Imagine my surprise when I received an email yesterday from an enthusiastic new reader in Louisiana telling me I had helped convince her to buy a vintage Singer straight stitch sewing machine! I know I've been spreading the vintage sewing machine meme, but I never thought anybody was actually paying attention.
I thought this might be a good time to offer clear guidelines on buying a vintage sewing machine: the how, what, when, and where. (I've covered the why here.) I know many of you will have points to add, and I invite you to do so in the comments below.
So let's get started:
1. Where to buy a vintage machine
I've had good luck finding excellent vintage sewing machines on eBay, Craigslist, and at my local flea market. There are other places you might consider too: thrift stores, sewing machine repair shops (though you might pay more, you'll probably be assured the machine is in good working condition), garage sales, and estate sales.
The benefits of a site like eBay are that the selection is tremendous and changes daily. The downside is that you usually have to pay for shipping, which can greatly raise the total cost of the machine. High shipping costs can depress bidding, however, so one could argue that it evens out in the end. (For me, shipping costs higher than $20 send me elsewhere.)
Another downside is that you cannot actually test the machine. Therefore, if you're interested in bidding, you must ask the seller before you bid about the condition of the machine if it is not stated clearly in the description.
Many sellers will say they turned the power on and the light worked, or they pressed the pedal and the needle went up and down, but that's it; they don't know anything about sewing machines. Sellers who claim not to know anything about sewing probably don't know anything about how to pack and ship a machine either. Caveat emptor.
Craigslist is ideal in that you can see the machine and test it before buying. The machine won't be delivered to your door, of course; transportation is your responsibility. Great deals can be found on Craigslist and, depending where you live, the selection can be excellent. Some people are even giving away machines free.
If you're examining a machine at a flea market or garage sale, ask if you can plug it in and try it. There's usually someplace this can be done.
2. What to ask the seller?
On eBay, most sellers answer these questions in their description, but many do not because it doesn't occur to them or they think it's not their responsibility. In no particular order:
Does it work? Does it have any mechanical problems?
Is it missing any parts? (They may not know.) Does it come with a manual?
Some sellers are extremely thorough and knowledgeable about machines, others are not. Many sellers claim not to have the pedal, which allows them to claim no knowledge of whether the machine works or not. I would not bother with a machine like that.
If the machine does embroidery stitches, ask if you can see a stitch sample (this is especially important on eBay). Many people post a stitch sample and some even upload a YouTube video.
If it uses external cams, are the cams included with the machine? (If not, do you really want to hunt them down? I don't.)
If it's a foreign made machine, make sure it is wired for American outlets (or whatever outlet you use in your country). You don't want to have to buy an adapter, which over time can strain a motor.
Does it sew forward and reverse?
Do the feed dogs drop (if you'll be doing free motion embroidery)?
Is there any rust? (I would not take a chance with a rusty machine.)
What condition is the wiring in? Are there any cracks in the wire or taped areas? (Are you willing to rewire if necessary? I once attached a foot pedal to a machine that had had a knee pedal. It wasn't hard but not everyone would want to deal with that.)
Does it come with any attachments?
If there's only a photo of the back, ask to see the front. If the photo is so blurry you can't make out the model, ask for a better photo. Or don't and hope you're the only bidder on a great machine no one else can identify.
3. Risks worth taking
Let's face it: a lot of the appeal of buying a vintage machine is finding a hidden gem. If you are knowledgeable about machines and willing (eager!) to do what it takes to get the thing running, by all means take a chance on a frozen machine. Most of the time a frozen mechanical machine has not been oiled in decades and only needs a good lubrication to get it working again.
Or maybe the pedal is missing and you're confident that -- like most mechanical straight stitch machines -- there's simply not that much that could be wrong with it. If it looks good (on both top and bottom) and you know how the machine is supposed to work, give it a try.
4. My own preferences
I know what I will do and will not do. I will clean a machine and I will oil a machine but that is it. I will not purchase spare parts (other than presser feet, extra bobbins, or a light bulb) to make the thing run. I am not interested in restoring an old machine to like-new condition or stripping and refinishing a wood cabinet. But plenty of people are. I do not want to have to bring an old machine in to be serviced. I never have and hope not to need to any time soon.
Most old sewing machines are heavy -- 20+ lbs heavy. Some weigh nearly twice that much. You simply can't pack a heavy piece of machinery the way you would a handbag or a pair of shoes. Sellers should be willing to double-box their machines and use plenty of bubble wrap and packing peanuts. The pedal should be wrapped separately. There should be no metal against metal.
