade, made a killing publishing an unauthorised British edition of Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exploiting a time when there was no copyright agreement between America and Britain. He and Bella together proved cunning publishing entrepreneurs, successfully exploring the new markets, trends and opportunities created by an expanding middle-class in Victorian England.

4. Bella Beeton was far from an experienced cook when she took on writing the Book of Household Management.

5. Which is why she plagiarised widely yet skilfully for the book; all this is documented in fascinating detail by Hughes.

6. Elizabeth David was particularly galled by Bella’s light-fingered borrowings from Eliza Acton.

7. Bella liked her red wine.

8. She had a great eye for fashion and pioneered the popularising of dress patterns  in the ‘Practical Dress Instructor’, a regular feature in the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, capitalising on the boost to sewing created by the recent invention of the sewing machine.

9. She died very early, age 28. But that didn’t stop the ‘Mrs Beeton’ brand marching on. And on. And on.

10. Without her able management, and with the encroaching symptoms of tertiary syphilis, Sam went to rack and ruin after Bella’s untimely death.

She certainly packed a lot into her short life. I’d recommend this biography: snappy, witty, sensitively written, and especially riveting if you’re interested in publishing and journalism (particularly the history of lifestyle publishing, cookery writing and fashion journalism), and if you want an insight into the burgeoning Victorian middle classes and what made them tick.





Oct 16

Red Dress – 1946



1940s jumper dress pattern c/o seller BessyAndMaive on Etsy


My mother was making me a dress. All through the month of November I would come home from school and find her in the kitchen, surrounded by cut-up velvet and scraps of tissue-paper pattern. She worked at an old treadle machine pushed up against the window to get the light, and also to let her look out, past the stubble fields and bare vegetable garden, to see who went by on the road. There was seldom anybody to see.

The red velvet material was hard to work with, it pulled and the style my mother had chosen was not easy either. She was not really a good sewer. She liked to make things; that is different. Whenever she could she tried to skip basting and pressing and she took no pride in the finer points of tailoring, the finishing of buttonholes and the overcasting of seams as, for instance, my aunt and grandmother did. Unlike them she started off with an inspiration, a brave and dazzling idea; from that moment on, her pleasure ran downhill.

 from Red Dress–1946 by Alice Munro


Red Dress–1946 comes from Alice Munro‘s first collection of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades published in 1968. By chance, I was already reading this before the announcement last week that Munro had won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature; I had no idea that she was even tipped, but she’s a delightful choice.

Munro was an author my mother enjoyed; they were contemporaries, growing up in very similar North American cultural spaces, and some of the stories in this collection centre on girls in small towns during the first half of the twentieth century. Reading Munro seems to bring my mother (rather long gone now) back into reassuring proximity.

This story is one of my favourites, not just because it features sewing (informed by some understanding of the process) but for the way it reveals character so economically through it. It also nails how mortification and extreme fear of social embarrassment are the air an adolescent breathes. If you want to read some Munro – and like sewing – I’d recommend that you head straight for this delicious little volume.

The 1940s jumper pattern from which the image comes is available to buy over to BessyAndMaive‘s Etsy shop.




Aug 03

Join the chicks @theFarm!



I’m delighted to be working with some excellent creative people (plus a few chickens, geese and dogs) on brand new project, @theFarm.

You can let your imagination run wild and your talents go free-range from this September when the the first @the Farm courses and workshops go live. It’s the place to learn a new craft skill, or spruce up an old one, with the very best hand-picked tutors in an ancient honeyed stone farmhouse in Wiltshire, just 20 minutes from Bath. Gorgeous lunches and refreshments are laid on within the workshop fee too. And parking is easy and ample. Could it get any better? I don’t think so.

To give you a small taste of what you can learn, there’ll be upholstery and lampshades c/o Joanna, who is also the clever lady who devised our photoshoot.

There’sdarning from me. My swift introduction to the subject, Strictly Come Darning!, has been favourably reviewed in Simply Knitting and Simply Crochet. I have sessions currently booking on Wednesday 11th September, Friday 11th October and Wednesday 13th November .


Darning at the Farm


And I can also familiarise you with your sewing machine: the one you bought ages ago which has been gathering dust ever since. Or the one your grandma handed down to you, maybe rather like the one below. Whatever its age or make, bring it along to have its mysteries revealed at my one-day event, Get to Know Your Sewing Machine. You’ll also make a satisfying first project to take away. Dates: Monday 23rd September, Monday 14th October, and Saturday 23rd November.

Singer 99k, 1946

Allow me to introduce you to your sewing machine


Emma (pictured darning with me above) is the lovely boss and total organisational whizz, and the lady you speak to to make your booking.  Early Bird offers on these autumn courses end 23rd August, so get on the blower (01225 783504) or pooter ( before all the other chicks scratch over the best pickings. And don’t forget to sign up for @theFarm‘s monthly newsletter – if you can’t find the link, send Emma an email and ask to be put on the mailing list. More exciting tutors and workshops will be unveiled in due course, so keep your eyes peeled.

