I’ve done one for TYPEWRITERS. I’m not sure why I haven’t yet done one for sewing machines. Anyway, here goes.
Modern sewing machines have all kinds of advantages and features which make them desirable. But they also have numerous disadvantages which make them undesirable. You can perform a wider variety of stitches and functions, at the expense of poorer quality workmanship, disposable parts, and lack of portability. Unless you can physically carry it ANYWHERE and sew with it, without being tied to a power-outlet, it ain’t truly portable.
People are attracted to antique and vintage sewing machines for a number of reasons. Strength, power, durability, classic designs, and a quality of workmanship and construction which literally cannot be found today in modern machines. So, why might you want to buy a vintage or antique sewing machine?
Reasons for Buying a Vintage or Antique Sewing Machine
It Looks Nice.
First-Impressions are everything. Would you rather use a glossy black and gold, wood-cased classic, or a cheap, flimsy, cloud-white modern machine? Even when your classic Singer, Jones, Wheeler-&-Wilson, Domestic, Butterfly, Stowa, or Frister & Rossman isn’t being used, you can put it on a shelf, or on a side-table, and it can sit there as a beautiful piece of industrial art.
Can your modern sewing machine do that? I don’t think so. The problem with more modern machines is that they’re more about function and feature, rather than style and longevity. They’re meant to do something, and once it’s done, you chuck it away into the cupboard.
Antique sewing machines were designed to appeal to people’s sense of style – Don’t forget that buying a sewing machine was a HUGE investment in the second half of the 1800s – they were so expensive, Singer had to come up with a whole new way of paying for them, just so that folks could own one! Few folks could just PAY for one. So Singer allowed for trade-ins in return for discounts, or organised installment-plans and lay-by for customers.
Considering that the machines cost so much, folks weren’t willing to spend the money on something unless what they received in return was ABSOLUTELY SPECTACULAR. And that is just one reason why vintage and antique machines look so much damn nicer than modern ones.
It Has Better Construction.
In my mind, this is not even debatable. Sorry. No. It isn’t.
Vintage and antique machines have better construction, better quality of parts and materials, full-stop. Everything on them is steel or cast iron. Nothing is going to break, snap, wear out, warp in the heat, crack in the cold, melt under desert sun or split in arctic winter.
Old sewing machines are workhorses which will run forever, provided they are maintained properly. Your latest machine, which you paid hundreds of dollars for, is history the moment the electronics crap-out. Now, you have a white, plastic doorstop.
Vintage and antique machines were designed to last until doomsday. Breaking down was not an option, and throwing the machine away and buying another one was UNTHINKABLE! As a result, they had to be made of the very best materials, and made to work forever!
I don’t do that much sewing. I repair clothes, I make bags, pouches, the occasional cover or slip for a pillow or cushion, the odd alteration to a pair of trousers, but I enjoy it because it’s fun.
It is. It’s fun to make stuff. But it’s more fun to use something that’s been around for ages, and which will continue to be around for ages. It’s fun to turn that crank, pump the treadle or force the lever, to get those old machines going. The mechanical beauty, the synchronisation of parts, is what makes it fun.
They Work Better
Vintage and antique sewing machines may only do a single, straight lockstitch. But they do it incredibly well. Everything about these machines was designed to work, and to be as durable as possible. Everything was made of steel or iron. And compromising on quality was never even considered. Unlike today.
Like I mentioned before, it’s because they were so damn expensive. If the machines even DARED to suggest that they weren’t absolutely the BEST that you could buy, then nobody would buy them, because nobody was prepared to spend their hard-earned dollars and pounds on junk!
On top of that, vintage sewing machines had to do a lot more than just repair a torn sleeve. In an age when most people made their own clothes, even domestic sewing machines had to be incredibly tough and rugged. They had to chew through everything from silk, to denim, to cowhide leather. And they were expected to do it without complaint or fault. And they did!
