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The Biggest Vintage Sewing Machine Group on Facebook - Part One

In 2012, Starrlee Simmons launched what became the single largest gathering spot for VSM enthusiasts on Facebook. By opening a community named with three essential words, Vintage Sewing Machines, she created an obvious point of entry for thousands of people eager for information and camaraderie. The Vintage Sewing Machines Facebook group is approaching 44,000 members as of March 2019, with as many as 300 membership requests weekly and occasional surges of even 100 per day.

In this three-part series, we'll talk to the key administrators who have shaped and maintained the Vintage Sewing Machines group, and we'll get members' perspectives as we piece together a story that at times has had little to do with old sewing machines. The VSM community might be a frequently warm and fuzzy place, but we'll visit a dark corner so unpleasant that Starrlee gave up ownership of her group after four years, unwilling to endure ongoing disrespect, hatefulness, and threats.

Melanie Rowley
The current administrator, Melanie Rowley, has been a lightning rod and firebrand to some members (and former members). She's swift with an iron mouse-click, having purged a chunk of the roll during the spring of 2017 in what she saw as a healthy move for the group. Those lost to the purge numbered in the hundreds (not the thousands as some have claimed), mathematically comprising less than 2% of the membership at the time, but including some recognizable names in the VSM community and at least one celebrity quilter.

Many less recognizable names who were cut from the roll felt they had been swept up in an impetuous and biased ruling, and they went on to commiserate with other ex-members, gathering in new groups where criticism of “the big group” and it's administrators were not uncommon topics. Melanie maintains that she simply gave the boot to those who brought poison to the well. She documented the basis of her decisions with screen grabs and reports from trusted sources.

In closed circles, some now reference a faction of the trouble-makers as “Mean Girls,” a reference to the 2004 film of that name based on a book titled Queen Bees and Wannabes. In pop-culture, “mean girls” are bullies who strives to influence others, always intent on displaying their own dominance. They belittle. They embolden one another. They gather and assure themselves that they are, well, “perfect” – always right, always superior. It's a concept easily imagined among teenagers, perhaps, but one that seems strange among mostly middle-aged VSM enthusiasts; but “some people never grow up,” says Starrlee, “and some people are not happy unless they have someone to pick on.”

The administrator of another VSM group who wishes to remain anonymous tells us that the “Mean Girls make fake accounts to thumb their noses at administrators and give misguided information to newbies, because they think it's funny. They make fun of others.” But mean girls is a misnomer, because “there are guys in the group as well.”

The handy "Leave Group" button gives a group member a power equal to the Administrator.

Few if any Facebook groups are democracies by definition. Someone makes a group and leans on some friends for assistance. Rules are made and often evolve in response to unexpected issues, general mischief, and anti-social behavior. Any member convinced the group is governed unfairly is free to click “Leave Group” and then build their own Facebook community. That's basically how it works, right or wrong, as trivial or as upsetting as it may be to some members. Prior to Starrlee's departure, she would remind her Vintage Sewing Machines members of these stark facts as she found it challenging to keep an expanding population on topic and free of drama.

Even maintaining an all-ages G-rated environment was difficult at times. Blatantly offensive behavior even seemed to be a badge of honor for some offenders. Starrlee bore the brunt of name-calling and insults while responding to pettiness, skirmishes, and worse in the newsfeed discussion. One member posted a photo of herself thrusting a middle finger up, grinning like Jack Nicholson from The Shining in a scorched-earth departure from Starrlee's group.

As Vintage Sewing Machines grew, more and more expertise became apparent among seasoned members, experienced collectors, and sewing machine repair professionals. Starrlee's original intention was a group for hobbyists, and she hadn't really foreseen how many experts would be drawn to the group. Expertise was welcomed, but VSM newbies could take some surprising heat from more experienced members who were convinced not only of their own expertise, but of their general supremacy. Starrlee tells us:

I appreciated the experts but it became a constant struggle to maintain a family group and keep the so-called 'experts' from degrading others. I had to throw some people out to keep them from bashing others who just wanted to learn. Then the hate mail started coming from friends of people who were kicked out. It became something very different than what I intended. It became a continuing battle, like dealing with a room full of unruly teenagers.

Within a few months of Starrlee's departure, Melanie Rowley's May 2017 purge was a controversial if not dictatorial decision intended to clean house on the tails of the ugliest period in the group's history, a time that left Starrlee so deeply offended that she ultimately left the group entirely – a group she had seen grow from her original four members.

To be crystal clear, a faction of a community dedicated to – not politics, not social issues – but old sewing machines had managed to chase away the very person who opened the group to them in the first place. Starrlee has no intention of returning.

Throughout her tenure she had posted excitedly in near disbelief as the number of members climbed wildly; she happily welcomed new members even as administration became more and more difficult. It was bewildering and hurtful to see how vindictive and vitriolic some members could become publicly and privately. Exhausted by those who blatantly broke the rules and deliberately antagonized her or other members of the group, she stopped giving warnings and adopted a one-strike policy for rude behavior.