Hope to see you @theFarm very soon! Wellies not obligatory.


Jul 14

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show


I lucked out and won a pair of tickets to the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show c/o Country Living magazine. DH and I drove up to London in Thursday’s glorious sunshine, our euphoria tempered only by a determined thrifty agenda: to buy no plants (I’ll admit that I was conflicted on this one), and to view the event mainly through thrifty allotment-holder goggles.

Show entrance

Hampton Court Palace Flower Show is really the biggest village fête in the entire world. There are lots of people-of-a-certain-age in straw hats. There is bunting. There are best-in-shows to be voted for (we helped with the best-gerberas-grown-by-schoolchildren competition), and there are big wooden wheels to be spun to win prizes (DH won a pretty mug c/o Clipper Teas).


Yellow bunting, as far as eye can see

But instead of the village green as the backdrop, you have this.


And, rather than just the one marquee, there are several.

Some say it’s better than RHS Chelsea because you don’t feel quite so much like a sardine, and you have that backdrop.


Long Water, the rectangular lake extending away from the palace, is wonderfully cooling on a hot day too. Very sensibly, the refreshment areas line the lake.


The event embraces many contradictions: it somehow feels intimate yet is enormous; rural yet urban; thrifty yet opulent (you can buy anything from a ball of twine to a large garden palace); escapist yet crammed with people; it was hard, for instance, to see the show gardens for the pressing throng.


Hard to avoid the crowds in the show gardens

And you had to watch your ankles for the little pink plant trolleys being wheeled around. Everyone (but us) seemed to have them! Which possibly explains why the RHS porters were resting on their wheelbarrows when I spotted them.


RHS porters resting on their laurels

First to catch my eye was Mr. Fothergill’s Seeds . The packets were discounted from the catalogue/shop price, and are brand spanking new, with long plant-by times. Here I could go slightly wild, so half a dozen packets (at just £1 a pop) were snapped up. I am drawn to unusually coloured vegetables, and just about anything purple. But, with great determination, I managed to resist the purple carrots and pea pods, but yellow courgette and rainbow chard came home with me.

Then I spotted Franchi’s/Seeds of Italy; well, I first spotted an eye-catching Roman centurion on their stand – it’s something I’m used to, living in Bath. Franchi’s is the oldest seed producer and seller in the world; the company was established in 1783, the year (their catalogue explains) that Mozart wrote his first mass and the American War of Independence ended. Impressively, Franchi remains in the same family after seven generations. A fellow allotment-holder had recommended their seed to me just the other week, and substantial show-deals made a purchase necessary. I  bought such things as yellow carrots – originally a peasant food, considered no better than forage for cattle, but now served as a novetly in swanky restaurants – artichoke, and winter salad. I hope they translate to northerly latitudes OK. I asked the centurion about borage – whether it had really come over with the Romans – and he produced a great little book all about Roman plants which confirmed borage’s Roman provenance. I was so chuffed.

There was more borage on the Plantlife stall, and a lot of embroidery. More of that in another post.


More borage! Seeing it everywhere now…

I was really mesmerised by the lavender.


It’s at this point that I very nearly weakened and wanted to buy a small plant for £2.50 from the lady holding the national collection. But my will-power support app (a.k.a. my husband) reminded me not to wobble. I know it’s edible and the bees and butterflies love it, but it’s a plant. No plants, remember.

But I could indulge in the edible plants marquee, as there was garlic c/o the nice people on the Isle of Wight. Garlic was another Roman import to our shores, and I have fond memories of a tandeming holiday around the Isle of Wight, visiting a Roman villa and catching the scent of garlic growing in the fields. So I bought a head to try on the allotment; the salesman uttered the magic words ‘rust-resistant’ which sounded more realistic on Bath valley clay than something happier with its feet in free-draining Provençal soil. Realism is everything on an allotment, tempered with a light sprinkling of sod-it-I’ll-try-it-anyway.


This pink shed from made me smile; this pink is the signature colour of Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, as you could probably tell by that banner at the beginning. I liked the ‘raised bed’ – an idea I was going to try on the allotment with an old wooden bedstead, but Hampton Court (not to mention The Archers) got there first.


We enjoyed speaking to the man on the Hozelock stall. If hoses feature in your life at all, their new non-kinking lightweight hose technology is really impressive. But we didn’t buy.

I have to mention Felco, the Swiss company which produces excellent secateurs for the very serious gardener. They are not cheap but are investment shears which have repair built into their concept: a serious piece of kit which will last a lifetime. It’s good to know that you can take your ailing ones to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, drop them at the Felco stand and (provided you cough up £19) they’ll be returned to you, completely serviced and overhauled with any knackered parts replaced. Nice one, Felco.

The Rose and Floristry Vintage Festival had its own marquee. There were stunning roses in shades I haven’t seen before.

Roses at the RHS Hampton Court Flower Show

And I spotted a vintage Singer sewing machine (another of my favourite repairable tools) posing next to the very orange Rose of the Year 2014.