Most people only owned a few sets of clothes, and keeping them repaired and neat meant that a sewing machine had to be able to cope with absolutely anything that was passed under the presser-foot. As a result, they were made to last! Singer even used to do a gimmick where they would sew together two sheets of aluminium metal together, to prove that their machines were powerful enough to punch through solid metal, too!
How to Buy a Vintage Sewing Machine?
So. After reading that whole marketing spiel, you’ve decided that you might like a nice vintage sewing machine. Perhaps you like making your own patchwork quilts. Perhaps you like making clothes? Or maybe like me, you like making pouches and bags and covers, with the odd bit of repair-work thrown in? What do you need to know about buying a vintage sewing machine?
Makes and Models
You need to know what make or model you want to buy. The most popular brand in the world is Singer, of course. But there are others. Wheeler and Wilson, Jones, New Home, White Rotary, and a whole heap of others were American machines. However, Germany was another sewing-machine mecca – brands like Sidel & Naumann, Pfaff, Frister & Rossman, Stowa, Wertheim, and Vesta (among countless others) dominated the European market.
What type of machine you can get your hands on will depend on where you live in the world. If you live in America, Canada, or a country that was part of the former British Empire, chances are, Singer will be the machine of choice. If you live in Europe, then a German machine will be the most common. If you live in Asia, Butterfly (a Singer knockoff-brand based in Shanghai), or one of the numerous Japanese knockoff-brands, will be most prevalent.
Age Before Beauty
When buying a vintage sewing machine, no matter where it was made, or by what company, keep in mind the old adage of Age before Beauty. By that, I mean, pay more attention, first-off, to how OLD a machine is, before anything else.
Why? A number of reasons.
While older machines are certainly very beautiful, and many will still create an excellent stitch, they come with drawbacks. Chief among these are:
What I shall term ’1st Generation’ (transverse-shuttle) sewing machines used Singer 12-type needles. These needles are perfectly cylindrical and are unlike any other needle in the world.
Which makes them extremely rare. They’re not manufactured anywhere, anymore. Not even in a reproduction manner. Transverse-shuttle machines are therefore almost useless for sewing with in the 21st century. Unless you have a huge stockpile of these old-fashioned needles lying around – you simply can’t use these anymore. Some later-model transverse-shuttle machines were modified to take modern needles (back in the 1920s and 30s), and you might get lucky using one of those. For more information, see further down).
Sticking with needles for the time-being (ouch!), keep in mind the following: Some sewing-machine manufacturers actually produced machines which would ONLY take the needles made BY that company FOR their machines. This was prevalent in the United States. This means that, once the company stopped, so did the needles. And while sewing machines will live forever, needles don’t. And once they break or blunt or bend out of alignment, you’ll have to get another one. And if you can’t get another one, your machine is useless.
Bobbins and Shuttles
Another BIG issue is bobbins and shuttles. Early sewing machines, from the 1850s up until the turn of the 20th century, used what are called ‘long bobbins’, and operated on a flying-shuttle stitch-mechanism. 1st gen. sewing machines used transverse-shuttle (‘T.S.’) mechanisms (see above), where the shuttle (with the bobbin inside) sat in a carriage, and ran back and forth across the machine, catching the top thread on every forward pass, to form one lockstitch with every backwards pass.
Then, came the vibrating-shuttle (‘V.S.’) mechanism. This used a shuttle, mounted in a side-swinging carriage that pivoted back and forth under the machine, to form stitches with every forward swing.
Both these stitch-forming mechanisms are extremely old. REALLY old. They date back to at least a decade before the American Civil War. The result is that transverse and vibrating shuttles (and the bobbins stored within them) are no-longer manufactured. This can make them tricky to use. I’ll talk about this more, soon.
Where To Find Them?
Search online. Ebay or Gumtree, or sewing forums. Or try flea-markets, antiques shops or charity shops. I’ve seen plenty of antique sewing machines work their way through charity thrift-shops. Flea-markets, antiques shops and sewing-forums are also great ways to get your hands on things like original attachments and add-ons, missing parts and other accessories for your vintage machine. Stuff like shears, measuring tapes, extra feet, bobbins, oil-cans, original instruction-manuals and spare parts.
