My Bastard Guinea Sewing Machine

I found a use for all the Ankara print cotton I’ve accumulated. One of my indulgences here in Guinea is flamboyant outfits – hot pink suits, indigo dresses, and bright red jacket coats that flare out like capes to my heels. I love them, though I don’t think I will be able to wear them in the States. I also pick up fabric for craft projects of my own (a later post I think). With the extra fabric and scraps I’d collected in the year+ I’ve been here, I could start making masks for myself and my friends!

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Alas, the movers back in America made off with my sewing machine. It never made it to the storage facility, and so never arrived in my requested boxes. The warehouse was very sorry, the moving company claimed they must have consolidated the sewing machine into another box (unlikely, since the original box had its own tag. Anyway I’m not here to whine about those jerks.)

Then I had a brainwave – I would buy a mechanical machine, like my tailor uses! They’re everywhere here.  Guinean tailors use mechanical machines, due to the lack of consistent energy. They’re old push-pedal machines (treadles), and I think they’re great. I’ve always like old mechanical objects – the tactile feel of them, the sounds of things working together. I thought it would be fun to relearn how to sew using my feet as the motor. Unfortunately, when I asked my tailor where I could find a machine and table, he just said “maybe Medina.”

The Medina is Conakry’s largest market district, a teeming hive of sweaty activity. It is said you can get anything in Medina, but you have to know exactly where to go or you could get lost, pickpocketed, and possibly dysentery. I don’t like to put places down to strangers, but I’ve been past the vast length of the Medina and felt very much like it was the wrong sort of adventure for me. It’s the only time I’ve seen a literal cloud of flies.

I put feelers out in the community, and found a contact who knew a guy who would get me my machine. I should have seen red flags when he tried to sell me the machine only, no means of making it go. It was a Singer machine, roughly one hundred dollars – the photo was of a table machine. That was about what I’d pay for a basic electric machine in the States, but I knew it was going to last if it was a Singer. I explained I’d need the table and a manual on how to set things up. That’d be extra, as would a manual – thirty bucks for each. Thirty bucks for the manual? Seemed extreme to me, but I was so excited! You have to understand, I was really in love with this plan.

When they dropped off the items, I was so excited. The heftiness of the box felt so good! It felt like it would outlast anything, like I could take it around the world and it would never break. The table had its treadle gears in place, and while the color was a little off/ oddly lacquered, I wasn’t going to let cosmetics get in the way of my happiness. I was going to build a machine and start sewing again! Then my friend handed me a weird plastic grocery bag wrapped around a heavy object.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“He said it was your manual,” she answered. Curious, I opened the bag outside to reveal a heavy metal handle. It wasn’t the gear for turning the machine, but it was definitely the means of doing something manually….

Manual. Damnit. I didn’t say anything, not wanting to look ungrateful for all the work my friend had done to get the machine to me. French isn’t her first language, and it’s not always the merchant’s first language either.

It was fine. It would all work out in the end. I’m good with machines and getting things to work.

Sigh.

The table wasn’t like my tailor’s or any of the functioning ones I’d seen in any of the other shops. My tailor’s has a little cupboard in the top that opens to fold the machine down into it. This was balsa wood at odd angles, drawers jammed shut, unwilling to open. This was a pull-off lid that just pulled off and didn’t slide back in. This was cheap aluminum casings that weren’t squared to any line. This was my nightmare – everything just off enough to not work.

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Not enough to be truly broken, just enough to not sit on the edges safely

And the machine said “Singer” in big, beautiful, golden letters on the side, till I realized it wasn’t a real Singer machine. Some initial research searching for how-to guides led me to this blog which researched the model number to reveal a Chinese knockoff of a Japanese competitive blueprint of a Singer model.

Fine. Whatever. It’s a big heavy mechanical machine. It’ll be fine as long as it works.

Friends, it doesn’t want to work.

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So, first of all you may notice an orange cable along the wheel. That cable was too long by about two inches and wouldn’t catch – to big for the fly wheel. I had to trim it down and tape it with help from my husband to hold the edges together.

Fine.

Then there was the pedal mechanism. It stuck repeatedly and the only way to move it forward was to manually turn the wheel.

Fine….

The holes on the bottom of the machine were poorly placed and the cable (when it decided to catch), rubbed the edges of the holes. I had to take some pliers and open the holes manually.

Fine. Fine. Fine.

Then came spooling a bobbin. I had some practice thread available. The mechanism for spinning the bobbin was off by just enough that it didn’t want to slide on unless it was forced. Never the less, I got the damn thing in place.

And then things started working. The tinkering and taping and frustration culminated in fifteen seconds where the bobbin was actually taking up thread and the cable was running along the track and the thread was (mostly) feeding through the machine. My feet were humming back and forth. Satisfaction! Oh my God, it was beautiful in that moment. I felt triumphant, seamstress once more!!

Then the connecting rod popped out of place with a *tang!* and the wheel froze and I realized that though everything appeared to be going well, in fact the just slightly off foot on the bobbin uptake meant that it wasn’t helping to keep the thread moving. Also the tension dial appeared to be a nut and washer with a piece of stamped rubber covering it, giving the illusion of tension control.

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Ping!
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The cruel false victory bobbin…

 

…..So maybe not fine.

I’m reading a lot about wellness, since I’m currently stuck in my house. About doing things that make you feel satisfied with yourself, or make you feel like you have tangible control over your life.

So tell me – if I take a sledgehammer to this knockoff bastard machine – will I find peace?

“You’re surprised that you bought a machine table sight unseen in Conakry and didn’t get a piece of craftsmanship?” my husband correctly chided. He’s right – I should have braved Medina, looked at the table, and laughed in the seller’s face. China runs the market on cheap knockoff goods, on capitalizing on brands without delivering on the quality of the name. I got too excited by possibilities, and Guinea has provided me a hefty, bulky reminder.

And I still can’t figure out what the damn manual handle is for….

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You win this round, China…

2 thoughts on “My Bastard Guinea Sewing Machine

  1. Jamelium,
    Sorry you’ve had a hard time with this machine. Sounds like there was a mix up as what “manual” means. You don’t need the hand crank if you’ve got a treadle table. These machines do need proper setting up and you haven’t had the benefit of that. Singer use to provide tuition as part of buying a new machine. Please persevere with getting it set up. There are good online resources for treadle machines – treadle on is a good one. These Chinese machines aren’t as good as the originals but are relatively a lot cheaper than the originals. I the 1920’s a Single treadle would be more than a typical monthly wage…..

    Hope you get it sorted. I think it can work well with enough effort!
    Regards,
    Dan H

    1. I will definitely check it out! Despite my tone, I have this nagging sense that I can make it work. I’m thinking if I can find a proper treadle table, then some of the machine kinks may work themselves out.

      Your blog post was very helpful in figuring out a little more about my machine, and I was cheered to read that the mechanical machines are better regarded than their electric counterparts.

      Also, you may be the first person to comment on my blog in five years – congratulations! I hope I channel at least one reader to your blog.

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