Meet the Makers: Needles and Gears with Andrea Habura

Antique Sewing Machine

Our next featured Maker, Andrea Habura, is calling her exhibit Needles and Gears — just one of many fashion-related activities happening at Troy Mini Maker Faire on August 27. Her description:

Victorian women were steampunk. Don’t believe me? Come play with their gears. You’ve seen photos of Victorian dresses, with miles and miles of ruffles, buttons, and ribbons. Sewing machines had just been invented then, along with hundreds of attachments that made it easier to whip out the latest styles. They’re fascinating to watch: no motors, no electronics, just machinery and cleverness. Try out these antique machines yourself, and see some modern e-textiles sewn on them.

Andrea is a member of TVCOG who contributed several top Instructables on behalf of the makerspace and also helped run the CoG’s booth at World Maker Faire New York in 2015. She answered some questions about her fascination with antique sewing machines and provided some illuminating videos of them in action.

You have a PhD in biology, but you are also highly skilled in decorative crafts. How long have you been interested in fabric arts?

Longer than I’ve been a biologist. I started doing embroidery as a teenager, as physical therapy after a nerve injury. For many years, I was a member of the SCA (a medieval-reenactment group), and I did a lot of embroidery and costuming for that. I also quilt and crochet.

I am especially interested in the history of textiles, as part of a broader interest in the lives of women in previous eras. I have a collection of antique womens’ magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book, and it’s remarkable how much of the content is about fiber arts. If you were a 19th century woman, sewing was one of the things you thought about every day.

How did you start collecting antique sewing machines?

A friend of mine is a Civil War reenactor, and she also collects antique sewing machines. The first time I saw one of her machines, I was fascinated by the mechanics of it. Modern sewing machines were something I used because I needed to sew things, but they are kind of boring. The antiques are fun to watch, and they are also remarkably sturdy. If you keep them oiled, they will run forever.

My friend helped me get both of my antique machines. I have a Singer 128 made in 1920 that I use for my sewing, and another made in 1908 that has lots of fancy gold decoration on it. They’re interesting because you can see several design improvements that Singer made over the 13 years between the two machines.

My friend and I also bought another 1920’s Singer and donated it to a charity that gives hand-crank sewing machines to people in Tanzania. Many of the villages there don’t have electricity and are accessible only by dirt roads, so a sturdy non-electric sewing machine that the local mechanic can probably fix is really appreciated!

What makes these machines different from modern versions?

I like the Maker motto that “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. Modern sewing machines hide all of the machinery from you, but early ones make it much more obvious what’s going on. There are even little ports you can open up to watch the drive shaft at work. They are also made to be repaired and improved, not thrown out. Very much in the Maker spirit!

The attachments are also little mechanical marvels. Sewing machine makers were trying to compete with skilled hand seamstresses, so they had to make it possible to do a lot more than just sew a straight seam — and you had to be able to do it with one hand, because the other hand is turning the machine crank! The inventiveness that was applied to this problem is just remarkable. Old Singer machines are like a KitchenAid mixer: there are so many cool attachments you can hook up to them.

That said, these machines are slower and fussier than modern ones, so I do use a modern machine if I’m trying to get something done on deadline.

What will people see/do/learn when they visit your exhibit at Troy Mini Maker Faire in August?

They’ll get the chance to see and use one of these machines, learn about how they work mechanically, and learn a little bit about the 19th century textile industry in Troy. I’ll also have a few “crossover” pieces of fiber arts: e-textiles sewn on an antique machine.

You were part of the TVCOG team at World Maker Faire New York last year. What do you like about Maker Faire and the Maker Movement?

I think the biggest thing is the sheer enthusiasm and the can-do spirit. It is so energizing to be in a crowd of 50,000 people who all believe that we can make the world better if we try. You can see how excited people are at Maker Faires — everyone has a bounce in their step, and you don’t see kids whining or looking down at their cell phones.

I also love the fact that Makers are so ready to share what they’ve learned and to encourage each other. It’s a very mutualist and supportive community that will also give you an encouraging push if you’re stalled on something. It’s a very healthy attitude.

[Editor’s Note: In 2015, there were 85,000 attendees at World Maker Faire New York.]

If you would like to have your own Maker exhibit at this year’s Troy Mini Maker Faire, the Call for Makers is open until August 1. Just fill out the online application form and let us know what you’re like to do. It’s free!