A (Not so) Brief Guide to Free Motion Quilting with
Vintage Singer Sewing Machines
I'm making a bit of an assumption here that you know WHAT "free motion" quilting is - but a quick definition is the use of the sewing machine to quilt together the layers of the quilt - top, batting, and backing - without the use of the machine's "feed dogs" which pull the work (fabric) through the machine normally to make a straight stitch. With the feed dogs (those little teeth under the foot of the machine) covered or disabled (lowered), you are free to move the quilt under the needle, as one would use a pencil on paper, to "draw" the stitching in whatever design one wishes. Imagine if you could draw on paper by holding a pencil static over a piece of paper - and make the mark of the pencil by moving the paper - rather than the pencil - this is the same technique only using your machine with needle, thread and fabric instead of a pencil!
Finishing a quilt was once generally considered "properly done" only if done by hand. But finishing a quilt (sewing together the top, batting and backing) by machine probably was one of the first things done with the invention of the sewing machine in the 1850's. Hard to even imagine, but before the advent of the sewing machine, the busy homemaker ALSO had to sew every BIT of her home linens and clothing BY HAND!!! By 1900, millions of sewing machines were in homes throughout America, and no doubt by that time millions of quilts had already been under the harp of that earliest and most popular of sewing machines - a Singer!
So where are all those old machine stitched quilts? Those machine made quilts were consigned largely to utility uses, loved and used to death. Quilts entered into the state fair or a national show would never have been machine quilted - it just was against "the rules"...and these very special heirlooms were cared for and honored - and these are the quilts we see today held up as examples of the "best" of the quilter's art!
Well, those rules are out the modern window (thank goodness!) and now, some of the most prestigious of quilt shows (International Quilt Festival in Houston, and the AQS show in Paducah) have actually been dominated by fabulously machine quilted works - at both shows in 2006, gorgeous machine quilted works by Sharon Schamber won Best of Show in BOTH contests! Most of the quilting done on these quilts is done with the hand guided, free motion quilting technique - althought those were both done on a commercial "long arm quilt". The good news is You can acheive very similar results on a houshold sewing machine!
So... now that we know it's "OK" to finish your quilt by machine, WHY should you quilt with a vintage sewing machine (other than the fact that this is one of the original and BEST ways to finish a quilt quickly and easily)?
There are several reasons:
- LARGER under arm space (harp) than modern machines: typically 7" across the bed from needle to pylon (that upright on the right side with the badge in front) and a good 4-5 inches in height. Some modern machines barely have 4" to work with. This allows you to fit and work with larger quilts than you can deal with with most modern machines.
- Feed Dog Drop for free motion quilting on many models. The Singer 201, and the "15" series (15-88, 15-90, and 15-91) all have simple mechanisms for dropping feed dogs via a thumb screw located just under the bed in front. (See excerpt below from Singer manual)
- The Heavy Weight of the machine allows you to move the quilt around without fear of the machine moving around if you are going to work on a tabletop. Original Singer Cabinets provide an even better stability for free motion work
- PRICE and AVAILABILITY! (This may be your #1 reason!)... For under $300.00 or less you can find a restored, re-wired Vintage Singer machine that you can devote completely to free motion and walking foot quilting (what's walking foot quilting?)! Saving your modern "fancy" machine for piecing, clothing construction or decorative sewing!
WHAT MODELS are the "best"? (My top 5 list)
This is MY list, with my favorites gained from experience, my first machine quilted work was in about 1973, when I quilted a "trip around the world" quilt on mom's old Singer Slant-o-matic Model 503 - with no walking or darning foot! I've been restoring vintage sewing machines since 1999, and still quilting by machine, but with a lot more knowledge that makes my quilting easier and more enjoyable! You can see that first quilt on my Blog! at - karenquiltslife at Blogspot.