Lady Marmalade, Rose of the Year 2014

There was a giant bee upcycled from Ecover bottles


Ecover’s giant upcycled bee

And Purbeck ice creams came along just when I needed some refreshing lemon sorbet.

Lemon sorbet

Alliums were everywhere. I reassured myself that I am satisfied with the packet of ‘Purple Sensation’ bulbs bought for a couple of pounds and planted several years ago, now spreading itself gently in drifts across my garden (which I like rather better than regimented rows, I must admit). I hope to transplant some to my allotment.


Alliums standing to attention


And the spectacle went on and on. A hay windmill banded with dried flowers.


A large bed planted entirely with basil.


Basil bed

And a giant glove made of roses for a thornproof gardening-glove company whose name escapes me. But they deserve a big hand.


Rose glove

My phone (and camera) battery died before I could snap the Country Living marquee. If I’d wanted to dress like a  lady gardener, there would have been ample opportunity to try gardening hats, linen smocks, wellies, aprons and gloves with giant gauntlets. I didn’t manage to snap the butterfly dome either, erected in a fortnight by the Eden Project.

We drifted home, tired, happy and clutching our seed packets, with our heads full of what we’d seen and dreams of crops to come. I’ll bring your more news about Plantlife’s embroidery project soon.


Apr 10

Bath Artisan Market


This month’s Bath Artisan Market at Green Park Station on Sunday 14th April has a Make Do & Mend theme, and the Big Mend will be there all day with a pop-up mending workshop.

If you’re in Bath and happen to have something needing a new button attached, a seam fixed, or maybe a hole darned, come on down! We’ll show you how. And it’s FREE! More about the Big Mend mending socials over here.

This Sunday’s market also brings you the Big Bath Clothes Swap, screenprinting for the kids (c/o Happy Inkers), and plenty of local gourmet food. Now we just need the Great British spring weather to co-operate! If you aren’t coming by public transport, by bike or on foot, there’s free parking for an hour and a half in the Sainsbury’s and Homebase car parks.

Bath Artisan Market Make Do and Mend Day


If you’re on Twitter, follow Bath Artisan Market for latest news and updates. This market happens every second Sunday of the month. Hope to see you this Sunday!

PS I’d welcome some willing volunteers to help with the stall. If you can spare half an hour on Sunday, do get in touch. No previous darning experience necessary!



Jan 03

Mystery Singer sewing machine


Can you help me to identify this strange machine, please?

Mystery Singer sewing machine

It was kindly donated to me recently by a generous friend. It’s definitely made by Singer.

Singer badge on portable sewing contraption

It’s definitely designed to be worked while it is carried: there’s a large wooden carrying handle.

It’s definitely for sewing something: the crank makes a needle move from one side to another, and those two large thread reels would indicate that it once created a strong lock-stitch (rather than a less durable chain stitch).

Singer contraption

It certainly needs a whole lot of TLC and indefinite quantities of oil. But I’m dying to know what on earth it was designed to sew! Sails? Tents? Demis Roussos’s kaftans? My preliminary searches have drawn a complete blank. Have you any ideas?




Jul 29

1954 Singer 99k hand-crank


Take a look at this sewing machine bought by a friend in a local charity shop.

Singer 99k sewing-machine case

Singer 99k in Cheney case

It’s a 1954 Singer 99k hand-crank with the most wonderful faux-croc case made by suitcase manufacturer Cheney.

Cheney clasp on Singer 99k case

Cheney clasp

Its delighted new owner was a little crestfallen when the machine refused to form stitches; the needle moved up and down OK and everything appeared to function, but her test fabric revealed only a disappointing line of holes and some straggling threads.

There are several reasons why this might happen. The thread quality might be poor, or the needle might be blunt (or of poor quality), or unsuited to the thread/fabric. I began by removing an obvious problem: a thread jam around the bobbin case. Then I gave the machine a really good brush to remove any unhelpful lint build-up and gave it an oiling with good quality dedicated sewing-machine oil, took out the needle (and found it had been inserted incorrectly), wound some Sylko onto a bobbin and tested it on a scrap of calico.

Lo and behold, she worked.

Singer 99k, stitching again

Forming stitches

Just a little tension adjustment here and there and she was up and running again and ready to be used exhaustively by an 11-year-old eager to hone her sewing skills. Nice.

Singer 99k hand-crank

Up and running again

If you have a vintage hand-driven Singer sewing machine in need of some TLC, I’d recommend visiting Sid & Elsie’s helpful blog. These cast iron machines were certainly built to last and it may be surprisingly easy to get yours running again. You don’t need many tools: just a couple of screwdrivers and a small brush (the hammer there on the table is a red herring, by the way – if you find yourself wanting to resort to using a hammer, please take your sewing machine to a professional!).

It’s important to have a manual for your machine (to find out how it’s supposed to be threaded, for instance, and where to oil it), so if you don’t have one to hand, plug the machine’s serial number into the Singer website to find out your machine’s name/model/date of manufacture and seek out the appropriate manual on the internet. The last time I looked, you could even find some available for nothing.

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