If you've already read my article on vintage sewing machines, you'll know that I am quite the supporter. There are many reasons to not buy a new production machine - mainly, planned obsolescence. And there's something just so satisfying about seeking out these well-manufactured, retro beauties - there are only a finite number of them, after all.
It's funny, a lot of people see an old sewing machine, and equate "old" with "bad." Outdated, needs to be replaced. Many people today would laugh at the idea of using a phone from 6 or 7 years ago, so a sewing machine over 50 is basically garbage right? Wrong.
You can read the finer points in my article, but if you need no further convincing, let's proceed. Time to pick out a sewing machine! Here's what you need to know:
Where to look
My favorite place to look is thrift stores. It's hit-or-miss, but if you're dedicated, you can find some really neat stuff. Be prepared for disappointment though, there are many machines that are "pretty-from-far-away". I've had to pass up all sorts of machines. Like the one whose cables are cut yet was still at top dollar. Or the one whose cabinet drawers were filled with mouse poop. MOUSE POOP. In cubic measurements. At a Goodwill. At top dollar. Sometimes you just have to walk away.
But when all the dedicated searching pays off, it's pretty sweet.
Looking on Craigslist or in the newspaper is another good option. You'll pay more, but it's worth it, especially if you don't have time or patience to wait for - the one - at a thrift store. You can more accurately zero-in on what you're looking for. Although anyone who has used Craigslist before knows that it can be hit-or-miss as well - people post misleading pictures, have no knowledge of what they're selling, and sometimes somebody just beats you to the purchase. I've bought two machines from Craigslist and the experience worked out well for me both times.
Garage and estate sales will turn up sewing machines as well. I don't have any experience buying from these kinds of venues, but one thing to look out for is the machine that "hasn't been used in forever." While this machine may still be a good buy, know that it will take extra time and oil to really start sewing beautifully. If it's been dormant for many moons, you'll need to put in time and effort. Remember, "barely used!" is not a selling point when buying a vintage machine.
Check out the local sew-n-vacs. This would be the last option I'd recommend - an individual is more willing to accept a loss when selling something to make some cash or get it out of the house, but a sew-n-vac is a business. Sometimes people trade in their old machines when they buy a new one from these stores, so there are some great, well-used machines. The extra money may be worth it, because the machine will already have been serviced. A standard sewing machine service costs anywhere from $50-$100. Whether or not the sew-n-vac prices are competitive with the cost of buying a machine and then having it serviced (or doing it yourself!) will vary on an individual basis.
What to look for
The first and most important factor is the material - metal. Plastic parts are a deal-breaker here. Okay, plastic gears and mechanisms are deal-breakers.
My Janome has plastic windows over the stitch-length indicators, and the red reverse button is a hard, resin-like plastic. Plastic like this is fine - they're not mechanical components.
There are even some models that were primarily made in the 60's and 70's that have a plastic housing but metal parts inside. (High-end modern machines are also built this way.) These aren't bad, but they're not the best. I might buy one of I found one that was really neat, though.
The next thing to look at is the stamping. My favorite machines are the Japanese clones. They are stamped with a J-A.
Here's the quick-n-dirty history of these great machines:
In the middle of the 20th century, a loophole in sewing machines patents allowed them to be produced overseas in Japan. These machines are referred to as "clones", as they are exact replicas of American machines, but were produced without any branding. They were then sold to other stores who would then badge them with their own store name. These badge names actually have nothing to do with identifying these machines. What makes these clones so great, is that while they are technically "knock-offs", Japanese engineering surpassed the engineering of the originals, and they created a better machine.
While there are great machines that were not made in Japan, there is an over-abundance of the clones. They were made in numbers that no other country could match. 3 out of 4 machines you find will probably be a Japanese clone. Many of them bear the name "Toyota" - that's because they were produced in the factory of the man who would go on to found Toyota Motors.
There are other great machines out there, like Pfaff (German), Elna (Swiss), and Necchi (Italian) but I don't have any personal experience with those. I would buy one if I came across the right one, but for right now, I'm all about the clones!
I don't know much about Featherweights, but I do know that you could grab a really good deal if it's priced right. They auction for about $300-$600 online, so if you think you spy a steal, go for it!
The next thing to look for is an external motor. Motors will inevitably burn out and need to be replaced, and even if it takes decades, replacing an internal motor is a huge pain.
Other things to look for are a bit more obvious - is the machine rusty? Is it missing parts? Does the wheel crank smoothly? Does the needle bar move freely? IS IT FILLED WITH RODENT DROPPINGS?
Look underneath at the gears. If they have a thick, yellow gunk on them, that means somebody tried to oil the machine with the wrong kind of oil. Sewing machine oil evaporates cleanly and leaves no residue - other household oils will leave a thick, greasy gunk over time. This is curable, but will certainly be an adventure getting all that oil out of there.
