The Needle – where it all Started!

needles1I mentioned at the end of last year that I would like to revisit some of my previous facts of the week and expand on them.  This week,  needles – which were the subject of June 25th’s fact.

One of the reasons the invention of the sewing machine took a relatively long time was because inventors were trying to mimic hand sewing, where the needle passes entirely through the fabric and has its eye at the top end.  Once it was realised that a machine needed to work differently and that the eye should be at the sharp end, all became clearer and easier.


But of course the needle had come through a lot of changes before the sewing machine was even considered.

Interesting facts about needles (yes there are some, honest!):

  • The Spaniards were originally the masters of needle making (probably inheriting the secrets from Islamic needle makers). These were the same skilled artisans who made the famous Toledo swords.
  • The Spanish brought the craft to England in the sixteenth century and until then needles here had been crude and rough, usually made by a blacksmith.
  • The method of drawing the wire to make needles was kept secret, so wire had to be imported to England from Spain
  • The small town of Redditch in Worcestershire became world famous for its high quality, handmade sewing needles
  • In the mid-16th century English craftsmen learned to draw the wire themselves and it was no longer necessary to import it
  • by the 18th century around a million needles a year were being manufactured here.
  • By 1824 around five million needles were being hand made in the Redditch area per week and by the time of the industrial revolution, with its machinery and new methods, this number increased to 50 million.
  • At this time there were no other countries producing needles, which meant that most of the sewing carried out anywhere in the world utilised an English needle
  • Once Elias Howe had invented the sewing machine, it was of course necessary to manufacture needles for the device.  American manufacturers began to take up the challenge
  • Wire was imported to America from England until the 1880s, when Massachusetts and Pennsylvania manufacturers perfected the art of wire making
  • When the Singer model 15 was first produced in 1895 the flat-shank needle was introduced, making it easy to set the needle correctly.  This was gradually adopted by nearly all manufacturers and has become the industry standard, still called the 15×1 today

Because of the precise nature of a needle, manufacturing is still quite complicated and involves a whole host of different processes.  A needle needs to be perfectly straight, perfectly smooth, perfectly pointed and extremely strong while maintaining an element of flexibility.  It could be said that the needle is the most important component of a sewing machine – the whole machine is just an elaborate contraption for getting that needle through the fabric to form a stitch!  This is why I often remind you to change your needle regularly – a sewing machine might be functioning perfectly well but a blunt, bent or burred needle could still mean you will not be able to get a good stitch from it.

The ‘hints’ page in every Singer manual (what we might these days call trouble shooting’) is pretty clear about this:


Apologies for the poor quality of those images!

I have a copy of a film made at the Kilbowie factory in 1934 which shows the process of needle making at that time.  I can hardly believe that each needle was re-straightened after going through the manufacturing process BY HAND using a small bronze mallet.  When you consider that the factory must have been turning out close to one million machines a year at that point, imagine how many needles were being hammered straight!  What is equally staggering to me is that even today, at the big needle factories, each needle is subject to a visual inspection before being packed.  That is how important your needle is!

You can watch a film about the manufacture of hand sewing needles here.

And one about machine needles here.  You might want to skip the long introduction on this one, and it’s a bit repetitive, but worth a look.

Finally, if you are interested in the Singer Kilbowie factory, take a look at this at The National Library of Scotland.

Apart from anything else, needle packaging can be very attractive and they are an affordable thing to collect if you like the graphics, as I do.

Here is a selection from my collection – apologies that I have featured some of them before:


And I do have a number of different Singer packets from different eras.  Note the 12×1 package in the first image – before 15×1 became standard.  I am fond of the packet on the card backing because it so reminds me of having to learn the new decimal coinage in 1971.  We played endless games of ‘shop’ that year!



I must just remind you all that the exhibition “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 2nd February and runs until 14th July.  It will be a stunning exhibition – I saw it in Paris in 2017 and can’t wait to see how the V&A will present it.

