The Black Betty Project

"Black Betty" is the name for my inherited Singer Model 15 machine.  Betty was my grandmother's name, and while she always referred to her cars as "Old Betsy" she never appeared to have a name for this machine.  My Mom suggested just Betty, but liked Black Betty even better.

My grandmother's old Singer was a much beloved machine in my childhood.  She taught each of her grandkids to sew on it - including the boys.  We started with puppets and moved onto bigger projects.  It was also the only machine that could handle mending our horse's winter blanket and the old Boy Scout sleeping bags our other grandfather had picked up somewhere.

Originally mounted in a sewing cabinet, it had been removed years before I ever had my hands on it.  My grandfather had planned on refinishing the cabinet (which I never recall having seen), but never got it done.  We used to prop it up on a stack of Reader's Digests to use it as it didn't have a carrying case either.

Maga, a nickname given by my older sister, bravely fought the breast cancer that spread throughout her body for decades.  She was a true survivor, but lost the battle with the last round in her late 70's.  After her death, I received her beloved Singer.  It had been neglected and stuffed in a garage for years, just off the Pacific Coast, prior to coming into my possession.  The cabinet was long gone by then, and my doll that she had made for me when I was three (it's the same height and size as I was at the time) that she'd been planning on repairing for me was found in a water soaked box, with mildew damage to one leg.  I was happy to get them both, no matter what the condition.

Nearly 3 decades and many moves later, I finally can finish the job my grandfather started.  First, I found, bid on, and won another classic Singer 15 (I didn't know the model when I bid on it) in the much sought after, bent wood case. I'd originally planned on putting Black Beauty in the case, but then I won a bid on a vintage Kenmore that I'd felt sorry for and bid on simply for the cabinet.  The first winner cost me a whooping $31 and provided me with another Singer 15 with the crinkle finish, the second cost me a horrid $6 (yep, that cheap!) for a cabinet badly in need of refinishing or paint and a beautiful 1947 Kenmore of unknown function.

The challenge was to find Black Betty - I thought for sure I'd put her in my craft room, but she was nowhere to be found.  Nearly a week later, and after searching almost 3,000 sq. ft. twice, I found her on a shelf, behind the old Model T trunk in - alas - the garage.  That would have been acceptable if I still lived in dry, sunny Riverside county, but nope, I'm in the rust-belt of the MidWest now.

Here's how Black Betty looked after a dry cloth dusting and quick surface vacuuming:

I did a lot of searching online for tips on cleaning and restoring vintage Singer machines and found several suggestions, many using really caustic chemicals.  Maga would have been concerned about the toxins, so I couldn't imagine using something like Kerosene on those delicate decals.  I chose the more "delicate" option of using a few drops of Ivory Dishwashing Liquid (don't all stitchers have a bottle around?) in a cup of warm water.

Here's what I did:
  1. Started with Q-tips, dipped in the warm water solution
  2. Worked in a counter-clockwise circle, gently rubbing while turning the Q-tip
  3. Patted dry with a dry, cotton washcloth - don't rub, pat!
  4. For larger areas, I switched to cotton balls, dipped in the water solution and squeezed nearly dry

Did I mention I have no patience?  I started working larger and larger areas, finding that the cotton balls worked well on the main deck, and after about 15 minutes of this I was seeing progress (and noticed the paint chips).

Here's what Black Betty looked like after 15 minutes:

I couldn't see any of these decals when I started. I was thrilled to see this much of them as I need to make a pattern in case I need to repaint these.  Singer decals, as I've discovered, are more rare than the Siberian Tiger.  I've emailed Singer to ask that they either 1) make stencils available that we can buy, or 2) make the decals available for purchase'd think they'd do it, since they could print them as needed.

Encouraged, and a bit nervous, I decided to remove the once gorgeous face plate and see what kind of rust damage may be facing me below the surface.  I was happy to see that it wasn't bad at all, and surprised to find what appears to be a nest of some type.  I'm not sure what as our mice are WAY too big to fit into a Singer.

Did you see the "mini-nest" sitting just above the needle?  I just need to find the right cleaning solution for the face plate to bring it back to it's former glory.  My camera makes it look rustier than it is, but it helps me see how much cleaning it really needs.  I also need to locate a few manuals for it, the service manual would be the most helpful, but I'll take whatever I can find.

Black Betty has taken a back set to a few other projects, but I will be back to work on her this Spring!

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