Saturday, September 9, 2017

An American Industrial Classic - The Willcox and Gibbs High Speed Lockstitch Sewing Machine

Oh what a beauty.  Also, what a mystery.  If you find yourself here searching for information on this industrial sewing machine,then hopefully you can glean some help.  This old timer came into my sewing room with nothing to help me understand how it operated and very little available online. That meant I better do some "hands on" experimentation.  This post is the result of what I found.

It operates somewhat similarly to other industrial sewing machines but there are some significant differences.  I'll point those out. On a side note, I have also found the Willcox and Gibbs to be quite adaptable to home use for things like quilting, general dressmaking and mending.

The Willcox Gibbs High Speed Lockstitch Sewing Machine with Automatic Lubrication.
1940? Unknown age.
Willcox and Gibbs was founded in 1855 with their famous chainstitch sewing machine.  Many of these survive and were made into the 1920's so many people know the Willcox Gibbs name for this machine.
Willcox and Gibbs Chainstich Sewing Machine 1875.

Many years and innovations later the company would focus on the industrial sewing machine trade.  The one I was most familiar with is the overlock first introduced in the 1880's and made into the 1970's. The company diversified and then stopped being in the sewing machine business in 1978, a long run indeed.  The particular model discussed on this post, the lockstitch, was introduced in 1899 as a power driven high speed machine for the garment industry.  It would come with compatible tables and motors designed for ease of use, power saving and reliability. The rotary feed and tension units took stress off the thread by turning in rotation rather than tugging on the spool, reducing breakage and parts wear.
Willcox Gibbs High Speed Lockstitch in a Factory Setting

The model I am using is a later version, unknown age.  Best estimation is late 1930's or early 1940's.  It has an added feature - Automatic Lubrication.  This mechanism has a system of tubes to carry oil to all major oiling points.
The tubes shown are only the top ones, there are many. The oil is transported through to drip precisely onto the gear as needed.  Because of the high speed required in an garment industry setting, this is a real time saver and would prevent wear on the machine over time.

How Do They Work?
I first found some problems.  It is a different bird as they say.  Crazy presser feet, a wierd bobbin case and a lot of tangled thread in the rotary take up wheel. Ugh! An operators manual is my usual helper and was not to be found. The only manual located was on Ebay, and far away at that. I have heard there is one on the Smithsonian's archive website but i was unable to locate it presently.  I suggest looking both places and getting one. In the mean time here are some basics.

The Basics.

*The Hand Wheel Turns Away. Do not turn towards the operator.
* The thread releases with the needle at the highest position. This is just like other machines.
*Needle sets with Groove to the LEFT.

Oiling the Machine.

Pull up lever on the oil pump to send the oil through the system.

I use this to help pour the oil!

The automatic lubrication machines should be tested. These operate very fast so it is essential that they be oiled properly to avoid damage. Before beginning fill the reserve  with oil to the halfway point.  If it overfilled it will leak. Pull the oil pump lever up, and let it go down slowly. There should a tiny drop of oil.  Now, check the holes near the front and at the fly wheel. Add a little oil if it has been a long while  since last use.  I suggest adding some oil to all the moving parts of the bobbin case area. The bobbin winder unit should have a few drops of oil added to the port over the turning arm.
Now that it has been given a little oil, run at high speed to see if the system is clear and operational.  Open the cover at the top, see that a small drop of oil formed at the tube going down. If not, oil manually.  In time my machine went from not dripping oil to working fine so maybe some old oil clogged it, now gone. 

I have no threading diagram. There is one out there I saw it but cannot locate it. It seems it was on the Smithsonian's collection of trade ephemera.  The threading procedure was a bit confusing, so here is how I do it with images to help.
Start here.

 Thread goes from stand to holes on pillar arm, through the tension spring and around the tension assembly.  It is advised to go around two times but I do this once and have no issues. Next thread through the hole in the front.

(This is the back view)
Thread take up: Thread goes from the hole up-wards into the guide, down through the round section and out the bottom to needlebar guide.  Thread goes Right to Left.
Setting the Bobbin.

The Bobbin case fits onto an arm with no latch. It can b seen here.  To access slide the cover. I really like this feature, so easy to access and see.
Bobbin case access
To change out the bobbin, raise the needle and pull back the arm holding the case.  There is a small button to do this on the back side. To replace just push back.  A note: I forget to do that a lot, as many machines you just snap the bobbin case into a hook/slot.  After wondering why my machine will not pick up the bottom thread, realize then that I did not move it back- Duh.

 The Bobbin Case.
Insert the bobbin as normal, with the unwinding thread opposite the leaf tension on the case. The leaf tension on my case needs special attention to make sure the thread goes under it properly. Then thread through the hole on the top. 
Mine keeps doing this-  just pull it under. Check yours.

