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In conversation with Tom Dilley

Updated: Feb 19, 2021

Last week I called up my sewing machine super hero Tom Dilley to come and service my machines. I have one domestic, one overlocker and one industrial machine, without these my business would not function so it’s really important to keep them in great condition.

A well maintained machine will last you a life time; whilst Tom visited the workshop he kindly shared his background and pearls of wisdom with me.

What is the history of your business?

My father was a manager at Singer from 1965-1979, when Singer finished he set up on his own. This year we will celebrate 40 years of business.

Who is in the business today?

Mainly just myself now but my father comes up most mornings (to keep me in check!), he’s also called Tom! He is 84 now but likes to be involved, it’s better than daytime television.

How and when did you learn your trade?

I’ve always been mechanical and enjoyed taking engines apart so the family business was a natural step. I was a baker beforehand. From school I worked for a bakery in Marlborough, which paid 76p an hour, by the time I was fully qualified I earned 90p an hour. I left the industry as there was zero money in it! My wife does the baking now and I do the decoration.

Wow! Will you make my wedding cake?


Back to business…

What’s the oldest machine you’ve repaired or restored?

I have two machines from about 1860, one Wilcox & Gibbs, and one White of America.

How many machines do you maintain a year?

Almost 2,000 a year, 400 of which are from schools.

What area do you cover?

We cover a 25 miles radius of Swindon but you can always give us a call and we’ll be happy to help you over the phone if we can. Or if you’re further afield bring your machine to us.

What are your top tips for looking after your machine?

  • De-fluffing! Keep the fluff out!

  • Put a drop of oil on any part that moves against another part.

  • Always wind the hand wheel towards you, even if you have to do a full turn. If you go in reverse the thread will slacken off and make a knotty mess underneath.

  • Put your needle in the right way! Domestic machine needles have a flat side on them which needs to go to the back when inserted.

  • When you’re nearing the end of your cotton reel, tie the new one on with a reef knot and it will pull through the machine with ease, including the eye of the needle.

How do you know when you should change your needle?

You’ll hear a clicking/tapping sound. This is actually the needle breaking the threads in the material, you can sometimes actually see a line pulled in the material; this is because the needle is blunt or bent.

If you’re not sure, take the needle out and point it towards you, if when you catch it in the light you see a “sparkle” on the end of it then its got a “flat” on it. You shouldn’t be able to see this as it’s should be a sharp point.

What thread would you recommend or avoid?

I would choose polyester over cotton as cotton rots whereas polyester is stretchy and not affected by UV. Cotton is also 3-4x thicker and really rigid, which is great when it comes to threading the needle but means your machine has to work harder. The needle goes in, pulls the bobbin thread back out and makes a loop; if the thread is rigid it can miss the loop, but a softer poly thread has more flex in it so the threads can loop round each other correctly.

Don’t be swayed by big brands, they can be a lot more expensive and not worth the money. Most threads are actually polyester so don’t worry about getting caught out.

What is a good entry point sewing machine?

You don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good machine, a bit like the threads, more money doesn’t necessarily buy you better. I can highly recommend the Silver 25 which includes a 4 step button hole AND a needle threader, all for just £109.99! (Yes you did read that right!) These are available on our website by the way…!

You can get cheaper machines but they’re not very inspiring or easy to use if you’re just starting out.

Is there such a thing as a left-handed sewing machine?

No unfortunately not, my wife would be grateful if there was! You can get left handed scissors though which are much more expensive than right handed but worth investing in as the blades will be the right way round for you so make cutting much much easier.

Can you sew?


I can recommend an excellent sewing course in soft furnishings should you wish to learn?

I know how the machines work and that’s enough for me!

Tom can service anything from 1860 onwards, so get your Granny’s machine out the loft and he’ll have it running in no time! There are also a wide range of second hand machine available to buy too.

Servicing prices start from £39.50 for domestic machines, embroidery machines are around £75.


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