Build Me a Better Sewing Machine, Please

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Tompkins Weekly     2-27-17

By Wendy Skinner

Build me a better sewing machine, please. And while you’re at it, a better refrigerator, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, and for Pete’s sake, a pencil sharpener that actually works.

Consumers are at the mercy of manufacturers who produce low-quality household goods that will be sent to landfills in record time, leaving us little option but to buy the same item again. Just a few decades ago, we had a choice to spend more on a high-quality item if we wanted to. These days, a lot of high-quality household items simply don’t exist.

Sewing machines are a prime example. The fundamental technology for a sewing machine was introduced around 1850. After a few design tweaks, gorgeous, long-lasting machines began to be manufactured for the household market. By the early 1900s, almost every home had a sewing machine.

For more than 100 years, mechanical sewing machines served their owners well. These simple, reparable, all-metal machines just kept chugging along. There was almost no reason why a sewing machine would need to be replaced in one’s lifetime. In fact, machines were typically passed down for at least three generations.

Compare three generations with the three years (!) the modern sewing machine industry expects its lower-end products to last. When your inexpensive machine breaks – and it will – you’ll have to go buy a new one. I don’t think the word “travesty” is too strong for this nonsensical cycle. Mechanical sewing machines don’t need updates; they don’t need to embrace newer and faster technologies; they don’t rely on towers, satellites or monthly service plans.

I fix older sewing machines, so I meet many people who want to continue to use their reliable old machines, or who have inherited or purchased older machines. These consumers know that a pre-1970s machine in good condition will likely run for at least another 30 to 60 years. I have fixed 85-year-old machines that run like new. Good design, strong materials, and fine machining with very small tolerances add up to incredible longevity.

A Peace Corps volunteer told me of her experience with new and old sewing machines. She was assigned to a remote area of the Philippines where she was to give out machines and teach women how to sew as a potential profession. When the machines arrived from China, she discovered that – besides being inappropriate for the climate and lack of electricity – they were flimsy and easily broken. She was heartbroken to have to tell her students that the program was a bust, until she noticed some old metal treadle sewing machines hidden away in sheds and even one lying in a ditch. She learned to repair these machines and within a few months, the program was humming to the sound of working machines with no need for electric power.

My goal is to fix up as many vintage sewing machines as I can. Two weaknesses of this plan are that I cannot keep up with the demand, and the number of salvageable machines is dwindling. Some of the old hulks, left to rust in barns and garages, just cannot be brought back to life.

What we need now is a brand-new take on the sewing machine. Not so much the time-proven technology but the physical package. A few consumer products have actually improved over time such as high-performance bicycles, skis and skateboards. The sewing machine is not on the list of high-performance products because there is no one to champion it. My plea is for inventors, materials engineers and manufacturers to take up the cause. How would you use new materials to mimic the durability and reliability of the old machines but with less weight, and maybe a return to foot-driven power? The world is waiting.

Wendy Skinner is the founder and director of SewGreen, a not-for-profit sewing reuse and education program for adults and young people; she can be reached at ithacasews@gmail.com.

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