Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Japanese Workhorse and the Vintage Italian

Based on the title, I betcha didn't think this post would be about sewing machines, huh? If you're not disappointed, read on...

A while back I started learning about sewing machines. Why? I don't remember exactly, although I think it's at least in part because I've done leathercraft for years, making small fitted cases for knives, camping gear, etc. and I always stitched by hand, which sucks, so I wanted a machine that would sew heavier leather. Minor problem: a sewing machine for stitching heavy harness leather costs about $2500-4000+. Good news: I don't typically sew leather THAT heavy, so it turns out an industrial walking-foot upholstery machine will do most of what I need. New problem: industrial walking-foot sewing machines cost $1800 new, $900 used. Lucky find: a Craigslist classified ad for an unidentified Japanese-made Juki industrial sewing machine for $200. Although the picture in the ad was pretty crappy, I could tell from the paint scheme that the machine was not ridiculously old, and if I squinted just right I thought I saw a walking foot. I decided to go for it.

Turns out it's was for sale at some junk "emporium" south of Houston so I jumped in the Jeep, utility trailer in tow, and raced down to this place to have a look. Sure enough, it was a walking-foot upholstery machine that the guy purchased as part of a warehouse lot at auction. It had a few paint chips and some surface rust on a few exterior bits, but the insides were nice and oily with no signs of rust. I could see it would need cleaning/servicing and a few minor parts, but everything turned freely and the motor even ran. Sold! Good thing I moved quick because apparently there were three other people who also said they were coming right away to pick it up. There's something satisfying about literally racing to get a bargain.

Long story short I got it serviced, replaced the old clutch motor with a DC servo motor for better speed control, repainted the stand, and it works like a charm! If you can fit it under the foot, it will sew it, all day long. Truly a Japanese workhorse. Here's a few shots:

Behold the mighty walking foot:

Here's an example of what it will sew (it's clearly not finished but you get the idea):

There's only one problem with the Juki: it's a straight stitch only. Now admittedly, a straight stitch is all you ever need for sewing heavy leather, but I started to envision making other cool things like gear bags and camping stuff, out of heavy fabrics like ballistic nylon, canvas, tarps and seat belt webbing, and a zig-zag stitch is a must for that kind of work. I had no room for an industrial zig-zag and didn't really need one anyway, but I knew I'd need something with a little more grunt than Sarah's Bernina.

So I started trolling through vintage sewing machine forums and learned all kinds of cool stuff about sewing machines from days gone by. One machine in particular sounded just right for the job I had in mind. Enter the Vintage Italian: a 1950's Necchi BU "Mira". By all accounts the Italian-made Necchi BU Mira was a marvel of engineering and while not an industrial machine it could handle heavy stitching tasks that most home machines would balk at these days. Best of all, it has all steel components machined with nice tight tolerances and a healthy 1.1 amp motor. No plastic gears or internal timing belts to break. So I started keeping an eye out for one on Craigslist. It didn't take too long (sometimes it's handy living near a city of 4 million people!) before I found one that looked to be in decent shape and appeared to be in the original cabinet as well. I took a trip into Houston to check it out and it looked well worth the $80 asking price, so I took it home and started to clean it up, scrubbing years of old yellowed oil and grease off everything. I had to replace the old dried-out bobbin winder tire and un-seize the handwheel so the bobbin winder would work. The motor was in good shape, but all the wiring had deteriorated and had to be replaced. I converted the motor controller from a knee type to a foot type and replaced the 55 year-old belt with a new nylon cogged one. With a good oiling she runs as smooth and quiet as I imagine she ever did. Even the timing was still set correctly. Here's a few shots:

The cabinet has some dings and scratches but is fully functional:

Maybe you're not into the avocado green color and chrome but I think it's cool. The machine is nice and simple to operate too. There are three levers for needle position, stitch width, and stitch length. That weird contraption hanging off the front is a "Wonder Wheel" that can be connected to the needle position and stitch width levers to produce decorative stitches.

Why is it called the "Mira?" I dunno, but I guess it's as good a name as any for a hard-working Italian girl.

All steel, no plastic or belts!

Singer class 15 bobbin/hook. The green lever drops the feed dogs for embroidery/darning.

The other really cool thing was that the cabinet came crammed full of stuff! Extra bits and pieces for the machine, an automatic buttonholer, vintage sewing patterns, a tin full of buttons, and the original paperwork:

Apparently, a Mrs. Williams bought the machine in 1955 for the sum of $393!!! She traded in an old machine, put a little money down, and made payments of $10.62 a month for the next 2 years. I went to an online inflation calculator ( ) and found out that the purchase price of $393 in 1955 is like $3113.62 in 2009 dollars based on the Consumer Price Index. Crazy huh?

I haven't decided what my first project will be with this machine, but probably firewood totes or a barbeque cover.

Oh, and if any of you were thinking of calling me some kind of sissy for being into sewing machines, I'll refer you to the chainsaw post of 2009...

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