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. 


  1. Cool. I have a chainstitch W&G, but, haven't seen any other W&G before, other than pictures.

    1. I had not either. There is another called a Metropolitan I would love to see as well.

  2. I recently bought a W&G highspeed lockstitch sewing machine. I can't for the life of me find anywhere that sells feet, bobbins or needles. Your blog threw me a ray of light ��

    1. Glad I could help, not a lot of information on this type of machine out there.

  3. I recently received a Willcox & Gibbs highspeed Lockstitch machine. Going by the pictures, I think mine is older and was made without the oil pump assembly. Not a lot of information on this machine at all!

    Would it be possible to please post a picture showing the belt that comes down the pillar of the machine? Mine is missing and I want to be sure to replace it with the correct material. It seems like it should be a flat belt instead of a round leather one?

    Also, where should I look for a bobbin case? Thank you - Sarah

    1. HI Sarah this is Anne again, from LOL. I am still not home yet to photograph this. I hope Mr. McDonald can help when he gets the belts made.

    2. Hi Anne! Thank you for your suggestion on the other group - I have located a bobbin and am trying to sort this belt issue first.

  4. These machines are timed with a linen belt that is very unique and prone to breakage. I am currently developing a replacement made of nylon if one is ever required.

  5. Will McDonald,
    "Just Sew" machine repair

  6. Sew, (lol) I'm tinkering with the machine now and am attempting a domestic treadle belt. It is far too thick and is getting stuck on the body of the machine. It seems that the belt should be around 19"?

  7. Tell me about your machines - I wonder how many are out there. How many of us W&G High-speed Lockstitch people are there left?
    I have one machine, its rather old (1915 I think? idk...) and lacking the oil pump system, serial #L15 2879

  8. I absolutely loved reading all your I'm formation! I have the lockstitch machine, I worked on it for at least 7 hrs yesterday! By looking at your photos I realized I wasn't threading the last part of the bobbin! I also ra0ed the thread around tension wheel 2 times, and for sure had the wrong size needle in. I can't wait to retry this machine with all the new imformation! I did get all the feet, and 5 or 6 different size binders. I was wondering if you could tell me if an upholstrey thread size 69 would work in this machine or be to thick??

  9. Sorry fornghe late reply, have been out of town. #69 thread is pretty heavy for this, but I would say it could work with the largest needle and go slowly. Use a lighter thread in the bobbin. I used a pretty heavy thread with sunbrella and it did fine for a kayak cover once. Glad to help, these are hard to find information on. I use it as my main machine when at home.

  10. I just bought one of these not knowing anything about it or about sewing machines really. I wanted to get started in sewing so maybe this isn’t the ideal Machine given all of its quirks. It only
    Cost me $25 (I saw it while buying a 40 lb work vise!) and needs a clean and maybe some parts. I have the motor, machine, treadle and thread holder thing but will need to make a table for it. Thanks for the info!

    1. It has it's limts but also is a very enjoyable machine to use. It is my daily worker. Fast and reliable. Not fussy about thread type and will work on a wide range of fabrics. Enjoy your new project! There is a Facebook page for vintage industrial sewing machines and they may have help if you need it in the future.

  11. Manual: