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Nov 2, 2010

How to buy a vintage sewing machine



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.



5. Shipping

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?

Jump in!

39 comments:

  1. Excellent post! You covered a lot. I agree --don't pay too much. If you don't get the machine wait and another one will show up. I've had good luck at my local Goodwill store.

    And you probably know how I'm hopelessly in love with my Singer 15-91. A straight stitch machine that is beautiful in its simplicity and design. If I had to pick one machine it would be it, and I could do without the others in my collection. Along with the attachments it can do anything --even embroider (although that's done free motion style).

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  2. I don't usually mind the shipping charge. I figure the savings in time and travel usually offset that cost. However, I do avoid the unreasonable charge. I've shipped machines across the country and a Singer Rocketeer or 401 weighs in at 32lbs with all attachments and double boxed. With insurance it's $38 bucks from Washington DC to the west coast. No way it costs more than that. Some machines are heavier, sure and cost more, but it's not too hard to figure out how much more. Passing along he cost of box and packing materials? Nope! I figure that's part of selling something.

    You're absolutely right about not getting caught up in a bidding war. There are plenty of old machines. On the other hand, unless you're willing to do some legwork, don't expect to find many 10 dollar machines out there. Sellers are pretty savvy.

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  3. Great post Peter :), you've essentially condensed a whole bunch of common sense tips 'n' tactics into a simple list. Thank you (from the owner "currently" of x1 Vintage straight-stitcher, x1 Vintage Zig-Zagger, x1 Modern Brother machine, and my most recent purchase an entry-beginner level Serger (Overlocker to my fellow UK-residents LOL!).

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  4. I hope/know the woman that bought the Singer will love it. I have bought most of mine on ebay. I had one terrible experience with the horrible packing. It was a person that sold antique china and was praised for their shipping. I am still working on it! But now I always ask how they are going to pack it.

    I also want to know what the serial number is if it is an old Singer. Then I look it up on the Singer website to make sure of the model and the year it was made. The Yahoo Singer maintenance cite is very informative and since they love talking Singer, you can ask anything and get a quick response.

    For me it is like rescuing a puppy so I have to NOT look if I am not really in the market for one.

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  5. You totally inspired me! I bought a 20 ton "Fleetwood" set in a fold out table. Very simple, straight stitch only. But has the grace and the charm of the Mauritania.

    I bought her from a truly terrifying grifter, and split without negotiating and haggling down the vastly inflated asking price because I semi-feared for my life.

    When I took her into the mechanic... he laughed and said, "if i paid more than 5 bucks I paid too much," but then he felt bad and in the end he got her going great. She's smooth sailing and I love how solid and heavy she is.

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  6. Very well done - I would have to agree that, I too, am one for the straight stitch machines with a serger on the side. The little round hole that the needle goes into on a straight stitcher won't suck down delicate fabric like the larger space that is usually on a zigzag machine. Except for my Kenmore - it has both plates.
    My favorite triumph was when I bought two of the same model machine (spaced months apart) from the same thrift shop for a total of $7. Each were broken in different ways. I used the good parts from each to make a complete machine with all the attachments and cams plus a monogrammer. But I knew that I wanted one of those machines - my grandmother had one and taught me to sew on it. Now my girls use it.
    But my truly favorite is my 30's era White Rotary. For this one, I made sure it worked and had it's attachments and manual because it isn't as prevalent as other machines. The ruffler actually makes these itsy bitsy pleats - I love it!

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  7. This is so helpful. I have really wanted to buy a vintage machine and your post has inspired me and made me a lot more confident about doing so.

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  8. Excellent post! Adding: vintagesingers group on Yahoo will answer all kinds of questions; they know their machines. And (waving at Doreen): yes, look up the serial number. I was looking at an electrical 99K on Craigslist last week; turned out to have been made in 1927. Looked super, but I wouldn`t trust wiring that old, esp since the current here has been upgraded twice since 1927.

    Yes, Peter, I`m paying attention. I checked, and mum`s handcrank 1939 99K will take a buttonholer like the one you have. And, I found a hemstitcher & picot edge attachment which will give an authentic finish to my antique dolls` clothes. The only other Singer I can find to do this is an industrial treadle, made about 1912. I`m not a Singer fanatic, but love that they made similar machines for a long time, so parts and attachments are out there to be found relatively cheaply. You don`t want to know what it costs for feet for my 70s Pfaffs.
    Heather

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  9. You have most definitely convinced others to buy vintage! I bought a Singer Slant-O-Matic that I am in love with. I had it serviced after I bought it and it runs like a champ. I only paid $80 for it (in a cabinet) pluse $70 to have it serviced. Love it, love it, LOVE IT!

