Sunday, January 23, 2011

Restoring Cleopatra

My sewing machine died. It was a fancy computerized electronic thing that could do everything except serve you breakfast in bed. I'd used it several years, sewing many miles of stitches from basic repairs to outfitting the Anson High School Show Choir. The past two weeks, it has been languishing in a sewing machine repair shop, while the repairman searches for a tiny part that is as difficult to find as a pair of Birkenstocks on the rack in Walmart. Like many products made in the past several years, I'm sure it was designed to be replaced instead of repaired.

Meanwhile, I wanted to sew.

While I was stuck inside during the recent icy weather, it occurred to me that I had another sewing machine. It was an old treadle Singer that I bought for $35 at an estate auction. It had belonged to my great-great-aunt Mary Austin. Her sister, Emma, was my Grandma Eula Belle's mother. When I purchased the machine about 25 years ago, it was still threaded, as though Aunt Mary had been sewing on it that day -- only she died several years earlier. I brought it home and played with it a bit, even making a pair of curtains and using the ruffling attachment. Then the belt broke and I just used it as a table.

I rolled the machine into the spare room and opened it up. Made of cast iron and chrome, it was a workhorse. About 40 years' accumulation of dust and grime blanketed the machine. The entire thing was black, though I could see faint traces of the original gold decals and a glint of silver chrome here and there. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work, using an old toothbrush and some kerosene to try to dissolve years of built-up grime. Soon, the old machine began to gleam. The gold design turned out to be a Sphinx -- I learned that was a very popular design when these machines were made. Eventually I could make out the serial number, and a little online detective work determined that the machine was made in 1921.

After the cleaning, I used a bit of wax to polish and protect the machine. Now it was time to see if she'd still run! I had to get a few new parts -- thank God for the internet! A new belt, a rubber ring for the bobbin winder, a handful of bobbins, and a front throat plate all arrived right on my doorstep within a couple of days. A few squirts of machine oil here and there, and it was time to put her to the test.

After some practice runs, I could operate the treadle. I've relied on electricity with my other machines. A bit more coordination is necessary to rock that pedal and guide the fabric under the needle!

She sewed like a charm, with even stitches and equal tension. It was as though she'd been sewing every day for the past 90 years without a break. Together we pieced six quilt blocks, using some vintage scraps my mom found in my grandma Eula Belle's belongings.

I named her Cleopatra, because of the Sphinx design. Restored to her former glory, she is most deserving of such a regal name!

As I wound the bobbin and threaded the old machine today, my mind wandered through time. I could imagine my great-great aunt Mary, sitting down at that very same machine when it was shiny bright and new, threading it just as I was doing. I thought about all the dresses she made, the garments she'd patched to make them last just a little longer, the quilt tops she'd pieced together with scraps. Did she ever imagine that her sister's great-granddaughter would one day treasure that machine, and sew on it in the next century? I wondered if my sister's great-granddaughter or maybe even my own great-granddaughter might sew on it, ninety years from now.

And the treadle rocked, the shuttle flew back and forth, and the needle punched through the fabric of time, joining the generations together.

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