Some Information Regarding Vibrating Shuttle Machines

Treadle On has recently seen a sudden increase in interest in the older vibrating shuttle machines. This has resulted in the exchange of a lot of VS information on the list, and also resulted in my making up a couple of instruction sets on bobbin winding and shuttle problems. All of this information is gathered on the following pages.

Captain Dick


Winding a Vibrating Shuttle Bobbin

Many people seem to have trouble with winding bobbins for Vibrating Shuttle machines. Of course, the types of winders used on these earlier machines varied a great deal, and you will have to do some experimenting and/or find a correct manual. However, since Singers are the most common, and since the "heart shaped cam" winder is the most common on Singers, I thought I'd show the process as I do it, using an 1891 Singer VS3.


typical "heart shaped cam" bobbin winder. The cam is mounted on a threaded wheel, and due to its eccentric shape, as the thread turns, the cam forces the level winder arm back and forth. This is a good basic system and usually works acceptably, if not perfectly. The problem is that the the adjustment of the arm to the cam can be easily changed, and if someone has mis-set it, it will wind unevenly.



Here the bobbin has been inserted intot he holder. Note tha the thread has been pinched between the end of the bobbin and the holder. Some people prefer to tie the thread on, but I like this method. You do need to clip off the "tail" that sticks out past the end of the bobbin when you're done.

Not shown, but I have disengaged the clutch wheel (inside the hand wheel) and prssed the winder assembly forward so that it rubs on the hand wheel. I happen to know that in spite of my best efforts, this particular winder tends to favor the right side, so I turned the hand wheel until I saw the level wind arm actually start back towards the left before I inserted the thread and started winding.



The thread has started out winding pretty level...



However, darn it, it is still packing up a bit on the right... should have let the level wind arm go much further to the left before starting. Not a problem... just watch the end and don't wind the bobbin too full.

While winding, I like to keep a little bit of pressure on the thread with my fingers. Most VS machines prefer a somewhat tightly wound bobbin to a loosely wound one. On a loosely wound bobbin, if anything catches the thread while sewing, top windings of thread can be pulled down into the lower windings, and the next time the bobbin hits that point, bingo! Thread break...



I had to wind a second bobbin, so I started this one in the middle. It ended up quite level.



Here is an important part of VS machine maintenance... the shuttle race oil wick. That little red piece of felt is an oil wick. It it is pulled out, there should be a little (pin size) open hole at the bottom that leads out to the edge of the shuttle race. You oil this wick and it leaks a tiny amount of oil onto the race surface to keep the shuttle from wearing.

It is not uncommon for the little hole to become clogged with old dried oil, so it is a good idea when refurbishing an old machine to pull the wick and use a fine pin to make sure the hole is open.




Threading a Vibrating Shuttle

Unfortunately, the instructions in 1800's and early 1900's sewing machine manuals are not always as clear as modern instructional materials. This is especially true of the instructions for threading the Singer Vibrating Shuttle machines VS2, VS3 and early 27 and 28. Worse yet, often the manuals are long gone and the poor person who has found the machine is trying to figure out how this strange device works. Here is a step by step instruction on cleaning and loading the vibrating shuttle.

Let me gebin with some general discussion of the shuttle, because it is very much misunderstood. Then, the pictures will repeat and clarify. The shuttle was, and is, a replaceable device. Sewing machine and even fabric stores, carried stocks of shuttles for machines, in the same way that they did bobbins and needles. The primary cause of wear in shuttles is the thread dragging between the tension spring and the shuttle housing. This constant friction tends to wear a groove in the metal of both the spring and the shuttle itself. Correct tension depends on the pressure the spring applies to the thread. If there is a groove, the thread can "hide" in the groove, and the pressure the spring is meant to apply doesn't really get to the thread. Further, the area under the spring is a natural gathering spot for lint. Once lint is there, it too can interfere with the pressure, and, even worse, attracts moisture which induces rust. Finally, the bottom, or "cup" of the inside of the shuttle is another natural gathering point for lint. Sometimes, an almost felt-like wafer of felt can be found in the bottom of old shuttles. This felt increases the friction required to turn the bobbin, again affecting the tension. In extreme cases, it can even cause the bobbin to fail to seat fully into the shuttle.

Cleaning a shuttle consists of removing the spring, carefully wiping and examing the area under the spring to remove lint and/or rust and inspect for the beginning of grooving, and using a long item like a screwdriver or something similar to remove any lint in the bottom of the shuttle.

Reproduction shuttles are available for Singer machines, but not for other brands, and shuttles are brand specific. Take care of your shuttle... finding a replacement may be difficult.



Here is a Singer shuttle and bobbin, taken directly from an old machine. Note that the bobbin has green thread wound over black thread... overwinding was very common.


Here is this bobbin disassembled. The small screw that holds the spring in has been removed (don't loose it!). You can see rust and dirt under the spring and on the shuttle... actually kind of bad in this case.


Here's a close up of the same. Note the little ball of lint at lower left... this was removed from inside the shuttle. Note also the faint line, like a pencil line, running from the middle of the spring up towards the screw hole. That's a groove...


Here's another picture where I tried to get a different angle to show the groove better. While it still might serve, in my opinion this shuttle spring is a goner. In this case, the shuttle housing was not as deeply grooved, but I got a different shuttle for this machine anyway.


Okay.. this is a different shuttle, or, if you prefer, you can think of it as the same shuttle reassembled. I have removed the old thread from the bobbin and wound new thread on. Note that the thread is leading off of the bobbin from the underside toward the left. This is really important! If the thread is coming off of the top of the bobbin, it ain't gonna work!

Insert the bobbin into the shuttle and pull the thread into the slot that leads from the open end of the shuttle up toward the spring.


Pull the thread into the slot and all the way toward you.



Finally, press on the end of the bobbin with the fleshy part of a finger (to stop it from turning) and then pull the thread up and away from you until it slips under that little finge in the middle of the spring. Note that it now comes out from under the spring somewhat to the right side.




This should get you to where you can load and thread the bobbin of a VS machine. Singers are, of course, most common, but most of the VS machines of that era work essentially the same.

What is missing here is some material on bobbin winding... and I'm working on that...

Captain Dick

There has been so much suddenly increased interest in Vibrating Shuttle machines, I decided to post the following information. It’’s really just a series of email exchanges, with an Onion feeling her way into using a pre-1900 VS machine she had recently purchased, but there is a LOT of good VS information included. She asked a lot of good questions, and these answers may contain some information helpful to any new VS user:Jessica.... some answers to "this and that"... some pretty important stuff for anyone who doesn't know it...

Tension: From what I can see in your photo, your stitches look pretty good. The point is evenness, rather than just what you can see. Even in the sense that you can't see either thread on the other side is probably OK, but I prefer to use a bit more tension on both sides... my criteria is being able to just see the bottom thread pulled to the top, and the top thread pulled to the bottom. I feel that if the threads "overlap" just that bit more, I somehow have a stronger stitch. Probably in my head, but... What you don't want is to have one thread very visible and the other not, i.e. one thread just kind of laying on the top or bottom, with the other thread doing all the work. If the "loose" thread breaks, you can pull out the whole row of stitching (which works great if you're machine basting, but not otherwise...).

I, too, prefer a tension adjustment without numbers, and have been known to take that pretty tension dial off of my 15-88's and set them up like an old 27.

One caution re the stitch length adjuster... do not, repeat do not, unscrew it all the way out. It's the very devil to re-install!

Ooops... re the threading photo... I hope I'm wrong, but as best i can tell, you do not have a check spring in that tension set-up. There should be a small spring that comes out of the tension assembly and sticks out to the left. After the thread comes out from between the tension plates, it goes through that little spring, which serves to keep tension on the thread between stitches. Assuming it isn't there, visible, I suspect it has been, as is common, broken off. If you unscrew the tension know and remove the disks and the plate assembly, leaving only the split screw, then put a screwdriver into the screw split, and, hopefully gently, unscrew that screw. I'm guessing you will find the remainder of a spring clamped in the hole, held in place by the split screw. If that's the case, you need a new check spring. Our suppliers or you local repair store should be able to furnish one. Once you have it, contact me again and I'll go through installation with you. Then again, maybe I'm just not seeing the spring... hope so.

