McCall’s 5525 – Solved Technical Difficulties of a Different Sort

Willcox and Gibbs

Willcox and Gibbs

When Ann gave me this Willcox & Gibbs industrial it came with some good stuff; there were several needles (industrial machine needles are different from home machine needles) a spare belt (no servos here its belt driven), a few rather scary looking watch-those-fingers feet (see right, the regular one is just 8mm wide), a special wrench and the thread stand. However, one crucial thing missing was a manual, and as every sewer knows a used sewing machine needs its manual as much as a used car does. And one thing I could not seem to figure out with this old beauty was how to change the stitch length.

It had been set at 8 stitches per inch when I got it and for the life of me I could not get it to reset. Now mind you, this is not a complicated machine, its entirely mechanical; it does only a lockstitch and can’t even go in reverse. It really has no external features other than a small box built into the front for oil and a silver button below a tiny window that notes the stitch lengths per inch. So how hard could it be to change the stitch length? Well, without a manual for guidance it really was like looking for a needle in a haystack. First I tried to figure it out on my own and got nowhere. Then I called the guys at Reliable Sewing Machine who serviced it; Bill read me the stitch length instructions over the phone but it made no sense at all. Then I called Ann, thinking I could ask her for the number of the woman who gave her the machine, but she called me back and said, “Phyl, I wish I could but she’s dead!” So much for that idea.
Finally I get on the Internet, start googling and up comes 301,000 hits for Willcox & Gibbs. I learned a lot. The company was in business from 1857 to 1973 as a sewing machine manufacturer. They had several showrooms in the US and Europe, in Boston they were at 363 Boylston Street, a tony address even today. In 1973 they sold the sewing machine business to Pfaff; but they still exist as Rexel Inc. a company that distributes lighting and electrical components. Most of what I found for information about their sewing machines pertained to their highly collectible Victorian era machines or were links to used sergers from the 70′s that are still sold in the secondary market. Finally, after trolling through 7 pages of hits I found a promising PDF from a Smithsonian on-line collection of industrial trade literature. There was quite a bit of Willcox & Gibbs material and one file was labeled “Manual for high speed industrial lockstitch machine”. I opened up the PDF and sure enough the machine looks like a simpler version of my industrial! And its almost identical too, the only thing it doesn’t have is the auto-lubricating box on the front. Here is the instruction for changing the stitch length:

“TO CHANGE THE STITCH – Turn Hand Wheel and press Button until it snaps in. Then for a shorter stitch (higher number) turn top of Hand Wheel toward you; for a longer stitch (lower number) turn it from you until in either case the sititch number desired is shown in recess above. Then release Button.”

Did you get all that? There is a pop quiz at the end…

After two tries and much grunting I figured it out. There is a indeed a “Button”, there is a indeed a “recess” and the wheel did turn and the stitch length number did change. Then I ran some fabric through – viola – 34 stitches per inch! I learned a few other things too; my machine is mucholder than I thought, the Smithsonian manual is dated 1928 so that makes it approximately 81 years old. It runs at 4200 stitches per minute; my 2002 Bernina 180 does 880 per minute. The table and the motor are newer than the head; the motor is General Electric, the transmitter is Consew and the table is labeled Singer on the treadle. But it still works. The only strange thing about it is the smell; when it heats up my sewing room fills with the odor of old sewing machine oil.

So I can finish up my coat now; although the buttonholes will need to wait until my Bernina comes back from the shop.

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