Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Vintage Sewing Machines ...and why I love them so

Some of you may have seen my sewing machines in the background of my pictures. I use all-metal machines from yesteryear. Some people understand - and others are confused.

"How old are those sewing machines?"
"Do they really work?"
"Why don't you just by a new one?"

My sewing machines range in age from 50 to 80 years old. Yes, the really work. In fact, they work better than modern sewing machines. I don't buy a new one because it wouldn't be prudent, or even make any sort of sense to me. You know how the adage goes,

"They don't make 'em like they used to."

Keeping these domestic relics in use is so important. Never again will these machines be produced, and they need to be kept alive - which means they should be sewed with regularly.

Meet my Janome New Home.

She is from the 1960's, making her the youngest of my machines. If you buy a plushie from my Etsy store, this is the machine that I made it on.

This machine is simple - it straight stitches, zig zags, and has a compartment for pattern cams. There are no fancy stitches, so there's not much to go wrong. If there is a jam, I know none of the gears will break.

In newer machines, a lot of the internal machinery is made from plastic. Why? To make them lighter. To make them cheaper to produce. And perhaps most importantly, to create a future demand for new sewing machines.

Here are two examples of failed plastic gears. In this first example, you'll see that while the gear is present in its entirety, it has completely split. This could never happen with a metal gear.

source: www.sewingmachinesteve.com

This next picture shows the spokes of this plastic gear have all been broken off.

source: sewingparts.co.uk 
So are metal gears indestructible? No. But I can't think of an instance that would cause one to break. Maybe if you threw it out of a skyscraper.

This is why I buy sewing machines that were made before the implementation of planned obsolescence. They are built to last. They'll sew right through the apocalypse.

I see so many people sewing with these new plastic things, and I just want to take them to Goodwill, pick up a $10 machine, oil it, and show them that they too can have a machine that will outlive their great grandchildren's great grandchildren.

And I do make regular trips to Goodwill to rescue old sewing machines. It's starting to become a problem, actually... I'm running out of places to put them.

I always take these old, neglected machines home with the intention of "fixing it up to sell," but I should just know better at this point. I get attached. Each one has it's own personality, and the colors they come in are just beautiful. It's like I get to have a garageful of classic cars - and it costs significantly less.

This next machine was actually my first.

 It only does a straight stitch, but what a beast.

I see a lot of people looking for information on their old sewing machines by researching the badge name. And why wouldn't you? It's the most prominent marking on the machine. On this machine, the badge name is "Wizard". But that has nothing to do with the manufacturing of the machine. Here's the deal:

After WWII, a loophole in the American and European sewing machine design patents allowed them to be produced by factories in Japan. They were exported without any sort of identification on them, and were sold to department stores that would badge them with their own brand, in this case, "Wizard". Although these machines are considered "knock-offs", the Japanese engineering was far superior to the engineering of the American manufacturers, making these mid-century machines highly sought after.

This machine, the "Wizard", is actually a Singer in disguise. It's identical in every way to the old Singer models, cosmetically and mechanically. These disguised machines are sometimes referred to as "Japanese clones".

So how do I know if I have a Japanese clone?


It will be stamped with a J-A. These machines are where it's at. Most of these J-A machines were manufactured by Toyota or Koyo, although none of their parts will identify them as such.

I will mention that while my Janome is not an "off-brand" clone, it was still produced in Japan, and still offers the same flawless engineering you'll find in any of the Japanese machines from this era.

These machines are easy to repair on your own. The timing is easy to adjust, and  the mechanics are simple and straightforward. I have no background in mechanics, and I figured everything out on my own.

Finding these old machines and getting them to work again is such a satisfying thing to do, and can be a great hobby even for those who don't sew.

This beauty is my newest thrift store find.

"Sunbeam" is most likely a Toyota machine. It does straight stitch, zig zag, and it has an automatic buttonhole and can facilitate a twin needle. It is much like the "dressmaker" models from this era.

This gorgeous French blue lady was so neglected. Her insides are all gunked up from conventional household oil, and her belts and tires are dry-rotted. She needs to be rewired, and have a few parts replaced, like the check spring for the tension assembly. But she runs so smoothly. I'm very excited to bring this machine back to life.

I got this machine for $8. Eight dollars! Comb your thrift stores, people. These gems are out there!

My number one rule for buying a sewing machine - if it doesn't break your back carrying it out to the car, you didn't buy the right machine.

Are there any other vintage sewing machine enthusiasts out there? Did I spark anyone's interest? Do you need help identifying or fixing your machine? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!


  1. Hi Lauren,
    I'm so happy you posted your machine collection. So Beautiful! Those turquoise ones are actually kind of hard to find (any brand, really). I think people tend to hold on to them because they are so pretty. Do you have any treadles yet? They take up so much space, but the feel and sound of them is amazing, and so much history!

    1. Thanks, Manda! I'm happy I posted it, too :) Thanks for visiting, reading, and commenting!

      I would LOVE a treadle! The idea of sewing without electricity is really exciting for me. Treadles are truly something to behold. Hopefully I'll have one in the near future!

      The blue and turquoise colors are really indicative of the period... I understand why people hold on to them as they do! The machines from this time have an artistic quality about them, and can be appreciated by anyone.

    2. I found a Universal JA-16, Model MAB for $30.00 online, 5 miles from me. She claims that the motor runs fine, but the needle won't go "up and down", just a belt replacement perhaps? I sew and do have a vintage Singer with wood table, so I am interested in this one as well. I read your info., but am not sure what else to look for before buying. Thanks!