- SINGER model 15-91 and 15-90. Classic Singer Dressmakers, Heavy (27 pounds), literally a million (probably more) of these were made by Singer from the late 1930's until the early 1960's... so they are easy to find (not at all RARE as some would say!). These models have Singer's classic, and MUCH COPIED size 15 oscillating hook mechanism - the bobbin case loads to the left side, with access from the top via a sliding plate, or from underneath if your cabinet allows. BOTH machines have easy feed dog drop via a thumb screw under the bed as shown in the illustration from the manual page shown a the end of this guide. You CAN put these into a modern plastic case (available from Walmart) and operate them on a kitchen table or (better) put them into a vintage dressmaker cabinet - Singer model 42 is my favorite. These both take a readily available size 15 bobbin, and the bobbin case allows easy adjustment (need small, small screwdriver!) to handle all types and sizes of thread. This machine is versatile, and VERY adaptable to varied threads, and fabrics. Does wonderful "bobbin work" too - with heavy thread in the bobbin and light thread up top - working upside down! This hook mechanism is SO good, that it is to this day still the mechanism you will find in today's most expensive and best sewing machines - from the Juki TL98 to many of Bernina's models! The 15-91 is DIRECT GEARED, with the motor energy transferred to the machine's top and bottom end mechanics via steel gears... it runs quiet and very, very trouble free. In the years I've been restoring these machines, I've NEVER seen a stripped gear on even the most used and abused machine! The 15-90 or 15-88 (older) models are BELTED, which only means you'll need to replace that belt once in a blue moon. Actually they run quieter - no gear noise! I don't really see a lot of difference in either model for free motion work. If you try to do heavy sewing (denim, light decorator work) with the belted models, you may have more difficulty. Not an issue for quilting! The belted machine does make just a bit more noise due to the belt - also not an issue IMHO!
- SINGER model 201 - A top drop in bobbin, with a built in bobbin case makes this a VERY easy to use machine. This bobbin/hook mechanism is a style 66 - called a "rotary" hook. These bobbins are also still readily available at craft and fabric shops.You do give up a bit of versatility with this machine (compared to the 15 above). But, if you don't plan to do a lot of heavy thread work with metallic or heavy (30 or heavier) weights of thread, and like the ease of a drop in bobbin - you'll love it. Because this bobbin lays flat the top thread has to make one extra "turn" when making a stitch - which the 15 models don't, which can create some problems (loopie top or bottom stitches) with some threads. I just don't feel it's as "forgiving" of odd sized threads as the 15... but many women enjoy using this machine for quilting... so decide for yourself. This machine also has easy feed dog drop mechanism, the same as the 15.
- SINGER model 66 - These heavy duty machines are the "budget" sister to the Singer 201, and are an older design. These do NOT have a feed dog drop mechanism. So you either must REMOVE the feed dogs (just remove the screws holding them on) OR make a "cover" out of a square of template plastic and tape in place over the needle plate and over the dogs. Be sure to put a small smooth hole with a 1/16th inch hole punch for the needle to go into. This can be a bit inconvenient, if you make the cover too large - as you'll have to remove it every time you need to change the bobbin! Older, pre-WWII models do NOT have reverse stitching (both of the above machines do), though it's not needed for free motion work, this might be an inconvenience if you use it for piecing or regular sewing. To make a "back tack" you just raise the pressure foot, pull the work toward you a stitch or to, and then run another couple of stitches over the previous stitch - this is how it was done originally. Because these machines are less popular, they can usually be picked up on eBay (or a garage sale) for under $100.00!
- Singer 401, 403, 500, 503 (the SLANT-O-MATICS). These machines were introduced in the 1950's and available into the early 1960's. The have a different design to the pressure foot and needle bar - which is placed on a slant, away from the user - allowing a bit more visibility to the sewing surface - nice! They do have the size 66 rotary hook mechanism, feed dog drop, and some models have cam stacks with decorative stitching! They are all aluminum bodied machines, so are lighter than the cast iron models above... and some may not fit in standard cabinets... check the base size carefully against any cabinet you consider. Because they are lighter, they will work better if mounted in a cabinet! I like these machines better for dressmaking - My top two choices above will make your quilting easier!
