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Dec 30, 2010

Resisting Sewing Obsession

Readers, as you can see, I now have my Pfaff 30 here at home in its original table.  I am so into this machine.  We have an incredible physical connection.

But it's not perfect.

And friends, this is where I need your help.  You know how you've helped me get past some of my former obsessions, like fitting my self-drafted bodice and living with the natural drape of my wool melton toggle coat?  Well now I need to learn how to live with a vintage sewing machine that isn't quite at its physical peak though definitely possessing all the potential to get there.

The belt, one of those stretchy tube-like ones, while still basically intact, could probably be replaced.  I can do that easily.

Tinkering with belts of late, I have learned to my surprise that belts often do better looser rather than tighter, as a tight belt can strain the motor.  That adjustment definitely helped in the case of the Pfaff 30. 

BTW, have I showed you my knee pedal?  I love not having to deal with one more pedal on the floor.  When I first attached it it seemed oddly high until I remembered that that lever part swings down.  Duh.  (I was like, Did women sew in high heels or something so their knees were up higher...?)

Then there's the subject of cleaning.  OK, here's the deal: while I am willing to douse my sewing machines with enough sewing machine oil to give them acne, I draw the line at kerosene.  Those inclined toward the mechanical -- Debbie, Susan -- certainly know about kerosene.  It's sort of like gasoline, and in some parts of the world is used as a fuel source, and it's supposed to be incredibly effective at dissolving old grease,  unsticking frozen gears, and killing head lice (I'm not kidding).  But its smell is easily absorbed into just about everything and once you have that smell in your house, fuggitabout it -- you have to move.

Now I do have a balcony where I could work but right now it's covered with about ten inches of snow and it's freezing outside.  I actually do own a liter of kerosene -- it was recommended in my old Elna Grasshopper instruction manual to use as a lubricant -- which has been sitting on a shelf on the balcony; it's recommended you don't even store the stuff in your house.

Even the plastic container the kerosene comes in stinks -- think gas station mixed with bus exhaust -- and I just don't want to deal with it.  I've read about people soaking entire machine heads in kerosene to thoroughly clean them, but honestly, where do they do this?  Certainly not in their living room.

Frankly, while all my machines could benefit from this sort of cleaning, is it necessary?  When I turn the hand wheels of my Singers, they feel wonderfully free; the Pfaff, a little bit less so.  I've oiled and wiped and oiled again and I think the more I sew on the machine the more things will loosen up -- this was definitely the case for my Singer 15-91 which, as you may recall from my 15-91 video, arrived a little noisy and stiff and now runs like a thoroughbred, even though I never did more than oil it (with plain old Singer sewing machine oil).

I have to remind myself that these machines are here to serve me in my sewing and not me to serve them, though obviously I want to keep my tools in good shape.  I like when vintage machines need a little TLC and it's a great feeling to bring an old machine back to working life, as I did with my Singer 66 treadle.

But they -- like my sewing projects -- don't have to be perfect, right?

I'm also thinking of buying a wire sealant for the old wires in my Singer 15-91 and not replacing all of them right now.  For one thing, as I mentioned the other day, the clutch release wheel is stuck.  It's going to take kerosene to break that down, and I can't rewire the motor without removing the hand wheel (I don't think).  I'll likely replace the light, where the wire deterioration is most evident, with the light that came with my 15-90.  Or not, I don't know.

Friends of an obsessive bent, how do you deal with these moments of compulsive tinkering, be it on a sewing project or maintaining a vintage sewing machine?  Is it best to just go for a swim, clean out a closet, make soup -- anything that takes you away from the obsession du jour?

I think this is why people buy brand new sewing machines.  When they break -- and they will -- you can just throw them away and buy another one.  You can't soak a plastic Brother LS2125 in kerosene, that's for sure. 

 Guys, I need good tips and I need them soon, before I start preparing my kerosene cocktail. (Won't a little lemon juice or apple cider vinegar work just as well?  Hydrogen peroxide and baking soda?)

