Crew · Sewing machines

My Little Tank – the T132 rotary free arm

I call it “My little tank” as a reference to Lt. Grüber’s armoured car from “Allo! Allo!”. Besides, it’s grey. 🙂

This is a remarkable little sewing machine made by Lada* (est. 1919) in the Czech Republic around 1965.

*Nothing to do with Russian cars of the same name. Lada was an old Goddess of Beauty, so her name is popular!

It’s 3/4 size, with an aluminium body, rotary heavy duty high speed free arm sewing and embroidery machine with true straight stitch. Now, this requires an explanation!

Size and weight

Let’s start with the simple things: size and weight.

The T132 is a 3/4 size machine, its body is only 31cm. However, it is rather slender, so the harp size (the space under the arm) is still quite respectable.

The body is cast aluminium, which offsets all-steel internal construction, and the total weight is only 8kg, so the machine is truly portable.

The free arm is useful too, with a good clearance under it, rounded corners and a proper arm rather than a square stub found on some other machines.

There is an extension table, but because the free arm is made useful, it is set rather high at 11cm from the desk top, so sewing large flat pieces is not particularly comfortable.

But this is the trade-off you have to consider: do I make the arm low and the clearance under it too small for any serious tight corner sewing, making flat bed slightly better, or do I build a proper useful free arm but forgo the flat bed usage? Well, I vote for the second option because I’ve got a separate flat bed machine sunk into the sewing table, and I’m using this one as a free arm.

Rotary heavy duty high speed

The hook mechanism is rotary, meaning that the hook rotates rather than oscillates, and this alone allows the machine to run a lot faster. A “standard domestic” vertical oscillating hook typically has a top speed of 900 stitches per minute. An average rotary will do 1200 stitches per minute, but my T132 goes faster still – up to 1400 stitches per minute. Do I ever stitch at such speeds? Not in a straight line, no, but think embroidery!

The T132 is heavy duty, meaning that it can sew thick and dense material, with the correct needle, naturally. To do this, two things are required: a solid construction with significant torque and a powerful motor to apply that torque. Many post-1980 machines cannot sew jeans because denim is a dense fabric, and folded twice or thrice it requires quite some force in the needle to pierce it. Those modern machines have plastic gears that only gently touch each other, so if the motor was supplying some torque to one gear, it would not be transmitted to the other gear anyway, it would only damage it. So such machines also use light motors in order to keep running at all. They do quite well on light materials, if that’s all you ever wanted to sew. They do even better sitting in the cupboard doing nothing.

Have you noticed many leading sewing machine makers bringing out new “heavy duty” models recently? Well, vintage machines were all “heavy duty” because back then nobody would even consider making a sewing machine that could only work with light fabrics. They were meant for “family use”, which included making curtains, bags and coats!

The two variants of a T132

The T132 came in four varaints: with knee control lever or with a foot pedal, and with embroidery cams or with zig-zag only. It also came in two colour schemes: in two-tone grey like mine, and in sage green and cream.



I am a bit confused about the numbering, but it seems that the grey ones had embroidery cams while the green ones had just zig-zag, but I could be wrong there.

The zig-zag version has a dedicated zig-zag mechanism that cannot be disengaged, so it does not have that special true straight stitch. Although it does a very decent job as it is, better than many other machines I’ve seen.

Embroidery and true straight stitch

The T132s that have embroidery stitches, are cam-driven, meaning that the mechanism can move the needle left and right and make a stitch at any needle position, but without cams it would not be able to produce anything but straight stitch. There is one built-in internal cam that does the zig-zag, and there is a socket for another cam. A lever lets you switch between the two. These machines do not have any gears in the right compartment.

The machine comes with a bunch of fancy stitch cams and a totally round one, shown mounted in the photo above. That one puzzled me for ages – whatever do I need a plain round cam for? It doesn’t embroider any pattern, all it does is a straight stitch!

