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Maria Hunter: A Still Stitching Profile

Posted by James Wolfensberger on

This is the first installment in a series of profiles of collectors and contributors in the online VSM community. If you would like to nominate an interview candidate, please contact us.

Maria Hunter - VSM Collector & Dealer

If I were in the shop working on a smoking and sparking VSM motor, I'd consider the perfect workshop companion to be Maria Hunter.

I'm a pretty safe guy - properly wary of electrocution and fire - but Maria is a retired firefighter, medic, and 911 dispatcher. She also owned a wine bar, and that knowledge could come in handy after an hour of trying to fit a tiny spring into an elaborate zig-zag assembly.

She was born and raised in Helena, Montana, where she has also lived for the past 24 years. Beyond vintage sewing machines, her passions have included horses, dressage, owning a wine bar, travel and motorcycles, "and art above all," she tells us.

I love all things someone somewhere considers art. It may not always be my style, Salvador Dali for one, but I can appreciate that someone does like it and it spurs the imagination.

Next month marks the one year anniversary of my friendship with Maria, and as I've gotten to know her I have found that she's one of the most composed, relaxed personalities I know with a very "live and let live" approach. When, for example, rare and unfortunate temper tantrums, impatience, and social offenses occur within our online community, Maria just keeps moving with no interest in drama.

I don't think we should be so harsh with each other and critical about how we each approach the [VSM] industry. I think all of us would like to see civility in the Facebook pages on a daily basis.

That's her modus operandi, certainly shared by our community at large. She is generous with her time and even the fuel in her car, going extra lengths to support the Sewing Machine Underground Railroad, a network of collectors and dealers who coordinate travel plans to move heavy machines from point A to point B and across states to ensure safe delivery. This saves on shipping fees that would often exceed a machine's market value. Of course, she's apt to procure a number of machines as well along the way. On one "epic trip" as Maria says, "I went with 6 machines and came home with 22." Along the way she meets community members in person, forming trusting relationships.

There have been enormous leaps of trust in this group. Send the money, I'll bring it to you, but we've never met. Crazy when you read it like that, but it works completely in practice. At least I have not heard of it going wrong in any way. And then there is the Facebook page where you can give your name and location and specify if you can transport machines or cabinets, or if you can hold while it waits for a ride. The group will make requests, or send out posts looking for a ride. And the group joins in and helps where and when they can.

To be clear, the railroad group is large with more than 1800 members and many have invested their generosity, but Maria is known for some of the really long hauls.

No one is obligated to pay when I make a run. And I think that holds true for most RR rides unless otherwise privately arranged. I sold a Mini Cooper and bought a trailer. I have an LLC for the sale, purchase, repair, and delivery of machines. Most of the time I do the delivery out of the vehicle we are driving anyway and don't charge people. But if I need to take the trailer to move a cabinet that is not my own, I like help with the gas. But I am usually on a mission of my own anyway. I leave it up to the customer so to speak.

I make human interest films and love to offer articles like this one. Being so enamored with what makes people tick, I thought I'd try to get Maria riled up a little bit. Didn't work.

"What follows is a simulation," I recently wrote to her in a chat session, "a stimulus and response experiment. Get ready." Then I sent this:

Maria replied, tongue in cheek, "What other money do you have?"

To be fair, she could see that this machine had potential for $10 (runs great and is now rust-free). After our LOLs she moved on to give her true response. If she believed the poster was genuinely interested to understand the purpose and impact of spending even $10 on a machine, she would want them to think it through. Acquire, acquire, acquire isn't Maria's idea of choosing a machine in a practical way if the customer intends to enjoy using their purchases.

Ok, I can see that you like this machine and we can both agree that it needs work. What we don't know at first glance is what work it needs. First we need to establish what you want it to do. If you want a zigzag machine and this one either does not have that capability or the gears are broken, we would want to pass on this one for any price and find something more suitable for your needs. So if this one has passed the first test and will do what you need it to do, do you know how to fix it and clean it, or is there an additional budget for those needs? If there is not additional budget, do you think you are able to learn to fix and clean it yourself with some help from the community online or local to you?

Maria points out that once bitten by the VSM bug, some new enthusiasts might have little idea of the vast scope of possibilities of machines, features, and colors. One of her concerns is the misconception that any metal machine is "industrial strength."

