The Game Boy Sewing Machine is More Than a Punchline

In the 1990s, sewing machine manufacturers were dealing with two seemingly disconnected problems: Young people weren’t interested in learning to sew, and it was incredibly expensive to produce the digital interfaces that were becoming standard on modern machines. An unexpected collaborator came about to fix both issues: Nintendo and its Game Boy Color. First in Japan and then in the United States, companies released products that combined the centuries-old mechanisms of a sewing appliance with a plug-in Game Boy. 

While the product had mixed popularity and limited success in garnering a broader sewing audience, the partnership reflects an experimental period of research and development. Given the constraints of relatively primitive digital technology at the time, video game consoles became unexpectedly adaptable devices. Although many of these accessories and peripherals now sit on shelves, reduced to quirky relics, enthusiasts are increasingly dedicated to cementing their place in video game history.

A Pocket Computer

The successor to the original Game Boy, the Game Boy Color was released in October 1998, providing a color screen and more sophisticated platform than the original device. Retailing for around $70, the Game Boy Color amassed a library of 576 games before being discontinued in 2003.

As Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation, explains in her video on Game Boy Sewing MachinesNintendo first collaborated with the Japanese Jaguar International Corporation, which developed the Nu-Yell JN-100 sewing machine. The JN-100 didn’t come with a Game Boy, based on the idea that most Japanese households already had one. A special operation software titled Raku X Raku Mishin (“Easy Easy Sewing Machine,” developed by Natsume) allowed users to control the machine with the Game Boy and customize stitch styles as well as a variety of patterns like shapes and letters. Coming in six colors, the machine’s clear plastic shell echoed the aesthetic popularized by Apple and partially adopted by Nintendo at the time.

Ken Lu, a consultant for Jaguar in the U.S., told the Washington Post back in 2001, “This year, many items look like the iMac. The iMac created a trend in design and has influenced many other industrial designs on the market.” He added that the JN-100 wasn’t “like (Sony’s) PlayStation 2, with people lining up to buy it.” But nevertheless, it garnered 10 percent of the Japanese market for computerized/digitized sewing machines. 

In the U.S., a historic sewing machine producer that had fallen on hard times wanted in. The Singer Corporation — the world’s largest sewing machine manufacturer — was about to celebrate its 150th anniversary while also beginning bankruptcy proceedings. Home sewing in America had gone out of style as the cost of mass produced garments decreased. Further, the Asian debt crisis hurt sales in developing countries like Thailand and Brazil, some of the biggest consumers of Singer products.

Singer licensed the JN-100, selling it for approximately $799 and rebranding it as the Izek 1500, a play on the name of the company’s founder, Isaac Singer. As Jura Koncius wrote in the Washington Post, “The Izek fits Singer’s new slogan: ‘The Original Power Tool for Women Since 1851.’” Tom Noering, president of Singer at the time, told Koncius, “We think Izek can play an important role in creating an entirely new generation of sewers.”

Game Boy Sewing Machine

The Game Boy Generation

In 2000, 31 million American women were sewers and spent $3 billion annually on sewing-related products, according to the Home Sewing Association. Singer hoped to capture the 14-to-35-year-old female demographic, and the Izek was a hit when it premiered at the 2001 International Housewares Show in Chicago. Singer’s Lana Bennett told Diane Goldsmith of the Knight Ridder Newspapers at the time that “Response has been phenomenal… We test marketed it with teenagers, and there was no training involved. They intuitively knew what to do.”

Singer brought the machines on a national tour of sewing shops and hosted summer camps. Doug Dahl, a Singer dealer in Sioux Falls, told Jennifer Sanderson of the Argus-Leader, “This was the first time I’ve ever had a Game Boy in my hand.”

Dahl also said he had a waiting list for buyers and hoped young people would share a hobby with their parents or grandparents. “A person can get on this right away and sew,” he added, “and that’s exciting for someone just starting out.” 

However, in a struggling economy, the machine failed to garner a more tech-savvy audience and proved too confusing for many adults. In Japan, the next model, the Nuotto or JN-2000, came with the EM-2000, an embroidery arm with cartridges for Super Mario imagery as well as alphabets and clip art. Like in the U.S., after poor sales, it was discontinued.

Curiosity and Collectors

But now, 20 years later, a new community of collectors are resurrecting these and other seemingly failed gadgets. Video game preservationist Daniel Stuart Baxter, who owns all three Game Boy sewing machines, tells me that many Game Boy accessories haven’t been properly documented until recently.

“It simply fascinates me how creative some developers were and the lengths they went to make games unique and compelling,” he says. “I always felt that to accurately understand video game history, you have to examine as much as possible, even the odds and ends.”

In his in-depth piece on the sewing machines for the Edge of Emulation series, Baxter says that acquiring the products was easy, although the embroidery Nuotto is much rarer, showing up for sale online only a few times a year. 

Baxter isn’t alone in his appreciation of the machines. James Nirenberg, a U.S. Army Service Member with an “obsessive” video game collection, knew that when he found an Izek for only $90 on Facebook Marketplace he needed to buy it. 

“Coincidently the seller was traveling past the base I was at the following day,” Nirenberg tells me in an email. “I told my supervisors that I needed to conduct a ‘black ops mission’ (secret type mission, not always on a scale of seal team six), and them knowing my hobby, understood and told me to not take a long time. Fifteen minutes later, I was the proud owner of the Game Boy sewing machine.”

He has since made a pouch for the matching Game Boy Color and face masks to protect against Covid-19 transmission. This creative practice, and his love for making and fixing things, inspired him to purchase a “normal” sewing machine — he’s worried about replacing parts if the Izek breaks.

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Game Boy Sewing Machine

Preserving the Strangeness

Part of Lewin’s goal in documenting the Game Boy sewing machines was to demonstrate that they weren’t just a joke. “People had talked about it, but always in the context of like, ‘How silly this is?’” she notes. “I thought, ‘Well people don’t make products because they’re silly, right? People make products for a reason.’”

She connects the machines to other Game Boy peripherals, including medical equipment, a Workboy workstation prototype, a fishing sonar and a printer. The only commercially successful venture was Nintendo’s own Game Boy Camera: despite its mediocre photo quality (160×144 pixels and 2-bit fidelity), it still attracts photographers to this day. Lewin also highlights the diversity of software produced for the Game Boy — from dictionaries to the Bible to travel planners — that were sort of precursors to smartphone apps. 

These experiments may seem quaint now, a relic of an era before sophisticated computers became pocket-sized. But they’re examples of early crossover between games and broader culture that help contextualize our contemporary relationship to gaming. As Lewin says, “There’s probably a ton of that crossover that just hasn’t been explored yet because no one is really bothering to ask the story.” 

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