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  10. P.S. Can't believe I misspelled "plus." Please excuse that!

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  11. Hi Peter - What an excellent post! I have four vintage sewing machines and two "toy" machines that I acquired in different ways! The toys are my own little girl Singer that I got for Christmas when I was 9, and a flea market treasure! The grown up machines - two from sew-and-vac stores, one from a thrift shop, and one (so so so totally lucky) from a guy from the Singer Slant-o-matic Yahoo group who fixes them up and sells them. I got a fabulous bargain b/c the mocha finish was faded in a dot pattern!

    I would not say that any of them were yard sale category bargains but all of them work like dreams. I get them tuned up every couple of years. I think it's worth the money for professional tune ups, mostly because I am not the sewing machine tune up type. I do other mechanical things but I love taking my machines to the sewing machine man. Twice now he has THANKED ME for letting him work on a vintage machine. He was actually happy to see my Necchi Lydia because he hadn't seen one in awhile. I like feeling like I'm part of the vintage sewing machine appreciation underground! Thanks Peter!!

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  12. I'm a Singer Slant-o-Matic girl. This machine is holding up spectacularly to all of my beginner foibles, and keeps sewing beautifully. I paid $45 for her on Craigslist. Bargain of the century, even with servicing. The tension is not the least bit fussy, and for me, that is absolutely paramount. I can change settings consistently. Some beginner sewing books actually caution people against changing tension settings! I no longer fear it.

    I think the vintage vs. new preference is mostly a personality thing. I like old things. I love the simplicity of my machine. I love that it's all metal. I love that it's not mouldering in a junkyard. I love that it's gear driven. I love that it's five years older than me. I love that I have to make it do what it does--that it doesn't act on its own.

    I understand what attracts people to the latest and greatest--particularly embroidery folks, but I am so grateful to have found an old machine that fits my own needs and preferences.

    -- Jennifer

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  13. I am the Cajun down here in Lousiana Peter is talking about! Thought ya'll might want to see a pic and description, so I'm including a link to my blog. http://tccfrenchie1.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/singer-201-2/

    New to this, so not sure if what I inserted will show up as a link, or if you'll have to cut and paste.

    I intend to make this machine my primary workhorse. I have a serger and a coverhem, in addition to a modern sewing machine. But decided my obsession with straight straight-stitches needed to be fulfilled.

    I should never have started reading Peter's blog. If I had stuck with the Selfish Seamstress, I might have stayed safe.

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  14. We bought a 50s Singer at a yard sale. The motor ran, but it didn't work. After fiddling with it for a few days, we took it to the dump.

    OTOH, my current machine was an ebay find. I love Pfaffs. I learned to sew on one. Someday, I may branch out and try and find one that has less touchy tension, but well, I'm used to its quirks. My sister has an early 90s Brother that we bought at a yard sale that she's happy with, but she's a sort-of sewer. She owns the stuff and hasn't made anything.

    Sewing machine oil-- If you live in an area without a sewing machine store, it's incredibly tempting to go to your local discount store and buy some 3-in-1 Oil. I know it has a picture of a sewing machine on the bottle, but RESIST! It LIES! 3-1 oil is heavier than sewing machine oil and will make your machine lock up. And then that will cost you a service bill. So if you have to, order the right stuff instead of going for the 3-in-1!

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  15. I flippin' love my old Necchi. I got it as a we-are-moving-out-of-our-home-and-getting-rid-of-stuff gift. So it was FREE and it's fantastic!

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  16. Peter this is brilliant! I find many vintage sewing machines at my local thrift and never really know what to look for. So I end up not buying any (some that look quite good/parts intact for only $15). Thanks so much for tips! Will be bookmarking this for future use!

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  17. AND, if ya live in Canada (ya know, that pink part above ya) and the machine's in the Good 'Ole USA-- How much will it ULTIMATELY cost ta get to your igloo?? :( :/

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  18. Great Post!
    I had a lot of luck at the Rescue Mission and Salvation Army: they don't know what they are selling most of the time so it's very cheap!!
    I even received a free Singer 15 from 1935 in mint condition just because the Rescue Mission didn't want the beat up cabinet the machine was in...I was at the right time at the drop off place!!!
    The Singer 15 is my favorite machine too...

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  19. Nice post. I use an Auction Snipper for ebay ... www.auctionstealer.com. You can get three free uses a week and you don't compete against yourself.

