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Jan 30, 2020

Amazing Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Joins the Family!


Friends, something wonderful happened to me last week: I purchased a vintage sewing machine that has stolen my heart.

First, the back story.  Remember the actress who sold me her mother's Pfaff 30 about nine years ago, and who in the last year gifted me her friend's Bernina 830 Record and Bernina 334DS serger?

Well two weeks ago she emailed me again.  She had a small vintage sewing machine that had been gifted to her many years ago but which she knew nothing about but thought might be valuable.  Would I help her sell it and I could keep half of whatever I got for it?  She told me it was a Willcox & Gibbs machine but that was it.  She really doesn't know anything about sewing machines.



I said I'd be happy to help her but I needed to get an idea of what condition it was in, and also, that I'd only be willing to sell it locally as eBay was too much of a hassle with the packing and the shipping.  She was fine with that and we set a time when I could swing by.

Readers, as soon as she opened the carrying case it was love at first sight.  This little machine is truly a marvel.  You may not be familiar with Willcox & Gibbs (I knew nothing about them) but they made a beautifully designed chainstitch sewing machine that was in production from the civil war era through the 1940's with very few changes.


The machines were manufactured by a company in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown & Sharpe, and their ease of use made them very popular.  Willcox & Gibbs later entered the industrial machine market and remained in business until that 1970's. Although the domestic machines were chainstitch only, they came with a host of accessories you'd associate with a lockstitch machine: hemmers, rufflers, gathering feet, etc.




I knew I wanted this machine for myself.  I made my friend an offer (less than a Bernina but more than a Singer) which she happily accepted and the rest is, as they say, history.  I knew the machine ran when I tested it at the apartment, but it wasn't until I brought it home and threaded it correctly that I realized she also sewed perfectly.  She's incredibly quiet.  You can view and hear an early test here (this was before the oiling but you can see how smooth she sews).

This particular machine had been motorized (with a belt and a floor pedal) and mounted in a case.  I suspect this was a service that Willcox & Gibbs offered to owners of treadle models who wanted something more portable.  The motor and carrying case probably date back to the 1940s or early 50's, but based on the serial number on the machine itself (A557815) I believe she dates back to around 1907.

Here is what the chainstitch looks like from the underside (from the top it looks like an ordinary lockstitch).  A little experimenting revealed that Mara 30 thread yields the most attractive stitch, at least with the needle she has now (additional needles can be found on Etsy and eBay--she also came with a few originals).


The manual is available for free from the Smithsonian Library's digital collection and there is some other promotional material available as well, including this lovely brochure from 1924.





I love how they call the seams "correctable" -- i.e., you can pull them right out, but they also talk about how sturdy they are.  I mean, there's a reason why the lockstitch machine ended up dominating the domestic sewing machine market even if it did require winding a bobbin.

This was the first motorized model.

I purchased a self-published book on the Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine on Amazon but there's very little in the book (more of a pamphlet actually) I hadn't already discovered elsewhere on the internet.  A disappointment.

Here are a few more glamour shots.




I would like to use this machine for regular sewing.  If you remove the fabric correctly, the thread on top automatically pulls to the underside and there is very little risk of the seam pulling out.  Again, these machines were meant for regular garment sewing, not just for making pretty decorative stitches.  I'm going to give it a try at some point and see how it goes.

Anybody else ever sew with one of these?  How did you like it and what (if anything) did you make?

Have a great day, everybody!

31 comments:

  1. I have two (one is a handcrank) and use them for making muslins and other fitting garments. The seam is indeed 'correctable', but quite flexible and secure if you secure the stitch. Try it for knits - the chain stitch has lots of give. Wonderful machines - and never a tension issue. The motor set-up on yours is an aftermarket addition/replacement.

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  2. You, my friend, are evil because I WANT one now! LOL

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  3. I have one similar that is a pedal machine

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  4. Wait for me! I NEED one, too! --Erik in NW Ohio

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  5. It's gorgeous! That curved design is beautiful. I had no idea these machines were chain stitch or that such a stitch could be so versatile! Have fun experimenting.

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  6. I understood they were a favorite with hat makers. Cheap compared to other machines, extremely durable. And worked. Nobody ever told me, but I assumed the 'swan's neck" arch was so a hat brim would fit under it easily. I had no idea they were so good at decorative stitching.

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    1. Indeed. They were used to make straw hats.

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    2. Oh this isn't fair. Now I want one! Just a thought..If it was good for straw do you think they were ever used for leather?

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    3. I don't know but that's an excellent question, Valerie.

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  7. Sigh! I am happy enough just to know she is yours now. It's my dream to add a chainstitcher to the family, even an industrial one. I do have the adaptive hardware for the Singer and the Kenmore machines, just in case the planets align. Someday. In the meantime, thanks for this show and tell. DREAMY!