Have a happy day




A Little Colour in the Collection…


Recently I bought a blue Alfa hand crank sewing machine.  There were two reasons for this purchase:

  • I was interested to see how this Spanish-made machine would compare to a Singer
  • It was blue

It’s obviously modelled on the later Singer 15k with the reverse stitch, but whether it will sew as well remains to be seen because I haven’t yet serviced it or tried it out.  Occasionally I wonder why I bought it, but then I remember that it’s blue.  My poor sewing room is already trying to house more machines than it should (22 at the moment I think) and I’m not sure where this one will sit.  It’s probably one of those that I’ll enjoy for a while and then sell on.

What it does do is fill me with ideas for photo shoots and it will be time for a new banner soon……

Anyway, because I am away this week I thought I would just leave you with some more lovely images which I have found while being inspired by this piece of blue mid-century domesticity.  When I’m researching mid-century design it always strikes me how old/new it is – a real mix of nostalgia and modernity to me.

Lovely wooden sewing boxes:

Plus some with a bit more colour:

I’m pleased to see that mother’s clutter is kept behind a screen so she doesn’t annoy anyone while she makes the family clothing and linens:


I thought this was particularly eye-catching:


Textile design was so distinctive in this period and I love the colours and the simplicity of the shapes:

I am assuming that this is a modern quilt, which uses 1950s textiles as the design source.  Beautifully done and a triumph I think:


Some more lovely pastel machines.  Almost makes me want to start collecting and selling vintage electric models because there aren’t so many coloured hand cranks in the world:

And finally just a few cute things that caught my eye and I thought you might like:

*All images courtesy of Pinterest*

A little inspiration-gathering at the beginning of the year is great to refresh you and get you planning and creating.  When I return from my break I will settle down to some more informative blogging and I hope you will join me during 2019.

Have a happy day








And a Happy New Year!

new year imageI do love the beginning of a new year.  I seem to take a big, deep breath and wipe some kind of virtual slate clean.  Then I get out a shiny notebook and start a list for the coming months.

As usual this year’s list is quite varied, with some practical items and some to get the juices flowing.  I am sitting at the table in my sewing room to type this, so I am a little ahead of the game – this morning you wouldn’t have been able to see the table.  But the floor still needs work…

Sew Nostalgic really started for me in May 2018 and it has been joyful but rather hectic as I have allowed myself the time to find out what it would grow up to be.  Would I actually sell machines on a regular basis?  How much time would I need to dedicate to finding, buying and preparing them?  The answers appear to be ‘yes’ and ‘lots of it’.  And so 2018 has left me feeling a little disorganised if I’m honest.  However, now I can sit back and look at what I have achieved and plan for the year ahead.  And hence item 2 on the list – ‘organise working week’.  If I plan to spend three solid days doing everything necessary to prepare machines for sale I can then have two for admin, writing, and the occasional trip out for collections etc.  There will always be boot sales and flea markets at the weekend, but that’s not really work, now is it?  Oh, and The Accountant likes to spend time in the workshop at the weekends and I often join him.  But only because I want to…

Now, one thing I have put aside time for as the year draws to a close is cleaning and oiling the two vintage machines I use most regularly.  Whether you sew nostalgically or with a modern machine, a little preventative maintenance is something I would recommend and it really does only take a few minutes and a very basic kit.  I will demonstrate what I mean on my lovely Singer 99k from 1934.  This one was in particular need of a de-fluffing because I made some fleece cushions for my son’s camper van just before Christmas:

As you can see I was using the trusty zipper foot again and it’s almost buried in the pile of that fabric.  There were four layers of fleece plus the zip to stitch through in the last image.  No problem!  This was probably the most un-vintage thing I have ever stitched on a vintage machine!

Anyway, getting back to the maintenance.  If you use a modern, electric sewing machine it will definitely benefit from having its feed dogs and bobbin race cleaned out – just follow the guidance in the instruction book and use a brush to remove any fluff and dust.  Most modern machines do not require oiling, but again please check your instruction book.

I have gathered together here an old toothbrush, some angled tweezers, a cotton bud and some Singer oil.  I also always have the instruction book to hand just in case… (Yes, even me – it’s good practice.)  The box you see is an original Singer ‘Godzilla’ box containing a range of attachments plus two screw drivers.  Singer screwdrivers are not designed for heavy work but are ideal for this job.