Proper threading of the Bobbin Tension.

Through the hole and all done

Bobbin inserted correctly, face down. Just push it back.

I am unaware of other models of the High Speed Lockstitch machine so please understand there may be differences in features in older or newer machines.  Here is how to make some adjustments to the machine for sewing different types of fabric.

Stitch Length:
Boy was this a mystery!  Push in the metal button and turn the handwheel away from you until the numbers come into view.  I am not sure exactly what they represent, other than a guess as stitche per inch as this is an American machine.  Lower numbers for longer stitches, higher for smaller ones. I use 10 most for medium weight, 14 for light and 7 for denim.

Quick steps-
1. Press in button and turn handwheel AWAY until it clicks.
2.Turn again towards or away until you see the number you want.

Presser Foot Pressure:
Turn the screw at the top of the machine near the round thread take up.  It goes downwards for more pressure, up for less.  I was able to get a big variation in this, a great feature.  With it up can do free motion sewing like for darning or quilting.  No special darning attchment was needed. With high pressure did a great job on canvas. Start in the middle and then experiment from there.

Winding a Bobbin:
Set bobbin in the slot, it fits tightly.  Wind as normal. It has a mechanical auto stop. 

How do I sew on a machine that does not have reverse? I need to keep the stitches from unraveling!
This is a hassle, I know.  Having used many old sewing machines, this issue has become part of my life.  I do love auto reverse, back tack and the best of all AUTOMATIC THREAD CUTTERS but they are not what life is made of.  Here is my work around for treadles and others that have no reverse. It works for most fabrics but the lightest ones. 

1. Make a 2-3 stitches.
2. Tug slightly  so the machine goes over them again. 
3. At the end of the seam, with needle at the highest point raise presser foot.Move it back 2-3 stitches. 4. Place down again and sew over the edge.
Here's a quick view of this maneuver:


If the video clip won"t play try this:
There is also the tried and true method of simply turning your work around sewing a few stitches and turning again.  I do this for very heavy fabrics like Sunbrella or very light such as Charmeuse.

Things You Need For the Willcox and Gibbs Lockstitch
You will need a belt for the machine and one for the motor.  I got an industrial treadle belt from eBay.  Note that it is the thicker version, not the one for household machines. 
My set up required a 22" and a 26" belt. They fasten with a metal clip.  Often the leather will stretch a bit so expect to re-install maybe once more until it sets. Yes, it is a bother! To fasten sometimes I use carpet thread rather than a clip, easier to do.Unfortunely there is no V belts to add as there is no way to insert them in my case.
There is too much variation to say what lengh each machine will need, as it is based on what set up  is used but estimates can be made easily. Use the old belt or a a marked string going around the path to estimate length before you order.

The Willcox and Gibbs High Speed Lockstitch requires a 75W Needle.

Thankfully, needles are available but not too common. A clue to finding more is it is used by also by another industrial machine, the American Baster. Ebay has them but also here:

 The numbering system for Willcox Gibbs needles are by single digits.  2-7 are what the machine takes.  My general guide to what to use for what is this:
#2 Light
#3 Medium 
#4 Heavier
#6 Heavy and Coated
#7 *&% Heavy 

The #7 is the max it can handle, and for me it was the outdoor fabric Sunbrella with 4 layers. 

Presser Feet and Attachments.
The Willcox and Gibbs has a unique presser foot system.  This make the foot attachments very rare and hard to find.  I found some here with the help of the owner, Ms. Howes.
There is some variation of of the shank height for some presser feet, so in time changes occurred. My machine takes the lower shank ones.
Very slight variation in shank height.

The Willcox and Gibbs also seems to be able to take industrial attachment like binders, as there is a place on the bed for the screws.  I have a binder that came with it but no bed screw.  Modern ones ar too long but can be cut to fit. These binders are fantastic for edgings so worth trying to find a solution as to be able to use them. 

Motor and Table Set Up.
There are many variations to motors for machines like this.  I will leave that topic to others but will show mine as a possible research for others.  The motor that came with this is a General Electric 1/2 HP.  It was rewired at some point recently.  The Thread spool stand, guard and table are a set by Willcox and Gibbs. 
The light is probably part of the set up as well and made by Bryant.  This articulated light has been re-wired and is easy to use and just super cool looking too.
Bryant Lamp

  And so there is enough information to begin some serious sewing with this American industrial sewing machine classic.  My first attemps at sewing with this were frustrating, and I was close to giving up due ot tangled thread and broken needles. I then did some "trial and error" plus experiemntation to come up with a little help for future operators. 

