A sewing machine for 1916: meet my new (very old) Singer 27 series, VS-3

Among the many questions I’ve been asked about the Fortnight in 1916 project is ‘Are you going to be sewing like you would in 1916’?

Why yes, yes I am!

My goal is to make a blouse entirely as it would have been made at home in 1916, and to cut and start one of my outfits for Costume College (obviously, one that is 1916 themed!)

To do this, I need an era-correct sewing machine.  Meet my new, very old, hand-crank Singer Model 27:

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

She dates from 1893, and is version 3 of the 27 model.

Singer launched the 27 series in the mid 1880s, as the first of their machines to use the new vibrating shuttle technology.

A vibrating shuttle is a different kind of bobbin which swings back and forth inside the machine, instead of having the threads carried around the machine, like a modern bobbin.

So the inside of the machine looks like this:

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

That point silver bullet looking thing is the bobbin, and the arm that is carrying it swings back and forth in the undercarriage, making the whole thing vibrate as you sew – hence the name vibrating shuttle!

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

Because the bobbin case is long and skinny, the machine takes a totally different kind of bobbin, shaped like little tiny barbells, like so:

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

Obviously 1893 is a good 23 years before my experiment, but the 27 series was made and marketed as a lifetime investment, and they were still in production in 1916, so it’s very likely that many Wellington housewives of the 1910s had and used similar ones.

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

Mine may even have been used by a Wellington woman of 1916 – it’s certainly been well used and loved!

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

The 1893 date really appeals to me on a personal level too, because I’m pretty sure I got my first sewing machine in 1993.   I have and use one that is the same model as my first machine, so there is a nice symmetry to 1916 me and 2016 me and our machines.

As this machine is very well used, all its decals have worn off, but I can just see that it originally came with the Ottoman carnation decals – my favourite for this series!

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

In addition to being well-loved cosmetically, the machine needed a bit of mechanical TLC, so she’s currently in the shop getting tensions and bits adjusted, and I am holding my breath that all of that is going to make her sing (or, more accurately, whirrrr…whirrr..CAH-LUNK, which is the sound she should make) properly again.

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

I’ve got my fingers crossed that she’ll be fixed in time, because if not I’m going to have to get my 1903 Standard treadle dusted off, and honestly, that machine makes me want to throw things.  There is a reason old Singers are so valued as working machines while so many other older brands are not!  Ironically, it’s pretty much the opposite today, where modern Singers are pretty poorly made, rubbish machines.

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

Obviously, the big thing I still need to do with her is name her.  What do you think?  What’s a good name for an 1893 machine?

1893 Singer 27 series, VS-3, thedreamstress.com

UPDATE:  And she has a name!  Ladies (and occasional gentlemen), meet Harriet.

I started thinking about names  as soon as I published the post – lying in bed turning over options in my head.

Like many of you, I noted the significance of the year 1893 as being the year New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote, so thought the name should tie into that.  While Kate Sheppard is the obvious choice, she’s been honoured with many things, and she was far from the only suffragist in NZ.  And how could I possibly go past Harriet Russell Morison, suffragist, tailoress, and vice president (and later secretary) of the Tailoresses Union, and general campaigner for the rights of women workers and the mentally ill?  Here she is in a photo from 1911.  May my machine be as awesome and hard-working as her namesake!


  1. As soon as I saw this title in my reader, I knew I was going to be in raptures over this machine, and I was right. She is BEAUTIFUL I would name her Louisa.

    • Awww <3 I love that you see how beautiful she is even with all the wear! I love Louisa as a sewing machine name, but I think I've found one that seems just right for this one...

      • I just came back to this post because I picked up a hand-crank vibrating shuttle machine the other day. I totally forgot about Louisa as a name, and mine will be called Eleanor, but i wanted a name for the Singer 115 I got at the same time, so I will call that one Louisa 😀 (unless she tells me otherwise. She’s missing some bits right now)

    • Vintage machines are fascinating! And the ’30s & ’40s is a good era. I have Nana’s Singer from that era – it was the first electric machine available in NZ.

  2. Tegan says

    Enid. I dunno why, but like 1893 Enid just sounds nice in my head.

    She’s a pretty thing 🙂

    • I agree, Enid does seem like a good name for the time period! I’m not sure but I think I recall reading a book from around that time with a girl named Enid in it.

      She’s lovely, even with the decals worn off.

