Sunday 8 December 2013
A couple of weeks ago, I crossed a fine example of Swiss engineering on eBay. It didn’t look that way from its single photo, but knowing what its make and model meant, plus the vendor’s description of it having been serviced, I took a chance. The next photo is the seller’s, not mine – what a difference photography can make!
This is a Bernina 801, a home sewing machine model made by the Switzerland-based company in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was looking for a “new” machine since my 12-year-old entry-level Pfaff is starting to wheeze a bit. An equivalent, contemporary replacement would cost 300 euros. Quite reasonable for a solid, reliable machine, but I wanted to move up a bit in quality. The Pfaff is great, but balks at heavier fabrics, and its snap-on feet mean you have to be careful not to bump them when sewing, otherwise they snap off. Unfortunately, I can’t afford an improved new machine.
Vintage Berninas have a stellar reputation that even Bernina has a hard time competing with: the company now only makes one metal mechanical model, the 1008, and many Bernina dealers won’t carry it. Why? Sewists who want a no-frills machine will usually look to secondhand shops, Etsy and eBay for vintage Berninas. Other sewists prefer computerized models. I’ll admit, after seeing the thousand-euro ticket of the 1008, I too turned to vintage options. (That price is fair: comparable vintage 830s and 801s sold for about three hundred when new, which comes to about a thousand after inflation.)
I got lucky: no one else bid on it, and the seller’s description was accurate… with one major exception. It had not, in fact, been serviced. When I saw lint peeking out from under the needle plate (the round metal beneath the presser foot), I groaned a bit. On opening the free arm cover, lint was everywhere, and packed so tightly it had become felt. My heart dropped. I tried turning the hand wheel, and it stuck before raising the needle entirely. “Well,” I told myself, “at least it came with all seven of its original feet.” Those are worth a couple hundred euros on their own. I pulled out my sewing machine brush and started cleaning. It took an hour! There was even lint in the hook race, which I’ve never seen before. The hook race is the metal casing in which the hook ring turns. This is a needle and hook ring in action, with a bobbin holding green thread:
As you can imagine, it’s important to keep the hook race clean and oiled: both it and the hook are metal. Once the bottom mechanics were clean, I checked the top: it was in excellent condition, due mostly to Bernina’s engineering. While caring for the machine, evidence mounted towards a theory I’m now convinced of: the original owner didn’t know that they needed to clean and oil their machine. They probably used it until it stopped working, and then put it away, forgotten until it was finally sold years later. There is only one scratch on the machine, a huge one that’s also characteristic of unfamiliarity: there’s a gash in the bottom tray from the table attachment. In the seller’s photo, it’s the flat white thing with a metal lever. You can see an electrical cord on its underside. The original owner probably yanked it off without thinking (it can happen).
Other than that, it’s in such pristine condition that I can hardly believe my luck. Sure enough, once I had finished cleaning and oiling it – also adding oil at a couple metal-on-metal moving points on the top mechanics – it purred like a kitten and sewed like a dream. I have a practically-new vintage Bernina! You can see more photos in this set I created, and I plan to write a geekier update on its mechanics later.