 It is my sincere hope that such information will assist any person who comes across one of these so as to keep it and not let it become destroyed as so many do. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Bell Portable Sewing Machine

 This little sewing machine is smaller than a new baby.  I have seen these on occasion so not particularly rare an item, but never succumbed to the siren song of bringing one home until now.  It seemed impossible that it would work in any way other than as a toy.  Do they work?  Hard to imagine as it is the same size as my scissors.

This machine was made in the late 50's by the Bell company in Pennsylvania USA.  There is a good bit of history on the company on the pages of, a terrific resource for those who love vintage sewing machines.

Does it Work?

The first question was nearly answered by just opening the case box the sewing machine came in. The attachment set is impressive.  The original set is still in the case.  High quality low shank accessories that cover just about every thing you could ever need in any size machine.  A bit of oil, thread and a new needle all in place for a test start.  It does indeed sew but very very slowly.  Noisy too!  Where is the hand wheel?  After a time of trial and error it has improved.  Here's how.

Operator Manual

This sewing machine is is definitely not your usual set up. I suggest refering to a manual to help operate it properly.  Here are a few sources:
Printed and digital formsavailable.

Follow the instructions for the source.


The Bell Portable was originally designed to be lubricated for life.  The material apprears to be a graphite type lubricant.  Now it has been around 60 years now and I think that is a little past the working life of that stuff.  My machine was very very dry and barely turned.  Because of this I went against the manual instructions and oiled it all over. would not work!AAArrgggh.  Panic turned to calm when th next day it was fine and worked so much better.  I could now see how to turn the hand wheel with my fingers, before it was frozen.  Same with the bobbin winder.  My suggestion is to go ahead and oil it on every moving part with Tri-Flow synthetic oil or sewing machine oil.

Because this was not made for regular oiling, it is a pain to do it now.  I removed the light bulb cover witha small screw driver to pry off at the needle bar.  Next oil the joints in th presser bar area and then turn it over and open the bottom to oil there.  Pretty easy to turn it upside down.  Try that with an old full sized machine!


Right away I noticed the bobbin was very much like the ones used for the Singer 29k.  I wrote about one here on this blog and the two machines are so different except for this.  To see if they were indeed the same I tried the bobbins and and case in the little Bell.  What I found can be helpful to anyone who is searching for replacements. The bobbins are compatible but the case was not.  The case was from a very old machine and possibly a case from a later model 29 would be OK but for me it was only able to sew for a few stitches and then would stop.

The Bell came with a plastic bobbin but the metal seems fine.
A source:
A great dealer for parts like this.

The process of addding the bobbin to the case is a little different.  I have done this before with my 29 but for those who have not done it efore it is a little confusing.  To help, here are a  few images to add ot the manual description.

 1. Note case spring, hold your finger there. Place the wound bobbin into the case so it sets in, case side with the edge down.  It winds off just as with any other machine, counter, so place the bobbin in so it comes off correctly.  Let the end go through the opening.

Pull the thread up and under the leaf tension. Thread it through the hole in the case.  It is not needed but I find it helpful to also thread the end through the hole in the needle plate as well as it is so slow to bring up the thread as normally you can save some time here.

Set into the hook area. Easy to fit it like a puzzle piece.  The manual shows a magnet to remove the case, great idea.

More Technical Information

The Bell is a low shank machine so many modern attachments will fit on this so if you find a machine missing it's set, no worries.  It takes a 15x1 needle and uses regular thread so no fuss there either.  The tension is a bit tight. To release the fabric from he machine, raise the presser foot and needle then open the tension discs by hand as shown when pullng away.  The release of tension is not automatic.
The manual shows the threading but here is a view as well.
1. Under the discs
2. Up and over the spring
3. Through the coil
4. Take up lever
5. Presser bar guide
6. Needle Right to Left.


The little Bell does a great job here.  Very slow, with a strang hang time and quite a bit of noise but by golly it makes a good stitch.  If it had a hand wheel it would be great.  The adjustment lever on this machine is broken but I am able to adjust by gently inserting a screw driver sideways and moving it one way or another. This seems to be a common problem.  Be careful to not move the broken mechanism to either end, you may have a bit of trouble getting it back!
The Case

The Bell Portable comes with a very cool case.  Everything has a place.  The power cord wraps perfectly to fit as does the accessories set.  There is a box with a mounting bracket for a free arm capability.  There is metal base to make a sewing table with the case, the machine sets right into the middle.  My machine was missing a rubber type  base but I made a small pad with neoprene. The reason is to make it sit high enough in the metal frame.  This too seems to be common and easy to fix.
All the parts fit perfectly together for travel.  The combined weight with case and machine it weighs about 8 pounds!

The sewing table all set up.

A True Portable.
My verdict.  This sewing machine is not easy to use.  Probably won't be doing miles of yardage on this baby.  Repairs on the road? Yes.  Quick sewing not at home, sure.  I do some of this for some residents at a care home.  Perfect.