First of all I will remove the needle plate and slider.  I must just confess here that I have been very remiss in that I have not removed the needle.  Usually I do and I would recommend it, just to avoid injury.

I’ve removed the two screws with my trusty Singer screwdriver and I can already see some red dust and fluff.  The slider is removed in the opposite direction to what you would expect – it slides under the presser foot as in the third image.  People often force this part off in the wrong direction and then don’t know how to reattach it, which I’ll explain later.

The last piece I will remove is the bobbin case as demonstrated below.  As you can see the red dust continues underneath this piece so it’s always advisable to remove it and check.  Your machine’s smooth action and well-made stitch has a lot to do with the bobbin area being able to move freely.



Now to cleaning.  I will use the angled tweezers first of all to remove any large pieces of fluff and debris.  How on earth did that get there…?


Next I will use the toothbrush.  This could be very very lightly moistened to help collect the dust – but just barely.  Be brave and get into all those crevices – and don’t forget to clean her teeth as well!

Now she needs a little oil to ensure she is working smoothly.  This really only needs to be a light film – not really discernible to the human eye – and is where the cotton bud comes in.  Put two or three drops of oil onto the bud and wipe it around all the surfaces, including the bobbin case.  As I’ve said before, this also helps to preserve your machine, so any metal areas benefit.  If the bud becomes too dry, apply a few more drops.  Turn the wheel as you work so that the bobbin race turns and you can reach all areas.

Once everything is oiled it’s time to replace the slider and needle plate; in that order.  Place the slider under the presser foot and move it to the left until its grooves underneath (illustrated in the first image) locate with the leaf spring.  You will feel the resistance as this happens.  Continue to push it to the left until it is in its place.  (It should now be possible to slide it open as normal without it coming away from the spring.)  Now just drop the needle plate in its place and replace the screws without over-tightening them.

This little article has been about keeping your bobbin area clean, but it is also good to oil the workings of your vintage machine.  Every instruction manual will show you how to do this, but basically every moving part needs oil because they are all metal, and metal cannot easily move against metal without lubrication.

So take off the face plate of your machine and apply a drop of oil to anything that moves.  Turn the crank and watch the mechanism.  This will also help to make each area in turn become more accessible.  Next, tip your machine so that you can see the workings underneath and use the same principle – oil anything that moves, turning the wheel to check and reach each area.  You will see just how accurate the illustrations in the instruction manual are, so use this to help you.

You now need to apply oil to the oil holes on the head of the machine.  Again, this is illustrated in the manual.  Once you are happy that you have applied a drop of oil wherever it is needed, run the machine at high speed for a few moments to help the oil to spread across the metal and settle in.

Finally, give her a polish all over with a clean but lightly oiled cloth.  This will make her shine but also help to preserve all her surfaces.

Oh, and while you’re at it, give her a new needle – it’s always surprising how neglectful we are in doing this and what a difference it can make.  And the new year seems appropriate!

I hope this has been helpful and has inspired you to check that your lovely machine is in good order and is happy.  If you don’t have an instruction book for your machine, please email me at and I will do my best to provide you with the relevant page.  Alternatively I will be making full copies available via the Etsy shop soon, along with a variety of attachments and accessories.



The fact of the week has become quite frustrating for me because I always want to give more information rather than just a snippet, so I have decided not to continue with this feature in 2019.  However, I will be expanding on some of my previous facts in future blogs and I will also continue to bring you information which I think will interest you as I come across it.

Have a very happy New Year!


A Merry Christmas!

IMG_1438I love old sewing machines.  I love mid-century design.  And I am the queen of the retro drink.  All this might seem unrelated, but let me explain.

Recently I bought a Singer 222k featherweight (drool) and when I opened its case it had been wrapped in a tea towel.  But not just any tea towel.  This was an original 1960s Irish linen Babycham tea towel!  Oh the joy!

I just had to take a photo of it with some bottles of Babycham and an original 1960s coaster which I bought at The Vintage Nostalgia Festival in 2017.  The sad thing is that I used to have some Babycham glasses which originally belonged to my Grandmother but they have been lost over the years…  Those pictured are pretty, and very suitable, though!


