White Family Rotary

My parents were travelling over UK’s spring break, and I was watching their cats. This meant I had some idle time waiting for the indoor/outdoor to do whatever it is he does outside, and generally keeping the cats company in their house, so I wanted a project to play with there.
What I settled on was poking at the old sewing machine my mother had in the attic, because old sewing machines are cool in every way.
White Family Rotary Sewing Machine

I knew from talking about it that it was a White, was very old, and was a straight stitch machine. I pulled the head (~30Lbs) out of its cabinet, and carried the two pieces down to poke at them.
A little bit of internet-foo identified the machine as a White Family Rotary – specifically, it is the sort with cast-in (embossed) decoration on the body, a factory original motor, and a crinkle finish. Establishing historical details on Whites is harder and less precise than with some of the other old manufacturers (especially Singers), as the available records are not as complete, and the machines were less distinctly marked. My best guess from reading the available resources and comparing against the machine is that it was built not longafter 1928, most likely in the early 30s. The serial on this head is 1X49124, but again, no easy way to relate white serials to dates exists, and machines with the same basic mechanism were sold from the late 1890s into the 1950s. On the topic of the mechanism, mechanically, the machine is in excellent condition. Once threaded (which is a bizarre process – White machines thread left to right, and the tensioning mechanism is totally different – honestly probably better engineered- than any other old machine I’ve heard of), I ran the hand wheel (backwards from every other manufacturer) and it put down a near-perfect straight stitch in a scrap of cloth. After cleaning it up a little bit to get the lint and old lubricant funk out, and re-oiling with clean oil it even loosened up nicely .
Cosmetically, it has some surface rust which would would likely be mildly destructive to buff out on the chromed (nickeled?) parts, and some minor finish damage on the bed under the dried-in masking tape I soaked off with some mild(…ish) solvents. While the crinkle finish and embossed detail are unusual and attractive, they are seriously difficult to clean, and there is still some residue from the generations of tape in the texturing. If going about fully restoring it, most of the bare metal parts would probably need a bath in a non-polar solvent (hello kerosene) or ultrasonic cleaner full of degreaser, followed by electrolytic or catalytic rust removal for the parts above the bed, but a quick rub with an oily rag cleaned them up pretty well and should keep them nicely preserved for some years yet.

Cabinet and Accessories from a White FRThe cabinet is nifty in it’s own right (neat historical note: the White Sewing Machine Company actually owned their own forests for the production of sewing cabinetry) with a knee control, a folding leaf/cover, and a steel cable/pulley rig that automatically lifts the machine with mechanical assistance when the leaf is opened. It is, however, fairly beaten up. There is also a full set of original Greist attachments (including a fabric guide, intended to prevent the masking tape problem…), in their tin which has kept them rust-free, in one of the drawers.
White FR MotorThe only issue with the machine is electrical – my mother had mentioned the motor sparked before it was put up, and the behavior repeated when I plugged it in and applied power. Like most machines of that era, the insulation on the portions of the wiring which hadn’t been replaced is …disturbing… but in this case appears to be reasonably safe – it would probably need to be replaced for regular use, but since the machine has standard, easy to follow wiring on enclosed screw terminals that would not be a big deal. The actual sparking issue was so obvious I almost missed it: all old style sewing machines use universal motors, which have a pair of spring-loaded conductive brushes connecting the armature to the body. This machine only had a spring on the lower brush, and the sparking came from gunk on the armature pushing the upper brush momentarily out of contact, creating a series of arcs (which in turn burnt up some of the gunk). Replacement springs should be easy to find at a hardware store, or specific ones could be purchased as motor brush kits for similar motors.

Just for reference, the various common service parts are as follows:
Brushes:414” type brush/spring assemblies, with 0.187″x0.187″x0.687″ brushes pushed on a cylindrical back by approximately .192″ Diameter, .8″ uncompressed length compression coil springs – I believe this is the same sort as singer 15-91, 201-2, and 221/222 motors. Everyone owns and know how to operate a set of calipers to be sure, right?
Bobbin Winder Tire: I measured .8″ ID, 1″ OD, but that doesn’t seem to match any of the standard sizes and the existing one is worn and dried out, so I suspect it recesses considerably into the hub, to match the 11/16″ ID, 1 3/16″ OD size.
Motor Friction Drive: 17/64″ shaft diameter, nominal 13/16″ tire diameter. (Yeah. Nice sensible SAE units…)
Manual: White Books 11 and 13(A) deal with these machines – 13 can be found on the Singer manual page, since Singer, Pfaff, White, and Husqvarna Viking are all part of SVP Worldwide now, and book 11 (with a beautiful, hand illustrated, parts and operations guide) can be downloaded from ISMACS White manuals page. There are assholes all over the internet who want to charge you for a PDF, photocopy, or replica manual – ignore them unless you want a pretty replica. The attachments are explained both in the White manuals and in the Greist guide linked above.

I don’t really have any intention of doing anything with the machine in the immediate future, but it was a wonderful mechanical/research project, and, barring a few instances of chemicals and small parts, a project well suited for cat help.

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12 Responses to White Family Rotary

  1. Cary says:

    Hello! I cannot thank you enough for your post about exploring your parent’s White treadle sewing machine. I’ve been searching the internet for a replacement manual for my daughter’s machine (she wants threading instruction) and was having a devil of a time. I found a fella who wanted to sell me a copy for $24 and if I had not found your post, I might have popped for the dough! You saved me a bundle and I am truly thankful. Enjoyed your story of cleaning the machine too. Thanks so much!

  2. Katie Farmer says:

    Your White Rotary Electric with embossed decoration and black crinkle paint — 1×49,124
    was made in 1930.

    Best wishes!

    Katie Farmer
    The White Sewing Machine Research Project

  3. Sheila Ward says:

    Thank you so much for all the info you put up on cleaning up the old White Rotary sewing machine. I just completed a sewing machine repair class and was looking for a machine upon which to practice my yet limited skills. So I went out and bought the same model at an Estate Sale. Paid $25 for it. It cleaned up nicely and looks like it is mechanically sound.
    The electrical is another story. The cords are frayed and it shut off the breaker immediately when I plugged it in. So I guess I will look for a step-by-step on how to replace the cords.
    Anyway, thanks so much for all you information and best wishes to you in your life.
    Sheila Ward
    Louisville KY

  4. Stephanie says:

    Thank you so much for your informative post. I just got a FR for barter..ill be refurbishing a Singer Featherweight in exchange for the machine which is in lovely shape, in the beautiful original cabinet, attachments in tin, Manuel and all kinds of fun doo dads and whatchamacallits in the storage area. I’m thrilled!

    The cabinet operatin is a wonder in itself- love that cantilevered lift of the machine. So much fun and so easy to open and close.

    Your measurements offered will be a big help and slight description of the wiring too. It looks so different but I think I can rewire it. I hope!
    Good on you for taking the time to restore this one. Those embossed models are not real easy to find- almost unheard of here, in Austin.

    Enjoy it and kiss the cats!
    Stephanie in the ATX

  5. Carolyn Miller says:

    Is it possible to find the pedal and flywheel for white rotary Fr in a mission style arts and craft cabinet? 1913?
    Thanks

    • pappp says:

      No idea, outside my area of expertise. I think some ISMACS folks were working on a better reference for Whites, they might have a table of configurations.

    • Desertboots says:

      Yes, but it’s a treasure hunt. Join the Vintage Sewing Machines group on Facebook.

  6. Andi says:

    I have a 1913 Craftsman style cabinet and FR machine. I am having trouble bringing the machine up and locking in position – any ideas?

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