I got zig-zag! Or how to fix a vintage sewing machine by dropping pieces on the floor.


I’ve had this machine since I was a teenager in the ’80s. A neighbor gave it to me and I have no idea where she got it. For the next couple decades I hauled it with me through college and graduate school, to Canada and back, through a marriage and a divorce. I think it was my heaviest single belonging until I bought a car.

DSCN0881 (The cover still has a sticker from college dorm storage.)

But I didn’t really know what I had. It could straight stitch with some moaning and grumbling but the selectors knobs on the front were non-functional and all the possibilities described in the manual seemed like absurd fantasies. I never got around to either getting it serviced or buying a new one. I grew up hand-sewing and using a third-world hand-crank straight-stitch only machine. So I made do.

I didn’t know old the machine was. I didn’t know anything about it, except that it was awfully heavy and the table was handy as extra furniture. Then a couple years ago when I was visiting my mother, her boyfriend came home from his home-remodelling job with a scrap of newspaper he had found inside a wall. It was dated 1959. He brought it home to show us a news article but I immediately noticed the ad: Singer Slant-O-Matic 401, The Greatest Sewing Machine Ever Made. I owned an antique! You probably knew that already.

I looked online. I discovered that this machine was much loved, ubiquitous, and apparently indestructible. It was, in the words of the woman at the sewing studio down the road, the Honda Accord of sewing machines. So I took out my screwdriver and fiddled with those selector knobs until they sat right. I read the manual and found the section on maintenance. I opened the top. I opened the bottom. I cleaned with q-tips and rags. I bought a bottle of oil at Joann’s and oiled everything. Joann’s had no lubricant but the experts online said I could use petroleum jelly. It ran smoother. I made a couple shirts. I made the dress in the last post. I discovered Sew-Classic and bought another foot, some bobbins, and lubricant. I downloaded a repair manual.

But…the selector knobs were still reluctant to do much. They shifted reluctantly through the cams. If I tried to zig to the left, the needle would shift but would get stuck going down. If I tried to zag to the right, the needle stayed in the center. This week I took my courage in both hands and tried to follow the various steps in the repair manual for checking and removing and replacing things. I took things apart not knowing if I could put them back again. Nothing seemed to make much difference.


Today I tackled the needle bar. I thought that perhaps the problem lay with the “bushings” that clutched it at both ends. I loosened the screw on the armature that held it and pulled it out. But the “bushings” baffled me and I wasn’t able to do much there. So I tried to put the needle bar back. It wouldn’t go. The armature had spun loosely around. I tried to fiddle with it. It came tumbling out of the machine, split into two little pieces and rolled under my desk! Ack! My worst nightmare!

I managed to find the two pieces and began to put them back together when I noticed they seemed a little gunked up. Q-tip, toothpick, and screwdriver revealed a solid little chunk of lint stuffed in there. And a jagged hard point blocking the little tubes from sliding into each other. Solidified oil? Metal shaving? Dunno but it’s gone, along with the lint ball. And that is what was screwing up the zig-zag. Something I would never have found without dropping those pieces on the floor!


One Response to “I got zig-zag! Or how to fix a vintage sewing machine by dropping pieces on the floor.”

  1. adaisygarden Says:

    My Dad is an upholsterer and though he has some “newer” machines, his favorite is one he bought in 1967! He has a repairman work on it whenever it needs adjusting or a new part. The repairman is very creative in finding replacement parts for it. It runs beautifully and very smoothly. It’s my favorite, too 🙂

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