Finding missing parts for your machine is a real adventure, and a great exercise in patience. In a pinch, you can sometimes find substitutes. The replacement slide-plate for my Singer 128 isn’t for a Singer machine. It actually belongs to a German-made Frister & Rossmann machine, but I found it in a box of old bits and pieces, sans machine.
What Price to Pay?
Sewing machine prices vary WILDLY depending on where you live. But keep in mind that antique machines are extremely tough. They can be over a century old, and still work PERFECTLY. These things were NOT designed to break down, and they were NOT designed to be thrown out. They were designed to last for centuries. And they do!
That being the case, they are not as rare as you might think. And since they’re not that rare, they are also not that valuable, and should not be very expensive. A vintage sewing machine in working, functional condition can be purchased for $100 or less in many, many cases. In some instances, even less than $50, or $25, depending on how lucky you are. You may even get one for free! You might even have inherited one! The key is not to spend more than is necessary.
Sewing machines were VERY common. There was a time when EVERY HOUSEHOLD HAD to have one! I don’t mean because it was some sort of fashion-accessory, I mean that they HAD to have one, or else, the whole family would be ass-naked. There was simply no other way to get clothing! The result is that there are still billions of them out there. Don’t be bought in by all that crap about “It’s old”, “it’s antique”, “It’s rare”.
It’s NOT. Old it may be. Rare? No. Expensive? Certainly not. Valuable? I wish. The vast majority of old sewing machines can be bought for a pittance. You needn’t spend the earth.
What to Buy?
As with anything, the older it is, the harder it is to find replacement parts. Keep that firmly in mind when buying any old sewing machine. As much as possible, stick to big, well-known brands. Market-leaders. And buy wisely.
These are all things that you must keep in mind when you go shopping for an old sewing machine. Now, let’s move onto actually buying a sewing machine…
Buying Your Machine – T.S. Machines
Purchasing a transverse-shuttle machine is bit of a mixed bag. And care should be taken when purchasing one.
Originally, several countries made T.S. machines. The U.K, Germany and America, to name a few. And these used old-fashioned, round-shank Singer-12 type needles, which are almost impossible to find today. If you have a machine which takes these needles, it’s basically an ornament now.
However, in Germany, sewing-machine manufacturers held onto transverse shuttle technology for a lot longer than in other countries, which had moved onto vibrating-shuttle and round-bobbin, rotary-hook machines. They were still producing transverse-shuttle machines well into the 1920s and 30s.
To compete with more modern machines, these old German designs had to be updated. And to do this, they had to swap out the old round-shank needle-bars with modern needle-bars which take conventional, modern-style machine-needles. If you DO buy an old T.S. machine, make sure that it is a later model which is capable of taking modern needles.
(Thanks to Lizzie Lenard for this titbit!)
Buying Your Machine – V.S. Machines
Vibrating-Shuttle machines are very popular. They’re whimsical, cute, they work very well…and they’re extremely old. The vibrating-shuttle mechanism was invented before the American Civil War! So, how do you buy one?
Let’s use my V.S. machine as an example:
I purchased this at the Camden Lock Market in London about a year ago, for fifteen pounds. When I bought it, it didn’t have a base-lid, it didn’t have a key, and it didn’t have a front slide-plate (all of which it now DOES have!). But what do you need to keep in mind?
Vibrating-shuttle machines are the oldest machines which you can still use today. The reason for this is because the vast majority of them will use modern machine-needles, despite the fact that some of them can be over a century old! The style of needle used in most domestic sewing-machines has not changed greatly since the 1880s. As a result, the machine-needles that you buy today will, in most cases, still fit into an antique vibrating-shuttle machine. But there are still a couple of shortfalls.
Further up, I said I’d come back to the issue of vibrating-shuttle bobbins and shuttles. Well, here’s when that happens.
