While COVID-19 presented numerous challenges for most Americans, for Globe’s Jim Lindstrom, the pandemic also launched a new passion: restoring old sewing machines.
A modern-day Renaissance man of sorts, the Pickle Barrel Trading Post manager was already a gifted graphic designer, gardener, and photographer. But about a year ago, when he grew bored with photography, he revisited his childhood interest in sewing machines.
“I’ve always had a weird fascination with cameras and sewing machines,” he says.
No stranger to sewing, Jim grew up watching his mother, a gifted sewer (although according to Jim, she hated sewing), make down jackets and other clothes for Jim, his dad, and his brother and sister. “I used to watch her, and I thought it was so interesting to watch this machine make different stitches and zigzags.”
Even today, he can spend hours in his sewing room stitching pieces of fabric, which he finds relaxing.
“I love the way sewing machines sound, because each one is different,” he says. “Some have this cool vintage clackety sound that I love hearing.”
He learned to sew himself in home economics class in junior high, a skill that came in handy in the 1980s when he began making pants with a friend to wear to the dance clubs they frequented. The pants, which flared when you spun around on the dance floor, became so popular the two friends started selling them.
Years later, when the pandemic started, Jim’s coworker at the Pickle Barrel convinced him to get back into sewing. He began making masks, which became wildly popular due to their unique, comfortable design and fun southwestern prints.
He eventually grew tired of keeping up with the massive demand for the masks and started making and selling ribbon skirts instead. “Of course, I needed an expensive sewing machine for that, and then another sewing machine,” he says with a laugh. “Eventually, I decided I needed a vintage one.”
After purchasing the vintage machine, Jim wanted to learn how to take it apart and fix it. He watched videos on YouTube, and before long, he was buying old sewing machines, restoring them, and reselling them at the Pickle Barrel Trading Post where he works.
At any given time, he has four to five he’s selling, and another ten at home that he’s working on. He takes them apart, cleans everything, puts the machine back together, and make sure it sounds right and runs smoothly.
The most exciting part for him is when he gives the machines – which are always filthy – their first bath.
“The minute you wipe all that dirt off, you go, ‘Oh my God, this thing is beautiful underneath, especially the ones with really ornate details.’”
Although the first sewing machine dates back to 1755, it wasn’t until 1855 that the design was patented for what became the basis of the modern sewing machine. Throughout the 1850s, several inventors continued perfecting the design and applying for patents, each suing the others for patent infringement, triggering what became known as the Sewing Machine War.
However, most of the machines Jim refurbishes were manufactured in the 1940s or later. The most popular brands he sees are Singer, Bernina, and Pfaff, but every once in a while, he finds a “clone” – a sewing machine from the 1940s or 1950s sold under a different brand.
He finds most of his project machines on eBay, Etsy, the Goodwill Marketplace, and Facebook Marketplace, although sometimes they find him. One time, a woman in a Phaff Facebook group contacted Jim and wanted him to have her grandmother’s Phaff 30 because of his obvious love for sewing machines.
Regardless of where he finds them, a lot of the thrill is in the chase. “Sometimes you get obsessed with finding them. It’s almost like a gambling addiction,” he laughs.
Although he sells most of the machines he refurbishes, he has several that he can’t part with and that remain in his permanent collection. His favorite is a Phaff 130, which was made in Germany. “It’s the Rolls Royce of sewing machines,” he explains.
Another is a Sew-Gem, a rare machine manufactured in the United States that was meant to be comparable to a Singer but easier to use and cheaper to buy. It has a top-loading bobbin case with a unique sliding cover and runs on what looks like a miniature bike chain. “It looks so cool and so beautiful. I’ll never get rid of that one,” he says.
He also has a machine he calls his “Frankensinger,” a rare, old Singer in almost perfect condition that he modified with different old parts from other machines to make it unique, including adding a better foot, a bigger wheel, a pretty, scrolled faceplate, and a rough, stippled Godzilla finish.
Not surprisingly, his 100-year-old home overflows with sewing machines. Four reside in his official sewing room, while the rest are displayed on windowsills and tucked under tables and desks. Occasionally, they’re even outside.
In an ironic but serendipitous twist of fate, several years ago he and his partner discovered a coveted Singer Red Eye – a Singer 66 with ornate details – buried underneath their house. Obviously, some things were just meant to be. It now resides as a piece of art in his home.
Jim’s passion for old sewing machines comes at a good time, as sewing has seen a resurgence of popularity in the last few years. But for Jim, it’s about pursuing new hobbies – the things that capture his attention and provide a respite from the stressors and sadness of life.
“I just love learning stuff and staying busy with things that make me happy,” Jim says.
For the foreseeable future, that means continuing to hunt for the perfect old sewing machine to restore.
“The next one is always the Holy Grail,” Jim says. “But that’s all part of the fun.”
Deborah Dove is an award-winning freelance writer, editor whose passion is bringing stories to life.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. – Mark Twain.
Visit her online at www.deborahdove.com.