Here’s a photo of my son wearing the first sewing project he made on his “new-to-him” vintage sewing machine this past week! It’s a hat (for clowning and unicycling while busking in Boston)!
Introduction (for those new to this website):
Tamara Rubin is a multiple-federal-award-winning independent advocate for consumer goods safety and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children (her sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in 2005). Since 2009, Tamara has been using XRF testing (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals — including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic). All test results reported on this website are science-based, accurate, and replicable. Items are tested multiple times to confirm the test results for each component tested. Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).
Published: April 5, 2021
Some personal background here — I actually have quite a bit of experience with vintage sewing machines…
(Scroll down to the bottom if you want to skip my story and just read the XRF test results!)
When I was in undergraduate school at New York University (1987-1990), I was around antique industrial Singer sewing machines almost every single day. They were big black painted metal ones on wooden tables. Some were electric; some were original treadle models, in constant service since before my grandmother’s time — mechanically simple and robust, durable — and entirely powered by the movement of the operator’s feet!
My work-study job Freshman and Sophomore year (while I was getting my Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at Tisch School of The Arts) was in the legendary costume shop at 721 Broadway in New York City — with Kitty Leech and Greg and Marty Finkelstein and many others. The costume shop peeps were like my family at NYU, and all of the work-study/interns (including me) with the shop had the honor and the privilege of building and sourcing/finding period and modern costumes for off-Broadway (and “off–off-Broadway!”) shows being produced and directed by NYU students and graduates. My memories from that time are so incredibly special — I need to write more about that at some point!
While I didn’t know it at first, it turns out I was studying to be a clown.
I was in NYU’s conservatory program for an undergraduate degree in Drama at the time. I started with the Circle In The Square theater’s studio (on Broadway — in 1987/1988 and 1988/1989 — during the time I worked at the costume shop), and then studied with the Experimental Theater Wing in Paris (and, through them, with the Theatre du Soliel in the Bois du Vincennes) before graduating NYU with my acting degree. I had a focus on mask and clown work (including Commedia dell’arte) and a minor in French (I was one of the very lucky people on this planet who had the opportunity to study circus arts with the legendary Hovey Burgess).
It’s really funny to me that now my kids are all becoming professional performers (and specifically, that they are embracing elements of clowning — unicycling, juggling, singing old and new humorous novelty songs — and other serious silliness — while professionally performing many different genres of music). They all also love making costumes just like I have since I was very young!
In addition to being a clown and making costumes, my second-eldest son likes to “upcycle” discarded items he finds on the street — ESPECIALLY if he thinks he can use them for his fantastic art projects!
My son A.J. is now 18 years old. From the time he was very little he was attracted to and liked to pick through “free boxes” of odds and ends at and after yard sales — and even picking up random trash set out by the curb on recycling days — and then do imaginative creative stuff with it! He was always finding things, from bits of metal to discarded toys … In fact, when my boys were first poisoned, A.J.’s was the first test result I got back and I initially assumed he was poisoned because he was always picking up gross stuff from the sidewalk (even at just 3 years old!) and doing gross things (like licking the glass walls of the bus stop as we waited for the bus)!
When he was super little, most of the stuff he picked up ended up in his mouth. In response, trying to put a stop to this, I bought him chewy toys and chewy necklaces and watched him like a hawk! I remember even into his early teen years finding him — to my horror — putting bolts and screws in his mouth to chew on! This is Pica, but in an absent-minded (“Hey, I wonder what it is like to chew on this?”) sort of way, not in an “I have the urge to eat non-food items” way. (Pica is a well-documented impact of Lead-exposure.)
As he got older and stronger (he is now a 5 ft 10 inch-tall, very-strong young man), the stuff he would pick up off the street got bigger — but still a lot of it was really gross! I think two years ago he brought home a rust-encrusted section of old train rail (an enormous, absurdly heavy length of cut-up original train track discarded near the old-railway-convereted-to-cycling path by our home). Another time he came home with what looked like a giant discarded military mortar shell he had found somewhere! A couple of years ago, he spotted and helped haul home the remarkably well-preserved 1948 Singer 15-91 reversible-feed electric sewing machine (below) that was just sitting by the curb in front of a house that was being demolished — that served as part of the inspiration for this post.
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Before A.J. left for college, we found the sewing machine pictured above.
