Thursday, December 06, 2012

Finding and Buying an Old Sewing Machine

A nice lady call me a few days ago asking my advice on buying a vintage sewing machine that she could use for every day sewing. She kind of caught me off guard and I’m afraid I didn't provide a very good answer so I decided to put it in writing so I could organize my thoughts. Here are some things I consider when I am looking at old sewing machines:

    Before you go out looking for an antique or vintage sewing machine, you must first think about how the machine will ultimately be used.  If you are buying strictly for display or for resale, the condition of the paint and decals will be more important than the mechanical condition.  On the other hand, if you intend to use the machine for sewing, the mechanical condition will be more important.  The relative weight of the following factors will vary and they are presented in no particular order, just that they are factors you should consider.

Intended Use -
Occasional Home Sewing
Frequent sewing/professional sewing
Sewing Heavy Goods (upholstery, canvas, etc.)

Condition - The first thing is to make sure that a machine has no rust. Thread has to slide over several surfaces under the bed of the machine and anything that roughens the thread path interferes with the passage of the thread. Other than that, cosmetic condition is inversely proportional. If a 70-year-old machine is pristine in appearance, it means it has not been used very much. Oil is likely hardened, rust may be forming, and the moving parts have not worn in. A well-used machine was probably regularly oiled and worked well or the owner would not have worn the paint off with prolonged use.

Paint & Decals - Paint and decals cannot be renewed without lowering the value of the collectible sewing machine.  Except for the Singer Featherweight, I have never seen reproduction decals for sale, so if you decide to repaint, you either have to be content with no decals or try to make Featherweight decals fit your 3/4 or full-size sewing head.  Carefully inspect for chipped paint around the edges of the bed and for worn paint and decals in front of the needle where fabric would rub.  If you are buying the machine to sew on, damaged paint and worn decals can be pointed out to drive the asking price lower and don’t affect the operation of the machine.

Dirt - Most old sewing machines have decades of dust, smoke film, and dried-up oil masking the beauty beneath.  Some kinds of dirt can be cleaned off and other kinds have worked in so deep that you will destroy the paint and decals trying to remove it.  I know of no reliable way to determine beforehand whether dirt can be easily removed, you are just taking your chances when you buy a dirty machine.

Missing Parts - Some parts are easily found and replaced.  Tension assemblies, presser feet, spool pins, and bobbin winder tires are common and cost little.  There are reproduction bobbin cases, slide plates, power cords and other common parts available from any sewing machine repair depot. Some other parts are hard to find and one small part could cost more than you paid for the machine!

Country of Origin – The U.S and Europe probably made the best machines up until World War II. If you are looking at 1900-1950, I would stick with machines made there. After WWII, Japan converted armament factories to make other products and produced some of the highest quality, lowest cost sewing machines ever made. To compete with the Japanese machines, The U.S. and U.K. manufacturers turned to cheaper manufacturing methods and quality suffered. The European manufacturers (Pfaff, Elna, Bernina, Necchi) kept up their quality but had to raise prices to keep up with labor costs. If you are looking in the 1950-1970 range, I would recommend Japanese or European, other than U.K.  Around 1970, Taiwan came into the market with even cheaper machines. These were low quality but forced all manufacturers to come up with even cheaper methods to compete in price. This is the time that sewing machines became stamped out of plastic. Today, sewing machines are made in China for the most part and those machines are extremely low in quality.

Manufacturer - Singer machines are reliable, low in cost and it's easy to find instruction manuals and service manuals if you want to work on it yourself. Japanese machines are pretty much generic, many important parts are available but documentation is difficult to find, so you should be thoroughly familiar with sewing machines and able to operate without an instruction manual. The machines from European manufacturers (Pfaff, Bernina, Durkopp, Elna, Necchi, etc) use many unique parts that are hard to find and expensive. Instruction manuals are available but service manuals are scarce.

