I have been hearing and seeing many sewing machines described as “heirloom quality”. To me this connotes a vision of a sewing machine built to last for many generations… hundreds of years of service with simple oiling and cleaning.
The dictionary defines heirloom as “A valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations”. How long is the span of a generation? Wikipedia defines the length of a generation as this…”In population biology and demography, the generation time is the average time between two consecutive generations in the lineages of a population. In human populations, the generation time typically ranges from 22 to 33 years”. So, if we lean to the longer period of 33 years, a one hundred year old heirloom is only 3 generations old.
Now, back to the subject, what is an heirloom quality sewing machine and why do I care? Obviously, it depends on the definition of heirloom quality. There are many vintage sewing machines that incorporate plastic parts that have lived long enough to pass thru at least one generation. For example, a vintage sewing machine made in 1978 (date chosen because by that time, the all metal sewing machine was a fading memory) has been around 41 years. Based on my assumptions, It has been passed down once, and is in the hands of the second generation and may have sentimental value. It meets the definition of “heirloom”. Springs became very common in sewing machines in the early 1950’s (2 generations) and though they are “all metal”, the springs prove to be a weak spot in their design to last many generations.
Lets contrast this with a Singer model 27 we own and sew with regularly. It was made in 1874. It has been around for 145 years. Based on my assumptions, it has been passed down four times and is in the hands of the fifth generation.
Are they all heirloom quality sewing machines? I’m going to take a side and say no… nope… nada… forget about it. They are as different as black is to white. There is no real comparison. Why? the old all metal, and I mean no plastic anywhere except the motor belt and bobbin tire (textolite is an exception… see my blog on this subject) is immune to failure from regular use or the ravages of time (barring abuse or leaving it in the yard for the winter). They can be passed from generation to generation forever. To me, heirloom quality is devoid of springs, plastic gears, plastic cams, plastic covers, plastic control knobs, etc. They are made with steel, bronze, aluminum, magnesium, and cast iron. They are precision machined to run with simple maintenance, and the typical time these machines are actually run suggests that they can sew forever… With simple regular lubrication and cleaning, the sewing mechanism will never wear out. I’m serious, our 1874 machine still has tight precision fit everywhere and the sewing mechanism is smooth as silk. Even though the paint has worn to bare metal in places, the machine is unaffected in its performance. Electricity was an emerging science and not yet envisioned for electric motor driven sewing machines. They were run with a hand crank or a treadle belt. Our started out as a treadle but is now fitted with an electric motor for convenience… It is interesting to note that the motors used on the early machines still run even after almost 100 years! True heirloom quality sewing machines are very common. They include all of the “black” singers, all metal Necchis, Elnas, Bernina’s, Kenmores, New Homes, White’s, and many others.
Plastic on the other hand degrades with time. It cannot be prevented or avoided. A plastic gear anywhere will break in time. Springs will break over time. Any plastic part used to operate a control function of the machine will be rendered inoperable.
Ten there are “almost all metal” hybrids. There are a very large number of good quality vintage sewing machines that have all metal sewing mechanisms EXCEPT for one or maybe two minor plastic gears. I have several such machines that are 60 years old and still running fine… but they will not stand the test of time. The composition of the plastic prove they can’t, and replacement parts are not obtainable. Even these otherwise all metal machines must be evaluated for heirloom quality. I have replaced more than one spring necessary for proper function of the machine. Even if available, a replacement plastic gear will in its time break again.
What about all metal machines constructed with no plastic but incorporate springs? I would say that they are superior in all other respects to their plastic parts cousins, but true heirloom quality? That’s a distinction you must make.
Why do I care? To me, the answer lies in how long CAN a sewing machine last, not how long has a sewing machine lasted. Why would I choose to make this distinction between a machine that has proven itself for 60 years and still running strong? Well, I think that under the right circumstances, a sewing machine may prove itself to be a necessity. Much the same as they were when they were first introduced to the domestic market. I would like to think that as a necessity, an heirloom sewing machine would be defined as a machine that will work reliably for many generations. There is no second place for a machine that will be rendered inoperable simply because a key part or component that cannot be replaced broke merely due to its composition and age.
What do you think?