- Singer 31-15 - A TRUE Industrial/commercial machine. Not for the faint of heart or physique - Weighing in at over 60 pounds, this machine MUST be mounted in a commercial table, and will operate BEST when set up as designed, with an industrial 1/4 or 1/3 HP motor. Feed Dogs can be adjusted down with a screwdriver. I am now using one of these, after years of using a 15-91. It runs much faster than my old 15, and so you must use caution... as a true industrial, it handles much differently than a household machine, needs regular(daily) oiling, and you can run it through a finger in a heartbeat!! But, the additional harp space and faster speed will put your quilting into a professional league and speed your work tremendously... the harp space is 10-1/2" inches from needle to pylon base and 6"inches from base to under arm! Plan on spending $500 and up for machine, motor, table and accessories which will weigh in excess of 200 pounds unpackaged.
- Japanese CLONE of the Singer 15 (GASP!). After WWII, as part of the economic restoration of Japan, many items formerly manufactured in the US were made in Japan to kick start their manufacturing base, which was seriously damaged by the war. Almost EVERY one of the machines made in the early Toyota and other factories were EXACT copies of the great Singer model 15 machines! Japan has a great history of craftsmanship, and many of these machine made by the millions in the 50's and 60's are GEAT machines - a little known secret of the sewing machine business! So... if you can't afford a vintage Singer right now, you can find these models out there for much, much less (maybe as low as $25.00 or less for an unrestored machine). Some of the brands are ATLAS (came in pink!), MORSE, MITSUBISHI and many, many others. Many department stores had machines made with their name decaled on them by these companies! Since these are copies of the Singer model 15 series, most Singer parts will fit them too - all are low, straight shank machines.
NOTICE that I did NOT recommend that you quilt with your SINGER 221 FEATHERWEIGHT, or it's big sister, the Singer 301! These are lovely portables, but too lightweight at less than 12 pounds, and with not nearly enough harp space to handle anything but a small (45" square or less) quilt. YOU CAN quilt with them, they DO a wonderful job... but just aren't practical for large quilts. My mom (and dad) always taught me to use "the best tool for the job - and the job will go faster"... and that is why I don't recommend this machine for quilting large (or small even) quilts! It is best used for the lovely piecing and classroom use is it now revered for! Don't wear out your dainty Featherweight trying to muscle a large quilt through it!
What do I need besides a machine?
I recommend three items:
- QUILTING FOOT (also called hopping, darning or embroidery foot). I prefer an all metal foot, but one with some plastic is acceptable. They can be found for $9 - $20.00 on eBay.
- QUILTING GLOVES I like the gloves I sell in my store, Atlas nitrile gloves, which are cotton knit cloves with a nice smooth rubberized, non-latex, nitrile coating on the palm and fingertips, but you may which to try several types to find the best for you. Some women report good results just cutting of the fingertips of regular latex dishwashing gloves! Adding a bit of "GRIP" to your fingers and hands will make free motion quilting easier, and reduce wear and tear on your joints!
- THREAD STAND - Because you will be sewing at a faster than normal speed, the uneven pull of thread from a spool mounted on the spool pin on top of your machine can create uneven stitching or tension. Putting your thread spool on a thread stand (be sure it's far to the rear/right side of your machine away from your work!), will provide even feeding of the thread for consistent stitches!
TIPS on Free Motion Quilting with your Singer:
- PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT! As with learning to use any tool, practice is necessary for success! Buy a bolt of muslin, and make up Ten - 44" inch square quilt sandwiches... then practice daily. Try various threads, different needles (I like Schmetz Quilting needles, usually in size 14 - but use the proper size to fit your thread!), and different feet. Experiment with different patterns... RELAX and take it easy... put on some soothing music if needed. No one will be grading your work... it's just you and your machine. When you are done with the TEN squares (no matter how long it takes... no rush -how about one every other day?), you will be an expert! Make up 10 more, and keep them handy to use to get "in the mood" every time you start a new project. You can also use these to insure that any excess oil is off the machine before you start your work.This can also help you adjust the machine for the quilt you will be working on.