While I think perhaps it may have actually possibly been my youngest who originally spotted this 1948 sewing machine being discarded (a woman had moved out of her home and it was sold and was going to be demolished and they were trashing all of the remaining contents of the home, including this sewing machine) — Charlie’s love for finding exciting things on the street (things being discarded by others) was definitely inspired by more-than-a-decade of watching his big brother A.J. come home with random “treasures” all of the time. Charlie (at this point) is a little more discerning than A.J. was at his age, and when the boys found this they ran home and he said “Hey mom, I think this cool old thing might have Lead and you could write about it for your website! Let’s go get it!”
And thus we acquired a 1948 machine with all of the original accessories and hardware in the original wooden cabinet and with the original vinyl-topped stool — and it promptly joined the other “toxic treasures” in my storage unit full of Leaded stuff I have been collecting for my book and museum exhibit!
With all of the chaos and nonsense in my life over the past couple of years, I had not yet gotten around to writing about it until now — but I have long told everyone who I see or hear has one of these in their home that they can potentially be hazardous, typically with unsafe levels of Lead in the paint and enamels, and sometimes even with really high levels of Mercury in the decorative elements.
And then, just last week A.J. found another sewing machine — a 1970s reproduction of an antique Singer Sphinx machine (pictured below), in the trash of a home in Boston’s Back Bay.
Fast forward to last month and A.J., who is now in college in Boston, called me to tell me he “found something exciting in the trash on the street” … as it turned out, it was a vintage Singer replica (c. the 1970s) of an antique Singer sewing machine (originally sold c. late 1800s), pictured below. (Note: apparently — according to A.J. — there are gems like this in the streets of Boston available for free every day! lol)
A.J. is now an adult and he is a very smart young man (who knows how to identify and protect himself from potential Lead hazards), but he also really wanted a sewing machine so he could learn to sew that way (he already knows how to sew and knit by hand) so he called me right away to ask if the machine he found had Lead — and if so if it could be safe to use. #Sigh.
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Does this have Lead? Is it safe to use?
I told him YES it likely has unsafe levels of Lead (and possibly Mercury) and I would prefer that he not use it — but if he chose to, I know I can trust him to be safe. My advice to my adult son for using this safely:
- I suggested that he wipe it down really carefully and thoroughly (to make sure there was not any Lead dust on it from its previous residence)…
- and that he consider wearing disposable rubber gloves when using the machine.
- I also told him that if he found himself NOT using disposable gloves when using the machine, I would encourage very thorough hand-washing afterward…
- and I would (most important) want to make sure he is not ever snacking while using the machine!
Is a vintage sewing machine a likely exposure risk to the user?
While I don’t know for sure, my educated guess is that the Lead in the enamel paint on the machine itself is not necessarily bioavailable/ coming off (that would take some experiments to determine), and because my son is an adult and well-versed on safety precautions (and because it is enamel paint on metal — not a chalky crumbly paint like house paint) I would be ok with him using for a little while, until I can afford to buy him a newer (Lead-free) machine.
The Lead paint that is likely on the legs, feet, and pedal of the machine is another matter (as distinct from the paint on the machine itself) as those components have a different level of wear due to the anticipated usage and age, and are more likely to create hazardous dust from normal usage as intended.
Realistically, there are times industrial artists like A.J. may feel the need to just make exceptions for things like this. A.J. is an avid “maker” — an artist, inventor, leather craftsman, woodworker, blacksmith, machinist, and general fabricator — who really enjoys machine tools and mechanical things, and learning how mechanisms were constructed and how they work. So this machine he found in the trash represents a lot of opportunities for him besides simply learning how to use the sewing machine, and I trust him to be safe with it (plus, there are no small children or babies in his apartment and he is good at keeping his work area clean!).
That said, I would prefer that he not have it in his home — and that instead that he keep it in a workshop or storage unit), but being a college student that’s not possible for now. It’s challenging to weigh the risks and benefits of certain things as a parent of adult children (with the knowledge that we have). I do think there is some potential risk to the user (which likely varies by machine), and I think that each person should evaluate that for themselves. As with musical instruments — when things are a tool for learning (and when proper precautions can be taken) — I sometimes make exceptions. Here’s my post that discusses this in the context of instruments.
