Spotlight Iowa City: Local women collects sewing machines from all eras

BY KATIE HEINE | APRIL 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Not many women can say a sewing machine helped them meet the man they wound up wedding.

Well, Phyllis Rosenwinkel can't exactly credit just one sewing machine. The 65-year-old's passion for old "people powered" machines led her five years ago to a conference at which she met Ray Waganka, a fellow collector. Fast-forward to 2011, she and her new fiancé are planning to "sew" the knot.

"It's just an off-the-wall type of commonality that we share," Waganka said.

More than 50 machines are housed in Rosenwinkel's Iowa City living room today, and the collection expands to nearly all other rooms of the house, except the bathrooms.

"I started to count, and I quit," she said. "I had more than I wanted to know."

The University of Iowa secretary in the Mathematics Department started restoring and collecting sewing machines around six years ago. She said she was tired of seeing beautiful machines — some of them around 200 years old — sitting around collecting dust.

Rosenwinkel, who studied home economics at Iowa State University, said she's long had an interest in household items, such as old tins and cans. And while she's often on the hunt for something that catches her eye, she loves the serendipitous moments of finding something when she least expects it.

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There's never a dull moment when restoring a machine, she said. Rather, she said, she continues to learn with each machine she works with.

"They're almost prettier when they're all taken apart," she said, and she can easily spend eight hours fixing a machine.

She also uses many of them for quilting, another passion of hers.

Ellen Heywood, who has known Rosenwinkel for nearly 25 years, said the two still quilt together.

"It totally blows my mind that somebody can know all of that," said Heywood, referring to Rosenwinkel's ease at identifying a machine's manufacturer and the year it was made.

Waganka, a retired civil engineer from upstate New York, became intrigued with sewing machines after he retired in 2003.

Rosenwinkel noted her 60-year-old fiancé also has an impressive collection of sewing machines. While there is no competition between the two, she said, Waganka isn't as attached to his own machines.

"I'm not as good at re-homing [finding new homes for them] as I am at homing [keeping them]," Rosenwinkel said.

Her passion literally overflows. The machines sprout from a number of eras past — there are black iron machines standing atop intricate iron legs, a two-toned pink machine from the 1960s, and a miniature portable machine from the 1950s meant for women on the go.

Her five rescued cats amble among the vast collection of machines, which are stacked gracefully on top of each other around her living room. Bowls of brightly colored threads perch on the coffee table.

Rosenwinkel acknowledged that she has had to tweak her hunting habits. Rather than choosing every machine she stumbles upon, the bespectacled collector is more selective and chooses only the machines that intrigue her the most.

Regardless of her lack of space, she is proud of her collection. She said it keeps her "interested and interesting."

"Collecting fountain pens wouldn't take up near as much space," said Rosenwinkel. "But it wouldn't be nearly as fun."

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