My Sewing Machines

Brooks Ann Camper's sewing machines

Before I start blogging about my summer bride, I thought I’d tell you a bit about my sewing machines, including the new additions to my studio. New to me, that is.

My Bernina 1080

Until very recently, I’ve only ever owned one sewing machine. Though my grandmother Agnes was a professional seamstress, I didn’t learn to sew until I was an adult. Agnes was the type of woman who liked to give thoughtful gifts, especially ones that she also loved herself. So if a loved one shared a passion with her, she loved having the excuse to shop for her favorite things. (I’ve got a lot of Fiestaware thanks to Agnes!)

My grandmother Agnes as a young woman
My grandmother Agnes as a young woman

1997, my senior year in college, was the year I first learned to sew and the first year Agnes finally had a granddaughter that was seriously interested in sewing! My graduation gift from college before I headed off to Yale for a costuming internship, was a Bernina 1080.

Brooks Ann Camper Bridal Couture
My Bernina 1080 – A gift from my grandmother Agnes in 1997

This is a really nice machine. In the 18 years I’ve used it, I have never had a single problem with it. It sews like a dream…

I often get asked my opinion on the best sewing machine for beginners, and I have surprisingly little advice. I’ve only ever worked with high quality machines (which may be a secret to my success). Most beginners don’t want to spend $1000 on their first machine, but if there is any way to swing it, that is what I recommend.

The experience working with a really nice machine makes sewing much easier and more enjoyable. Need advice on tension issues? I’m not going to be a lot of help, because I’ve never had them. Machine acting funny/skipping stitches/bunching thread/breaking needles? I can research how to help you, but I’ve got no advice based on personal experience. Since I have an awesome machine, I can focus on the fun parts of sewing rather than pulling out my hair while troubleshooting machine issues.

Brooks Ann Camper Bridal Couture
My 1080 – The only machine I’ve ever owned until very recently

I’ve run my entire business using only this one machine and I totally trust it to make beautiful stress-free stitches every time. I am so grateful of this generous gift that proves invaluable year after year!

Agnes’s Glaco Industrial

From the late 50s to the early 80s, Agnes worked in an East Texas sewing factory. Maulouf Manufacturing made women’s clothing for J.C. Penny stores. At Malouf, Agnes was a sample maker. The sample maker makes the first garment from start to finish. This sample garment must then be approved by the designer and creative directors before it is sent to be mass produced in the factory.

This was her machine.

Brooks Ann Camper's industrial sewing machine
Agnes’s industrial sewing machine from her sewing factory days

While working at Malouf, Agnes saved her money. She eventually used the money to build a house and she made certain that there was a sewing room. When she retired, she bought her machine from the company and moved it into her new sewing room. She still really loved to sew!

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My grandmother, my Mom and her 3 little sisters all in Agnes-made clothing.

When Agnes died in 2002, (only a month before I moved to New York City and landed a job as a Broadway milliner) she left her beloved sewing equipment to me.

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My grandmother (middle), my Mom (to her left) and her three little sisters all in Agnes-made clothing.

Having limited sewing space until I moved into the Eno River Mill last year, I never had room for a large industrial machine. Even when relocating from New York to North Carolina, Agnes’s machine was still over 1000 miles away stashed in my parents’ garage in Texas.

Brooks Ann Camper's industrial sewing machine
Agnes’s industrial sewing machine at home in my Sewing Room

My parents recently bought a new truck (all Texans need trucks, right?) and my dad was itching for a road trip this summer. He’s always loved driving, so moving Agnes’s machine out of his garage and into my Sewing Room seemed like a perfect excuse.

Now Agnes’s Glaco Industrial finally has a new home where it will be used and loved as a member of the family.

Agnes’s BabyLock Serger

When Agnes left Malouf, she also bought her serger. Is it not the most adorable piece of equipment you’ve ever seen?