If you're shopping on eBay, look at the seller's feedback. Is it 100% positive? Read the negative feedback. Do other buyers mention the quality of the packaging? Check the seller's recently sold items. Do they sell sewing machines or other fragile and heavy equipment?
It's always good to ask the seller directly how they plan to pack the machine.
6. What models should I look for?
I am completely subjective when it comes to vintage machines. I know what I like and that's it. I think nowadays most people want a zigzagger first and foremost. I own a few vintage zigzaggers, including a Necchi, a Kenmore, a Viking, and a Singer. The Sears Kenmores with 158 in the number are very highly regarded. Most were made in Japan.
Necchis from the 50s and 60s, like the Supernova, are very well engineered machines. Most come with external cams for embroidery stitches. Do you want to deal with cams? I've learned from experience that I do not.
I have a simple early Eighties era Viking I like a lot. All I ever use a zigzagger for these days is the occasional satin stitch on a pocket or to install an invisible zipper (the only invisible zipper foot I have fits on the low shank adapter of my Viking). Now that I have a serger, I rarely overcast. So it will come as no surprise that I prefer straight stitch machines. I have Singers and one White. I think the Singers are unmatched. They're easy to use, easy to maintain, and stitch beautifully. You can find most Singer manuals online free, and there are many online groups for owners. I like to be able to sew slowly at times, and all my Singers excel at this. It's not just the pedal: it's the engineering.
7. What else will I need to purchase?
One of the benefits of old Singer straight stitchers is that all the old feet and attachments are easy to find on eBay and Etsy. Millions of these machines were sold so the parts aren't rare. Many can even be found new, though usually made in the Far East and of inferior quality. Once you start looking around for these feet, you find them everywhere. Singer buttonhole attachments are great and can still be found for $20 or less. You can even find zigzagger attachments (I have one) that will allow your straight stitcher to overcast.
You'll need sewing machine oil, and for some machines that are truly frozen, other solvents that can break down old shellac. I'm not an expert but you can find plenty of tips online about restoring old machines. If you have some good resources you'd like to share below, please do so.
Old machines need plenty of oil. I usually oil my machine before beginning any big project.
8. Does a straight stitch machine really stitch better?
I think so. It's not just the quality of the individual stitch; any machine with balanced tension can produce a perfect stitch. Straight stitch machines offer better control, especially for topstitching and edgestitching. The needle hole on a straight stitch machine is tiny, making it less likely that delicate fabric will get pulled through the hole. The right side of the straight stitch foot is a mere 1/8", making it very easy to see what you're stitching when you're in a critical place, like topstitching a collar and turning a corner.
Most of these old machines can handle multiple layers denim and leather just fine; whatever you can fit under the presser foot in my experience. They may not be up to upholstery, but some are!
NOTE: None of my machines are true industrial machines. No Singer home model (66, 99, 192K, 201-2, 15-91, etc.) should be described as such in an eBay posting.
9. Bidding strategy.
The most popular time to buy on eBay is Sunday night (I think Wednesday or Thursday is the next popular). I generally avoid that time. You're more likely to get a good deal on Friday night or Saturday. There are generally few bidders during the day, when most bidders are at work.
REMEMBER: there are thousands of vintage sewing machines for sale on eBay every month. The model you want will reappear. No sense getting caught in a bidding war. Let it go. It will be back.
10. How about "Buy it Now?"
I bought my first vintage machine on eBay using "Buy it Now." I knew nothing about sewing machines and the seller had an excellent reputation and had even posted a YouTube video of the machine in action. In retrospect, I paid too much for my Kenmore machine but it was worth it to know I was getting a machine that didn't have mechanical problems. It also came with a buttonhole attachment.
You'll almost always pay more with the "Buy it Now" option. But sometimes the convenience makes it worth it. I don't think anybody's getting rich selling old sewing machines on eBay, so you could argue you're supporting a fellow sewing machine aficionado.
And that's it!
Are there any questions I haven't addressed? Do you have advice to share?
Has your experience been similar to mine? Have you ever gotten stuck with a dud?
I'm a native New Yorker and sewing fanatic! I started sewing in 2009 and today make all my own clothes using vintage sewing machines and vintage patterns, in addition to sewing for private clients. Welcome to the warm and whimsical world of Male Pattern Boldness, where the conversation is sewing, style, fashion, fabric, and more!