Here is another of my original coasters – so typical of the era!


IMG_1448I have been collecting retro cocktail glasses for a couple of years now.  I would dearly love to collect authentic 1930s ones but they are out of my price range so, instead, I pick up kitsch mid-century ones in charity shops and at flea markets.  They’re the next best thing because they often mimic the shapes of the earlier ones.

Now, when I say I am the queen of the retro drink I don’t think I’m exaggerating.  But The Accountant doesn’t bat an eyelid if he takes me into an up-market hotel and I ask whether they have Cinzano.  I love it neat over piles of ice.  It has to be very very cold.  Unfortunately for me the answer is increasingly “no”!  But I really don’t like starting an evening with a dull glass of wine.

When it comes to cocktails I like something really sweet, or creamy, and definitely indulgent.


Image and recipe courtesy of



A good old pina colada suits me in the summer months…

30ml bacardi or other white rum

30ml coconut cream
90ml pineapple juice



While I might opt for an espresso martini in the winter…


Image and recipe courtesy of

60 ml Vodka
15 ml Simple syrup
15 ml Coffee liqueur
30 ml  freshly brewed espresso
I like this variation especially:
50ml Baileys
25ml vodka
25ml espresso
Either way, shake with and pour through ice.

Anyway, I’m all set for my retro cocktail party – I’ve got my cherries, pineapple chunks and umbrellas at the ready and The Accountant is in charge of the shaker and the ice bucket.

One Christmas The Accountant presented me with one of the best gifts ever – The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930.  It is full of wonderful graphics and witty comments as well as purported origins for some of the drinks.  I’ve pictured it here with a silver retractable drinks stirrer which belonged to The Accountant’s father.  Quite an accessory to carry around with you!

And this blog, my lovely readers, is dedicated to you.  I wish you all a very happy Christmas.  Drink responsibly!



Isaac Merritt Singer threw magnificent Christmas parties at his house, The Wigwam, in Paignton, Devon.  The guest list included ‘tradesfolk and better-class residents’.  Singer himself would give a welcome speech, usually dressed in a velvet coat lined with rich satin.  Ever the showman!

Have a happy Christmas Eve!



A Slice of History

IMG_3603My private collection of sewing machines includes the Willcox and Gibbs chain stitch model.  Three of them.  I have a very soft spot for the first one I bought because I paid £50 for her at a flea market, complete with box.  A quick clean-up and service was all she needed and she stitches like a dream.

A while later The Accountant surprised me with an electric version!  She really is the cutest little thing – she arrived in a carry box, but this was somewhat damaged and is in The Accountant’s re-building queue because customers’ machines come first of course.  The controller (foot pedal as we used to call them when I was growing up) is the perfect outline of a Victorian lady’s slipper.  It always reminds me of the brass footprint set into the harbour wall at St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, commemorating Queen Victoria’s visit there in 1846.  (Any excuse to bring Cornwall into the blog!)

The third member of the collection is another hand crank version.  This is an interesting part of the history of these machines because although the machine head etc were manufactured in America as usual, the wheel and framework of the hand crank mechanism were cast at the famous Coalbrookdale foundry in Shropshire.  I presume this was an exercise in keeping shipping costs down.  The casting is a lot finer (by which I mean less chunky, not better) than the American version and makes this machine look rather elegant.

I doubt that I need to tell you that I have an original tin and attachments for these machines, along with an oil can and needle boxes!  I haven’t tried any of the attachments yet – they are very different to the Singer ones I am more familiar with.  I do like the twirly hemmer feet though.

Image-1The company Willcox and Gibbs was not part of The Combination set up by Singer, Grover and Baker and Wheeler and Wilson because this is a chain stitch machine without a bobbin and shuttle and therefore does not use the same mechanisms to create a stitch.  It is said that James Gibbs invented his chain stitch machine because he had seen an engraving of just the top half of a Grover and Baker machine and went on to work out for himself how the stitch must be formed underneath.  He came up with the ‘thread catcher’ or ‘looper’ which caught and held the thread while the stitch was formed.  This ‘looper’ also created a twist in the thread, giving the stitch flexibility and strength.  I can certainly confirm that a Willcox and Gibbs machine makes a strong and lasting stitch where other chain stitch models, such as the Essex, create a seam which is easily broken if put under any stress.