They get star struck by something that may be totally wrong for their application. I find that what people mostly want is the education from someone who willingly offers and clearly conveys that info. People who are into VSM's, more than just Featherweights, find that they know very little at the beginning. But then they get more excited when they find out how much is out there to learn and to discover. I think that is when the collecting bug really bites hard.

All of us should remember that some of those "OMG OMG $10 SHOULD I GET IT?" posts represent the fresh excitement of a future aficionado. Many of us started there.

I think the essential advice for "newbies" is to first find your community and source of education. Those of us who have a bit more experience need to make sure we make ourselves available to them in a generous way. Not everyone is proficient at every aspect of the online community. I have to admit that I am not always good at finding files on some of the sites. However, I know someone will help when I ask.

Some of us might find a "cheap" purchase to be A-OK even if the machine ends up too challenging and languishes on a shelf, but as a professional, Maria wants to identify machines that fit the needs and desires of a shopper. "Not everyone can fix a machine in poor condition," she suggests. That $10 purchase may not be a $10 bargain if the expectations cannot be met.

For those who want to collect, I think it is imperative that they know if they can do the work or if they really have a technician in their area who can do it for them. They should have that sorted ideally before they start to collect. They need to know what and why they are collecting. Do they just love the pretty colors and decals? Or do they want machines that work? Or do they want machines that work very hard, like the people who are getting into making bags with leather and canvas and really need to invest in an industrial? Which, in itself, is a whole different educational problem.

Another issue that can rear its ugly head for the casual collector might go like this: "I paid $15 for this Singer 15-91, and now it's smoking and the tech wants $70 to fix it!" Many dealers and techs understandably cringe at this sort of thing. They've invested in tools and years of knowledge. They have resources right in their shops, sometimes drawers full of parts or shelves filled with machines suitable for cannibalization. Their time is valuable and they are making a living. "And if you don't feel the price is fair," says Maria, "don't pay it."

Educate yourself for free instead. Or find a friend that will educate themselves and will do it for you. Maybe you can make cookies for them, if that is their idea of a fair price. It is a personal responsibility question. Obvious to [professionals], but not to the person with only $15 in their pocket.

Favorite Machines

Singer 222 Featherweight

Above: The coveted Singer 222 Featherweight with the free-arm conversion.

Maria's interest began with quilting and a Featherweight for classes and retreats.

I had also gotten a Singer 66 with the Godzilla finish for my daughter as she had expressed some interest in sewing. It was beautiful. When she moved to Salem, Oregon, I went into a sewing center for needles and thread for her. There sat the perfect machine! A Rocketeer! I had to have it. And then it was all downhill to addiction from there. I love to learn and take things apart. So it was a natural fit. I am a very voracious reader and learner. I love to master new things that I have never been exposed to. My mind works fast, so I move fast with new passions.

While she had mentioned the "perfect machine," I still had to check for her absolute favorite zig-zag model. Her response was quick: "Rocketeer every day of every year!" This is coming from a dealer with access to about 500 machines. She prefers the Singer 500 to the 503. "It has everything I would need," she says. "I quilt and do some craft sewing."

Singer 503 Rocketeer

Above: Maria's Rocketeer

Bee Fearless - Maria's Tattoo

Above: Maria's Inspired Tattoo. "Bee Fearless!"

"Bee Fearless"

Maria's business is Bee Fearless. This is a mantra she adopted while working through cancer, and it is tattooed on her arm.

She procures and sells machines, consulting with a client to determine the perfect prospective models. She then locates a machine, determines the required repairs or maintenance, then remains available as the client becomes acquainted with her purchase and addresses any issues. Many would testify that her level of service and passion for helping others ensures customers enjoy a fair deal and often a downright bargain. I mean come on, sometimes free delivery across hundreds of miles? She's a fine example of the best in our community.

I will help some people I know sell machines they need to move. And for some local people I do repairs within my knowledge base. I will also help teach someone to either use their machine or service their machine. I also refer people to those I know can help them more than I or who may have what they are looking for. I am a facilitator I guess. Or a liaison for people. As well as a resource.

Our thanks to Maria!

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  • This was awesome! How can any one that follows Maria top her? I am a very minor VSM collector compared to her, but I would love to be featured

    Deb Boucher on

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