Exactly. This cam produces a true straight stitch as good as that done by straight stitch only machines.

“And why can’t I simply set my zig-zag width to zero? That makes a straight stitch too!”, I hear you say. I thought so too, after all it’s even in the manual. And then I got my first straight stitch only machine and saw the difference.

In the photo above, black stitching is on a straight stitch machine, pink is on the T132 with the straight stitch cam, and green is on the zig-zag setting with width set to zero. I know the difference is absolutely tiny on this sample, but this is a tiny sample. It really stands out when you are doing a long decorative stitch, such as on jeans along the leg.

A zig-zag machine that cannot disengage or block its zig-zag action, will always have a slight wiggle in its stitch, in particular at high speeds or when sewing tougher fabrics, i.e., when greater forces are involved. It gets even worse when the fabric has some unevennes in it, like in jersey, jacquard or corduroy. It is enough to push the needle sideways, which is of course impossible on straight stitch only machines where the needle can only go up and down and never left or right.

On a T132 the straight stitch cam blocks this sideways movement. It is very nearly as good as a straight stitcher.

Other useful features

The T132 has all the “old fashioned” useful features that came as standard on vintage machines and slowly disappeared during 1980s: variable needle position, foot pressure control and variable stitch length for the reverse.

The reverse on a T132 is achieved with the stitch length lever: it goes from -4 to 4. Positive numbers for forward sewing, negative for reverse. On newer machines you would usually see a “reverse” button, and the stitch lever or dial would just go from 0 to 4. The saying goes that pressing the button will make the machine sew in reverse with the same stitch length as what you were doing sewing forward. But if you ever paid close attention to it, you’ll know that the stitch length for reverse sewing always turns out shorter than for forward sewing. So if you were doing a dense stitch of length 1, putting it in reverse will stop the feed completely and produce an ugly big knot, jamming the machine in the process.

With the T132 (and many other vintage machines), this situation will never occur because I’ll be pushing the lever well past the zero mark. I am in control. >:-)

The pitfall of the T132

The T132 is driven with a vertical timing belt connecting the upper and the lower mechanism. The motor drives the lower mechanism directly, then the power is transmitted to the upper mechanism via this belt. And like all belts, one day it will break, rendering the needle motionless and the machine dead.

This particular belt has a very odd pitch of 7.52mm, and is no longer being made, so you can’t get an identical replacement. However, I recently located a modern replacement belt used in robotics, that fits and works, even though it is a little different. I immediately bought a few of those to keep as spares, just in case they stop making them. Phew! My T132 just got a life extension by 50 years or so.

And then there was the sewing…

Ok, it all sounds like a nice machine, but nothing particularly special. And it doesn’t do stretch or chain stitch, and the drop feed is all or nothing (no silk setting), and the foot clearance is not great at 7mm, and when you put the extension table on, you can’t get to the bobbin, and… I’m sure something else could be found. It’s all true, so when I got Frida (Frister+Rossmann 604 free arm), my T132 moved into the Backbenchers category, into its case and under the table. But I missed it. The sewing sensation itself on this machine is unique. The machine is humming, purring and gently clicking, slightly shivering rather than vibrating, and sending those shivers through the fingers and right down the spine… It’s a pleasure machine, pure and simple. And so it’s out of its case and back on active duty.

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5 thoughts on “My Little Tank – the T132 rotary free arm

  1. Looks like you now love your Sewmaster like I love my Cresta – and I’ve loved sewing on it for the last 47 years! I still haven’t got round to getting those belts, but they are on the to do list for next week!

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    1. I’ve loved it since the moment I first saw it on eBay about five years ago. And the nickname “My Little Tank” came to me right from that moment. If you know the series, you’ll remember that Lt. Grüber was always talking with deep fondness and tenderness about his little tank, which wasn’t even a proper tank, just a small armoured reconnaissance vehicle. But “My Little Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicle” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. 😉

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