Vibrating shuttles are no-longer manufactured. They haven’t been manufactured since at least the 1960s. But the bobbins which they contain are manufactured as reproductions, on a small scale. And you can buy these online. Try eBay. They follow the generic, Singer-style long bobbin, so they should work with Singer vibrating-shuttle machines like the 27 and 28 series.
Here are a few things to keep an eye out with vibrating-shuttle machines, if you wish to buy one.
Check for Bobbins and Shuttles
Make sure that the machine has at least one shuttle, and at least two bobbins, before you buy it, and that these shuttles and bobbins MATCH THE MACHINE! Shuttles and bobbins are NOT generic, and they are NOT interchangeable!
A Jones shuttle will NOT fit a Singer machine, a Singer bobbin will not fit into a Wheeler & Wilson shuttle. Do not buy a machine with mismatched shuttles and bobbins, hoping that you can just marry them off and everything will work fine – it WILL NOT work fine. Shuttles will jam inside the machine, or bobbins will fall out and tangle up. And you’ll be in all kinds of strife, using language your grandmother would whip you for!
Check the Needle
Most antique vibrating-shuttle machines use modern-style needles, but just to be safe, always check the needle. A modern needle has a thicker shank than it has a tip, and one side of the shank is flattened, so that it looks like a ‘D’. In most cases, you won’t have any problems, but it’s best to be sure.
Check the bobbin-race
The race is the little channel underneath the sewing-machine base where the shuttle lives. Open the slide-plates and rotate the balance-wheel until the little steel carriage appears. Press down on the shuttle-tip, and the shuttle should just pop out. Check inside to make sure that the shuttle has a bobbin in it. The machine is useless without these components. You do not need extra shuttles, but it pays to have at least two bobbins, so that you can have at least one choice of thread. Most old vibrating-shuttle machines came with sets of between four, five and six bobbins. Singer 27s came with a standard set of five.
Buying Your Machine – Treadle-Power!
Treadle machines, the old, foot-operated ones which sit on those cute, wooden tables with the wrought-iron frames, are great. But they come with their own issues. Chief among these is weight.
Treadle-operated machines are extremely heavy. If you buy one, you must keep in mind how you’re going to cart the machine and the treadle-table back home. On top of that, treadle-machines require more maintenance – the treadle mechanism must be oiled regularly to prevent jamming. And the drive-belt has to be in good condition, with no knots or frays. And operating a treadle-machine requires quite a bit of hand-foot-eye coordination! To prevent snapping threads, the balance-wheel (and by extension, the drive-wheel on the treadle) must be running anti-clockwise (so that the wheel spins up, over and forwards, TOWARDS you). If it spins the other way, the sewing-mechanism fouls up and the thread snaps.
Buying Your Machine – Hand-Cranked Wonders
Most antique machines are crank-operated. Like my 1936 Singer:
Crank-operated machines are extremely handy if you intend to take your sewing machine to places where electricity isn’t available, or where it’s too cumbersome to take your treadle-machine (not that treadle-machines are designed to be moved from place to place!). These are the ultimate in portable sewing-machines.
Crank-operated machines are prized because of their extreme portability. They don’t have any cables or motors or levers or foot-pedals to lug around, they aren’t bolted to a huge, wooden table. They’re just what they are, and that’s what they do. And people love them, because of it!
Crank-operated machines come with advantages of reduced weight, extreme portability, but they deprive you of one hand in the process, to operate the machine. If you’re willing to put up with that, a cranked machine could be for you!
One of the beauties about hand-cranked machines is that they’re surprisingly easy to convert, should you wish to do so. This is yet another reason why they’re extremely popular.
Let’s say you have a vintage electric sewing machine with a dead motor. It doesn’t work, it’s not gonna work, and it’s a waste of time to try and get it working.
But you really like the machine.
Easy. Get out a big screwdriver, unscrew the sewing-motor from the machine (save the bolt that comes off the machine), and chuck it out, along with all the cables and leads and lights and other crap that comes along with it.