The lever below the tension disks is your tension release. Not using it is very hard on the thread and on the needle. It could also account for lots of problems, i.e. the thread coming out of the disks differently, and lower thread breaking. If you don't use the tension release lever, and just pull the thread out, and it comes out, it's an indication your overall tension, while even, may be too light. Worse, the extra pressure put on the lower thread by pulling may pull the top winding of thread on the bobbin into the lower level, resulting in a thread break or bobbin jam up.

I do not use the thread cutter on the back of the presser bar. If it's still there it's usually quite dull. I keep a small pair of embroidery scissors right on the sewing machine plate at all times.

Needles... the 27, like most Singers, takes a standard 15x1 needle. These come in ball point, sharp point, and universal. Universal is a compromise and, like most compromises, serves little purpose in the end. The 27 is a powerful machine and will take large special needles as for leather, if that's what you need. Many times, 15x1 needles come in an assortment pack, which I hate. I use the 9, 10 and 11 sizes and end up with lots of 14's and 16's left over. They're just too large for working on good quilting cottons. My preferred needle is a #10 sharp. I change needles about every three bobbins full.

Winding bobbins... first, check out the new instructions on VS bobbin winding I posted this morning. that should help. Yes, release the clutch (small wheel inside the hand wheel) the bobbin will wind faster and smoother and you'll treadle easier. Also, it save wear and tear on the needle bar mechanism. Many, if not most, of these old winders wind favoring one side, but you can do some adjusting... see instructions posted this morning. The adjustment "method" is to engage the winder mechanism and start pumping. Watch the relationshsip of the heart shaped cam and the level winding arm. When the arm is in the "top" of the heart, or where the indentation in the cam is, the arm should be at the end of the bobbin. If it's not, treadle until it is, then use your finger to push the level winding lever away from the cam. Keep treadling till the indentation on the cam comes around, and release the lever so it's controlling bump rests in the cam's indentation. That should give you a pretty fair relative travel of the level winder from one end of the bobbin to the other, and represents a standard of "as good as it gets". Then figure out which end your winder favors and try to start in the middle with the level winder traveling away from that end. This doesn't accomplish lots, but it does give the bobbin thread a little leeway on the end you didn't start at. Again, see the pictures posted this morning. Above all, don't overfill the bobbin... that's a far greater problem than levelness.
Re treadling... you're doing it by the book, which I suppose is right. I, and many others, are one footed treadlers. By the time you treadle a complete quilt, you won't think about it any more... just do it. Something else to mention is that there are folks who insist they can stop and start purely using the pedal... I ain't one of them. I like the feel of controlling the hand wheel. About half the time I start with it, and I always stop with it.

re small knots on back... signifies a missed stitch.. loop missed the shuttle. My little Rosie does this too. I wish she didn't, but then, she's 115 years old and we're learning together (she's teaching me). Unless there are lot of them, I don't think they matter too much...might more on clothes than in quilting, again, not my area.
Re noise... check the photos posted this morning... you oiled the machine... did you oil the race wick?

Hesitations and/or false starts create a little extra thread in the stitch, which can result in breakage or a snarl in the feed dogs... There is no such thing as reverse stitching on a VS. Learn not to do it. When you need to tack a seam, you can stop, lift the foot, move the fabric back and then lower the foot and stitch over the last few stitches again, or you can turn the work around (uck!) or you can "back tack", which is what I do. I work with as little foot pressure as I can get away with, and when i want to tack a seam, I simply press down on the fabric with the heal of my hand, stopping it from moving and making several stitches on top of themselves in the same place. Believe me, it's tacked; in fact, I practically defy you to rip it out.