Brooks Ann's serger
Agnes’s industrial serger from her sewing factory days

This one is portable and has been with me for many years. Unfortunately, I never use a serger! I personally don’t care much for the “manufactured” look it gives to garments. I always strive to make my handcrafted clothes look better than manufactured ones, not to replicate them. I also find sergers frustrating to thread and troubleshoot.

That said, I found a local repairman who I think could get this little beauty in tip-top working order and perhaps inspire me to use it more often. Actually, I just want an excuse to meet this guy. Read about Sam Johnson, a 90-year old who has been repairing sewing machines in North Carolina for over 50 years.

My In-Law’s Heirloom Singer

Another new-to-me machine was passed down from my father-in-law’s family. It is a Singer and, after some research, I learned that it is a “Red Eye” Model 66 that was most likely manufactured in early 1910. It is a treadle machine that at one point was retrofit with a motor.

Brooks Ann's treadle machine
My Singer 66 “Red Eye” inherited from my in-laws

It’s an absolutely gorgeous machine that came housed in a handsome oak table. Since I don’t plan to actually sew with this machine, my husband made a wood base so that it could be showcased beautifully on my bookshelves.

My Mom’s Singer

If you read my essay in Seamwork magazine, you’ll know my mom doesn’t sew. My mom’s Singer came out of her brother-in-law’s grandfather’s house when he passed and no one else was interested in it. It is a very well-made and well-maintained machine.

It is a Singer Fashion Mate 257 and the manual that I found online is ©1971. My husband installed it into the 1910 Singer cabinet so that it can be used by my sewing students.

Brooks Ann's Singer Mash-up
Brooks Ann’s 1971’s Singer in a 1910 Singer cabinet

If someone asks me what sewing machine they should buy, I first say a Bernina. If that is out of their price range, I recommend searching thrift stores (or asking relatives) to find a vintage machine. In my opinion, a brand-new plastic machine is not nearly as good of an investment as an all-metal pre-1980s machine. You can often find machines still in great shape decades later because they were really well-made.

I bet a lot of beginner sewists give up on sewing because they think they aren’t good at it. More than likely, their frustrations and/or less-than-stellar results were simply due to crappy tools, materials, or equipment.

Vintage machines are also super-cute.

Version 2

When my parents drove up in the big truck this summer, my mom also brought along her Fashion Mate. She had never managed to actually use it herself and knew it would be right at home in my Sewing Room with all of my other new(old) beauties!

 

What kind of sewing machine do you love to use? Do you have any heirloom machines?

 

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31 Responses

  1. Dear Brooks, I love my Bernina and I can SO relate to you! But unlike you my first machine was a
    Kenmore and sewing on a Bernina didn’t come till many years later. Yes they are a spendy investment (we sold a car to buy my machine!) but I have not needed to replace it in over 20 years! I love my Bernina 1230! The designer Kenneth D. King once commented that “…if there was a fire in my studio I’d grab my Bernina 1230!” Your advice for a new sewer is right on! Purchasing a vintage machine can be one of the best ways to start out. It’s cheaper to get into and the old machines are pretty solid. Your grandmother was a talented woman and she’d be very proud of you!

  2. I totally agree with you about older machines. I bought brand new a Sears Kenmore machine, likely in the late ’80’s . Thinking I needed to upgrade for business purposes, I saved forever did tones of research and got many opinions. And finally settled on a Husqavarna , I almost hate it! It is so finicky and is constantly breaking threads, tension is an issue also. So I generally use my old Kenmore, great stitches and no more constant breaking threads. (Even though I got the recommended thread and changed my needle for each project on the Husqavarna, it still grieves me). As well, I too have my moms old Singer machine, it’s working and such a beautiful piece from the 50’s.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences Sheila! It’s nice to work on older machines not only for their quality, but for their history. The quality makes sewing less frustrating and the history makes it more special.