As far as missing parts go... things like feet are easy to replace. They are universal and widely available. Things like throat plates and shuttle hooks may be more difficult to find.
If the bobbin winder is a bit wonky, it's not a huge worry - usually the tire just needs to be replaced and a few screws need tightening. Worse case scenario, you can buy bobbin winders separately. But if the foot pressure regulator or reverse mechanism is off, it may be more trouble than it's worth.
Check the wiring. It is a relatively inexpensive thing to replace, (especially if you do it yourself!) but it is another cost. Plug in the machine and see what works. The light may be burnt out. That's okay. As long as that foot pedal turns that motor you're alright. Hopefully it'll turn the wheel, and in turn the needle bar. If it doesn't, put some pressure on the belt to see if maybe the belt just needs replacing. Since they are made of rubber, they stretch and dry rot over time - but they are cheap and easy to replace.
Do the feed dogs move properly? Do they drop down for darning and free motion? Does their movement correspond to the stitch length regulator?
Look at what kind of bobbins it takes. Most of these Japanese clones will take a class 15 bobbin. These are the most common bobbin and are inexpensive and widely available. You can even buy them at Wal Mart. I only have class 15 machines, which I didn't intentionally do, but it's nice because most parts are interchangeable.
If the machine you're looking at doesn't have a bobbin, you'll have to reference the bobbin case online. If it doesn't have a bobbin case (it's happened before), you'll either have to do some serious research or take it to a sew-n-vac so they can identify it for you. The bobbin class isn't a huge deal, but it is worth it to note that you'll have a easier time finding class 15s by far. And if you're building a collection of vintage sewing machines, the less bobbin classes to deal with, the easier it is!
Inspect the tension assembly. Make sure it adjusts fully and that all the parts are there. Make sure the check spring is there and that is hasn't been bent.
Look at what kind of stitches it makes. A machine like this only makes a straight stitch.
(Sidenote: If you buy a machine like this, you're going to love it. This is what is referred to as the "Precision Deluxe". It's a Japanese clone of the old Singers - this one is badged with the brand name "Modern." They're the easiest machines to use and maintain. I have two of them, and they are both fantastic.)
If you're buying a machine from a thrift store, chances are something will need to be replaced. That's okay. Just know what's practical and what's pushing it.
You can either take it upon yourself to do the research to track down the right parts and install them properly, or just take it to a sew-n-vac. If you're lucky, it won't need any work at all. I once bought a powder blue precision deluxe for $15 at Goodwill that worked perfectly after I oiled it up.
How much to pay
I have a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is:
- At a thrift store or yard sale: $40 and under. I usually won't spend more than $20, but exceptions can be made for exceptional machines.
- On Craigslist: $100 and under. The most I've spent on one machine was $75, but it came with a cabinet, a full book of cams, a ton of feet, footplates, extras, and even the original manual. There is a big difference between a $50 machine and a $100 machine.
- At a sew-n-vac: $150 - $200. Considering the servicing has been done and she'll sew for ya right away, this extra price may be worth it.
Waiting for the right deal is very rewarding, but shelling out top dollar can still be worth it, if you have the budget for it.
Sometimes I'll see a sewing machine in a thrift store for $150 and laugh. Is the sewing machine worth that much? In theory, yes. But here's the thing - the people you're buying it from have no idea what they're selling you. They can't offer any information about it other than "it's a sewing machine." They cannot tell you what kind of shape it's in, or offer any kind of support for your purchase. You're paying for a service you're not getting. If you're paying over $20 for a sewing machine at a thrift store, it should hit all the selling points, be in amazing condition and come with a cabinet and extras. If it's over-priced, walk away - your money will be better spent elsewhere.
Buying from a private seller through Craigslist (or similar service) should never cost over $100. But before you go over to a stranger's house to check out their machine, I'd like to offer this bit of advice: if you're going to haggle, inquire BEFORE you go. Ask, "Depending on the quality of the machine, is your price firm or flexible?" And if it turns out to be worth what they are asking, don't make a low offer. Both times I bought over Craigslist, the selling parties knew their stuff - but not everyone knows how to price what they are selling. Be honest to them about what the machine is actually worth. Many will be rightfully weary of someone trying to talk them down on price, so it's best to just not go to look at a machine where somebody is just obviously clueless about pricing.
How to get started
Once you've purchased your machine, it needs to be put into tip-top shape. You can do this yourself, or you can have it professionally serviced. The cost and time involved in each is relative - doing it yourself costs less but takes more time and effort, having a professional job costs more, but it is done quickly and you don't have to worry about much. Plus, the work is backed by a company. So really, it all depends on what you're into. Either way, she has to get tuned up.
Maintaining your vintage machine is easy. You'll want to buy a can of compressed air to keep her free of dust and lint. A nylon lint brush helps, too. You will need to oil her regularly, and unplug her every once in a while.
Please let me know if this has been helpful to any of you! I hope I can provide information that will be useful in your search for a great vintage machine. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below!