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Zen and the art of sewing machine maintenance

June 19, 2011

I’m so giddy right now…although, to be fair, there was a moment last night that called for a lot more zen than I thought I could muster.

Back in April I found this cute little machine on craigslist, and couldn’t pass her up. (Why are machines always female?)  The machine received power – the light came on – but the owners couldn’t make her go.  There wasn’t much testing to be done due to a missing belt, and turning the hand wheel only resulted in about 1/2″ of movement.  They were a bit amazed when I said I wanted to actually sew with it, versus using it as a talking piece/home decor.

Neglected for decades, the owners thought it was simply a table in their parents' house...until they tried to move it and discovered it was heavier than the average end table.

Though labeled Riccar, I know the Japanese machines from this era were basically knock-offs of household brands, marketed with western-sounding names.  (My Kenmore serger is really made by Juki; the practice of licensing still stands.)  In fact, the table my baby sits in has a Stradivaro sticker on the inside, another such brand.  Though it is highly possible the machine is not in its original table.  Anyway, after a lot of googling “Riccar Model 15” to try to find the correct belt size, coming up empty again and again, I determined that my little Ricky is pretty much a Singer 15-90.  Or 15-91.  I don’t remember at this point, and it doesn’t matter…  Did you know there are universal belts?!  They don’t last quite as long, but I just wanted to get this baby running.  In the future, I’ll simply tie a string around where the belt goes & measure in mm to find the correct size.

Oil, universal belt & bobbin winder gasket: three inexpensive items and a little TLC is all Ricky needed. The cracked green gasket is the original.

Stradivaro's the name, deception's the game

So why has it taken me ages to tackle this?  I was apprehensive, if only because I thought I’d find there was something hugely, expensively, mechanically wrong.  After deciding my next garment will be from a true vintage pattern, I knew it needed to be made on my new vintage machine.

Borax (in keeping with the vintage theme) is a miracle worker.  Various parts were soaked in it & water while I brushed & blew out all the dust.  Yet the hand wheel still didn’t move, with maybe an 1/8″ more give.  These things can’t be forced, and when I finally just had at it with the oil, that’s when things started happening!  A little creak here, a rod starting to give there.  It was all very tinman!  I don’t know if a machine can be over-oiled, but I kept squirting liberally on every moving part, and soon enough my hand wheel was spinning!

After a bit more cosmetic cleaning, I put all the parts back in place and wound a bobbin.  It took a bit to get the tension right, but all seemed well with some cursory stitches.  Then, the test of zen:  no matter what I did, the needle thread kept jamming up around the bobbin shuttle and race, sometimes when simply trying to pick up the bobbin thread prior to making a stitch.  Adjust top & bottom tension, re-thread, check needle: no avail.  Walk away, make a phone call, sit down again: she’s sewing!  Without a single adjustment, Ricky just decided to work.  Or I had worked enough of the kinks out.  Whatever the case, I haven’t had much trouble since.

I do think the timing may be slightly off, and the upper tension is pretty finicky.  Also, silk thread was a no-go entirely, and I can’t quite understand why.  I absolutely love the mechanical sound this machine makes.  It’s so much nicer than the whine of my Singer (however, a one-step buttonhole feature will always be useful).  In the video, it’s a bit clangy at first, but has since settled into a nice rhythm. The stitches are pretty, and it feels nice to run.  Though the knee pad is going to have to go.  I have a nasty bruise on my right leg, and no amount of wrapping the knee pedal helps.  I prefer to sit centered in front of the needle, anyway, so re-wiring it into a foot pedal will get me back into my preferred stitching position.

I love tinkering.  This has left me recalling those sunny summer weekends of my adolescence, which were somehow simultaneously lazy and productive.  Me hanging out with my stepdad as he worked in his wood shop or on a vehicle.  It never seemed like much was actually happening, but a few hours later, some tangible proof appeared: a spalted maple jewelry box, a running engine.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Angela permalink
    May 3, 2012 8:43 pm

    Hi!!! I have the same sewing machine that you have but no manual… Is there anyway that you can make a tutorial about how to use it or what are the numbers? I’ve never used this kind of sewing machine (too “fancy” for me)

    Thanks!!!

  2. Nichole Opstad permalink
    June 16, 2014 5:22 pm

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!! I was helping a friend who inherited this same machine from an elderly family member. We were completely baffled by the fact that we couldn’t in today’s internet age find a manual on line. I stumbled on to your post and was happy to read about your discovery that the machine is essentially the same as the Singer 15-90. Problem solved!!!! Manual acquired and now she is ready to sew!

  3. Sharon permalink
    July 3, 2014 8:52 am

    I have the same machine…give to me by my aunt’s mother. Had her in the shop and runs well. I would LOVE to have a manual also. I searched and search also. Good to know she’s a singer knock-off. Love this little machine.

    • Sharon permalink
      July 3, 2014 8:53 am

      Also…loved your story. I’m a tinker-er too!
      Thanks!

  4. gary permalink
    September 17, 2014 5:39 pm

    any one know what they are worth

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