Now, get your crank-assembly (either an original antique one, or a modern reproduction, either are available on eBay), and bolt it onto the machine, using the same bolt that held your machine-motor in place. Screw it in tightly with the screwdriver, and then run the crank-arm through the spokes of your sewing-machine’s balance-wheel.
Keep in mind that, although extremely easy a conversion to do, this only works with older sewing-machines with spoked balance-wheels, such as my Singer 128. It will work with solid, non-spoked balance-wheels as well, but it will require you to mutilate your machine by cutting a notch in the wheel, for the crank-arm. You may, or may not wish to do that, depending on how much you love the machine. Alternatively, you can remove the solid balance-wheel, and fit on a spoked wheel, instead.
Buying Your Machine – The Marvel of Electricity
Vintage and antique sewing-machines worked very simply. As a result, it’s surprisingly easy to convert them so that they run off electricity. And a number of machines underwent this conversion in the early 20th century.
Having an electrically-powered machine has many advantages – it’s extremely fast, you have both hands free, you have a sewing-machine lamp to see what you’re doing, and it’s very powerful. The downside is always having to plug the machine in, and having to check the cables. Another potential downside is having to ensure that the electronics on your machine (which can be up to 90 years old, in the case of Singer’s earliest electric machines) are functioning properly. This can be assessed by a sewing-machine repairman, or by you, if you have the necessary skills.
Buying Your Machine - Tips, Tricks, Hints. Dos, Don’ts, Etc.
Here are some things to consider when you buy your machine, whether it’s cranked, treadled, or electrically powered. Keep the following details in mind when you’re out machine-hunting, and consider them, before you actually pay for any machine that you might be interested in:
- Ensure that it takes modern-style needles. This is especially important if it’s an antique vibrating-shuttle machine. In most cases you won’t have to worry, but there are the odd ones out there, where you do.
- Ensure that the machine comes with at least two bobbins. You can usually buy more at sewing-shops, or online, but if it’s an older, V.S. machine, it’s not always so easy. Ensure that the bobbins that DO come with the machine fit the machine and work properly!
- Ensure that the bobbin-winder mechanism works! Fewer things are more frustrating than trying to wind a bobbin by hand!
- Ensure that the clutch-wheel (the smaller knob inside the balance-wheel) engages and disengages smoothly. This switches the machine between sewing-mode, and bobbin-winding mode!
- Ensure that the machine-body is affixed FIRMLY to the machine-base/case/treadle-table, and that the case-handle is affixed FIRMLY to the lid! Old wooden cases can rot and crack, and bolts and screws can work themselves loose. If possible, tighten them before you buy the machine! Or tighten them the moment you get it home! The average antique sewing-machine can weigh up to, and over, 30lbs! You do NOT want that falling on the ground, or even worse, landing on your feet! Damage to the machine or case will likely be irreparable!
- Ensure that all electronics function properly. Lights turn on. Pedals and leads work. They’re not frayed, bent or cut, melted or cracked! You don’t want to zap yourself when you get home!
- DO buy your machine from a market-leader! Replacement-parts for machines (reproduction or otherwise) are usually only made to fit antique machines which are extremely common. If you are buying a machine with a view to getting these missing pieces later on, buy a machine that was POPULAR!
There ARE people out there who manufacture replacement slide-plates, replacement keys, replacement bobbins. But these are usually for Singer machines! Unless you’re very lucky, chances are, they will not work on your obscure little American machine that you found at a country junk-sale. The older, or more obscure your machine is, the harder it is to fix, and the harder it is to find missing parts!
- DO check bobbin-winder tires. These things can wear out or dry up and crack. In some cases, they can even MELT into puddles of ugly black goo! Replacements are manufactured, and you can buy them online. If you’re unwilling to do that, existing bobbin-winder tires can be resurrected or have their working lives prolonged by wrapping them around tightly with adhesive tape, to protect the rubber from further deterioration.
- DO, if possible, sew with the machine before you buy it. You don’t want to find out when you get it home, that it’s defective and keeps dropping stitches!
