Tuesday, 8 March 2016

My Love Affair with Wilcox & Gibbs

Step aside ’50 Shades of Grey’ ; this is the real thing… my love affair with myWilcox & Gibbs sewing machine.

The other day I was quiet enough to treat myself to a spot of dressmaking and decided to reacquaint myself with my electric sewing machine. There was no particular intention for this other than the fact that my beloved 12 year old niece can operate one better than me and I felt that I really ought to keep up. I spent the morning diligently combing every page of the hand book belonging to my c.1980 Frister & Rossmann Cub 7 and having mastered various Feet and practiced with mediocre results with the Button Holer, I felt ready to negotiate a pair of pyjama bottoms to be constructed from a pretty floral sprigged mid weight cord material saved from my late grandmothers Stash.

Having cut out and pinned I was ready to go!....or so I thought!...The first 15 minutes were spent messing around with the Tension. The top stitching was great….oh….now the Back Stitching was loose…..no…..the back is fine!... Ahh! Got It!....Off I went, table shaking, both hands white knuckled gripping the fabric, Bloody Hell I was even keeping a straight line!.....Then the thread snapped……Fine!...Re-thread!.....Looks fine! Off I Go!!!......Hang On! It is skipping stitches…..More tension fiddling……All is well in Electric Machine Land! Back on the peddle and on with the electrical whirr......until 3 layers of fabric halts the thing altogether, by which time I am fed up but philosophical. I plod on not to be thwarted  but by the waist band I had well and truly had enough! …..Sod this for a game of Soldiers!; There is nothing for it but to retreat back to My Darling and beg forgiveness…. For I had thrown over my adored Wilcox and Gibbs in favour of this Toy Boy over 100 years his junior….My! How I missed you! How unfaithful I had been! ……My beloved Wilcox and Gibbs ; I will never leave you again!!!....Please have me back and Play Nice!....

I had first set eyes on a Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine in a magazine where some Avant Garde textile artist had a class of students using them to play with the Chain Stitch it produces. It was Love. I knew I had to have one and after several months stalking Ebay, I was bought a lovely one by my now Ex Husband (here I do him due credit by stating it was the only truly useful thing he ever did for me for which I am eternally grateful). The first thing you notice is its strikingly bijou beauty. Indeed as I found out later, it is often mistaken for a miniature machine. It is shaped in the round of a ‘G’ for ‘Gibbs’ and the black paint is overlaid with trailing vines and grapes. ‘Wilcox and Gibbs’ was once glorified on the front arm but I deduce that given its shape makes for a handy handle by which to lift it, this must be the reason why, sadly my example is but a shadow. It sits on a base of radiant seasoned wood (I don’t know what type).

First produced in the 1850’s, the Wilcox and Gibbs epitomises everything wonderful about Victorian enterprise and engineering. I think we can assume James Wilcox’s wife, Catherine was not a seamstress as I’m convinced she would have said (in an American accent) ‘I’m sure as heck fed up with winding shuttles ; can’t you invent a better way?’….instead poor James found out by sheer luck. Having suffered misfortunes with the family business James Gibbs started fiddling around with the chain Stitch mechanism but didn’t actually realise he had struck upon a genuinely original idea until he saw the Singer machines of the day used shuttles. Thankfully he was still very young so for those of you who like a happy ending, he patented it, bumped into an enthusiastic partner called James  Wilcox and ended up producing the best-selling Chain Stitch sewing machine ever

Invented and made shit loads of cash.  And you see here’s my point – It doesn’t use a bobbin! So no buggering about with Bobbin Winders or running out of thread on a tricky piece you’ve just removed all the pins from! Yippeee! The only down side is that there is no ‘Reverse’ and you have to remember to finish with the needle up and leave the footer down to prevent the stitches from unravelling ; and the unravelling can be a bit of a Bummer…..

Thankfully it came complete with its fragile book and I was able to decipher the threading which goes from the spool, through the main arm and doubles back on itself, anti-clockwise around a tensioner before heading towards the front of the machine and the needle itself. (At this point I try and refrain from sending you to sleep eulogising  over the handle wheels having been made separately here in the UK away  from its New York production base.) Once threaded, the handle is turned and I’m not sure where the biggest joy comes from at this point; the perfectly formed, dainty Chain Stitches, or the machines complete silence upon which it was marketed. When I say it makes no noise, I mean it makes no noise!

Since that first meeting I have lavished gifts upon my Wilcox. I have collected various devices which make the most sublime pin tucks, ruffles and gathers, reunited him with his original price lists and paid an obscene amount of money for the original metal oil can. I have lovingly run up dresses, trousers, curtains and blinds and he has rewarded me with not a missed stitch, or stubbornness to sew over any thickness of fabric. Never again will I err or stray from him…my bastion of reliability, beauty and timelessness who will be working in another 100 years………oh….and he’s great in a power cut.

If you want to read more about all the geeky intricacies and history of the Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machine then Alex Askaroff  is an enthusiast and collector  and incredibly knowledgeable. Check out his link, where you will in turn also find his links to YouTube videos.


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