In closing, do you ever experience sewing obsession?   Do you fuss over invisible zippers that are ever-so-slightly visible?  Do you pick lint out from under your throat plate after every project?  Do you pre-shrink your thread?

Where does it end and why is it worse around the holidays?!  Your wise counsel, please.

A big Pfaff-y hug to you all!


  1. Yuck - I don't blame you from wanting to avoid the kerosene mess.

    My suggestion is to bite the bullet, and hand the machine over to a repair shop to tune up for you. It'll cost you, but then you'll have a lovely hardworking vintage machine that you can love and care for - and you won't smell like kerosene.

  2. The only thing I have to offer is laughter and appreciation for your sense of humor. I wish you hadn't mentioned pre-shrinking thread.

    I had to go back to work on Monday and it was my first day back after vacation, so it was very busy. Three days of being really busy at work did seem to balance me out a little bit.

    So, OK, I'll offer my opinion - hand it over to a repair shop and pay them to smell like kerosene. That is such an adorable machine, it is making me a weeeee bit jealous.

  3. Peter, I feel for you. Recently I bought a Bernina 740, similar to the more popular Bernina 730 but with a more powerful motor and is a flatbed (which I prefer). I thought I was buying my dream machine. The problem is, it was well-used and rarely serviced, and now every bit of it needs to be readjusted. Because it's a metal machine, built before computerization, it *can* be readjusted and tuned up, but it's a daunting task.

    Do I take it to a technician and tell him to work his magic (while bracing myself for a nasty repair bill)? Or do I work my way through? I didn't think the committment aspect of this new love affair would raise its ugly head before I'd enjoyed the honeymoon stage....

  4. Oh it's so pretty, and the table is so compact and perfect!

    Doesn't blogging about compulsion temporarily cure one of it? If not, the perfect anecdote to obsession is shoveling snow. I shoveled the garbage cans free of snow yesterday, and it left me clear-headed as can be!

  5. "Those inclined toward the mechanical -- Debbie, Susan -- certainly know about kerosene."

    Debbie Me? Yes, I know about it, but I've never touched the stuff - for exactly the reasons you state. Except for the cold and 10 inches of snow. ;-)

    I did exactly what is advised by "experts" NOT to do when I was cleaning up my 66 treadle. I used WD40.

    I also used Sun & Earth All Purpose Cleaner because it's great (green) stuff, and it smells a whole lot better than kerosene too. ;-) I used S&E dish soap & water with a soft toothbrush over the decals, with wonderful results. My treadle was covered in icky when I got it, but the above and elbow grease was all it needed.

    After all was clean, I wiped the solvents and cleaners away really well with clean rags and q-tips and oiled the heck out of the machine innards with sewing oil. And I keep it oiled now, even though I haven't been using it much. Maybe *especially* because I haven't been using it much.

    I did essentially the same thing with my Featherweight, but not quite as heavy duty a treatment since it was mostly dusty and not gunky.

    For my other vintage machines, they just got a wipe down with the S&E cleaner and then lots of oil.

    Dousing with sewing machine oil and just letting it sit for a few hours or overnight will work wonders too. It took years for the build-up. It's going to take more than a few minutes to loosen back up.

    Does that help? Or confuse things more?

  6. Peter, you can clean your sewing machine without kerosene. I thoroughly cleaned my 15-91, 201, and others without it. I can't abide the smell of kerosene. I think as long as the machine moves you can do without it; it's definitely for machines that are frozen. Try cleaning everything meticulously with the oil and whatever helps (rags, toothbrushes, skewers).

    Also, you can rewire the 15-91 without removing the handwheel. There's a gear behind it --which might need cleaning if you can get to it, but as long as the machine is running good don't worry about it. To get to the motor remove the potted motor cover. I can do some photos of this on my blog if you need a visual. If you are going to keep sewing on the 15-91 but not rewiring yet you might want to wrap some of those wires in the tape as you mentioned --your photos of it looked so unsafe though! It sounds like your going to be playing with the Pfaff for now though. It's a beauty!