This was actually necessary. In a group about sewing machines. Sheesh.

Membership approval itself was work-intensive and often a thankless chore. With membership requests pouring into Vintage Sewing Machines, it was necessary to review applicants' profiles to determine if the requests were from real people likely to have a genuine interest in VSMs. Spammers, apparently fake accounts, and otherwise sketchy-looking applicants were (and are) denied membership.

Starrlee did receive appreciation from many thankful members throughout her administration. The fact that disgruntled members and trolls drove her out of her own group is staggering when one considers her motivation, intention and effort in establishing the Vintage Sewing Machines group, and what she accomplished as a VSM enthusiast. She didn't represent a business. She had nothing to sell, a fact in contrast to some of the group members who found themselves at the center of thousands of potential buyers for machines, parts, and service.

Starrlee not only tolerated and even welcomed members who peppered threads regularly with their goods and services, she took a strong position against an unrealistic Old Guard who sought to shame those who sold parts off of vintage machines – the so-called machine “strippers.”

“Where in the world do you think those old parts for these machines we all love come from?” she once asked rhetorically. “McDonalds?”

Speaking to her more than two years since her departure, she seems genuinely surprised to be considered a pivotal figure, someone who gave us “the big group” and even consolidated a thriving market for VSM parts, sales, and services under one broad banner on Facebook. The generalized nature of Starrlee's group also meant that members were inspired to create more specialized or alternative groups, further enhancing the VSM community online. She likely deserves more credit and thanks than she ever received.

“When you step back,” says Teena Sorrell, administrator of the Vintage Sewing Machines (Non-Singer) group, “and take a long look at all the VSM group pages there are now, you have to be a bit amazed.  'Back in the day,' so to speak, it was basically the Yahoo groups. If you wanted VSM information you had to jump through the Yahoo hoops to get it...

Those of us who've been around a while know that we have one certain Facebook group to thank for all this. And one certain person who, bless her heart, stayed way longer fighting for that group than her sanity needed. There is no denying it – without Starrlee our VSM pages wouldn't do as well as they do, or hell, they might not even exist in the first place. For most of us, it was the start of the Facebook VSM community.

“If I helped with other groups getting started or someone getting a business going,” says Starrlee,  “then it was worth it.”

But by late 2016, she'd had enough. “I asked for someone to take over the group,” she explains, “and Melanie Rowley was the only one who responded with a promise to keep the group with the standards that I started it with. At that time I was getting threats in email and [it was] too much stress to deal with.”

With Melanie at the helm and taking decisive measures to clean house, many have cried foul and will continue to do so. Others see her decisions as efficient measures that keep the group outwardly peaceful and purposeful. Most see nothing other than relevant discussion threads while Melanie handles any controversies in the background, responding succinctly to complaints – reprimanding, suspending, or banning members who break the rules. Meanwhile active members seem content to stay on topic, willing to just play nice while Melanie does her unpaid job.

Love Melanie, hate her, remain indifferent or otherwise, it cannot be denied that very little drama lasts long in the group she inherited from Starrlee. Members in good standing can focus on what matters, vintage sewing machines, which is all Starrlee herself ever wanted.

“I am simply glad,” says Starrlee, “to have been a part of starting and growing [a Facebook] community of people that love and want to be a part of vintage sewing machines and everything about them.”

Starrlee Simmons now administers a group devoted to antique sock knitting machines and writes of the above machine, "Steber knitting machines were advertised to homemakers as the ideal sock machine to produce socks for the war effort."

Starrlee has moved on, continuing to sew and knit. She administers a group pertaining to antique sock knitting machinery. The membership is a fraction of her VSM group's size, but reading through the posts, everyone is supportive, friendly, and enthused. No apparent drama.

In the next segment, Part Two, we cover more from our interview with Melanie Rowley.

Read Part Two now.

Important Editorial Note:

Within hours of publication, our Facebook post regarding this article received comments from several persons who were cut from Vintage Sewing Machines in May 2017 - no one was terribly bitter, fortunately, and we're certainly not opposed to constructive feedback. If you, as a reader or observer, wish to state your perspective, please consider commenting respectfully here on the blog or contacting us. We will do our best to incorporate varying perspectives in this series if they are offered in a useful manner. Please bear in mind that this article began as interviews of the Vintage Sewing Machines administrators and long-standing group members (some of whom will be quoted in future installments). If you wish to offer something constructive for consideration, we welcome your feedback. Rudeness, as any reasonable adult can surely understand, will be ignored. Thank you for reading and we hope your own experience on Facebook is positive and drama-free.


Louise said...

Well this was interesting read. I never knew there was so much drama with old sewing machines! I’m grateful Starrlee started the group. I’ve learnt so much and meet some truly wonderful people.

Aleda said...

Thank you for this article & I am grateful to both Starrlee & Melanie for such a pleasant group to beling to. I have left groups where 'cattiness' is part of the scene, I no longer tolerate such. I am always very aware of how much the admin does in order to keep things sweet.

Unknown said...