Why I’m sharing this with my readers
With all the above said, I wanted to make sure to share with you the XRF test results for the 1948 machine we found a couple of years ago (A.J. finding another old machine in the trash made me realize it was time to finally write this long-intended post!). As with everything I write and share, I do it so you can have the choice to make an educated decision about what you have in your home and how you let your children interact with those things. You may not have considered the possible risks associated with grandma’s sewing machine — and you have a right to know that in my experience these machines and often the hardware and legs of the tables they are built into, as well as the vintage appliance cords on the electric ones, always test positive for an unsafe level of Lead.
How much Lead is “too much” Lead?
For those of you visiting my website for the first time, please click this link to learn about the testing methodology used on the website. In general, I reference the amount of Lead that is the limit for Lead in modern items manufactured specifically for use by children. I use that as a reference in all of my posts because there is actually currently NO LIMIT AT ALL for total Lead content in modern items intended for use by adults and, in my educated opinion, the Lead limit for children’s items should be applied to all consumer goods (and anything that touches our lives — not just children’s lives!).
The amount of Lead that is considered unsafe in the paint, glaze, or coating of an item intended for use by children (for items made today) is anything 90 ppm Lead or higher. For the substrate of an item (the base material underneath the paint or coating — like the metal of the sewing machine, or the wood of a dresser) the hazard level is anything 100 ppm Lead or higher. This sewing machine was positive for Lead in the paint at levels of 6,000 ppm Lead and higher.
Of particular interest to me is the amount of Lead found in the cover of the original 1941 booklet for the 1948 machine — Lead, which is bio-available (comes off as micro-particulate Lead dust) to anyone who touches it. This (and the Lead on the electrical cord of the 1948 machine) are in a way more concerning to me than the Lead in the actual enamel/paint of the machine itself.
In my opinion, given the function and intended use of the machine, the original Leaded enamel of an appliance like this (as long as it is in good shape) is not necessarily as concerning as if it were (instead) an original kitchen appliance. For instance, if my son had found a vintage KitchenAid mixer in the trash (for example) rather than a sewing machine — that would have been a hard “no” for me.
The same goes for vintage typewriters — given the amount of sustained interaction your hands actually have with the high-Lead components (and that a vintage typewriter is a device whose very essence of the operation is perpetual hard impact of components that are often Leaded) — I don’t consider vintage typewriters safe for anyone to use (from a potential Lead-exposure perspective). Here’s a link to a post about a vintage typewriter here on the site.
XRF Test Results for the 1948 electric (plug-in) Singer Sewing Machine pictured.
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#1.) On wood of table/cabinet of the machine: 30-second reading
- Lead (Pb): Non-detect
- Silver (Ag): 13 +/- 4 ppm
- Palladium (Pd): 8 +/- 3 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 95+/- 22 ppm
- Iron (Fe): 1,570 +/- 193 ppm
- Indium (In): 40 +/- 8 ppm
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#2.) On the black body of the machine: 30-second reading
- Lead (Pb): 5,681 +/- 550 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 3,414 +/- 455 ppm
- Copper (Cu): 408 +/- 196 ppm
- Iron (Fe): 717,400 +/- 41,000 ppm
- Manganese (Mn): 4,410 +/- 589 ppm
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#3.) On gold decorative elements of the machine: 30-second reading
- Lead (Pb): 6,238 +/- 662 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 9,985 +/- 1,189 ppm
- Copper (Cu): 41,600 +/- 4,500 ppm
- Cobalt (Co): 4,312 +/- 1,256
- Iron (Fe): 757,700 +/- 46,000 ppm
- Manganese (Mn): 5,384 +/- 655 ppm
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#4.) On the booklet cover of the original instruction book (dated 1941): 30-second reading
- Lead (Pb): 592 +/- 33 ppm
- Silver (Ag): 11 +/- 4 ppm
- Palladium (Pd): 9 +/- 3 ppm
- Platinum (Pt): 83 +/- 38 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 40 +/- 16 ppm
- Iron (Fe): 1,666 +/- 192 ppm
- Indium (In): 33 +/- 8 ppm
As always, thank you for reading and for sharing my posts. Please let me know if you have any questions and I will do my best to answer them personally as soon as I have a moment (which may take a while given I have kids underfoot 24/7 these days!)
Owner — Lead Safe Mama, LLC
The 1948 Machine
The 1970s Replica Machine
(the one my son found in Boston last month)