Above: Bob with his daughters, Lizzy and Becky.
For those who frequent the Facebook groups dedicated to vintage sewing machines (VSMs), Bob Riedel is probably a familiar name. We know him as funny, accessible, and helpful. He once sent me a few uncommon screws for a Wheeler and Wilson 9 and didn't think twice about shipping them before any reimbursement was exchanged. He allowed me to try the screws and ship back the ones that weren't useful. He also had me convinced recently in a chat session that the gears of a Singer Rocketeer had chewed off three of his fingers.
"I kind of feel bad now that you didn't know I was joking," Bob responded when I sort of freaked out. "Well, a tiny bit anyway."
With his fun personality, his knowledge, and his love for sewing machines, Bob reflects the best qualities of our VSM community.
Meet Bob (and The Girls)
Growing up primarily in the mountains of northern California and always mindful of his father's influence in industrial arts, Bob rebuilt his first automotive engine at age twelve: a Datsun 510.
"At age 14 my dad starting teaching me how to be a machinist," Bob explains. "I would hang out at his work, watching him make rocket motor parts in a huge machine shop."
After serving in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Nimits in Washington state, Bob liked the area so much he settled there as a civilian and worked in aerospace machine shops crafting parts for Boeing and Airbus for nine years. Eventually he landed in a smaller shop making electronic and medical parts. "It's a fun way to make a living," he tells us.
His road to vintage sewing machines was through his daughters, Becky and Lizzy. They loved their Barbie dolls.
They decided the Barbies needed new clothes so they started cutting out scraps of material we had laying around, some from old clothes, other scraps from whatever they could find. Well, to finish the Barbie clothes the girls were using my staplers to hold everything together. I started thinking there must be a better way; besides, the boxes of staples were getting expensive!
Bob remembered an old machine in his garage, once owned by his great aunt.
I took the machine to a local sewing machine shop and asked them to get it working. They said they could and would service it for $125. I also asked if they offered classes for beginner sewing. They gave me a brochure for the local CTA (Clothing and Textile Advisors) group for our area. So now we had a working machine and sewing lessons scheduled. Now we needed a second machine for my older daughter!
Becky wanted the same machine that Lizzy had, and Bob located a 401 on Craigslist. He was pleasantly surprised when he realized the seller had lived three houses away for the past fifteen years. The gentleman was knowledgeable and showed Bob how to care for the machine. "Little did I know," Bob says, "I was getting bitten by the bug!"
I am undoubtedly a collector, but I would clarify that as a "working collector." I collect machines that I think are cool but also machines I know the daughters will use... I enjoy the mechanical side of these wonderful machines! I'll pull the top cover and just watch all the parts moving and see how this part interacts with that part. I look at these machines from a machinist viewpoint and am constantly amazed at the parts and pieces manufactured back then.
Above: Becky applies Blue Creeper as she performs maintenance on her Rocketeer.
Bob and his girls remain loyal to the Singer slant needle models. The 401s led to Rocketeers but many machines fill their arsenal, including treadles like a Wheeler and Wilson #8 and a D9.
I'm not sure how many machines we have other then at least one of each slant up to the 431. We don't have designated machines for a single purpose, it's more like which machine do I feel like using today or which one has the thread color I need. The girls also enjoy sewing out in the back yard in the summer on their 301's.
Above: Becky sews outdoors.
He tells us that VSMs are abundant and often priced nicely in his part of the country. Nonetheless it took a while to locate his most desired model and he had to travel to obtain it.
Last year a fellow member [of a VSM Facebook group] sent me a message saying my holy grail was for sale near her. We loaded up the car and drove 300 miles one way to finally get my coveted 431G! I was absolutely thrilled. It was expensive but looking on eBay I never figured I could ever afford one. A week after our road trip I had to head over to Seattle for work. On the way home I saw an estate sale so I figured I'd stop quick. There in the back room was another very nice 431G for $10! I have since rehomed the first 431 to my friend who gave me the initial heads up.
Above: The coveted beast - Bob's Singer 431G.
On another occasion Bob and the girls trekked 60 miles for a pink Morse. His daughters were excited for the "new" machine, and the trip also yielded a Wheeler and Wilson D-9 head that Bob needed for its bobbin. He picked up the D-9 for "a couple of bucks."
Score and score! We were all happy on the way home and then my younger daughter spied a thrift store so we hung a u-turn and went in. I saw a Singer case behind the counter which I couldn't quite identify. I asked the lady if we could see it and our jaws dropped as she pulled the top off a pristine 201K23 two-tone brown hand crank! It still had the factory Singer protective paper in the bottom. I asked what they wanted so the lady went to talk to the manager. I told the girls if it was anywhere under $100 we were grabbing it. She came back and said for the girls it was $99! They were squealing and the pink Morse was totally forgotten. In fact it's still out in the garage waiting to be rehomed.
Like most in the VSM community, Bob believes in helping others to enjoy classic all-metal machines. He doesn't presently operate a business repairing VSMs, but might consider doing so in retirement. In the meantime, he finds ways to support others who need a bit of assistance.
I spotted a 500 Rocketeer on Craigslist so I went to check it out. The lady had five sewing machines on the table when I walked in. She said they were all for sale. I said, "I'm interested in the 500 but why are you selling all these?" She explained that none worked and she couldn't afford to get them fixed or serviced. I asked her if I repaired and serviced the 500 would she keep it and use it. The look of gratitude on that lady's face when I brought it back two weeks later is something I'll never forget. That is why I enjoy this!
Above: Two beauties in red and black. Lizzy with a Singer 66.
Below: Doll clothing by Lizzy.
While his daughters are the primary sewists, having attended classes at the local CTA (Clothing and Textile Advisers), Bob can manage a stitch to test his machines and even completed a small project - a Christmas stocking. "It was fun and I quilted it on the Wheeler and Wilson #8 and finished the end with the 431."
I asked Bob how he would explain the value and appeal of the vintage machines to someone who knew very little.
Most of the time I don't need to say a word. They just stand there watching and listening and the machines sell themselves. There have been a few times the young ladies in sewing camp have asked to use my daughters' machines to get through a few heavy layers, because their machines sound like they are going to explode. I do explain how well they are built and why they will last a few more lifetimes if taken care of. I also stress how these machines were made to be maintained by the owner, and you don't have to have costly services every year.
And finally, what machines remain on Bob's wish list?
I am still hoping someday to find a Singer 320 and a German Singer slant treadle. Neither are common here and most likely unaffordable anyway. It's still the thrill of the hunt and always wondering what's in that cabinet or under that cover that keeps me intrigued.
Our thanks to Bob Riedel for the knowledge and humor he brings to our community. Our thanks to Lizzy and Becky as well. In an age of throw-away appliances and waning domestic skills, we congratulate Bob's effort to ensure his daughters develop self-sufficiency as they relish their childhood.
Above: Lizzy sews on a Wheeler and Wilson 8, a machine more than 100 years old.
Below: Becky stands with her Social Studies project on the Singer Company. She earned a blue ribbon.
Below: From the Riedel arsenal, a beautiful Singer 412G.
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