    3. After lugging the machine with table down a flight of stairs, the lady gave it to me for free! After that,my husband cleaned, oiled, replaced the belt. I'm still having a hard time adjusting the tension. Any thoughts? (Yes, an AQUA beauty!)

    4. After lugging the machine with table down a flight of stairs, the lady gave it to me for free! After that,my husband cleaned, oiled, replaced the belt. I'm still having a hard time adjusting the tension. Any thoughts? (Yes, an AQUA beauty!)

  2. I totally agree about vintage machines! I won't ever buy a 'new' machine... I recently bought a Janome New Home almost identical to yours at a yard sale for $5! It was filthy but a little elbow grease and it's gorgeous. I know nothing about it but would love to get more information on it. The motor works but I am missing the feet and pedal.
    I love your collection!!

    1. It's amazing what you can find some times, huh? It sounds like a really exciting find! Congratulations ;)

      Replacement parts for these old machines are inexpensive and widely available. Many machine have a universal fit for post of their parts. My Janome takes a standard high shank foot; these are available everywhere. A foot pedal could be salvaged from another machine, but a new one isn't too pricey, either. I have some great online resources, let me know if you need any help of have any questions about your machine!

      Thanks for coming by my blog and commenting on my article!

  3. Love your collection! I've been starting one of my own, and it took buying a 1970's Singer for $10 at the thrift store to get me started. Unfortunately, that machine turned out to be not a great machine (with plastic parts) which a mouse had built a nest in. That one will going on Craigslist after it gets cleaned up. But since then, I've started a Kenmore collection...first with a 60's machine for $15, then an identical machine (for free) for parts and an early 50's machine for $15 that supposedly is extremely heavy-duty. Next up is cleaning all these guys up.

    1. A mouse nest?... in a SEWING MACHINE? I do not envy you for this.

      It's so satisfying to fix these machines up, isn't it? And people will often sell them for next to nothing... an inexpensive hobby is a fun hobby!

      Thanks for reading my article and posting your comment! Good luck with fixing up your machines :)

  4. I loved reading your post! I just purchased a precision built de lux and i dont know how to thread it and i cant find the stamp on it for the model number. It works but I realized after buying it that it doesnt have bobbin parts...UGH. luckily i only spent $20. the store it was made for hochschild kohn & co. It is turquoise and white as well!

  5. Thank you! And congrats on your new machine! Threading these machines is super easy once you know how. Here is a threading guide! (http://bypatrice.com/sewing/deluxe_manual/27.html) The rest of that manual should be helpful, too. It'll take class 15 bobbin parts. The actual bobbins can be found anywhere that carries sewing supplies (even Wal Mart!). You can get a case of 20 for less than $5. If you are missing the bobbin case (also class 15) you can get those at any sew-n-vac (or online) and will run about $10 - $15. If you'd like, send me an email (kindplush@gmail.com) and I can help you get it up and running! Thanks so much for reading my article, and for your comment! Happy sewing!

  6. Hi, your blog is so helpful, I got a machine last week, it has no manual and I can't find a lot online - but this has answered a lot of questions. It is a Piedmont model 308, with a JA label too. I think I have figured out how most of it works, but am having an issue with the bobbin winder - the wheel doesn't seem to spin. Have you come across this issue before? Thanks!

    1. Hi Leah, glad you found this helpful. Your Piedmont is definitely a badged clone. If your bobbin winder isn't spinning, swap out your bobbin tire for a new one. If it's old the rubber is most likely dry-rotted and/or worn down. If that doesn't work try a larger bobbin tire size. Make sure the motor is bolted firmly in place and the belt is new and the correct size. If this doesn't fix it, let me know. Good luck!

    2. Hi Lauren, that might be it - the bobbin tire is very smooth so perhaps it is worn down. I will try replacing it and hopefully that will help. Everything else seems to work (apart from trying to figure out how to thread it..!) Thanks so much for the advice, Leah

    3. Sounds like a new bobbin tire will be the ticket! It's very common for the to wear down like that. Luckily its an easy fix. These machines are easy to thread - they can look a little different but they're all fundamentally the same. Let me know if you can't figure it out and I'll do a tutorial :)

    4. Hi! I also really loved your article. thanks so much. I'm wondering if you might be able to help me. I also have a Piedmont 308 but no manual. I am told these are re-badged Singers and figured if I can find its equivalent model number, I can order a manual from the Singer site but have had no luck searching online. Any ideas?

  7. Hi Lauren,
    My wife has got a sewing machine identical in every way to this "Sunbeam" except in color. Hers is beige with blue top and end cover. She got it from a 'late' friend. A visual inspection tells me it has seen very limited use as there are no signs of wear on the mechanical parts, or marks on the table where one slides the material through the sewing area. Turning the machine by hand feels very smooth and everything looks to be in excellent condition.
    The machine is missing a Bobbin Case. It may have been thrown out when disposing of her late friends possessions. Can you tell me where I might obtain a replacement part for this machine to make it operable again?
    As you say, this one would break your arm just carrying it to the car. I'm sure someone would love to own it. Bob Taylor, signing off for my wife May Taylor

  8. The beautiful Sunbeam is actualy made by Koyo, its near identical to one Koyo that I´m bringing home tomorrow. Exellent machines.
    Not many of them here in Finland!