Friday, January 20, 2017

The Bell Portable Sewing Machine

 This little sewing machine is smaller than a new baby.  I have seen these on occasion so not particularly rare an item, but never succumbed to the siren song of bringing one home until now.  It seemed impossible that it would work in any way other than as a toy.  Do they work?  Hard to imagine as it is the same size as my scissors.

This machine was made in the late 50's by the Bell company in Pennsylvania USA.  There is a good bit of history on the company on the pages of, a terrific resource for those who love vintage sewing machines.

Does it Work?

The first question was nearly answered by just opening the case box the sewing machine came in. The attachment set is impressive.  The original set is still in the case.  High quality low shank accessories that cover just about every thing you could ever need in any size machine.  A bit of oil, thread and a new needle all in place for a test start.  It does indeed sew but very very slowly.  Noisy too!  Where is the hand wheel?  After a time of trial and error it has improved.  Here's how.

Operator Manual

This sewing machine is is definitely not your usual set up. I suggest refering to a manual to help operate it properly.  Here are a few sources:
Printed and digital formsavailable.

Follow the instructions for the source.


The Bell Portable was originally designed to be lubricated for life.  The material apprears to be a graphite type lubricant.  Now it has been around 60 years now and I think that is a little past the working life of that stuff.  My machine was very very dry and barely turned.  Because of this I went against the manual instructions and oiled it all over. would not work!AAArrgggh.  Panic turned to calm when th next day it was fine and worked so much better.  I could now see how to turn the hand wheel with my fingers, before it was frozen.  Same with the bobbin winder.  My suggestion is to go ahead and oil it on every moving part with Tri-Flow synthetic oil or sewing machine oil.

Because this was not made for regular oiling, it is a pain to do it now.  I removed the light bulb cover witha small screw driver to pry off at the needle bar.  Next oil the joints in th presser bar area and then turn it over and open the bottom to oil there.  Pretty easy to turn it upside down.  Try that with an old full sized machine!


Right away I noticed the bobbin was very much like the ones used for the Singer 29k.  I wrote about one here on this blog and the two machines are so different except for this.  To see if they were indeed the same I tried the bobbins and and case in the little Bell.  What I found can be helpful to anyone who is searching for replacements. The bobbins are compatible but the case was not.  The case was from a very old machine and possibly a case from a later model 29 would be OK but for me it was only able to sew for a few stitches and then would stop.

The Bell came with a plastic bobbin but the metal seems fine.
A source:
A great dealer for parts like this.

The process of addding the bobbin to the case is a little different.  I have done this before with my 29 but for those who have not done it efore it is a little confusing.  To help, here are a  few images to add ot the manual description.

 1. Note case spring, hold your finger there. Place the wound bobbin into the case so it sets in, case side with the edge down.  It winds off just as with any other machine, counter, so place the bobbin in so it comes off correctly.  Let the end go through the opening.

Pull the thread up and under the leaf tension. Thread it through the hole in the case.  It is not needed but I find it helpful to also thread the end through the hole in the needle plate as well as it is so slow to bring up the thread as normally you can save some time here.

Set into the hook area. Easy to fit it like a puzzle piece.  The manual shows a magnet to remove the case, great idea.

More Technical Information

The Bell is a low shank machine so many modern attachments will fit on this so if you find a machine missing it's set, no worries.  It takes a 15x1 needle and uses regular thread so no fuss there either.  The tension is a bit tight. To release the fabric from he machine, raise the presser foot and needle then open the tension discs by hand as shown when pullng away.  The release of tension is not automatic.
The manual shows the threading but here is a view as well.
1. Under the discs
2. Up and over the spring
3. Through the coil
4. Take up lever
5. Presser bar guide
6. Needle Right to Left.


The little Bell does a great job here.  Very slow, with a strang hang time and quite a bit of noise but by golly it makes a good stitch.  If it had a hand wheel it would be great.  The adjustment lever on this machine is broken but I am able to adjust by gently inserting a screw driver sideways and moving it one way or another. This seems to be a common problem.  Be careful to not move the broken mechanism to either end, you may have a bit of trouble getting it back!
The Case

The Bell Portable comes with a very cool case.  Everything has a place.  The power cord wraps perfectly to fit as does the accessories set.  There is a box with a mounting bracket for a free arm capability.  There is metal base to make a sewing table with the case, the machine sets right into the middle.  My machine was missing a rubber type  base but I made a small pad with neoprene. The reason is to make it sit high enough in the metal frame.  This too seems to be common and easy to fix.
All the parts fit perfectly together for travel.  The combined weight with case and machine it weighs about 8 pounds!

