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Meeting the Union Special Chainstitching Machine

Chainstitch machine`

A few weeks ago my friend Justin asked me to accompany him to a specialty denim boutique in Manhattan. He recently purchased a rather pricey pair of jeans there and had been raving about them for quite some time. Justin had to return to the store to get his pair hemmed and requested I tag along as a length-consultant.

The place Justin loves so much is called Self Edge. Self Edge has distinguished itself as a go-to in NYC and San Francisco for serious denim connoisseures. A manufacturer in only men’s styles currently, they offer “selvage” denim designs. Some of their lines are so exclusive that they run in limited editions, use sterling silver rivets, or even use python-skin tags from Okinawa.

When we walked into the store, Justin had his recent purchase in hand and began drooling over the heavy-weight styles on the racks and started daydreaming out loud about his next pair. Some of the denim was so stiff I thought it would be painful to wear (they assured me it wasn’t).

We then sat down at a desk with the store attendant and started chatting about Justin’s jeans’ length. The desk and leather tufted chair looked like something from the set of Mad Men; I felt like we all needed some cigars to go over the task at hand to match our setting.

As Justin ran off to try on his pants, the store attendant noticed me turning the leg from a pair of limited cashmere twill pants inside out and examining the bound seam. He started to preach the glories of “selvage” denim and then asked me if I knew how to sew. Justin yelled from the dressing room, “Homegirl has like 8 sewing machines!” That’s when I was invited into the basement.

All hem alterations were done on a Union Special Chainstitching machine and they hemmed all pairs bought at the store for free (with pairs hovering around $300 a pop, they better). I’m not sure how old the machine was, but it hummed and purred like it was in mint condition; it’s tattered appearance said otherwise. He let me sew a few samples on the machine to test it out and actually left me alone down there for a while. It was surreal; I was at an old machine in a basement on the Lower East Side surrounded by piles of jeans in various repair. The machine’s handwheel was actually on the back and it stitched through that super-thick fabric like it was butter.

Side note: For those of you that don’t know what “selvage” denim is, it’s basically jeans that incorporate the fabric’s selvage along the pant side seam. The jeans are often turned up at the hem to show off the contrasting selvage along the seamline. Because of the straight line, it’s usually only used in men’s jeans and makes the pants cost around 3 to 4 times as much as a normal pair. It’s quite interesting, even though I haven’t completely grasped the whole benefit of what the selvage edge does for the pants. Although it does make me smile and giggle a little inside when I hear my guy friends start spouting out sewing terms over dinner.

Have you ever encountered a sewing machine like this? What other interesting machines have you come across?



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  1. Rabia | | #1

    I recently encountered an odd little Singer brand "sewing machine" at a ReStore. It was vintage, looked "industrial", but wasn't very big; it was maybe a foot and a half across and would easily have fit on a tabletop,like a regular machine. It looked nothing like any sewing machine I'd ever seen however; the needle was HORIZONTAL, resting in a kind of "cradle", and it went from left to right. It was only because it had a needle and was a "Singer": that identified it as a sewing machine of some sort.The clerk had no idea what it was for, either. I will have to go back there with a camera; maybe it's still there and I can get a picture of it.

  2. Skymom | | #2

    I'm interested to learn about these selvage jeans. I recently bought my kid a pair of jeans at Old Navy, that had a couple of selvage details on the belt loops and the coin pocket. I thought it was just a clever decorative device (as it is), but now I wonder if it's a reference to this selvage jeans phenomenon. There's no other selvage on the pants, though, which I guess is what you get for $19.50!

  3. adadan | | #3

    The deal with selvage denim is largely that it is woven on narrow looms, the way denim was woven years ago (pre 1970's at least). It is more expensive for lots of reasons, but one is simply that the denim is manufactured in less bulk quantities, is narrower, and it takes more yardage to make a pair of jeans. You can get TONS of info about it on fashion sites for men, but it is not necessarily the selvage line/edge that makes the denim better, it has just been denim purists (largely Japanese) who have insisted on selvage denim for some time now, and so up until recently selvage denim goes hand-in-hand with quality and attention to detail in manufacturing of the fabric and construction of the jeans. Now that it is starting to become a hip trend, other manufacturers are trying to "cheap out" by either making cheap and low quality selvage denim and/or adding selvage details on denim that is not selvage.

    I'm both a selvage denim lover (at least, quality selvage denim like what Self Edge NY & SF carry), and a sewing and sewing machine nut. I've got a couple of old Necchi's and Singers and now I actually have a lead locally on a 1930's Singer industrial chainstitch machine, which I'm dying to get my hands on so I can hem my own denim.

    Just as a side note, the reason denim nerds insist on chainstitched hems on their selvage jeans is the way a chainstitch pulls on the fabric differently than a lockstitch does, which leads to a unique pattern of fading at the hem when the jeans are washed, typically called "roping."

    BTW, another feature of much selvage denim, particularly that made in Japan, is natural indigo dye, which fades very distinctively over time as the jeans are worn and (as seldom as possible) washed.

