I bought this antique Singer 12 (or possibly 12K) in April. This sewing machine is from the year 1888 and it belongs to Singer New Family series. The machine was in a pretty good shape considering its age. However, some of its paint was chipped and the decals were starting to wear off, so some restoration was in order. After reading about the machine and its history, I recommend watching my YouTube video on the restoration project.
Singer 12 history
Singer 12 “New Family” sewing machine first came around in 1865 during the American Civil war. New Family machines were the first high volume mass-manufactured sewing machines in the world. Manufacture in Kilbowie, Scotland started a few years later. The Scottish machines were given the “K” ending to the model but otherwise, the machines are identical. Thus, I can’t be 100 % sure that my machine was manufactured in Scotland but I think it is probable.
Despite their high price, these machines sold very well and established Singer as the biggest sewing machine manufacturer in the world. This was partly by the new hire-purchase deals invented to allow poorer women to pay their machine in monthly payments after receiving the machine. By the year 1882, already 4 million machines were sold worldwide.
Singer 12/12K stayed in production all the way to 1902, when Kilbowie factory dispatched their last Singer 12Ks. By this time, the inefficient transverse shuttle design had become outdated and new improved shuttle designs had won over the market.
The basic look and features
My machine is a hand crank machine but this machine was also available with a treadle table. However, for me, the hand crank was a much better choice as it is much easier to store.
Because of their curvy bed shape, they are often called “fiddle-base” sewing machine. However, the first thing that I noticed, when I saw this machine, was that it is tiny compared to modern machines. From the base plate to the top of the handwheel the machine is only 17 cm high! For me, it looked like a toy.
The machine is protected by a bentwood case. In my machine, the wooden case and the machine base have been painted red at some point in their history. I do not mind this at all, as I love the colour.
Underneath, the bentwood case has a “secret” storage box that houses an oiling can and machine accessories. My machine came with several strange presser feet and a great number of binding and hemming attachments.
Singer 12 uses round shank needles size 12×1. These are not manufactured anymore but you can find substitute needles on Ebay or use some industrial machine needles that have a similar kind of narrow (about 1 mm wide) shank.
Operating the machine
Singer 12 is quite different from modern sewing machines what comes to operating the machine. Luckily the manual is freely available online and it was a great help for me when I figured everything out.
Have you ever wondered why that part in your modern sewing machine is called a shuttle? This is why:
Singer 12 has a long bobbin that goes into a boat-shaped shuttle that moves back and forth under the machine bed. Threading the shuttle is a task that requires reading the manual very carefully! The thread is wound back and forth through series of slits and holes that adjust the tension of the bobbin thread.
In comparison, the top thread is easy to thread. The top thread tension is adjusted with a screw on the top of the machine. The other thumbscrew at the top adjusts the presser foot pressure.
Singer 12 only sews straight stitch and does not go backwards. The thumb screw on the right adjusts the stitch length. The right-hand turns the hand crank while your left guides your work. Even though sewing one-handed sounds difficult, it is surprisingly easy. Perhaps, because the machine has been decided for one-handed sewing, or simply because it is impossible to go very fast. Already, I have used this machine to sew several garments, including these 19th-century drawers.
The first thing my machine needed was thorough oiling. Modern machines usually have one or two spots for oil but this one needs oil almost everywhere! Sewing machine oil is also a good cleaning agent as it is sure not to damage the decals or the surface.
Then I proceeded to repair the chipped black polish. Following the advice from here, I made my own shellac-based black paint. Then I used a tiny brush and gold paint to carefully fill in missing parts of the decals. The result is not perfect but afterwards, you do have to look pretty closely to see that some parts of the pattern are not originals.
I opened up the back and the face-plates and cleaned the inner parts, first with oil and then with alcohol using cotton buds/swabs. (Being very careful with the alcohol, of course, as it can damage shellac.) I did the same with the hand crank and the underside of the machine.
To protect the paint and the decals, I added several think coats of shellac. I tried to do something similar to French polishing but the machine shape made it difficult. So, I concentrated on French polishing the bed and the sides.
I hesitated a long time before deciding to use carnauba wax to protect the last coat. There are divided opinions on this as removing wax requires alcohol that can damage decals. However, the shellac is pretty prone to damage and finally I decided to use wax, carnauba wax to be exact. I figured that the several coats of shellac underneath the wax would protect the decals even if there later would be a need to remove the wax.
Here is my YouTube video on how I did the cleaning and the restoration:
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