  7. Oh, Debbie posted at the same time and I see she didn't use kerosene either!

  8. On one of the boards someone said that lamp oil is kerosene without the smell. I bought some, and it does not smell bad, but it is not magically dissolving gunk like I hoped it would. I've never used kerosene (for all the reasons you mentioned) so I can't compare them.

    What I CAN recommend is Liquid Wrench. Apparently it is just oil with smaller molecules, so it can sneak into places that sewing machine oil can't penetrate. It is also reported not to leave a residue.

    Spray the heck out of the innards, turn or run it a bit, wait a few hours, repeat. This has worked very well for me and freed up several frozen machines.

    I'm very envious of your Pfaff. I recently bought a Lady Kenmore 89, which is identical to a Pfaff 280 and made by the same manufacturer in West Germany in the 50's. Sweet machine. And yesterday I got a Singer 15-91 based on many rave reviews, including yours. I'll be field testing it today.

    happy sewing

  9. Unable to comment on the cleaning - however, the bit about obsessing over sewing . . . well, I think we all have been pricked by that! This year I am going to try and refocus my obsession of sewing from accumulation to production! We shall see if I can teach this old dog 'me' some new tricks!

  10. Peter, there is a Yahoo group called wefixit. Lots of files with that group, and they created another group, I think called mechfiles, for even more files of information. All about taking care of sewing machines. Check with them. If there is a shortcut for someone without a garage/barn to work in, they will know.

  11. I'm only mildly embarrassed to admit that I've used both SimpleGreen (as a degreaser) and tri-flow (a penetrating lubricant with teflon in it) on one of my machines. Worked like a charm, just like on my derailleurs. I can't quite bring myself to apply anything but oil to my beloved treadle though.

    I also second DragonPoodle on the liquid wrench, but use it only where you need it--it's powerful stuff!

  12. Too funny! I'm never able to redirect obsession. Every attempt at doing so ends up being a delaying tactic. I have used kerosene and it works wonders on a machine. Drench it liberally, plug it in and run it for 5 minutes at full speed. At about 3 or 4 minutes you can hear the tone of the machine change as it frees itself up. After that, lube it with Triflow or Marvel Mystery Oil that I get at Walmart in the automotive section. Marvel has a tropical pineapple coconuty kind of smell that makes it almost pleasant to smell on a daily basis.

    I use K-1 grade kerosene which has much less odor than standard kerosene. As for Liquid Wrench it is mostly just kerosene in a can.

    I'm lucky to have a garage, I couldn't see myself dousing and running a sewing machine for five minutes in freezing temps outside. Does your building have a laundry or storage room? Maybe a late night foray into those spaces is in order. Ha!

  13. Rick, how would you like to come for a visit? LOL

  14. Ohh that Pfaff is just gorgeous. As for the kerosene, I don't think you need it. Doesn't it remove ALL the lubricant so you have to really douse it with oil when you're done using it ? I usually use Tri-Flo and heat for things that are stuck, even then I try to oil it outside. Maybe you could just douse it in sewing machine oil and put it somewhere nice and warm for a bit-- something like a vacation at the beach for a sewing machine-- then take a rubber mallet to it.

  15. Peter, dear, you really need to pay attention to ergonomics or that back of yours will have reason to complain again. With that front panel on the cabinet, what do you do with your knees? And that stool, oh my, no lower back support? Because I don't want to be reading again that your back is giving you grief, pay attention to how you sit.

  16. oops, missed the door that opens. OK, back to the stool . . .

  17. Hi Peter,
    I use Simply Green a household environmentally friendly cleaner similar to Fantasic, dishsoap and an aerosol spray can of Rust Check. The Rust Check is like Tri-Flo. After a good cleaning I lubricate everything with Singer sewing machine oil. I bought the Rust Check in the automotive section of a department store. It is a greasy oil with almost no smell at all. Also try heat and sewing machine oil on frozen metal parts as the metal warms up it expands then the oil can leak into the ceased up area. I followed Ed's instructions here:
    I think the stool should be replaced with a chair that has a solid back support.