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  8. I would fall for that machine, too! I had no idea these were manufactured into the 40s. The only chainstitch machine I’ve ever sewed with was the tiny toy handcrank one that was my mother’s as a child.

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    1. That had been my exposure to chainstitch machines too: the toys.

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  9. I have a Wilcox & Gibbs lockstitch industrial circa 1928. It still works and roars along at 4,000 stitches per minute. It's belt driven bushing motor is VERY loud. Does leak oil a bit too lol.

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    1. SABLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  10. I've seen one that was a hand crank. Like you, I had an immediate desire to own it, but it was missing parts, and I couldn't figure out where to get replacements. :(

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    1. I've seen some parts available on eBay but they're not as easy to find as, say, parts for a vintage Singer.

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  11. I read your blog this morning in the train going to Boxtel in the south of the Netherlands.We've got two from different companies in our school. One is also from Wilcox and Gibbs and the other one is by Grossmann Dresdensia B. They are used for making strawhats in our lessons hatmaking.

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  12. What a wonderful machine! I really love those decorative chain stitches. I am eager to hear how it works for garment sewing.

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  13. Lucky. When I update my trousers by narrowing the width, I am always grateful to have a chain stitch to open up the side seams versus having to use a seam ripper to get through a regularly stitched seam. I read this post with envy.

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  14. The W&Gs are fun little sewing machines. Your machine has nice decals. Manufacturers used straw hat machines which are different from your model
    I have three machines in three different treadles, a British and American hand crank and a few electrics. The chain stitch is perfect for sewing bias seams as the stitch stretches and does not "pop" like the lock stitch.

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  15. Ah, you have a W and G! I've been sewing on a 1911 Wilcox and Gibbes domestic sewing treadle machine since 2005. I love it dearly and it'll be with me life-long.

    It will go through many layers of stiff, heavy duty fabric at once or through lawn and silk voile, the stitches are precise, and can be sewn in ultr-tiny stitch lengths. The stitches never wander, and the machine is ease itself to thread. I can sew very, very slowly 1/8 or less from the edge of fabric around steep curves without hurting a motor or ending up with any shaky stitches at all.

    W and G accessories are durable and I particularly love the hemmers and tuck-marker, which latter imprints straight lines in fabric so you can make perfect tucks at any thickness you like.

    Needles aren't always easy to find since W and G is gone, and you have to be very careful with the end of your seams: I speak from sad experience. If your electrical cord is fabric-covered, be super-careful because the fabric cord cover is likely to be brittle and frail...

    Wilcox and Gibbes machines are popular among collectors and some Swiss of every type; I am a costumer and a few of us have treadle machines. They're fantastic for creating the detailed garments of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    The Treadle On and ISAACS International organizations both have lots of information about the machines and company, and are a grand source of deep expertise in W and G operation and maintenance and passion for their protection.

    Very best, and happy sewing with a really special machine. Take care of it, and it'll easily last generations longer, provided needles can be found or manufactured!

    Natalie in KY

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    1. Thanks so much for the info, Natalie! I have some extra needles that came with the machine but I noticed there are some people selling needles for W&G machines on Etsy and eBay. They're not original but won't they do?

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    2. Dear Peter Latin,
      They ought to work. Some sewing machine repair shops are familiar with W and G machines and can probably tell you if needles you purchase will fit.

      Say, the Davy Crocket shirt is super!

      Very best,

      Natalie

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    3. Oops, I meant Lapin. Silly spell-check...

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    4. Ugh: so sorry: saw more spell-check-induced errors in the first comment. Meant ISMACS International. Sigh. My apologies...

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  16. Use it for sewing muslins! Pulling out single thread chain stitched seams is fast and SO FUN. It never gets old. I have a couple of sewing machines with chain stitch attachments, and they aren't quite as reliable as I would like, so a dedicated single thread chain stitch machine is on my long term wish list. Even with the hassle of securing the fairly frequent skipped chain stitches on my Singer 411G or Kenmore 158.1756, I still find it worth my time to switch to chain stitches when I am making a muslin.

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  17. GAAAAHHHH!!!! I've been wanting one for quite a while, but the shipping horror stories have put me off on-line purchases. And the ones that DO know what they're doing to pack a machine for shipping ask beyond my budget. So far. Besides, I have several old machines needing my attention already.

    Do you know about the Victorian Sweatshop forum? It's great for all sorts of vintage and antique machine information.

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  18. Brown and Sharpe used to be a highly respected name in machinist/ toolmaker measuring equipment. No wonder it runs well!

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  19. WOW!That machine is in beautiful condition AND you got the instruction manual. Happy stitching!

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