The sewing table all set up.

A True Portable.
My verdict.  This sewing machine is not easy to use.  Probably won't be doing miles of yardage on this baby.  Repairs on the road? Yes.  Quick sewing not at home, sure.  I do some of this for some residents at a care home.  Perfect.

It does the one thing so many have tried to do before and since.  It is truly portable.  It truly sews too.  That is really something!

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Singer 12 Sewing Machine and How to Use It

A little history on this particular machine and then some help on how to use this type of model for those who might be stopping by needing help. It's story is like so many others. This tiny 1884 Singer 12 came to me in desperate condition. It had been in a shed, covered with boxes. The cabinet had been painted white with gold trim in the past. Even the irons were painted. Still, I could see it was indeed a fairly old machine that was complete and worth saving

The machine was taken out, paint was removed. After paint removal the wood was oiled, irons were then repainted the original black. When the machine was replaced, it got a little adjustment. That included cleaning with sewing machine oil, some new needles, TriFlow lubrication, gear grease and a new treadle belt. Not much, really. Very little was needed to make this one work again. It was used quite a bit in it's time and well cared for. The wear is in places that many years of fabric and hands passed over, as mine do now.

The Singer 12 here was made in 1884. The first model 12 also known as the "New Family" was made in the 1860's continuing for many years. The decal and designs for these are often very spectacular in true Victorian fashion with colorful patterns and mother of pearl inserts. Mine is a bit plain but still a fairly unusual decal pattern that is not seen often.


The machines came with a very practical set of attachments, of which I was lucky to have found in the cabinet drawer, along with the original hardware. So far I have not used them yet and am not completely sure what some are! Other parts are nearly unchaged to our times, such as the ruffler which is so beautiful on it's own.


Sewing with the Singer 12

A manual is needed. This one is from the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society. I recommend a visit to their site, and if you have a machine like this to join them. So much useful information!

I have been able to use this right away but must warn new owners operating this model is a bit different and can be a frustrating. It does take a bit of practice to get it all just right. I wrote on this site about my adventures with my other one, a handcrank.

Here are the areas that anyone first trying one out might want to review:

The Needle

The need required it is a 12x1 needle. There have been suggestions as to what else will work in place of this now extinct type but I have been able to find them so have not explored this further. My source is Vintage sewing machines treadle or hand crank by TreadleLady

*Setting the needle: This is going to be a trial and error process at first. Read the manual. The setting is described well but here it is in a nutshell -The needle groove goes in front. Thread is front to back.

How far the needle goes into the needle shaft is variable. On my machine here the top is exactly even with the clamp. On my other it sticks out about 1/8". Try it out, very slowly, until the needle doesn't hit the bobbin shuttle and will pick up thread.

The Bobbin



Wrap the thread a few times to get started. The end fits all the way into the winder. By the way mine was completely frozen and needed to be oiled a lot. The tire part pulls back to allow the bobbin to fit for winding.

On many machine there is a metal piece that the thread passes throughto wind the bobbin. There is not one here. Maybe there was, and it is missing but no matter this is quite simple to do by hand to get an even treading. I do this:

The Shuttle

The bobbins for the Singer 12 are much like a weaving shuttle. The shape is a bit like the later Singer 27 but with an essential difference- the thread tension is created by looping trough the side , over and through again the holes in the shuttle body then through the leaf. My first attempts at this were frustrating, so please be patient with yourself. Once you do it a few times it will work, amazingly. I found bobbin tension for ordinary poly/cotton thread was the second hole as shown. With different thread you may with to try it differently. Yeah, it's weird but it works great.

Now it is just set into the carrier and go. The transverse slide plate should move as shown above. My other Singer 12 had problems here and maybe some of you might as well. It was frozen closed from rust. If necessary, the shuttle can go in from the other side too, just get one slide plate free.

Making Adjustments


Pretty strait forward adjustments for the Singer 12. The main difference is that they are knobs on top rather than side adjustments with numbers. Not much is needed to get results so just experiment. Stitch lengh is often frozen up for older machines like this so more oil and maybe even try heat (I use a blow dryer) to free it up. Mine took a long time to move and is still tight! I do not recommend taking apart the faceplate unless there is a reason. The interior parts will all fall out. It is not assembled like a Singer 27 or 127. That is a later post, but be forewarned!

The Belt

I like to use rubber belting for my treadle so as to be able to get it on and off easy. Leather is good too and is available widely. If anyone here is unfamiliar with putting on a new belt, here is a great source for help on all things treadle with a section on belts.