  3. I started with my Mom’s Kenmore 158.17800. Still a great machine even 35+ years after she bought it. She gave it to me 25 years ago. It’s almost all metal and so heavy! Several years ago, I bought myself a Viking Sapphire 830 and nearly cried when I made my first buttonholes with it. Perfect every time! It’s so fun to have a machine with lots of features. Some people have trouble with this same model, but it’s been a dream for me. I also have a serger I never use, a 1924 Singer 99 electric that I’ve actually used to make a garment, a 1909 White treadle that needs the new belt I bought installed, and an embroidery machine that I really need to put to better use on my projects. I didn’t set out to have a collection, but many of the machines have found me and I’m very grateful. I just need a room to put them all in!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing about your machines Jeanne Marie! I also never set out to have a collection, but isn’t it great when special things just seem to find you? As if it were meant to be!

  4. It’s so wonderful when things get passed down. Except for the occasional Halloween costume, I wasn’t exposed to much sewing while growing up. However, I enjoy living vicariously through family histories like yours.

    Your advice to buy a Bernina or find a vintage machine makes so much sense to me given the reputation for both. I bought a mid-range, computerized Husqvarna machine and convertible serger from a local dealer several years ago. They suit me fine, but I can tell that old school, no-frills, metal machines are where its at. I’d love to find one.

    P.S. I might have to knock off the outfit your grandmother’s wearing in the photo in front of the truck – that popped collar and belt are slaying me!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Najah! It was really fun to talk with my mom to research and get the actual info about where my grandmother worked, what she did at the factory, and got her machines. She and her sisters sent me so many photos of Agnes-made clothes it was hard to choose which to add into this post. I’d absolutely love to see your Agnes inspired knock off! Isn’t she gorgeous!?

  5. My first time ever on a sewing machine was with my grandma’s ALFA Modelo 01, a Spanish treadle machine, ng on her lap. I loooooved the noise. I do not use it all the time because it is almost a hundred years old and I am afraid of breaking it. My grandma left it to me because I am the only one in the family with the sewing gene.

    Then my mom bought me one of those cheap white plastic machines from a supermarket. It has served me well, tension problems and irregular stitch lenght and all. Now I used it mostly for knits and jerseys. It was great for learning because if you can sew with one of these you can sew with anything!

    Now I mostly sew with an old Singer 237 made in UK. It is a workhorse. Ours is true love.

    I have never tried a Bernina. I will never be able to afford one. Then again I am not a professional, I just sew for my own pleasure.

    BTW, I would love to see the inside of your garments. I am kind of very old school and overcast almost everything by hand…

    Your grandma looks very, very pretty and elegant.

    1. I loved hearing about your Spanish treadle and your Singer sounds awesome! Hopefully you’ll keep up with the blog where you’ll be able to see inside of my garments. I blog the whole process from start to finish, as I make each bride’s dress. You can see inside the dresses currently on my website by clicking the “Follow the story of…” buttons in the Portfolio and on the sidebar of the Blog. And yes, my grandmother was an elegant knockout! I really miss her…

  6. BrooksAnn, I have a thing for vintage machines. Hell, any sewing machine, it seems. I currently own 11, including 2 sergers. My husband fears for my sanity. But, I have also given away many machines over the years to people who are either learning to sew or someone who has a broken machine. I’m amazed that the 1930s Singer 99 that I have can sew so well after all these years. The vintage machines are so durable. I have my mother-in-law’s old White Rotary 77 that is a hideous green khaki with a crinkle finish. I used it to make part of my sister’s wedding gown. I have an old Universal Deluxe sewing machine that I found in a thrift shop for $25. It’s a sewing workhorse. It works so hard that it continues to sew a few stitches after you take your foot off the pedal! I inherited my mother’s sewing machine that she made all of my childhood dresses on. Daddy bought it for her in the 50s, and it was the last machine Singer manufactured with spindle bobbins. Each of my machines has so many individual qualities that I love that it will be difficult to part with them!

