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!


  1. How fun!--Even if I never get to see one "in the wild!"

  2. So, I have two of these. Your flywheel is on top of the machine, it's a weird thing. And the bobbins are totally the same as for a 29-k which I also own, I see you don't have the little magnet, it's a little Bell shaped stick that you used to pick the bobbins out, even though the bobbins are plastic, the carrier isn't, so the magnet picks up the entire part for easier removal.

    That lube is the devil and exactly what keeps the machines from being perfect, graphite hot mess.

    1. They are odd, yet kind of fascinating. A magnet is just what I need for the bobbin. Will have to make one!

  3. I just purchased one of these lovely machines. I have tried the metal bobbins in it, and it will only stitch for a few stitches. Have you had any luck finding the plastic ones? My machine came with four and I have already broken one. Machine is dated 12/53.

    1. I do not have a source for plastic bobbns for you, sorry. The metal ones worked fine in my machine. The only reason bobbins are available at all is because the fairly common Singer 29k uses them!

  4. Update: First metal bobbin would not work. Second one worked. Third one would not work. These bobbins are not original Singer bobbins so I expect they are low quality and not a consistent size. I loved reading your article. Thanks.

  5. I am looking for a Bobbin Case for my Bell Portable, if anyone could help me it would be great!!