Thursday, December 5, 2013

The kindplush Guide to Finding and Buying Vintage Sewing Machines


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 Outdated, needs to be replaced.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.

This black Singer (or Singer clone) has an external motor. You can see how it is mounted to the back by a large flat-head screw directly under the wheel. The belt is exposed as well. I won't go into detail here, so please just use your imagination to see how easy replacing an external motor really is, and what a nightmare it is for an internal motor:

This machine's motor is... inside the housing. Don't even go there, unless you're prepared to learn to do it yourself or pay the price at a sew-n-vac.

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.


This picture shows a class 15 bobbin on the left, a 66 in the middle, and an "M" class on the left.

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.

source: www.

There is only one control to regulate the stitches - length. The circular plate on the right hand side has a single bar that goes up and down vertically. One side is reverse, and the other side of forward. The very middle would be a standstill and not move the feed dogs at all. There is a guide along the length of it to control what size stitch the machine will produce. This machine is identical (mechanically speaking) to my very first sewing machine. I really love the simplicity of a straight-stitch machine, but if a zig-zag is something that you need or want, you need to consider that. A machine that produces a zig-zag stitch will have one more control for the width. Make sure you test the ability of the needle bar to move back and forth for these stitches.

(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.
To elaborate more, the value involved in a vintage sewing machine is relative. I find these machines to be priceless. There are only so many of them in existence, and they will never be produced again. They are the finest domestic sewing machines in the world, and are worth saving. So is the right sewing machine worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars? Yes, but you don't need to pay that much.

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!

Friday, September 20, 2013

kindplush now at Arte de Placitas!

A few months ago, I was accepted into my local art gallery, and I'm proud to announce that my plushies are available in a physical store! Behold, Arte de Placitas.

While I'm working on a better display, it's exciting enough for me to just know that they're there. I know it doesn't look like much right now, but just let me be happy about it, okay?!

I brought puppies, kitties, and a couple of little pixies! They all look so cozy in their cuddle puddle. And I peeked in the window the other day, and I'm pretty sure I've sold something already... neat!

If you purchased one of my pieces from the art gallery, I'd love to hear from you! Selling online, I interact with all of my customers through messages and such, so I want to extend the same to anyone who buys them at another venue! Please feel free to comment here or send me an email... I'd love to answer any questions you have, or just hear what you think about your experience.

I want to remind everyone that I have a Twitter and a Tumblr now... so follow me for all sorts of fun things plush and otherwise!

A look inside the custom plushie process - Mantis shrimp

I know a lot of you are disappointed that I've stopped taking custom orders.

First off, I want to thank my customers, truly and wholly. I appreciate every one who admires my work, and I very much appreciate those who buy it.

A lot of you are really interested in the custom plushies. In fact, the response has become overwhelming - in every sense of the word.

In recent weeks, I have had to take down both of my custom listings, and stop taking orders. It's actually really frustating that I can't keep up with the work load. I already have the full-time job of being a mom to an extremely active, teething toddler.

Some days I do nothing but keep up with her. I can only sew when she naps (read: passes out from over-exertion) or if I can get her distracted with an activity, which doesn't buy me much time. And then she's still wandering over, pointing at whatever I am working on, exclaiming "bay-beee! bay-bee!" And if you guessed that she probably get upset when I don't let her play with them, you'd be right. Many-a temper tantrum have arisen from the plushies.

So while I take a break from taking on new projects, I thought I'd share one that I've been working on, because this is one of my favorite plushies I've made to date.

I got a request from a customer to make a pair of mantis shrimp. I was immediately excited by this, because I have fond childhood memories of this ruthless undersea killer.


My dad used to keep a saltwater tank, and when he bought a piece of live rock, an unexpected passenger came along for the ride.

If you don't know about mantis shrimps, just know that they are a force quite nearly beyond comprehension. When they strike their prey with their appendages, they move so quickly that the water boils. WHAT. Fully grown ones can break through glass... and we had a baby one, hiding in the tiniest nooks and crannies of the tank. It was a time bomb.

(Sidenote: The true power of the mantis shrimp as an animal could be a post of it's own. I could just start listing off facts, but The Oatmeal does a much better job with their info-comic. If you haven't read it, go read it now and be astonished by the power of the mantis shrimp!)

I watched every day, as my father devised a new plan to eradicate the shrimp from the tank. But every day, for a long time, the NASA engineer was outwitted by the two-inch shrimp.

It made this hauntingly loud clacking noise at night that could be heard throughout the entire house, and it was eating our fish, one by one.

He finally caught it by tying a string to a water bottle and waiting for the shrimp to crawl inside before he pulled him out. He held the water bottle up high in triumph, much as a warlord would display the captured enemy for the townspeople.

He "released" him in the swamp in our backyard. I never knew what became of the mighty beast, but for all I know, today there is a giant, mutant shrimp ruling the Florida coastal back-swamps.

So, you can understand my excitement for this project. I mean, clearly.

This is the first pattern I drafted. Sometimes I get lucky and a plushie pattern doesn't require 20 revisions.

I cut the pattern pieces directly from this picture, and made this prototype:

It really is worth it to try out your patterns before using your good fabric. I had this white fleece lying around. I got it from a remnant bin because it was inexpensive. I don't usually use pure white; I prefer to use creams and off-whites, so this was perfect to use to test my pattern with.

This picture shows the upper carapace in progress with the customer's colors. I do say, quite smashing!

...and this is the finished product! He has lots of hand stitched details, and 10 little jointed legs.

I think he is just magnificent.

