Recently, Pauline, the owner of our shop, discovered three green vintage sewing machines in army green metal cases. She discovered the machines as she was helping to move her elderly parents, Lou & Yvonne, the original owners and founders of Hamels Fabrics. Poppa Hamel was once a sewing machine dealer here in Chilliwack and along with his dear wife, Yvonne, started Hamels Fabrics. After they retired, the business was sold to their youngest daughter, Pauline, who has continued to build the shop into what we see today.
Have you ever seen or heard of an Elna Grasshopper? This mighty little machine was originally designed in the late 1930’s and was in production from 1940 until 1952, and was one of the best selling sewing machines at that time.
Fun Facts: The “Grasshopper” was the very first sewing machine that Elna produced and was Switzerland’s answer to America’s Singer Featherweight. Although these two models are similar in weight and portability, there are many distinct differences as well. The Grasshopper didn’t officially have a model number or a name but it’s colour and styling resembling and insect.
It was the first mass produced portable free arm sewing machine, and gave the Singer Featherweight a run for its money!
History: The Grasshopper was invented by a Spanish Civil War refugee named Ramon Casas, and mass produced in Geneva, Switzerland by the firm, Tavaro S. A.
While the Grasshopper was not released for public distribution until 1940, it has actually been around since 1936. At the time, Europe was embroiled in World War II, and Tavaro was involved in manufacturing munitions.
However, due to the Swiss policy of neutrality, the war related product line was eliminated. With the factory quiet, Tavaro shifted to making sewing machines and the world was introduced to the Elna Grasshopper.
The Grasshopper’s efficient and functional metal carrying case was ideal for wartime. Right away when Pauline brought these machines into the shop to show us, I thought that the case looked like something from M*A*S*H 4077 (1970’s reference…) !
Whenever bombs were dropping, bullets whizzing through the streets and soldiers were marching through small towns, the Elna sewing machine was easy to pack up and compact, making it possible for refugees escaping the horrors of war to carry it as they fled to safe havens on trains and buses.
At A Glance
When you first see the case, you aren’t sure what’s inside. Then after opening it up you are first struck by how cute the whole thing is… a little green sewing machine tucked inside.
The machine itself looks kind of funny. There’s this metal thing hanging from it. At first glance, you aren’t sure if it is a hanging rod or some weird attachment. Upon further inspection, we realized it was a knee controlled replacement for the traditional foot pedal.
The next thing that caught our attention was the fact that the fly wheel is at the bottom of the machine, not the top. The motor is located directly behind the fly wheel. It really looks a little funny, but very innovative for when it was made.
The power switch is located on the very top of the machine. The light housed above the needle, giving the user the best possible illumination while sewing, a definite improvement over the Featherweight.
This odd looking all metal portable sewing machine is equipped with the following standard features:
- Straight stitch only
- Knee lift
- Two owner’s manuals
- Carrying case doubles as work table
- Free arm
Working on the Elna Grasshopper
The carrying case is functional in more ways than just providing a neat means of transport for the Grasshopper. It converts into a sewing table. Remember folks, this was 60 years before Sew Steady Tables came along!
I’m not sure how many other portable sewing machine carrying cases have as many unique features, but this one has certainly got to be at or near the top of the list.
With a case like this, you only need access to electricity to whip up a great outfit. You can literally open up an Elna Grasshopper and sew almost anywhere.
Just imagine riding on a train, waiting in an airport terminal or sitting in a coffee shop and sewing away while sipping on your favorite cappuccino, zooming along the rails to your next destination or waiting for your flight to start boarding.
The only drawback is that when you use the carrying case as a sewing table, you do not have access to the free arm or bobbin case.
Threading the Elna Grasshopper is a simple process, but different from anything we had seen on other sewing machines.
There are no onboard guides, like those found on today’s sewing machines, but if you are familiar with operating sewing machines at all, you can figure it out easily.
Winding the bobbin is a little different from winding bobbins on other machines. The bobbin winding pin is located behind the balance wheel, attached to the motor axle.
Unlike most machines, it is not necessary to turn the balance wheel before winding the bobbin. The trick to remember, though, is the machine will NOT sew if you leave a spare bobbin on the bobbin pin.
The Elna Grasshopper is a straight stitch only sewing machine. The two step adjustable stitch length regulator is not the easiest to operate, but it works fine.
Like many other straight stitch only machines, the stitches produced by the Grasshopper are neat and have that distinctive look about them.
The Grasshopper stitches at the rate of about 500-700 stitches per minute. This is very good when you think of how small this machine is. It is also relatively quiet… which bodes well if you actually do decide to break out your Grasshopper and start sewing in a coffee shop or airport terminal.
In fact, the carrying case and sewing machine are both in remarkably good condition – especially when you consider how old they are.
Kerosene is a highly combustible fluid and we are not so sure we would recommend its use, but the owner’s manual specifically states oil at some points and kerosene at others.For now, one of the Grasshoppers that Pauline rescued during the move is on display in the store. We think this little green guy deserves to be enjoyed and viewed out in the open to remind us of a bygone era and show us some historical Swiss ingenuity. We think he is kinda special!