In January, I noticed someone selling a beautiful antique sewing machine. It was a Singer 15 from the first decades of the 20th century. As it was made in the German Wittenberge factory, the exact dating is impossible but I believe it to be made around 1910. I didn’t think twice but went and bought it the same day since I had just figured out a perfect spot for it in our living room. There was a lot of restoration and cleaning to do before this machine was able to sew again but the whole project was a fun thing to do! Once more, there’s a video of it all, so enjoy!
The history of Singer 15
The Singer company started producing oscillating shuttle, high arm family sewing machines first in 1879. The model was mechanically improved in 1895 and the machine we know as Singer 15 was born. Most of these machines were treadle machines even though some hand-crank-operated machines were also made. Singer 15 was very popular and it might be the most successful sewing machine model of all time as it has been in production for over 100 years. In fact, they are still manufactured in China for South Asian and African markets. Of course, during all these years, several improvements were made to the model like the addition of an electric motor.
Singer 15 was revolutionary in other ways, too. It was the first machine to use the now most common sewing machine needle with a flat part on the shank. Model 15-11 started using a round bobbin and a modern bobbin case instead of a shuttle moving back and forth.
Read more about the history of Singer 15 here.
The serial number beginning with the letter C tells that this machine was made in Germany, at the Wittenberge factory. Unfortunately, the records of that factory haven’t survived, so it is not possible to date the machine exactly. There are some estimated serial number lists online but, according to the Singer Sewing Info, they are not trustworthy.
In the picture above the machine and the table look fine. However, if you looked closer you could see that the veneer was separating from the layers and even the ply-wood needed some glue. The varnish had worn off in many places and was full of nicks and dirt.
The video on YouTube
Restoration and problems I had to overcome with my Singer 15
The video shows the main restoration process but the short video doesn’t really go into details. Just gluing the plywood and the veneer back took perhaps two weeks during which our living room resembled a workshop. Without using instant glue, it would have taken even longer.
The Singer 15 sewing machine
Taking apart the machine took days. Many of the screws were really stuck and I kept adding penetrating oil that slowly worked its way between the bolts and the holes and loosened them. Some screws took several days for me to get out, some remained stuck no matter what I tried and I had to leave them alone before I broke the screw caps completely. I remember fighting with one particular screw for days only to realise that it was a left-handed screw and it opened the opposite way! (It was one of those on the table, in the mechanism that helps to lower the machine down.) I also found joints that needed tapping with a hammer to loosen them. I believe that I just couldn’t figure out all the different ways how to open screws and without a maintenance manual, there was nothing I could do.
The worst thing that happened was this:
The piece on the right belonged to the Singer 15. The part was in fact just pushed in place but I didn’t know it. There was a screw end sticking out through the upper hole and I couldn’t open the screw no matter what I tried. Finally, as I tried to use the rest of the part as a leverage, the part broke in two pieces. However, I was in a luck and my old Stoewer sewing machine from 1827 had a similar part the fit to its place. Interestingly the Stoewer part was made thicker around the holes – perhaps I wasn’t the first person to break these. I may still try to find a proper Singer part to my machine but at lest my machine is working now.
Despite never having taken apart a sewing machine, I didn’t find putting it back together especially difficult. I had tried to keep the different assemblies separate when I cleaned them, so I didn’t get any parts mixed up. The only thing that I shouldn’t have done was to use penetrating oil at the parts above the needle. This is because the oil in question was dark in colour and it stained my fabric and my thread when I tested my machine. I had to open up that part of the machine and clean it the second time, now removing the offending oil and replacing it with proper sewing machine oil.
The decals on my machine were in a good shape. I did dab some paint over some tiny holes and scratches. I found that mixing green acrylic paint with gold acrylic paint made a perfect shimmery colour that matched the existing decals.
What about the cabinet? I considered patching the veneer where there were pieces missing but I couldn’t replicate the shade and the texture well enough to make it work so I left the holes in. As the wood behind the veneer is pretty close to the veneer colour the problem areas weren’t too distracting to me.
I tried French polishing the tabletops as they seemed to have had a shiny surface before. However, I settled for brushing varnish onto the cabinet sides and the drawers. Still, a coat of varnish brought out the wood-carved elements very beautifully.
The cabinet surface had a very deep grain structure so, it was a pain to polish. I used a few drops of linseed oil to help with the polishing and diluted the shellac a lot to do it. Still, I believe that even after about two months, the surface isn’t completely dry. If I leave something like a pair of scissors overnight they are just slightly stuck to the surface. Thus, there are some nicks already on the surface but I don’t really care. My purpose wasn’t to make this into a new-looking piece of furniture and I don’t mind little imperfections. However, I am not planning to leave anything heavy on the table surface in the near future so that it can dry in peace.
My new favourite sewing corner
My new (old) machine fits to the corner perfectly. Even better, there’s room for me to store my dressforms and my press buck next to it. In one of the drawers I have an electric motor that I previously used with my Stoewer and if I ever get bored with the treadle, I can always electrify this machine.
The machine is pretty loud but it makes really beautiful stitches. It took me a while to get adjusted to this new way of sewing, though. At first, I tended to try to sew backward, before I learned how to start with the handwheel to give the machine some momentum. I also believe that the flywheel joints have also loosened up with me using the machine and that has helped to make this machine run smoothly. Still, I plan to take the cast iron legs apart and really get those parts cleaned up but I want to do it outside when the weather warms up.
I have been using the machine ever since I got it restored. I only go back to my Bernina when I need to make zigzag as this antique machine only goes straight. This piece of furniture exists only for sewing so that I don’t have to make room for my project every time I’m ready to sew. And the table can be turned up every time someone needs to access the balcony door behind it.
Thank you for reading and see you soon!