It does the one thing so many have tried to do before and since.  It is truly portable.  It truly sews too.  That is really something!

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Singer 12 Sewing Machine and How to Use It

A little history on this particular machine and then some help on how to use this type of model for those who might be stopping by needing help. It's story is like so many others. This tiny 1884 Singer 12 came to me in desperate condition. It had been in a shed, covered with boxes. The cabinet had been painted white with gold trim in the past. Even the irons were painted. Still, I could see it was indeed a fairly old machine that was complete and worth saving

The machine was taken out, paint was removed. After paint removal the wood was oiled, irons were then repainted the original black. When the machine was replaced, it got a little adjustment. That included cleaning with sewing machine oil, some new needles, TriFlow lubrication, gear grease and a new treadle belt. Not much, really. Very little was needed to make this one work again. It was used quite a bit in it's time and well cared for. The wear is in places that many years of fabric and hands passed over, as mine do now.

The Singer 12 here was made in 1884. The first model 12 also known as the "New Family" was made in the 1860's continuing for many years. The decal and designs for these are often very spectacular in true Victorian fashion with colorful patterns and mother of pearl inserts. Mine is a bit plain but still a fairly unusual decal pattern that is not seen often.


The machines came with a very practical set of attachments, of which I was lucky to have found in the cabinet drawer, along with the original hardware. So far I have not used them yet and am not completely sure what some are! Other parts are nearly unchaged to our times, such as the ruffler which is so beautiful on it's own.


Sewing with the Singer 12

A manual is needed. This one is from the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society. I recommend a visit to their site, and if you have a machine like this to join them. So much useful information!

I have been able to use this right away but must warn new owners operating this model is a bit different and can be a frustrating. It does take a bit of practice to get it all just right. I wrote on this site about my adventures with my other one, a handcrank.

Here are the areas that anyone first trying one out might want to review:

The Needle

The need required it is a 12x1 needle. There have been suggestions as to what else will work in place of this now extinct type but I have been able to find them so have not explored this further. My source is Vintage sewing machines treadle or hand crank by TreadleLady

*Setting the needle: This is going to be a trial and error process at first. Read the manual. The setting is described well but here it is in a nutshell -The needle groove goes in front. Thread is front to back.

How far the needle goes into the needle shaft is variable. On my machine here the top is exactly even with the clamp. On my other it sticks out about 1/8". Try it out, very slowly, until the needle doesn't hit the bobbin shuttle and will pick up thread.

The Bobbin



Wrap the thread a few times to get started. The end fits all the way into the winder. By the way mine was completely frozen and needed to be oiled a lot. The tire part pulls back to allow the bobbin to fit for winding.

On many machine there is a metal piece that the thread passes throughto wind the bobbin. There is not one here. Maybe there was, and it is missing but no matter this is quite simple to do by hand to get an even treading. I do this:

The Shuttle

The bobbins for the Singer 12 are much like a weaving shuttle. The shape is a bit like the later Singer 27 but with an essential difference- the thread tension is created by looping trough the side , over and through again the holes in the shuttle body then through the leaf. My first attempts at this were frustrating, so please be patient with yourself. Once you do it a few times it will work, amazingly. I found bobbin tension for ordinary poly/cotton thread was the second hole as shown. With different thread you may with to try it differently. Yeah, it's weird but it works great.

Now it is just set into the carrier and go. The transverse slide plate should move as shown above. My other Singer 12 had problems here and maybe some of you might as well. It was frozen closed from rust. If necessary, the shuttle can go in from the other side too, just get one slide plate free.

Making Adjustments


Pretty strait forward adjustments for the Singer 12. The main difference is that they are knobs on top rather than side adjustments with numbers. Not much is needed to get results so just experiment. Stitch lengh is often frozen up for older machines like this so more oil and maybe even try heat (I use a blow dryer) to free it up. Mine took a long time to move and is still tight! I do not recommend taking apart the faceplate unless there is a reason. The interior parts will all fall out. It is not assembled like a Singer 27 or 127. That is a later post, but be forewarned!

The Belt

I like to use rubber belting for my treadle so as to be able to get it on and off easy. Leather is good too and is available widely. If anyone here is unfamiliar with putting on a new belt, here is a great source for help on all things treadle with a section on belts.


Not much is needed to know how to do the actual sewing other than one big difference for a modern sewing operator. The tension discs do not release when the presser foot is lifted. It may be just my machines but neither of mine do this. Not a big deal but it will become a new habit to pull up the top tension disc when removing the work. The needle needs to be in the highest position to let the thread go as with other lockstitch machines.

So small a machine yet it can sew some heavy work. My guess is because it has very simple yet powerful gears inside.

After a bit of work and practice, this has become a really great machine to use. Here is her first major project in many years, done easily with good tension and accuracy.