Gibbs’s ideas were fully patented in 1857 and he went into partnership with James Willcox and his son, Charles Henry Willcox.  The company was formally founded in 1859.  Charles Henry Willcox was responsible for inventing further improvements to the machine, including the grooved needle which made accurate setting much easier, and the automatic tensioner.  This is what made the machine truly superior to others.




These lovely little machines remained in production until 1948!

Have a happy day.


A Little Christmas Shopping…

IMG_0707I think you’re used to me sharing lovely places I’ve visited along with beautiful hand-made items I have found on my travels.  What a treat this week!  Bath has been my favourite city for many years and is one of the reasons I now live where I do – I can’t afford Bath but at least I’m only a little over half an hour away!

It’s a gorgeous city at any time of year but at Christmas time it really shines.  The many cabins of the Christmas market look especially festive against the backdrop of Georgian buildings in the local stone.  To be honest it was quite difficult to get many good pictures of the cabins themselves because there were just so many people browsing!  Stand for a while to enjoy a cup of mulled wine and you will hear many different languages being spoken – people come from all over the world to witness this Christmas spectacle.

bath market

I wasn’t able to stay too late so I ‘borrowed’ the image above from Google Images to demonstrate the fact that the market is even more festive after dark!

Some of the decorations displayed by the permanent retailers and restaurants are also lovely to see:

IMG_0696 (2)


I didn’t get a chance to walk up to the Bath Piano Shop but I know they always make a real effort with their windows at Christmas time.  This year they had also provided an upright piano in Milsom Street, which anyone was welcome to try.

I heard all kinds, from a young boy picking out the notes of the Harry Potter theme tune to a middle aged gent going for a full sonata.  Lovely!

I love to browse all the stalls, trying crumbs of cheese, spoon-fulls of chilli sauce and squares of fudge.  I always buy a Christmas pudding from Georgie Porgies – I used to make my own but once I had tried one of these it seemed completely unnecessary!  I go for the one drenched in brandy but you can also choose from apple and cider, chocolate orange and Baileys, lemon and Pimms or orange and Cointreau.  They are all made in Devon and come in the traditional spherical shape, wrapped in a pudding cloth, in three sizes.  My mouth is watering just thinking of the one sitting in my cupboard, but I have to wait 15 more sleeps!

Pudding-bag (2)

(Image taken from company website.  Hang on – ‘serves 15-18?’  Not in my house!)

But my favourite stalls at the market are the ones displaying hand made items of really good quality.  There are many of these, from blacksmiths to knitters.  This year there were two which stood out for me and where I spent my money!

Rupert Blamire makes hand-thrown ceramics at his studio in Bristol, concentrating mainly on small kitchen wares such as jugs and bowls.  The shapes are simple and pleasing but what makes them so special for me is the colours of the glazes.  I chose two bottles (and each comes complete with a cork and dropper) which I plan to use for olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  I was served by ‘Rupert’s Dad’ if his badge was to be believed.  One of the simple pleasures enjoyed by myself and The Accountant is a mezze in the garden, with a chilled glass of wine, and these lovely bottles will sit near the hob as a constant reminder, all through the harsh winter weather, that summer will come round again…

And my second personal choice was ‘Artifactually‘.  Glass will always attract me – who can resist the way it catches the light?  And these ornaments are the best quality I have ever seen!  They are hand blown, hand painted, hand etched, hand trimmed in gold or silver glass.  And they are made in Britain!  I think I must have spent an hour looking at all the different designs before making my choices.  But I can’t tell you how much money I spent because The Accountant reads this and he is – well, an accountant!

This stand was, deservedly, constantly surrounded by admirers and was therefore very difficult to photograph effectively.  I managed to snatch these two images during a rare lull:

Here are some of the items I bought – miniature baubles which so remind me of the vintage ones we used to have as children, except that these are far more robust and you will not find them in splinters when you open the box next Christmas!  The stall-holder rattled them together alarmingly to demonstrate how tough they are!

