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