    1. I love it Lisa! I had no idea you had such a collection. Here I was for the past 18 years thinking ONE machine would do! I absolutely adore the stories of everyone’s machines. They truly do become treasured members of your family.

  7. Hi Brooks Ann

    I always enjoy your posts but this one was particularly interesting, I have a collection of machines, from new-ish to 120 years old. I love them all, they have all been used and loved by sewers. The one that caught my eye though is your Mums Singer Fashion Mate, bought in 1971. My Mum bought the same machine also in 1971, but in the Uk, where it was called a Singer Merrit (the first name of Mr Singer I believe) I learnt to sew on it, made many pieces of clothing and It now belongs to me. It’s works beautifully, never missing a stitch, and I’ve also used it for free motion work, which it handled as well as any other job.
    Once you start to collect machines it becomes a life long love, I’ve over 30, and would be hard pressed to pick a favourite!

    1. Oh wow Beverley! Over 30 machines! I guess I’m just getting started on my collection. I can’t wait to give the FashionMate/Singer Merrit some serious sewing time. Sounds like all the machines that chose me (I didn’t choose any of them) are excellent and I love hearing the stories about everyone else’s machines!

  8. I absolutely LOVE this post Brooks Ann! When I set out to start sewing I scoured the web for information on the best machine for a beginner AND that was within my price range. i found through my research just what you said: vintage all metal machines are where it’s at for quality and longevity. Through my research, I decided on a Kenmore. I actually found the exact machine I wanted (blue and all!) on Craigslist and got it for a great price (actually, my then fiancee now husband got it for me as a gift!) I absolutely love my machine. I know I may upgrade in some years, but I cannot tell you how working with a substantial and sturdy machine inspires confidence in what i sew. It is because I don’t ever feel that I will break it! Its all metal, weighs a lot, and is really straight forward. Adjustments are easy and it just makes me feel so “at home” when I sew on it. I LOVE this post a lot! Thank you so much for sharing the history of your machines!!!

    1. Thanks for sharing your machine story too Michelle! I’m so glad you didn’t get something new for the same price you paid for your trusty Kenmore. New is not always better. Expensive is not always better. Your vintage machine sounds perfect for you! (And so does your husband!)

  9. I really enjoy reading this post, I have a Bernina Aurora 450 sewing machine as well and like it thus far. But I’ve always wanted an older Bernina sewing machine. Your posts are always so informative and interesting. I’m also using your tutorial to build my sewing/cutting table and my ironing table :)

    I hope one day you will write an article on dress forms.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad to hear from a fellow Bernina lover and am excited that you are making your own cutting and ironing tables. They are the best! And a dress form post is a great idea!

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience with machines! I learned to sew in home-ec class in 1968 and fell in love with it immediately. After home-ec I didn’t have access to sewing until 1973 when I took an evening class at our local high school – I was in grade 13 during the day :) and of course the youngest student in the evening sewing class which was fun! I did some sewing but gradually left it behind until last year when for my 60th my husband suggested “sewing” as a birthday gift since it was something I had often reminisced about with longing :) I jumped at the offer and went off to find a sewing machine. My first experience was discouraging (a Husqvarna emerald which was quite pricey for what it turned out to be!) and then about 6 months ago I found a used machine being sold locally that our local shop knew well having sold it to the lady I was buying it from and she had it serviced there as well. I love, love love this machine! An elna excellence 740. I think used machines are a great way to buy a good machine at a reasonable price point! I also bought a Husqvarna serger and this was a complete success. I love this S25 serger! It’s computerized so much of the tension figuring is done for you and sews like a dream.

    1. Thanks for commenting Kathleen! I love this story! I’m so glad you are getting back into sewing and have found a machine you like. Good tools and equipment can make a world of difference, not only with a better-looking results but also in the enjoyment of the process.