  4. kponcedeleon | | #4

    I was in a thrift store and found a Singer model #216 mocha color and in mint condition. It was similiar to a model 201 except it had zigzag feature. The case and the feet were different from the USA standard. I just love it.

  5. Gigi_Louis | | #5

    Rabia, that sounds like a blindstitch machine. I have one and love it! I work in an industrial machine shop so I see all sorts of really cool machines. At the moment, I am coveting a cylinder-arm walking-foot machine, sigh.

  6. marval | | #6

    I still have my Singer 625 Touch and Sew that has a small plate which fits over the bobbin and another small thread carrier plate. This allows a chain stitch to be done. It still works! I often used it as a basting stitch since it was easy to rip out, but with the new threads and decorative stitches being used now, I guess it ought to be put to other uses.

  7. User avater
    embroiderall | | #7

    I've come across two odd machines and snapped them up.

    My latest is one I just picked up from the curb outside a neighbor's house this past weekend and I'm currently in a dialog with Singer about it.

    I liked it because it had the immaculate lettering of a Featherweight in brand new condition, but the oddity of it is that it has no leg or knee control. It is manual, not electric and seems to do everything by turning a knob attached to the hand wheel. Seems to me like it would be a hard way to sew, but I'm still investigating.

    The first machine, another Singer, I bought at a thrift store for half of their asking price, $7.50! It must weigh 50 lbs as it's all an industrial green metal. It's not as interesting, but I thought it might come in handy for some projects at some point in my life.

    The second one, the hand turn Featherweight, has got to weigh 100 lbs. I can hardly lift it at all. When I picked it up from the curb, I couldn't put it in my pick up bed, so I tried to put it in the passenger's seat. Couldn't make it that far. Tried the floor at the passenger's side and hardly got it in. It's in a carrying case which is bulky, too. Good thing I was near home, as I had to drive with my door ajar because it wouldn't close with the machine on the floor and I couldn't lift it to put it anywhere else! lololol

    I was, also, given an old 1913 Home machine with a wood cabinet, but it's in very bad shape and I've ignored it for a few years now sad to say. It would, probably, cost much too much to restore, as the electrical stuff all needs to be replaced etc and I think it's pretty common, so it's, probably, not worth much.

    These are a far cry from the computerized embroidery machine that is my staple, but they are made so strong and sturdy that they will, probably, last long after my new machine goes capput! lolol

    Madeline, FL

  8. nobodysgrandma | | #8

    I was at a farm sale with my husband. There was a Singer 29K50 treadle machine for making shoes and horse bridles, etc. The drawer still contained an assortment of needles, bobbins, etc. as well as a manual. We bought it for $50 and had our sons help truck the monster to my basement workshop. After removing a heavy layer of oily gunk and lubricating all the moving parts, I am about to put the new leather belt on and see what it will do. The presser foot, which is at the end of an open arm, has a pair of "wings" which are used to angle the needle in any direction required. Wow. When I think what I paid for my Pfaff 5750 to get that multidirectional feature? My first project will be my sandals. I wear a size 12AAAA. Now I can make them narrower. Upholstery! Luggage! Belts! I have a trunk full of leather scraps from a luggage shop and a tanned elk hide...

  9. Carolebarrel | | #9

    Two machines I have are precious to me, but a talented Asian friend is now the proud owner of the antique unused goldleaf decorated chainstitching machine. She will use it for free embroidery on her creations.

    The other one, also an unused beige vintage Necchi 535FA I picked up from a flea market dealer for $10.00. When I asked him if it worked he said he didn't know. Upon closer examination, I noticed the bobbin was there and the needle was threaded with full demo spool of yellowing dirty white cotton thread on a wooden spool. Probably stored in someone's basement. I cleaned off the dust, oiled it and now keep it threaded with white thread for repairs of lingerie etc.

    Lucky me, the bobbin for my Bernina and Necchi are the same size. The Necchi, just like the one my husband bought me when first married, clatters away but makes a very nice stitch and I find it more than worth the tenspot I paid for it just for the nostalgia of it.

    When I purchased the Bernina many years ago (not computerized) the dealer threw in a Bernette serger very reasonably. Like a microwave, I wondered if I would ever use it since it was such a pain to thread until I figured out (duh!) how to tie ends together and pull through the new colors. What I love the serger for is hemming jeans. Cuts down on the quadruple thickness and makes a nice frayproof edge for even top stitching. With three sons and a short husband, the serger has paid for itself over and over and still doing it now that 7 grandchildren have made their entrance.

  10. User avater
    annette22 | | #10

    Oh what a terrific story!! Keep them coming!!

  11. User avater
    Yumjo | | #11

    I love old machines...currently I have 3 sergers, 15 sewing machines (newest is a 1993 PFAFF), 1 Omni-stitch (specialty stitching), and 1 industrial US Blindstitch (with horizonal needle and most recently purchased). I've been searching for a hemstitching machine, but they are rare and quite pricey. I used to do a lot of sewing, but because of nerve problems, I had to quit. Now, since surgery on both hands and arms, I'm hoping to get back to it. I love the creative process and the older machines help me to get the creative juices flowing. Thanks for this article. I really enjoyed reading it.

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