I also bought a couple of hanging candle lanterns because I needed them!  The company gives the option of a stand to hang them from but I plan to suspend them from the ceiling on long nylon threads.  I think they are breathtaking!

Absolutely stunning!

I thought I’d also include this image, from the company website because it is just so rich and delicious:


display tree


I think I might treat myself to one of the display trees so I have an excuse to start collecting more baubles.  You see, our main Christmas tree sits in the kitchen/diner and it would be really nice to have something more compact in the lounge…  Don’t you think?

I hope you’ve enjoyed my meander through the Bath Christmas market.  It’s over for this year but it will return next November/December so perhaps you ought to put it on your new calendar.



Isaac Merritt Singer was no stranger to demonstrating his wares to the public.   His years as a travelling actor had not been completely wasted and he toured with his new improved sewing machine, giving on-the-spot demonstrations in hired halls and at fairs and carnivals, simultaneously reciting ‘The Song of the Shirt‘, a contemporary poem highlighting the sorry plight of seamstresses of the day.

Have a happy day.


The Joy of Christmas Crafting …

IMG_0662Here we are in December.  This time of year always brings back memories of childhood Christmas makes, and I’m sure I’m not alone there.

The joy of getting out the coloured papers, scissors, glue and paints!  I remember one year I made a whole group of clowns from card – each in a different pose and wearing different clown outfits.  And my parents, in their eighties, still hang them on the tree!

Back when I was a child, the more colour and glitz a decoration had the better.  And we never seemed to tire of making them.  Pine cones painted silver, endless paper snowflakes, and greetings cards for everyone.  Scrunched tissue paper really doesn’t seem to have the same importance these days!  We didn’t have television but the Blue Peter and Rupert Bear annuals were an endless source of inspiration for new decorations.  Paper chains, Chinese lanterns (using loo-roll tubes of course!), candle holders – we tried them all with enthusiasm and flair (so we liked to think).  There’s a great page called Oh Happy Day with ideas for making paper lanterns – have a look and maybe take yourself back to your childhood Christmases.


Those really do make me happy!

One of the traditions in our family was the advent potato!  Was it just us?!?  Please tell me it wasn’t!  On the last day of November, 24 matches were stuck into the top of a large potato and one was then removed each day in December until they were all gone and there was only one more sleep!  You wouldn’t think a withered, slightly weeping potato could bring excitement and pleasure now would you?!

You know, even now I still feel the Christmas urge to make things I wouldn’t consider at any other time!  Christmas brings out both the kitsch and the childish in me.  My poor sisters have received a plethora of homemade decorations over the years as I force my misguided creativity onto them.

I don’t knit much and I crochet even less, but at Christmas time I often search out my needles or hooks and make something silly.

There has been the miniature Christmas stocking phase…

…the crocheted snowflake phase…

…the ferrero rocher cozy phase…

(The Accountant had to attend a function wearing a Christmas jumper that year.  He is not given to flamboyant dress so I stitched one of those tiny knitted sprigs of holly to his normal jumper.  He was therefore able to follow the dress code in a suitably subtle, Accountanty way.)

Knitting and crochet do not get exclusive rights to Christmas.  I dabble in all manner of handicrafts.  I have made fairies from wire and threads…

…larger Christmas stockings from rich fabrics (and wood!)…

…poinsettia flowers from sugar paste…

…and many other things.

Each year The Accountant and I go on a foraging walk to collect interesting bits of greenery etc to make door wreaths.  It has become one of my favourite things to do at Christmas time.  We then spend a happy couple of hours with secateurs and wire (and mulled wine ‘on tap’) creating something truly unique to greet people as they come to our door.


Now that is joyful and triumphant!

I really do think it’s the simple things in life that make all the difference – making your own traditions and enjoying them together.  Maybe that advent potato taught me something!


If you would like to make a fairy or some crocheted snowflakes, I have put together some kits which are available in the Etsy shop now.

Enjoy your Christmas crafting and have a happy day.