  18. You probably do have to use kerosene on some of these things. But please wait till the snow melt, snd do it on the balcony. I was once part of a study about asthma and kerosene heaters and.. well, let's just say you don't want any of this stuff in your house. In fact, you shouldn't have it on your balcony either, can't you go to the country for a weekend and do it all somewhere like that?

    But I have to say that if a machine of mine needed something that heavy, it'd have to find a better home.. They are in fact here to serve you, and not the opposite.

  19. I clean the lint out of the machine whenever I change the bobbin thread. How did you know? But as for major tune-ups, I visit my buddy Bob at the Pfaff dealership and he fixes all.
    I have a strict no-kerosene policy

  20. That is a dream vintage machine. I am not knowledgable about doing the maintenance but I never hear anyone mention the tubes of lubricant that singer used to sell for the gears inside the machine. On my 1970s singer I used to have that was part of the periodic maintenance in addition to regular oiling.The manual had you remove the bottom cover and squirt the grease into the gears as you manually turn them with the hand wheel. I was told that the singer lubricant or solid grease lasted lots longer than the oil and the gears need it to keep down excessive wear. Don't give up until you get that machine perfect -it is a real treasure you have found. mssewcrazy

  21. Hi peter,I have 2 hobbies that are sooooo not similar,one is sewing and the other is riding motorcross.Instead of the kero,maybe you could try some engine degreaser,it doesn't smell(I use it in my kitchen too) and works like a charm you can find it at any auto store and it is really cheap

  22. Hi, I've been a lurker for some time now (do enjoy your blog). When I lived in PA, I took my older sewing machines to Hinkletown Sewing Repair in Ephrata, PA. Mr Zimmerman is extremely reasonable - my featherweight (bought at auction) received a new light and new cord and the grand total was a little over forty dollars. We spent the day shopping/thrifting in the area and were so surprised to receive the phone call that it was ready later that same afternoon. She runs extremely well now. It is worth a trip to Amish country. He is only open until noon on Saturday (I think) and closed on Sunday. They tell you the machine may take up to 3 days for repair- but that was never the case for me. He also sells used machines - all serviced and ready for a new home. Good luck, Bev

  23. Hi Peter,
    Love your blog. That is a beautiful machine! I have been able to loosen stuck clutches and screws by using heat. Add machine oil, Tri-flow, or spray some PB Blaster (found in auto supply stores AND not too smelly) directly to the screw and to the clutch release area. Then, apply heat with a hair dryer on the hot setting for a couple of minutes. After applying heat, lightly tap the area with a small piece of wood or mallet. Take your time and repeat as necessary. It will eventually loosen.

  24. I am SO jealous of the knee thingy on your new table. I learned to sew using a table with one of them. I LOVE LOVE LOVE them. I had to remove the knee lift thing on my Bernina because I kept wanting to use it as the gas.

  25. I found a tube of singer sewing machine lubricant at Joannes, it's thicker than the machine oil, sort of a honey color too. Anyway, it's still available. They have oil in bottles as well, they aren't the same.

  26. I think your main problem is the approach of trying to clean the machine without disassembling it. Yes, if you flood it with a strong enough solvent/cleaner, and run it long enough, you can remove most of the dirt, grime and baked-on crud that prevents smooth operation.

    On the other hand, were you to take your machine apart, each component could be easily cleaned with almost any cleaner and a little elbow grease. While this approach is more tedious, you would gain a much greater appreciation of the working of your sewing machine. However, you would need to document the process with lots of pictures and learn how to set the timing of the machine, which would not be such a bad thing to learn anyway.

  27. I wouldn't worry about kerosene either. It's not nice trying to relax and sew when there's that smell about...

    My treadle was frozen, but I managed to get it unstuck with lots and lots and lots of oil. Took me forever, though. I completely agree with Susan - toothbrushes, rags and skewers help!

  28. Hi Peter!

    I am in a vintage machine forum and there they use PB Blaster to free machines. I can not tell you more, because I do not know American products and I was lucky to buy machines in perfect clean condition. So, they just need some oil and cleaning from time to time.

