Jonathan Hoppe

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Sewing Machines


It all started so innocently.

One day, as my interests usually develop, I grew curious about the sewing machine my mother had, some Singer from the 1960s. It hadn’t been used in quite a long time, and so I decided to fix it up. It was still in great condition, and a little cleaning and oiling it was good as new.

Then about three years ago, a friend of mine asked me to see if I could fix her sewing machine; the electrical cord on the sixty year-old machine had grown quite tired and ragged, and it sparked and smoked so much when she plugged it in that she was afraid to use it. An easy fix, so I said I would happily take it on.

The everpresent horrifically awful rubber wiring.

The everpresent horrifically awful rubber wiring.

Many antique electronic cords are made from rubber. Don’t let the cloth covering fool you—it’s usually rubber underneath. Now vulcanized rubber is inherently unstable; oxidative degradation through atmospheric chemicals, sunlight, and a number of other sources makes the rubber hard and brittle after time, causing it to become less supple and more brittle and prone to cracking.

Note the horrific state of the ring at left.

Note the horrific state of the ring at left.

One can see how this could be bad for electrical wires!

The Singer Model 300, after restoration.

The Singer Model 300, after restoration.

But as things went this was an easy fix; the hardest part wasn’t even the soldering, but trying to get the right sized lugs crimped onto the end of the cord to the foot pedal. But I decided to go one step further. Like a lot of sewing machines of the time, it was coated with some sort of varnish, probably linseed oil, that had discolored and generally made it look godawful. But a little isopropyl alcohol took care of that right off. And with the addition of a new lightbulb, it shone both literally and metaphorically.

Oh my dear god.

Oh my dear god.

The horror, the horror.

The horror, the horror.

Less than a year later I took on another project: my grandmother’s 1929 Singer Model 66-16. This was a challenge for a number of reasons. The motor was dead. The rubber was rotten. It was filled with asbestos. And mainly it was covered in 60 years of god knows how many packs-a-day tobacco tar. But these were solvable issues. Singers were made in such quantities that period motors are still plentiful. The rubber components (wires, bobbin wheel) were easily replaced. The asbestos was VERY CAREFULLY removed (seriously, DO NOT SCREW WITH IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE unless you know exactly what you are doing) and replaced with insulating phenolic washers, and the tobacco tar, well, that took a lot of elbow grease.

Seriously don't mess with it folks.

Seriously don’t mess with it folks.

Just recently I acquired my most challenging piece yet; another Singer 66-16, this one from 1949 (with a wrinkle paint finish, no less!) This was challenging for a number of reasons; though I got it for a buck, it was missing some parts, and the wiring was totally shot. Worse, rather than having sensible electrical work, everything was crammed into a little box underneath the motor, and unlike in the 1929 model, had no lugs, but were all spliced together with wire nuts. Which were a hassle to cram back in there let me tell you. Ugh.

It's done!

It’s done!

But the most difficult part was the lamp. One of the contacts was cracked and bad, and I had to disassemble the thing and make a new copper contact. I had to cannibalize another old socket for the copper to bend the new contact, and soldering was a hassle beyond description. But it was finished, and the lamp works beautifully.

The table was easy, more or less. A good cleaning with wood soap, and a beeswax and oil concoction of my own creation, and she’s good as new.


Prim and polished



  1. I just got a 1937 Singer for $5…It is just the head. The needle moves ok when rotating the wheel, but needs some work, and rebuilding. The motor is broken and wires clipped, belt, missing. I am apprehensive to repair this sucker as I positive it has asbestos in it and I do not know how to appropriately remove it. Where is the asbestos in the machine. How did you go about removing it. Maybe mine will become a lovely door stop 🙂 Kind Regards, Jeremy

    • flababo says:

      Hi Jeremey,

      The asbestos isn’t much — two washers in the foot pedal are all I remember finding. Unless you decide to poke around in it you’ve nothing to worry about.

  2. I do not have a foot pedal. Do you know if it in the machine at all?

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