Not much is needed to know how to do the actual sewing other than one big difference for a modern sewing operator. The tension discs do not release when the presser foot is lifted. It may be just my machines but neither of mine do this. Not a big deal but it will become a new habit to pull up the top tension disc when removing the work. The needle needs to be in the highest position to let the thread go as with other lockstitch machines.

So small a machine yet it can sew some heavy work. My guess is because it has very simple yet powerful gears inside.

After a bit of work and practice, this has become a really great machine to use. Here is her first major project in many years, done easily with good tension and accuracy.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Leviathan, Singer's 29 - 4

1905 Singer 29K-4
It is called many things such as the boot patcher, the cobbler, the leatherworker or the harness stitcher.  I call it the Leviathan after the large biblical sea monster.  The model number is 29-4  or 29K with this particular one being made in 1905.  They were in production earlier and later with modifications and model number changes.  Even today,  in the shop I am in during the week has two similar (though much more modern and electric) machines machines made by Consew and Brother.  Perhaps this huge thing could be useful to me?  Would it even work right?  Hmmm.
Gustave Dore, 1965.  "Destruction of the Leviathan"
 First thing was that it needed a few parts.  To my surprise, parts are easily available for this type of vintage machine.  That is not always the case.  Because so many are in use today there are dealers who cater to this.  Some parts from more recent models are compatible as well.  In this situation I needed a tension spring and one was on it's way to my house days later though it was made for a 1940's model.  Fit perfectly.  Needles, Bobbins, Wire threaders and rubber bobbin tires are available inexpensively.  Here's where I got my parts  - Sharp Sewing Supplies but there are many sources.
I found downloadable manual free of charge through the Singer Company.  Click this link: Singer 29K manual

Does it even work?  Well yes it does, but it took some getting used to.  The learning process is still going on.  It is quite different than a regular lockstitch in two ways:  The presser foot works as the feed from the top and the presser foot can be manipulated to move in different directions.  The reasons for this has to do with the primary function it was designed for.  That would be very close work as with shoe repairs.  It makes a lot of noise when operating but it is a pleasant one.  It sounds like "work".  Clank clank clank.

 As an example of it's work, see the image below.  With this pair of shoes, the stitching was coming apart at the bottom side and the overlapping part.  I was able to reinforce the stitches along the bottom then completely turn it to go the flap.  It did an excellent job and saved a favorite pair of Minnetonka shoes.  This would have been a tricky job even by hand because of the tight space at the bottom.  Very cool, very cool indeed.
The presser foot moves by moving this brass handle.
It is quite powerful and sews through heavy leather with no hesitation.  It is slow and cumbersome for sure but with leather fast is not what I am looking for.  I want a one time pass though so as not to make holes in the work.  I also have used this with heavy webbing.
Singer 29k Stitch Sample
Here is a stitch sample made with fairly heavy good quality leather.  The thread used is Jeans top stitching thread.  Heavy thread such as #69 works well too.  I have heard that the presser foot teeth on the underside will leave marks on the surface.  That is a possibility but has not occurred yet with anything I have yet done.  Another reason to get your seam right the first time.
The bobbins are very small and so is the machine arm.  This is what it looks like with the cover removed.
The design is to allow access to tight spaces and that has been very very handy a few times.  A drawback is that it also makes this less practical for doing very large things that need support.  There was a table extension available for these when you purchased them back when new.  There are plans for making them now and I may do that someday.  The time that would have been useful to have was when I was making a bag.  Holding it was a bit awkward on that tiny arm space.  This is what the extension table looked like as sold originally

Anyone who finds this post and is wondering how it's threaded may take note of this next section.  First, get a manual.  You NEED it to explain the bobbin loading and threading.  Simply put, it is not like other machines and you are not going to figure it out on your own.  The outside threading is easy to see but this part was a little confusing to me so here's a picture to clarify.

The thread is pushed down this hole after it leaves the tensioner.  It goes all the way down to the presser foot. 
You will need a threader like this.  There is a tiny hook at the end to hold the thread as you push it down.  Give yourself a lot of extra thread for this, as it can be very tiresome to keep having to re-do it. 

This is where the upper thread comes through.  To get at the bobbin, you will need to loosen the screw and turn the cover.
 Once you get familiar with the machine it is a kind of interesting thing to behold.  It is very masculine.  Of all the machines here this is the only one that my husband actually touched.  He was even the first one to use it.  Go figure.  Is it worth having?  Of course I always say yes but this one has a very different purpose than the others.  So far it has been very useful for repairs, less so for creativity.  If you fix heavy things, then maybe you could use this.  If you just want to make things than maybe not.  That said, I have made a few things with it that would have been very difficult otherwise, like these little shoes. What's another machine anyway.