  29. Here's what I use, Peter. Diluted dish soap-maybe 10% soap-for all painted parts. This works great if you don't know the composition of the paint, so while I use windex on some, windex will eat the decals. Q-tips and alcohol on everything else. Now, that stuck clutch. Try heating it with a hair dryer. This melts the old dried grease that's turned to glue. Happy sewing!

  30. I am currently in the process of de-gunking my Necchi machines. The folks on the Necchi yahoo group recommend isopropyl alcohol (as Jeff described, with Q-tips--lots and lots of Q-tips) for the interior. I'm using a 99% solution and it is very effective at removing dried up oil, and it does not smell. Then sewing machine oil on all the moving parts.

    I don't have any old black decaled machines, so I can't comment on cleaning the exterior.

  31. As a small scale alternative for alcohol-based things, my other half swears by lighter fuel for getting off stickyness. The best bit is you can buy it in tiny squirty cans, so no need to store it on the balcony.

  32. I haven't read all the comments, but amnonia is a good de-greaser. And cheap, and useful for other things, and doesn't stink too bad. Goo Gone also works, and Zep Heavy Duty Degreaser (Home Depot; very concentrated!) is another favourite. I haven't cleaned a machine with any of them though.

  33. Sewing obsession...yes. I do that. Especially on things I'm having trouble with. Rob knows when I say "I will not let this beat me", we're having sandwiches for supper. Take care and hope you're enjoying your new machine. She's a beauty and I usually start with the least invasive and if, over time, that doesn't work, I can always do more. But, I've not had to use kerosene yet. Take care. Lane

  34. I have cleaned several sewing machines using isopropyl alcohol and q-tips, then oiling copiously with sewing machine oil. I have also used a hair dryer and a small ceramic heater to help the process along. No need for the big guns. I have used both simple green and Formula 409 on the outside, be careful of decals and test in an inconspicuous spot first. I have just ordered some TR-3 Resin glaze to try for cleaning the outside of the machine - many vintage sewers swear by this product. I don't know which is more fun, working on the machines or sewing. I enjoy your blog immensely. Jane

  35. Hello Peter, have you managed to un-stick the clutch wheel on your 15-91? I myself have three 15-91s, have encountered the same problem and have discovered a little trick to undo it without chemicals. If you need I'd be more than happy to swing by and take a look (I'm downtown), but if your schedule's tricky I can try to describe it in writing.

    Also, please beware of using Tri-Flow oil on the 15-91's grease tubes, as I believe someone recommended, as it contains Teflon that can clog up the felt wicks. Also be cautious of using even 10% dishwashing detergent to clean the exterior, as some brands are harsher than others and may still attack the paint.

    - Rain

  36. Your 30 has similar hook drive as the 130with which I am quite familiar. There is a small gear case behind the hook drive containing two pinion gears. If you haven't opened the case and especially since the machine sat unused for many decades, it undoubtedly contains a mass of congealed grease. After cleaning it out and relubricating with a light grease, you should experience a noticeable improvement in the smoothness of operation. Now, you need a 360 to replace that Viking freearm...

  37. Rain, I'd love to hear what your trick is. Of course, you're also welcome to visit if you wish.

    Thanks for that Pfaff info, David. I'm eager to try it out. Just what kind of grease do I use though?

  38. Peter, my usual practice is to use a kerosene (gasp!) saturated cotton ball to leach out any remaining dried grease, then lubricate with a low viscosity grease. I use "white grease" in a small toothpaste-sized tube, obtained from NAPA auto parts. Some folks swear by Triflow grease. You don't need much - just enough to cover the gears with a light coating. The precise type is not that important, as you'll obviously perform regular maintenance and add/replace as necessary. Also when you put the screws back in, coat them with a light coat as well and don't overtighten, so you can remove them easily (~once per year for me..). These old Pfaff's are long-term partners - I still have my first Pfaff 130, purchased for the princely sum of $2 from the Seattle Goodwill, & have used in regularly for 35 years - it still works like new. Excellent choice Peter.


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