A mask at Grandmother's sewing machine. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio: My Grandmother’s sewing machine

After my 94 year-old aunt Bertie died, my reasons for going to Los Angeles were gone. Last year my wife Ivy and I traveled there to clean out a storage unit. We went to see Bertie’s 92 year-old neighbor Cecelia for what I presumed would be the last time and I wanted her and Ivy to meet. We had a beautiful visit and as we were leaving, Cecelia wanted me to look at something Bertie had wanted her to watch over. It turned out to be what I had been seeking for over forty years.

My grandmother’s Singer treadle sewing machine.

My grandmother died not long after I graduated from high school. I thought her sewing machine had been sold at auction with everything else and I had been looking for one like it ever since. That sewing machine and her cast iron cook stove have always been the Holy Grail for me. I still can’t believe how many times I walked past that sewing machine when I visited Cecelia over the years. We didn’t have room to take it back to Minnesota last year and Cecelia vowed it would still be there when we came back, even if she couldn’t promise she would be at her age.

This February and right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ivy and I bought one way tickets to Los Angeles and rented a car to bring the sewing machine back to Minnesota. Cecelia was waiting for us and after one more visit Ivy and I carried the heavy sewing machine down the concrete steps to the car. Cecelia and I hugged for the last time. I thanked her again and Ivy and I headed back on a 4 day trip to Minnesota.

Photo by Ivy Vainio

We live in a beautiful country and we took a different route so we could see more of it. Las Vegas was glowing as we drove through and we followed the interstate through the mountains and through the snowy high passes. On the second or third day we stopped at a wayside rest. No one was there except a Navajo family in a van. Handmade jewelry was laid out on blankets and everything had price tags. The father stayed in the van with two young boys, maybe 4 and 6 years old. Their shoes were on the pavement behind the van and they were looking out the back window at us. They were quiet and barely waved back when Ivy waved at them. I could tell they hadn’t sold much and the day was hot and dry. Ivy and I were looking at the jewelry and I could tell the woman was used to people setting it back down and moving on. I asked how far they had to drive to get to the wayside rest.

“We live over there,” she said. Off in the distance was a small town. A huge concrete smoke stack spewed grayish black smoke over small houses and trailers crowded close together. Nestled in the hills on the upwind side were larger houses with green trees and lawns.

The boys were silent and looking out the window. The man was quietly making jewelry as he sat behind the wheel. I asked the woman, “Are you selling much?”

“Not too much. My mother has cancer and we’re trying to get enough money to drive to Arizona so I can help her. It’s going to take a while.”

Ivy and I bought jewelry for everyone we could think of. The boys watched us through the back, then the side windows as we drove away.

Ivy and I were quiet as the mountains gave way to foothills, then the open country we would spend the rest of the day in. I knew we were both thinking about our own privilege and what it means to simply be born into any set of circumstances.

We drove through Denver, then through South Dakota over the next couple of days. The sewing machine was laying on its side and we had rolls of paper towels packed around it to keep it from shifting.

We finally got home and I was able to take a good look at it. The leather belt was broken and I could see where my grandfather tried to wire it back together. All the metal surfaces were rusty and the oil in the moving parts was dry and sticky. The sphinx decals were not the bright gold I remembered when I was four years old. The needle went through a small square piece of a checkered shirt under the foot that holds the fabric down. There was still a partial roll of black thread on a wooden spool mounted on top of the machine.

I ordered a belt and sewing machine oil and thread and new needles online. Every night after work I would remove a piece of the sewing machine and clean it with metal polish and clean out all the old hardened oil and lubricate the parts with the sewing machine oil. I found an old manual for it online and that recommended using whale oil for lubrication.

Grandmother's sewing machine. Photo by Ivy Vainio

I cleaned and polished the plate with the serial number. There is a collector’s society online for antique sewing machines. Ivy started doing genealogy when our son was born 22 years ago and she started looking for more information about my grandmother. She found she came to Ellis Island in New York City in 1909 when she was 19 years old. The census documents showed she worked as a servant for a family in New York City for two years. She moved to Sturgeon, Minnesota in 1911 when she answered an ad to be a housekeeper. I wondered how she was treated by that family in New York and what would make a young woman take a chance and travel halfway across the country to start a new life.

