Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Learning About Vintage Sewing Machines


Ali P asked, “How can I learn how to fix up these beauties?” I have a fairly extensive library of sewing machine-related books and, to be honest, none of them has been of much help. They only hit the high spots for a very few specific machines and the high spots they hit always seem to be not what I am having trouble with or for a different machine than I have on the bench. I obtained a copy of “Sincere’s sewing Machine Service Manual” from my local library. Check there, you might be able to score a free copy of that or Hutchison’s manual but if you have to pay anything, it’s not worth the price in my opinion. 

As with learning anything, you have to start with the basics and hands-on is better than just reading a book. With that in mind, here is Ed’s method for learning vintage sewing machine repair:

1. Start with a Singer straight stitch machine, they plentiful and cheap and parts and documentation are readily available. Scout around for a model 15, 66, 99, or 185 that is complete and has no rust. First scour all your relatives and acquaintance's basements for a freebie. If that doesn't yield results, keep an eye on local thrift shops, local classified ads, craigslist, yard sales, and local auctions and flea markets.  If you pay more than $30, you got cheated. The balance wheel should spin but, if not, use that fact to talk down the price. I have paid as little as $5 at a local auction and $2.50 at an antique store that was trashing the heads to make tables out of the treadle cabinets.

2. Go to and download the free instruction manual, so you know how to use the machine, then go to and download the free service manual – sometimes called adjuster’s manual. For 15 Class machines, I recommend the 15-91 manual in the “Instruction Manuals” section and for 66 Class machines (66, 99, 185), the 66 manual in the “Instruction Manuals” section. I have a re-typed version of the 66 Adjuster's Manual in pdf format with a few added procedures, like disassembly of the tension assembly. If you would prefer that to the Singer download, I am oldsewingmachines at gmail.

3. Clean all the fuzz bunnies out from under the needle plate and remove all the covers and oil the machine. Disregard the oiling diagram in the manual, with oiler in hand, rotate the balance wheel and put a drop of sewing machine oil at every point where metal rubs against metal. Run the machine at full speed until the new oil is worked in and your baby is purring. At this point, you might even want to install a fresh needle and see if the machine will make a stitch. If it does, don't be tempted to stop there - just because it sews doesn't mean it sews as well as it should.

4. Now, get out the service manual (adjuster’s manual) and go cover-to-cover, checking every adjustment in the book – needle bar height, feed dog height, feed dog centering, tension assembly, bobbin winder, hook timing, hook-to-needle clearance, drive belt tension, check spring, and all the gaps that thread must pass through on its way to making a stitch. No special tools are needed, you should have all you need lying around the house.

5. After making any necessary adjustments, you should now have a vintage Singer sewing machine that runs and sews like new and you know why it does. If you have gone through all the above steps and your machine does not sew, perform a search for “vintage sewing machine forum” and join one of the many forums where SM collectors hang out. They are all anxious to show how much they have learned and willingly answer questions within minutes. You will be more credible if you can tell what you have already tried that didn't fix the problem.


UrbanRecyclist said...

Hahaha, Ed, that's so well put. Steps 1 to 3 must be a naturally evolving process for beginner collectors! I've done exactly that, but only up to the finish line of step 3. Didn't think to read the service manual unless the machine was having an issue. But what a great idea and a learning method. I will now go on to the step 4. Thanks, Ed, for sharing your wisdom with us. .

Tammy said...

Great advice. Thanks so much for sharing.

Jonathan said...

I like that you added a pic of a Singer 185 to this post. When I first started collecting machines I didn't see the point in owning a straight stitch machine, aside from maybe a 15-91 because they were supposed to be strong. But I wanted a 185 because I liked the 3/4 size and color. I eventually found a 185 in great cosmetic shape. When I finally oiled it up and sat down to use it I fell in love. It's one of my favorite machines! I love how close together the feed dogs are. I can get right to the edge of fleece when I make dogs toys.

Ali P said...

Love this post, Ed!! Thanks for the info. The library here yielded nothing in the way of sewing machine books. You'd think someone would have put out a "Dummies" or "Idiot's Guide" by now! There's an idea...
To make matters sillier, I have agreed to Green Fairy's siblings from the flea market for the bargain price of $25 for the group. There are 3 more babies coming to me, one of which is a White. I will email pictures when they arrive.
Also, I forgot to tell you, I have a Raymond treadle machine. This is a Canadian brand that you may not be familiar with. I got this at an estate auction about 10 years ago and use it as a table or plant stand mainly. The veneer of the cabinet is pretty ruined thanks to me. The leather belt broke about 4 years ago. I just learned how to tell if its pre or post 1895 and will be opening it up to check soon.
Thanks for the great post!

Jonathan said...

I love the carrying case pictured with the Singer 185! My Singer 185k came in the green plastic case - which was still in good shape. Is the 185 pictured from your collection? Have you sewn with a Singer 185 or Singer 99? If so, what do you think?

Jonathan said...

My Singer 185k was the first drop in bobbin machine I sewed with. I was really impressed with the quality of metal bobbin case.

Ed Lamoureux said...

Jonathan, I have had many 66s, 99s, and several 185s over the years. Those were my first machines because they were plentiful and cheap. They are the models I learned the basics of sewing machine maintenance on and the basis for this post. Properly adjusted, they sew well although a bit noisier than some other models. They are extremely reliable and will still be sewing long after we are gone. -Ed

js3879 said...

Was reading through this blog and have found some amazing tips. Random question, have you ever dealt with a Royal Consul machine? I've rescued one from the depths of a trash pile. I have a few photos I could email you.