This history was very interesting, and I look forward to reading more. A really really good group. The mix of knowledge,love of VSMs, and beautiful machines is fascinating.

CWBarnes said...

Interesting read. Lop-sided but we'll see what the installment brings. I was caught up in the 2017 purge .. I rarely commented or engaged but was guilty by association. It was a common thread. So much misinformation was on the group, and anyone trying to give REAL VALID ADVICE wasnt welcome. It was always a fun read, but that's history. Too many other groups to belong to and enjoy.

Unknown said...

I was removed from the group due to guilt by association as well. I agree with most everything you have written because I saw it. I felt so badly for Starlee...she did not deserve those disgusting attacks. It was disgraceful. I do miss being in the group because I enjoyed reading the posts from those new to VSMs and, I enjoyed helping them from time to time. I was removed because I was associated with a new parts seller and I tested the parts. That parts seller was removed, too. Neither one of us had ever caused any trouble.

Anonymous said...

Yes, what can I say! I was the person sending parts out for testing. One of the admins then did a 180 degree turn around and we asked her to return the parts. Then a friend of hers did the same, so I intervened and directly asked her to send the parts back to Kristin. There was and probably still is a remnant of this behaviour remaining as these same people are now admins of the old Vintage Elna group from which I was also banned for 'business' reasons. When someone talks about 'ethics' when they mean 'etiquette', you know that there is something questionable in the decision making process. For this reason, I started a biz page and 2 group pages on FB that are politics free. I even refer people to thers more expert than myself and give links to resources for those needing help. When criminal behaviour is associated with the group and directly or indirectly the controllers of the group, they think they are untouchable from outside the USA, but that may not the case!

Unknown said...

I wasn’t purged by Melanie but left on my own when I recommended Cindy Peters for parts. My post was no approved since Cindy was not an approved vendor, of all people, Cindy Peters was not an approved vendor . What did Cindy Peters do to Melanie? Then I noticed a whole lot of people that I used to interact with were MIA and the group didn’t seem as fun anymore. I remember when Melanie first discovered the group she posted dozens of Craigslist ads within a short amount of time and people felt it was blowing up the newsfeed and she didn’t get the etiquette yet. I told her not to be hurt or offended when she was told to stop with the multiple Craigslist ads. It was the internet and if you wait 5 minutes, people will forget what you offended them with. I’m sure when she got the admin job, she went after people that may have slighted her in some way besides trying to keep the group on task. I’m way past high school drama and won’t stand for it , so found other VSM pages without the drama and see people here or there that used to be in the VSM group where we started.

Still Stitching said...

Hi XJ - thanks so much for reading the article. Just want to offer that part 3 will address some of what you have discussed here. We're busy getting interviews on multiple sides of this controversy and trying to ensure that part 3 is objective and tells the full story. You might have noticed that Melanie did discuss her Craigslist blitz in part 2. We'll ask her directly if she retaliated once she took ownership of the group, and there will be a lot of discussion about the decisions to purge members and why. The presumption might be that she would deny retaliation, but we can at least pose the question and other relevant questions. Part 3 will reflect that. Feel free to use the Contact Page here to reach us, or our page on Facebook with a PM, if you would like to share more of your thoughts for the forthcoming part 3.

Unknown said...

I’m sure a lot was by association too, a person gets kicked out then their friend(s) ask why then they either leave on their own or gets kicked out because their friend got kicked out

purplegranny said...

Well, I was unceremoniously removed without any notice of wrongdoing, and honestly, don't feel I did anything wrong. I'm way old enough to understand and practice civility and have left sites which don't practice it. I was just getting back into having relationships with my 7 sewing machines, mostly vintage, and a serger, and beginning to understand them when the rug was yanked from underneath me at VSM. I, too, administer a page at facebook and have considered but never found it necessary to remove a participant. And it is a subject a whole bunch more volatile and controversial than vintage sewing machines, I promise!

I relished looking at the beautiful machine and learning more about how to keep them happy and in good running order. I'm sure I'll find another group which is similar, and of course I'll survive. Without resorting to nastiness, namecalling, and childish actions, but frankly, my feelings are hurt. I take a measure of pride in being a good facebooker, as I explained in my private message to the administrator who removed me. So being removed stings, and the manner in which it was carried out stings even more. I was in the midst of an exchange with another member who was working on a sticky screw. She appreciated my willingness to share my own experiences, which is what she had asked for, and now I may never learn whether she got it fixed. Sharing experiences is what helps us all learn what to and not to do. I view the internet as a valuable tool in self-education and standing on one's own two feet. Too bad others sometimes feel it is more important to control people than let the exchange of ideas work naturally.

Unknown said...

Need help with a Opeal Treadle sewing mach. I need bobbins.1800-1910. Please help.

Anonymous said...

After hanging out in the VSM groups, Im not surprised by this at all. But very interesting read, looking forward to more.

Scott Free said...

Let this be a lesson folks, always have a backup account in a group you enjoy. If you misbehaved and got banned, presto, you're still in and now know how to behave.

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