  11. I am so glad I stumbled upon this post and your website. I just finished sending an email to my little sewers families (I just opened a small sewing school for kids) with the same advice about quality machines and for the same reason you gave. I almost gave up on sewing because I thought I really sucked at it even though I loved doing it. I even had a vintage, solid machine with all the special presser feet and manual (Singer 99k, 1955). But since I was a complete beginner, no classes, no mentor, just winging it by looking at a garment, a book or a Youtube video, I was clueless on issues that arise with machines – like tension and even keeping a straight line. Then I got a birthday gift from my husband – a Pfaff Ambition. WOW! What a difference. And I took off. You are right in that you really need to build up your sewing skills (and confidence) with a good machine first. Now, I can go back to my singer, not get frustrated with tension – because I now know what its supposed to look like and I know how to tweak it without thinking that I can’t sew. AND I have the confidence of going back on it and playing around with those fancy feet that can ruffle, and do all kinds of folds, lace attachments etc.. I don’t even have those feet for my machine yet! Oh, and… I just started taking classes in custom couture sewing and discovered (later in life I might add) that I love and am good at Pattern drafting!! I wish I would have discovered this aspect of me in college not discovering it 30 years later!! But better late than never! Who knows where this may lead. – but for now, I am happy teaching kids the basics of garment sewing. :)

  12. I just stumbled upon your post. Up until 2002 I was designing custom wedding gowns, accessories and jewelry, managing a salon and was a buyer. I too, purchased a Bernina 1080! It has been a very faithful machine. After I had to leave full time employment due to a neurological illness, Continued in bridal designing custom couture wedding veils, primarily silk veils, on Etsy. The Bernina is amazing for its perfect stitches that you can stitch just on the inside edge of ribbon all the while the tension is perfect. The only time I took the Bernina for service was when I had a problem with thread breaking. I was using a large cone of silk thread. Long story short, after two trips to the dealer, much to my embarrassment I discovered that the cone of thread was bad! I did decide to buy a second machine as a backup, a Bernina 1630 that I found on eBay. It was like new! It was the machine I wanted way back when, but was out of my price range at the time. When people ask me about what me to buy, like you I tell them to look for vintage machines. I highly recommend either the top end Bernina or Juki (they are virtually identical except for some cosmetic and of course price. The top Juki is like the top midline Bernina, both mechanics are Juki). While no serger is easy to thread, Bernina does have some good self threading guides. Much better than BabyLock! Your work is so beautiful, your customers are so fortunate to work with you

    1. So nice to meet you Elizabeth! I love hearing stories of people who love their machines, especially my beloved 1080. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your brides!

  13. A friend of mine scored a treasure a few years back. She went to a used furniture store, and they were selling this little desk for twenty-five bucks. They didn’t understand why it was so heavy; it was a sewing table that contained a flip-out mounted sewing machine in great condition, complete with different feet for various grades of fabric and modes of sewing or decoration. And all of the drawers were well ordered and filled with sewing supplies. My crikies.

    Me: I just have an old Singer 533 Stylist that I picked up for all of five bucks at a garage sale so I could teach myself to sew and make myself dance costumes. I have to say that modern day writers of computer software documentation could take a few leaves from the manual writers of yore, who wrote so clearly that a newbie like I could come to a machine like that without any experience and learn to sew.

  14. Hello, I am your half-second cousin (I think that is correct) Your Great grandmother was a seamstress also and worked with Agnes at one time.
    My only experience sewing was on a double needles old treadle Singer that was used to sew canvas for backdrops and covering for amusement rides and funhouses when I was in the business.

  15. Hi Brooks,
    it was a great story of your sewing machine evolution. glad to know your passion about it. your post was also very great. thanks for sharing your experience with us

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Hi there! I'm Brooks Ann.

I’m an independent designer and couture dressmaker for one-of-a-kind bridalwear located in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I also teach the sew-curious both in-person and online.

My blog follows along with the couture process of how each heirloom-quality custom wedding dress is made from idea to wedding day, as well as other interesting tidbits related to sewing, weddings, and body positivity.

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