- DO fiddle around with the machine before you buy it. Turn the crank at high speed, get the wheel spinning and pump the treadle. You want to be sure that there’s nothing that jams up, or breaks or rattles around.
- DO open the machine-bed, and have a peek inside. You never know what might be hiding in the basement.
- DON’T worry if the vintage machine you’ve bought (or want to buy) is stiff and doesn’t move! This is an EXTREMELY common problem. And the way to fix it is extremely easy!…and fun! These old machines drink oil. If you don’t lubricate them at least every now and then, the oil dries up and they will eventually jam. And I mean REALLY jam – my grandmother’s 60-year-old Singer 99 was so stiff you couldn’t get it going even if you smashed it with a sledgehammer! If you DO have a machine that’s jammed up, follow my restoration-guide, to get it running again!
- DON’T panic if you’ve bought a Singer sewing machine in a bentwood case, and it’s locked…and you can’t get the damn thing open! Yeek!
A 3mm flat-head screwdriver (and maybe, a couple of squirts of oil into the lock) will easily open the case for you. Simply push the screwdriver into the key-slot, and turn it clockwise. This releases the lock. Now, lift up the left side of the case, slide the case to the left (to disengage the lock on the right side), and then lift up, and away! Then, say hello to your machine.
- DO make sure that your machine-lid is placed correctly onto the base, and is LOCKED before lifting the machine up by the lid-handle to take it anywhere! You don’t want the machine parting company with the lid and smashing on the ground!
- DO oil your machine every now and then, if you use it regularly (regularly means at least once every month). Although very robust, a lack of oil will cause the moving parts to seize up and jam. And then you’ll have a bugger of a time unjamming them again with even more oil.
- DO check to see if your machine comes with any attachments! Most machines came with a wide variety of attachments and add-ons. Buttonholers, zigzaggers, seam-guides, hemmers, tuckers, and all other bits and pieces. They’re usually stored somewhere inside the machine-bed, or inside the case-lid.
- DON’T be misled by people who try to sell old sewing machines as “semi-industrial” or “industrial”, and ask an inflated price, just because they can sew through multiple layers of leather or denim. There is a HUGE difference between a domestic sewing machine, and an industrial sewing machine.
Sewing Machines – Care & Feeding
You bought a beautiful antique or vintage sewing machine. Or maybe you inherited one. I inherited my grandmother’s Singer. That’s what got me interested in these things. However you got it, here’s a few things to keep in mind…
Before using your machine, clean it thoroughly and oil it liberally. You don’t want the machine operating with any unnecessary stress or friction. Consult my restoration-guide (see link, further up) about how to do this in detail. Use high-grade machine-oil to lubricate the sewing machine.
Make sure that you put your machine on a sturdy surface! Antique and vintage machines had cases made of wood, and machines made of cast iron and steel. This makes them MUCH heavier than most modern machines made of plastic – it’s a tradeoff that you get with better quality.
That being the case, you do not want to put your sewing machine on a table or bench-top that is going to shake and vibrate when you operate the machine. Not only is it extremely annoying, it could be dangerous!
When not in use, keep your machine covered and locked. This will prevent sun-damage, and will stop things from getting dusty or from components getting lost. But also keep the machine (case and all) out of direct sunlight when not in use. Otherwise, the sun’s rays will damage the finish on the case. Best to keep the machine in a cupboard when it’s not being used.
Sewing-machines are not toys. And antique ones can be surprisingly powerful. Keep them away from kids! If you want to let them fiddle around with it, then at least remove the needle, first! Don’t worry, they’re unlikely to actually break the machine – these things were extremely tough – but they do stand a chance of stabbing themselves with the needle!
Although, you might want to buy a Singer Model 20, if your son or daughter wants a machine all for themselves:
These are REAL machines, in the sense that they will sew. They do a simple chainstitch, but the needle never rises up high enough for a child to get his or her finger stuck underneath it. For size-comparison, here’s the Singer 20 with my Singer 128:
This concludes my guide in what to look for and how to buy a good vintage or antique sewing machine. Questions or comments are welcome, and feel free to leave them below.