Configuration - in my opinion the most reliable machines are those where the bobbin loads on the end of the machine on the left side as the operator is facing the machine.  That type of machine was normally timed at the factory and then pinned so that they could never go out of time.  You never have to worry about adjusting the timing

Does It Sew? - If you are not mechanically inclined and you intend to use the machine for sewing, rather than just display, this may be an important factor.  I prefer a machine that DOESN'T sew because I enjoy tinkering with old sewing machines. It is preferable to meet the machine in person, if at all possible, before adopting. It is preferable to meet the machine in person, if at all possible, before adopting. Carry with you some samples of fabric and thread that you intend to sew with on the new machine.  It would also be a good idea to take along a spare needle because the one installed on the machine could easily be 20 years old, bent, and rusty. If you are buying from afar and can’t see the machine be prepared to either spend some time cleaning and lubricating or roughly $75 for professional tune-up.

You might want to consider those that were marketed by department stores - Sears Kenmore, Wards Signatures, Western Auto Wizard and there are some others that stores put their own name on.  The stores did not want their names associated with low quality merchandise so they made sure that those machines are of higher quality.

Where to find: Local auctions – the lowest cost option in my experience, I have picked up many old machines for $5 to $10. I got a Singer industrial machine for $25 that sells on Ebay in the $400 range.

Thrift Shops – Price varies with the experience and knowledge of the manager. Many are overpriced, many are under-priced  You just have to keep checking back. Some stores put the foot control and accessories under the counter so they won’t get separated from the machine. If you don’t see them, ask. The majority of my machines came from thrift shops.

Used Furniture Stores and Antique Shops – Too expensive for my blood.

Yard Sales – Vary by area. When I lived in Virginia and Seattle, I often found machines at yard sales. They are usually in better condition than those at other sources. However, where I live now in Southern Maryland, I have NEVER seen a sewing machine at a yard sale. Here, yard sales run Saturday morning from 8 AM to Noon and sell only children’s clothes and toys.

Online Auctions – Price is competitive, but the cost of shipping these heavy beasts has driven me away from Ebay as a source of sewing machines.

Sewing Machine Dealers - Dealers often accept trade-ins to encourage new business. I have found that they do not want a machine hanging around that is not the brand they sell and price them to move out. I bought a Bernina from a Pfaff dealer for $20! These will be the best condition machines because the dealer's reputation is at stake and he wants you to come back in a few years to buy a new machine from him. They will also be cleaned and lubricated so you don't need to worry about spending money for that.

I will probably think of more on this subject and, if I do, will return and edit this post. For now, I believe I have given you enough to think about. - Ed

Monday, August 20, 2012

Necchi or Alco? (UPDATED 26 August)

  In the thrift shop the other day, I saw what I considered to be an anomoly - a sewing machine with the names Necchi and Alco, both on the same machine.  I had been under the impression that the Alco and Necchi names were connected through the same distributor, but this is the first time I have seen one with both names on it.

  This one is a 524FB (FlatBed), made in Taiwan. Sales documents that accompany the machine indicate that it was purchased in May, 2000 at one of those "Liquidation Sales" in Florida.

 I thought the 524FB was considerably older than that, my old Blue Book shows production beginning in 1991 and models usually become obsolete in about 7 years.  I guess this one could have been old, unsold stock and that's why it was dumped at a motel sale.

  This machine was touted as a "Sew and Serge" machine.  The "serge" function is merely a zig zag or overcast stitch plus a bolt-on cutter that is powered by the needlebar to give the impression of an overlock stitch.


  The machine was sewing okay but making a buzzing sound that I didn't like. I removed the end cover, thinking that the motor bearings might be bad. I took off the belt and ran the motor by itself and it didn't buzz. When I put the belt back on, I noticed that one of the motor mounting studs was in a position where the cog belt was rubbing against it.

  Repositioning the motor cured the problem.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

One Good Deed...

About a week ago, I fixed a lady's sewing machine. When I didn't charge her, I told her all I did was replace her bobbin case with one from a parts machine someone had given me. I told her if she hears of anyone about to toss out a machine, please grab it for me because I can always use parts. She said she had a machine out in the garage that was worn out and good only for parts, I could have it if I wanted it.