My leviathan, it is a beautiful beast.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The "Grasshopper" Elna's Number 1

Elna 1

This was one machine I had to have, upon seeing it.  Not because I needed it, not because of how well it works or even how rare it is.  Just because it is so amazing cool.  The design is unique and color, well I do have a fondness for machine that are colored anything but white.  I introduce you to the Elna company's first machine, the #1 also widely known as "the Grasshopper".  From this view you can see why it got this nickname.  The knee lift and green color has a certain grasshopper quality.

The design was created by Ramon Casas from Spain in the mid 1930's.  His observations about the difficulty of sewing sleeves of garments brought about free arm.  Timing was a problem for this idea as war began in his home country and later in Europe.  Years would go by before the design came to production.  That is why it has a very 1930's look.  The company that finally did make this machine was Tavaro SA of Geneva Switzerland in 1940.  It was a munitions factory that decided to take on this project.  It was a resounding success.  This would explain the look of the case, just like an ammo box.  From the outside one would not guess a sewing machine was inside.  That's also why it has no model number, it is simply 1.  It was the only one they made, but with this success it was not the last.

Post war sales were quite brisk, as this little machine represented a major change in the home machine industry just when it was needed most.  Now, timing was on it's side.  Postwar demand was big for a lightweight (15 pounds) free arm machine for simple basic tasks. It was the world's first free arm sewing machine.
Advertising for a Grasshopper

My particular machine was made in 1950.  By the way, it was good year for sewing machines in general.  I have several made in and around that year, all excellent.  Singers, Pfaffs and Elna's Oh my. As an aside, this model was copied almost exactly.  I saw one in an ad but did not buy it, possibly made by General electric or Westinghouse.  If anyone knows help me please.  Just like the Grasshopper only in grey.  I am so sorry I did not get it.  They are out there still.
Elna 1's accessories set
It is a strait stitch sewing machine that takes common low shank attachments.  The bobbins are the normal Elna type, and you can use 15x1 needles.  I get all those easily but if you need any particular parts are out there.  I got some replacements rubber foot pads from White's Sewing Center.  This is an excellent resource with all kinds of things for your Grasshopper and Supermatics too.
My Grasshopper came with a small set of accessories and a tiny tin box. The one thing it has that has proven to be a really helpful one is the part made of black plastic upper left.  It is a slow gear.  Many machines today have this built in feature but in 1950 not so.  By placing it on the machine it slows down the speed in an even way, perfect for darning or very precise work. It fits on like this:
Elna 1's low gear cover.
Being a low shank machine makes it easy to use attachments.  I use a regular 1/4" foot all the time.
Elna 1 with quilter's piecing foot attached
Using the Zig Zagger
There's more.  It works well with a walking foot and a zig-zag attachment.  In my case, I use a little one called a Chadwicks ZigZagger.  
When I wrote this post some time ago, I was not able to get a buttonholer to work on this machine.  Since then, with the help of a reader, I was able to get it to work.  I was just not thinking about it enough.  Here is how it works:

Singer Buttonholer with Elna 1
The key to success here is using the little feed dog cover that comes as part of the attachment set.  Normally the buttonholer has it's own plate but that does not fit e little free arm of the Elna.  Use the accessory shown in the photo.

Now the buttonholer will work fine.  

Adjusting the Stitch Length
Elna can be adjusted by lengthening the stitches but that's about it in the fancy automation area.  Here is how to set the length and an example of the stitches it makes.

To set the stitch length.
Stitches for Elna 1

The size makes this a easy machine to take places much like the famous Singer 221 Featherweight.  The case also folds out to make room for big things like quilts.  I have used it for that but really, the space to the right of needle (harp space) is waaaaay to small to do this all the time.

Some things to know about the Elna #1.  They are quite simple but like everything to be oiled.  I keep this little one very clean and oil all parts as required.  This leads me to mention a starting discovery:  It will sometimes smoke when first started   Boy this scared me first time!  I later found out that it's pretty normal and not to panic.  This great help came from a Yahoo group for vintage Elna machines.  I recommend finding help if you need it, there are many fans of these old timers.  This machine is also prone to running slow.  This could be mine, however.  I prefer a foot control but these come only with a knee lift.  It does make it easier to travel with as there is one less cord to tangle and that's nice.  That leads me to this last topic, it travels so well and is interesting to all who see it.  You will, however, be pounded with questions and comments when you take this out of it's case.  It's impossible to quietly start sewing on it if there is anyone else around.  That includes people who do not sew.

If you live in a complicated world, sometimes it's nice to just enjoy the simplicity of an old sewing machine.  This one is all that.