I now feel that I, too have conquered the mantis shrimp. I have avenged the deaths of my fish brothers from my childhood. I have created an adorable replica of a savage, bloodthirsty beast.

Who wants to bathe in the blood of their enemies? You do! You do!*

(*things not to say out loud at Christmas dinner. It's a very long list.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Inspiration - Rugs made from recycled plushies

Don't you love when an everyday item is transformed into something new and spectacular? Check out Augustina Woodgate. She makes rugs from old stuffed animals.

© Spinello Projects

Isn't that incredible?

The result is a perfect balance between symmetry and asymmetry, which creates this very organic feel.

© Spinello Projects

It all began when she was looking at her old teddy bear. He was worn, had no eyes, no life. He wasn't a real thing anymore, but she couldn't just throw him away. So, she decided to take his materials and make him into something new - a rug.

© Spinello Projects
Her color choices are based upon what is available at the time. She cuts off the head and pulls out the stuffing. Then she disassembles the pattern pieces at the seams, to keep the pieces whole. Then the pieces are arranged and hand stitched together.
© Spinello Projects
These rugs are truly works of art. It's kind of fun to imagine where all these stuffed animals came from, what sort of friendships they had with children... How they came to be left behind, and how they ended up something totally different. This art is life in motion.

© Spinello Projects

 This rug above is my personal favorite. I love the shape and the use of color, but what I really love is that I see a medicine man of sorts in the very middle. And look at all the little plushie feet!

My stuffed animals are made from fleece, which is too thin to be a part of a project like Augustina's. The thick faux furs are what you want for this!

I hope everyone finds these rugs as beautiful and inspirational as I do. I'd love to do a project like this one day!

Have any of you made a stuffed animal into something new? Let me know your plushie re-purposing story in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Improv sewing

Hey all you needle wizards - do any of you enjoy making things without a pattern? You know, just sit down with some fabric and scissors, and start cutting without any specific plan in mind? No? GO TRY IT NOW.

This is a giraffe I made I made with my new improv technique. I cut out a silhouette and made the gussets without drafting a single thing. Isn't that kind of really neat?

I really love using freezer paper for making my pattern pieces, but I was out at the moment, so I did without.

I did use one of my old patterns for the ears and I did use a rotary cutter and quilting ruler to get the straight lines for the arms, legs and tail. But everything else was just pulled out of thin air, and there's just something I really love about that.

I actually made her several weeks (months?) ago, and she's been hanging out on my shelf since then. I want to enjoy her a bit before she goes to her new home!

It was really fun and stress-free project for me. With my workload as full as it is, this may seem like just a distraction from everything I have to do. But making something with no consequences is a great exercise in keeping your skills tuned up. Suceeding (or even failing) at something that doesn't matter can teach you the lessons you'll need for the next thing that does matter. I think this theory can be applied to many things in life, hmm...

It's fully made of fleece has hand jointed knees! Aren't those cute? I just started making joints in my plushies, and it really adds that "something special". So try it! Maybe I can make a tutorial? Let me know in the comments if anyone would find that helpful!

Her spots were rough-edged appliqued with a straight stitch - a technique that I think looks great in fleece.

I really wish I had thought about taking pictures throughout the process. Would anyone be interested in my doing a post like that? I don't think I've ever seen anyone else use this technique, so it might be cool for just, you know, the history of plushie making and all. Let me know in the comments!

 If you like this giraffe plushie, I'm sorry to say that she's actually a gift for my niece! And since she was made with my freehand technique, she's one-of-a-kind. Maybe I'll make a pattern based on her? We'll see!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New items!

This post is a little late, but I wanted to show off some of the new things I've made for my store! First up is this sweet little bunny doll. Her name is Beatrice and she's just wonderful.

She has a hand embroidered face, and handmade bows for her ears.

Her ensemble is complete with matching stockings, collar, and embroidered belt.

Beatrice is one of a kind and available in my Etsy shop!

I'm very partial to these clutches.... I can't stop making them! This one reminds me of the Oregon coast. You can feel the thick fog just looking at it. It features a fir forest...

...and a mushroom!


I love to make these bags two-sided, because who wouldn't their bag to have twice the art? This is also available in my shop.

This kitty bag has gone to live with a very lucky someone. Isn't it adorable?


This blue fabric is one of my absolute favorites. It's a batik fabric, which is a dyed print made with wax. This makes the pattern imperfect, which I just love. It's so fun and whimsical.

See, I told you I can't stop making these! This golden yellow pouch features an applique fox that I cut freehand.

I quilted and hand embroidered the background to create this galactic, sunburst effect.

It is lined and accented with that blue batik print, because I just can't get enough of it.

And on the back is this super cool leaf on an quilting pattern that echoes the front. This leaf was freehand cut, too (as most of my appliques are) and I'm so pleased with how it came out.

It reminds me of a big, dewy leaf that you'd find in the rainforest... hence, this bag was named, The Jungle Fox Bag.

And that's right, that's a purple zipper! Isn't it awesome? Sometimes you need an unexpected color instead of something matching.

And now, it's time for something a little different....

A patch!

This 3" patch is made with a freehand applique of a fox face and a quilted backgorund.

There's super strong interfacing inside, so it's very sturdy and will make a great addition of a vest or backpack.

So what do you think? Should I make more? I think they're kinda nifty!

Well those are all of my new pretties. I hope you all like what ya see!

I'm currently working on some custom orders, and more bags. And maybe some ...apparel. Oh my gosh! Exciting, I know. Stay tuned to see the cute wearable things I made!