My grandfather bought her a cast iron kitchen cook stove as a wedding present and I remember that stove well. I found ads from the early 1900s that showed similar stoves selling for $28.45. I looked at Department of Labor statistics that showed the wage for a laborer in 1911 was 30 cents an hour. A skilled carpenter could make 62 and a half cents an hour in New York City.

The serial number on the sewing machine identified it as a Singer Model 27 and in that production run from September 11 through December 12, 1906 there were 65,000 made. Only 50 Singer Model 28 machines were made in that time frame.

A brand new treadle sewing machine in 1906 was $16.50 per some old Sears catalog ads and I did not find an ad specific to hers. That sewing machine was already 5 years old when my grandmother came to Minnesota. I think she bought it new, but I’m not certain. At first I was disappointed that I had such a common machine and there were so many made. Then I realized that machine was a workhorse for everyday people and was a big investment at the time.

The tension spring was broken and it wouldn’t hold the thread in place. I was able to order it and every day I checked the mailbox. When it showed up, I took the tension assembly apart and put the new spring in. I filled the spindle with about half of the ancient thread. This machine was made before bobbins and instead has a spindle that fits into a shuttle that vibrates back and forth as the needle goes up and down. When I was four years old I could never figure out how that machine could put thread on both sides to join fabric together. Even once I understood it, I have nothing but respect for whoever first thought of this in the 1800s.

Finally, the machine was ready to sew. By this time the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting Seattle hard and was just starting in New York City. Hospital staff were overwhelmed in those places and there wasn’t enough personal protective equipment. Doctors and nurses and everyone working in the hospitals were reusing masks and face shields. Ventilators were hard to come by and doctors were forced to make heartbreaking decisions. I went to the fabric store and had to stand in line. Only 6 people at a time were allowed in the store and everyone had to wait for someone to come out.

All of us were wearing face masks.

Arne Vainio, M.D., receives the Physician of the Year from the Association of American Indian Physicians during the organization's annual conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on July 28, 2017. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Fabric was scarce and even online it was sold out. Businesses were closed and people were at home and many were generous in this time of need. Everyone in line was there for fabric to make face masks and those were strongly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the Minnesota Department of Health.

I bought fabric. People were panic buying things in the stores. Toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and any kind of sanitizing wipes were like gold. I didn’t want to be greedy and I only bought 3 yards of fabric.

I bought a light blue fabric with dragonflies because Ivy likes dragonflies. When I got home I watched an online tutorial on how to make face masks. I carefully cut the fabric and I cut the elastic strips and I held them together. I rocked my foot on the treadle and the machine started in the wrong direction. I started over and the fabric was moving opposite of the direction I expected. I finished the first side of the mask and I had it inside out and I had to cut the thread off and start over. I got the first side done again and the elastic got pushed out and I realized I should have had it pinned together. I pinned the pieces and sewed around that corner, caught the elastic with the thread and made it all the way around. I didn’t leave quite enough opening to turn it inside out and it took a long time to get it pulled through. Doing the pleats on the sides of the mask turned out to be trickier than I expected and I had to take it apart several times before I got it right.

Finally, my first mask was done and after all that trouble, it wasn’t that bad. Ivy had been watching me the whole time.

“That’s a nice mask,” she said. “I love the dragonflies. I love the fact that you used the thread that was on that spool on the machine all those years and I love the fact that it ran out just as you finished your first mask.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “The influenza pandemic of 1918 happened just a few years after my grandmother came to Minnesota. I have no doubt this sewing machine made face masks over a hundred years ago and my grandmother would have made masks. There was a huge second wave of that pandemic and entire families died in a single day. They didn’t have access to ventilators back then and this machine would have been a life saver. My grandmother saved lives as a young woman and I never knew a thing about it.”

I handed Ivy the mask. “This is for you. I want you to be safe. I want your grandmother to be safe.”

She cried when she put it on and she wears that mask as her primary mask. It’s been washed again and again.

I still have more of that fabric. It’s time to make one for Cecelia.

Arne Vainio, MD is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at a-vainio@hotmail.com.

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