Broken check springs are a common problem on old VS’s that have been neglected. Here are instructions for replacing a check spring on a Singer VS tension system:
Jessica... yep... as I suspected, a broken tension spring. Looks to me like the spare one you have would work, though it obviously has been broken and rebent itself. A regular modern tension spring for a Singer 15 or 66 or such can be made to work and should be readily available at your sm repair outlet. Here's what you have to do to install it:
1. Things you will need: screwdriver to disassemble and reassemble the tension system.; 2 pairs of needle nose pliers; two new check springs (one's a spare in case you mess up.)
2. Remove the tension nut, the tension spring, the thumb tension release plate and the disks. (Try to remember how they came off so you can put them back the same!)
3. Using the screwdriver, remove the slotted central tension post/screw. This will release the broken check spring from the machine.
4. Note how the center of the broken check spring is bent into a small circle so that the shoulder on the tension post/screw will lock it in place. Put the old check spring back in and take it out again a few time. Note where the piece of
broken spring points. The tension post is the only thing that controls this. You want it to point to approx. 9 o'clock or a bit earlier. When you're comfortable that you can put it in and end up with the spring pointing to 9 o'clock you're ready to tackle putting the new one in. (Note: There may be a little "shoulder" cast into the machine to stop the check spring's movement. More on that later.)
5. Look at the center of a new check spring. It is not bent into a little circle like the old one, because on modern machines it is held in differently. You're job is to GENTLY use the needle nose pliers to bend the spring center to approximate the shape of the old one's center, so that the tension post's shoulder can lock it into place when you reassemble the tension.
6. Once you have the spring center bent the way you want it, slip the tension post into the spring center and install the spring, just the way you practiced with the old one. With the spring held firmly by the post, you want it to be at about 9 o'clock, with some tension on it, so that if you flick it upwards, it snaps back down. If there is a little shoulder for it to rest on, tighten it up so it points below the shoulder and then lift it onto the should, and then reassemble things. Again, what you are looking for is a spring that point off to the left and has some tension on it.
7. With the tension reassembled, thread the machine. The thread comes down and between the disks, just as you had it before. However, on the way back up to the lift arm, it passes through the loop on the check spring. When you lift the thread, you should be able to pull the check spring up and down. If you can, study the operation of the check spring on some other machines as they sew. (No need to disassemble, just watch what happens with each stitch.
OK... If you did all this successfully, you are a certified VS tension Specialist.
Captain Dick



So, after writing that tome for Jennifer, I went back to sewing my blocks together and kept staring at my bobbin winder, thinking, Singer has to have been smarter than this, there must be a better way to adjust it. Lightbulb!!!! Somewhere I have an actual shop manual for Singer machines. So, I go and find it and look up what to do when the bobbin winds unevenly on a 127/128. Here is what it says:
"When the thread winds to one side of the bobbin, check the thread guide for wear at the cam (following) end and replace when necessary with a new guide.
When a NEW guide tends to wind the thread unevenly on the bobbin, bend the thread guide, which carries the thread from the bobbin winder to the bobbin, away from the side at which the thread piles up. Use a pair of pliers #26346, as shown in Fig. 41. Care should be taken not to bend the thread guide too far."
Well, that's subtle, isn't it!? Just be sure your pliers are #26346, or, as my father the clock maker used to say, "If a hammer doesn't fix it, get a bigger hammer."
Considering that in today's world we can't walk into JoAnn's and buy a new thread guide for a 128 mechanism, I'd be pretty careful with those 26346's...

Captain Dick

Here's another VS tension problem potential, and how to solve...

I got a belt on my 27 tonight and got it oiled and finally tried stitching. First, it winds a really nice level bobbin! Great! Makes a good stitch once the tension is right, but I ran into a problem there. Someone, over the years, had really reefed on the tension adjusting nut, screwing it all the way in and compressing the main tension spring, the big one that goes between the nut and the disks. Who knows how long it was like that, but the spring had "set" in that position and I couldn't get any more pressure out of it. I took the nut off, pulled the spring out and stuck a screwdriver blade under the end that goes into the slot in the post, then grasped the edges and carefully stretched it out a bit. It decided it was happy returning to its original form, complete with some spring to it, so I put it back on and tried a couple of seams, adjusting as I went, and got everything working fine. Seems likely that any old machine that's been sitting around has had people trying to adjust and move anything that was adjustable and moveable, so it wouldn't surprise me to encounter this same problem on other machines

.Dick Wightman
aka: Captain Dick