- READ up on Machine Quilting, there are some wonderful books out there that will all apply to using your vintage SINGER. Here are my three favorite books: 1) Heirloom Machine Quilting by Harriet Hargrave, Professional Machine Quilting by Carol A. Thelen, and Easy Machine Quilting from Rodale Press - this books has 12 easy "lessons". MANY professional, nationally known quilters use (or have used in the past - til their prize winnings allowed them to afford Berninas!) vintage Singers for quilting: among them: John Flynn and Paula Nadelstern
- JOIN your local Quilt Quilt and learn from the BEST quiltmakers in town! Many quilt guilds offer free or low cost workshops on a regular basis to help further knowledge of quilting techniques!
- QUILT COMFORTABLY Use a good quality office chair with a lift to adjust your seating so you can sit with arms comfortably arranged at a right angle to your body - resting comfortably on the work. You shouldn't have reach "up" or lean "Down" into your work. If you are vertically "challenged" like me, and your sewing surface is too high. Put your foot controller up on a stool so you can reach it easily - the important thing is not to have your work seem to be above your elbows! If you are uncomfortable, you'll never GET comfortable with the process. Back, Elbow or neck pain after quilting is a sure sign that you need to adjust your set up for a better working position.
Karen show's her form at the 15-91.
HELPFUL HINTS for BUYING a VINTAGE MACHINE on EBAY:
You already know how to buy on eBay and check for good buyers using feedback profiles, and read descriptions right? But here are a couple of things you should look for when buying a machine for free motion work:
- Has the machine been restored to good working use?
- Has the power cord been re-wired from motor plug to controller and wall plug? If is hasn't, PLEASE have this done by your local electrician or sewing machine shop BEFORE you attempt to use the machine. 30-50 year old wiring is NOT safe! PLEASE SEW SAFELY!
- Does the machine show a SAMPLE of free motion work and stitches?
- Does the FEED DOG DROP really work (ask the seller!)
- Does the seller know how to SAFELY package these Heavy, but VERY FRAGILE machines! They may look HEAVY DUTY, but in fact the cast iron or aluminum is VERY BRITTLE, and won't survive a drop or hard knock. They MUST be packaged with bubble wrap, then closed cell type foam (like in a computer or appliance package), then a heavy box. I like to double box my machines for absolute safety...
- BE SURE the seller provides INSURED shipping... even the best packaged machine may not survive that throw down off the truck - or when the truck backs over it (it happens!), and be sure you understand your seller's return and/or damaged shipping policies.
- Obtain a copy of the manual (if not sold with the machine - it should be!), and FOLLOW MAINTENANCE/OILING directions! I oil my machine (a single drop everywhere metal moves against metal) after EVERY 8 hours of use. Store indoors, away from any source of moisture - (NEVER on a FLOOR - even carpeted one!), on a shelf - and your machine will last a lifetime. If you don't want to do your own maintenance, an annual visit to your local SINGER dealer will do the job nicely! A copy of the manual is as good as the original - the information is key!
If you buy on eBay, know that careful packaging with insured shipping will likely cost you $40-60.00, (about $1.00 a pound) and a restored, re-wired machine is preferred... any machine older than 30 years old SHOULD be RE-WIRED at least from motor plug block to foot pedal and wall. (did I already say this - it's IMPORTANT!)
Thanks for visiting my Guide to Free Motion Quilting with Vintage Singer Sewing Machines, I hope this was helpful and that MANY quilts will be made under your able hands and with your reliable Vintage SINGER! Feel free to drop me a line via the eBay messaging system anytime by visiting KarenQuiltsTexas store, just click on CONTACT SELLER on any one of my items. Visit my ABOUT ME page to see a picture of me at work HAND quilting (another addiction!), and read it thoroughly to get something FREE from me!
PIECE and HAPPY SEAMS to all!