Turned out to be a Singer 401. I am partial to the Singer slant needle machines because a 301 was my first sewing machine and a 401 was my second, so I took it.

She said that it had been used so much that thread has worn a groove in the housing of the machine, the thread kept getting caught in the groove and shredding or breaking. I looked closer and, sure enough, there was a groove just above the last thread guide on the housing.  I threaded the machine and she was correct - the thread runs right through that groove.

I toyed with several options: grinding the groove smooth, installing a rub strip over the groove so the thread would no longer catch in it but being low-tech, I opted to just bend that thread guide at the groove about 1/8" so the thread no longer runs through the groove.

In a quick test, it sews fine. I need to clean and oil and give it a real test tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cindy's Kenmore

I said when we took over the quilt shop that I hoped it would bring me some interesting machines to play with - here is the first one.  It is a Kenmore 117.560 made by White. I have always been intrigued by the rugged appearance, brown wrinkle paint, and octagonal shape. There isn't a curve anywhere visible on the machine, except the balance wheel. Every surface is flat. I have seen them before but every one I saw was either in too rough shape or too expensive for me to pick up. This one is in excellent condition didn't cost me a cent!

The machine appears to be very well-made and very heavy. The owner said that the machine was slipping when she tried to sew patches on a leather motorcycle jacket. She had to "help" the balance wheel by hand at times.  My first thought was that the belt was slipping but that possibility vanished when I learned that there is no belt, the balance wheel is turned by means of a friction wheel.  Looking at the friction wheel, I noticed that it was positioned so that only a small amount of surface was contacting the balance wheel. No wonder it was slipping!

I repositioned the friction wheel and dressed the rubber to make it conform more closely to the edge of the balance wheel. Hopefully, she won't have that problem again.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Where Have I Been?

I have had a couple of inquiries lately why I haven't posted in a long
time. I really am okay, it's just that life got in the way. My full time
job involves a considerable amount of travel and that travel has spiked
recently. One period, I didn't unpack my suitcase for three weekends -
just removed the dirty clothes, replaced them with clean clothes and
zipped the suitcase closed for the following week. I spent a week in
North Carolina, the next week in Orlando, Florida and the following week
in Tucson, Arizona. That has finally quieted down and just in time, as
you will learn if you keep reading.

My youngest daughter is graduating from high school this spring and we
have been doing all the things parents do when their child is about to
go off to college - college tours, orientation visits, and satisfying
all the administrative, medical, educational, and financial requirements
that go along with college application, selection, and entrance.  The
big rush will come later when we have to get computer, books, clothes,
and the hundreds of other things we can't get ahead of time.

But the biggest news and the most time-consuming in the last month is
that we are buying a quilt shop!  

The only quilt shop in the county was
on the verge of closing and came available at a price we could afford.

Stock is way down and so is customer traffic. 

We were shocked at all the
things required by the town, state, and federal governments: Federal
Employer ID Number, Workmen's Comp, federal and state unemployment
insurance, sales tax number, trader's license, occupancy permit, even a
sign permit to allow us to display a sign.

 Then there's liability
insurance, attorney's fees, and lease. Bank account, post office box,
credit card processor, website, phone service, Internet, and so many
other things necessary to running a shop. Because I still work full
time, Kathie has been taking care of the vast majority of the details
and is really stressed out. The only bright spot for her so far has been
meeting with the fabric reps and ordering many thousands of dollars
worth of fabric and patterns. Deliveries are spaced out over the next
six months but the first shipments have begun arriving and are piling up
in our living room waiting until the day we take over the business and
can re-stock the shelves.

I am hoping that the quilt shop will provide fodder for this blog in the
upcoming months because I plan to offer servicing of vintage sewing
machines. With luck, I will get my hands on some unusual machines that I
can photograph and write about, then return to their owners when I am
finished and won't have to find space to store them.

So don't give up, check back occasionally and things should pick up