    • You are most right! Enid is a very 1890s name, but I think it means ‘pure’ which just doesn’t feel right for this machine for me…

  3. Amie says

    I just tried to look up “popular girl names 1893 New Zealand ” and I found a list of women who signed a petition to vote.
    There were some named Emma, Annie, Amy (my name different spelling actually a lot of Amy) but then I hit on Agnes.
    She looks like an Agnes.
    One note on the name Louisa, I happen to love that name! My firstborn was going to be Louisa but turned into a Luke!
    For your new machine, I vote for Agnes.
    She is lovely whatever you choose. I hope she comes back to you raring to go.
    I’m currently restoring my greatgrandma’s red eye singer treadle and it’s so cool. I hope to figure out the treadle action.

    • Agnes is a great name! It makes me think of Agnes Alexander Baldwin though, and one day I want to do an Agnes dress for her, so I don’t think she can be a sewing machine too… You’re on the same thought track that I’m on, with the NZ suffragettes!

  4. I think you should call her Kate. It would have been a common name spoken in most households in 1893!

    • Miss Sis says

      And ties with Kate Shepherd who advoted the vote for women in NZ which happened in – 1893!

    • I’m definitely on board with the 1893 vote as an inspiration, but I don’t think Kate’s the woman to go with this time 😉

  5. I don’t know if it was a popular name back then, but when I saw the box for it “Bridget” just popped in to my head, even before I read that you wanted suggestions for a name.

    • I don’t know either, but I know a couple of Bridget’s, so I’d have trouble thinking of it for a machine 🙂 Name association!

  6. redbarngirl says

    I love old machines! I currently have 3 treadles (which I am slowly restoring) and one of the first electric Singer models, as well as a few more recent machines. Believe it or not, I use all of them. I don’t have any hand-crank machines though; I guess I have something else to add to my collection!

    • Exciting! What are your treadle models? I’ve got one, but this is my first hand crank. It certainly takes less space! I also have the first electric Singer that was available in NZ: mine was Nanas, and still goes beautifully. I can totally believe you use them all.

  7. Old technology for the win! I myself use a post-WWII hand-crank Japanese Singer-knockoff, marketed under the name “Liberty.” That elegant whirr….
    For the name, since she’s a Singer, might I suggest Hattie – after Hattie McDaniel, singer, actress and first African-American Oscar-winner? Black, beautiful, and born in 1893!

    • Old technology is the best. And things made before planned obsolescence!

      She is actually going to be Harriet, but not Hattie, after a different Harriet. I think Hattie McDaniel is well worth honouring, but it’s probably time we did it with something that isn’t a domestic workhorse, no? 😉 And, according to Wikipedia, Hattie McDaniel was born in 1895, so it wouldn’t suit.

  8. carla says

    I soon as I saw your pictures it looked at me as an Agnes,but you are free to pick the perfect name for such a beauty.

  9. I like Hattie myself, partly because of the pun, and partly because it’s a name that would have been more common in 1916 than today.

  10. Very exciting! I just got a 1909 Singer 27 last week and am excited to get mine up and running (it now treddles – thanks to lots of oil – but I have yet to see if it sews). I look forward to seeing what you make with yours. If you are as excited about this one as I am about mine, I’m very happy for you!

  11. My machines have names too, as does my main loom and my spinning wheel. I currently have Jemima (Juki), Bernadette (Bernina, called Bernie for short), Esme (my Majacraft spinning wheel, Esmerelda is her full name and she’s named after a certain witch in Terry Pratchett’s books) and my loom is Violet. Funny thing, my overlocker hasn’t earned a name yet, I obviously don’t have the same emotional connection to her.

  12. Fascinating! I’m intrigued by the vibrating shuttle and would really like to see that in real life. It’s wonderful that it’s still in working order and can be used, those old Singers were certainly made to last.

  13. linda olson says

    Your knowledge of ancient sewing machines is most impressive! Good luck with your new toy, I mean tool, as you embark upon a most creative adventure. Living history!

  14. Elise says

    This has been the coolest comments. Love the name. Love the symbolism.

  15. Sharon Collins says

    Both of my grandmothers had treadle machined for a good part of my life. One upgraded to an electric machine & the other gave her treadle to her daughter. The daughter got angry with her mother & destroyed the machine. I was surprised a grown woman would do that. I have a hand crank Singer, too. I need to have it serviced, then maybe I could try it out.

    • A 27 series VS-3 and a 28 are the same thing. The VS-3 was later re-branded as the 28, but at the time my machine was made and marketed, it was labelled and sold as a 27 series, VS-3, so I prefer to use that as the more accurate terminology for my machine.

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