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  20. I just picked up my vintage Bernina today from the fix it man. I almost left it there and never think of it again. After readin gyour post I am glad that i picked it up I don't know when I am ever going to use it. I really love my new Bernina and use that all the time. My husband would say that I collect them 1 industrial(I only use it for binding)industrial serger (my heaven on earth it gathers while you sew) my little serger that I only use for a perl stich and then my two berninas. far from what you have going on over there.

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  21. This is a great checklist! It's great that you included what you personally would do or not do. I learned to sew on an old Bernina (olive green) and that machine was the best! It sewed lovely straight stitches with perfect tension. (My favourite feature was that the backstitch was a lever - so you could run it in reverse all the time, if it seemed easier to get into a tricky spot that way...)

    I wish I had the space for vintage sewing machines - one day!

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  22. Fab post Peter! Only point I would take issue with is that I think it can be worthwhile getting an old machine serviced/repaired. Even if only to establish a good relationship with your local service place and help ensure that a good business that cares about old machines stays in business! The way my local repair place has lovingly treated my old machines has increased my pleasure in owning them. Sure, the 'treatments' cost way more than the machines cost in the first place but I'm still ahead of buying some nasty new plastic thing.

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  23. Er well, I would've been ahead, if I hadn't collected a few more machines, ahem... you enabler you.

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  24. After I graduated from college I bought a Bernina 830 with money my grandfather gave me. I love it. But while in graduate school 10 years later I saw a sign up in the laundry room that someone had a sewing machine to give away. I didn't have mine with me so I hurried to see the machine. The fellow couldn't give it away fast enough! It had belonged to a former girlfriend's grandmother---A Singer 15-91! He wouldn't take any money. He wouldn't contact the old girlfriend to see if she wanted the machine back. So I took it. For almost 25 years it has happily been my extra machine that I keep at a cabin. What a workhorse. I often wonder if that girl is still missing her grandmother's machine.
    ~Claire

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  25. Actually, you have been effective. Totally convinced me that it's worth making sure I have one good machine and leave it at that :-). I have enough fabric as it is, and I have no wish to move just so I can have more machines as well.

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  26. Hi Peter, Like you I collect vintage sewing machines. Vintage machines are plentiful and very inexpensive in Canada. I live in Brandon, Manitoba and regularly shop online at Kijiji. I have purchased machines from Montreal, Quebec, London, Ontario and Swift Current, Saskatchewan. I sold a machine on ebay and shipped it Hawaii. I just bought a Singer Genie from Gimli Manitoba it came on the bus for $17.00 CAD. My personal favourites include my Singer 15-91, Bernard Stoewer treadle, Necchi Lelia 513 and red Husqvarna 6570. There is something magical about sewing with a vintage machine. If there is a downside to collecting these machines it is that they take up lots of space. Having said that...I am on the look out for a hot pink Brother Festival 454. :D

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  27. Hey there folks!
    Wow! I didn't know how lucky I was to have "inherited" a vintage machine from my Mother-in-Law (read: no one else wanted it and she doesn't sew anymore)
    It is a Mardix brand which probably isn't a well known name as it was made in Israel, but looks exactly like the old Singer machines pictured here.
    I am not sure of its age, but it used to be a foot pedal run machine that had a motor added to sometime in the '60's.
    I have only been sewing for about 3 months and the biggest problem I have with the machine is the lack of zig zag. I have been trying to find creative ways to keep the fabric from fraying. I have yet to find a truly successful technique, I am hoping the purchase of some pinking shears will help.
    Great blog! I have never been tempted to post to a blog before but this seems like such a great community!

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    Replies
    1. Hi,

      I've recently received a Mardix sewing machine (I'm from Israel) but I've been having a very difficult time using it - I think I have a problem with the threading.
      I've ben trying to find a manual but no luck so far.
      Is there a chance you can give me a quike explanation as to haw I should thread?

      Thank you so much in advance,

      Yael

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  28. Any advice for a beginner who is trying to decide whether to buy? I know virtually nothing about sewing machines but would like to learn and just found a Singer 201 for $75. The condition looks great and was previously used in design classes at a university, so I think it works. But the item will be released for sale soon and the warehouse selling it offers little information.

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  29. If you're buying this in person, go with someone who knows sewing machines. If you're buying it via the mail, I'd ask as many questions about the condition of the machine as possible. The 201 is a wonderful machine, so good luck with it!

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  30. Suffice to say you have me looking for a treadle and a Featherweight. I already have three other machines. My husband wants to know if I'm going to hire employees...

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  31. My daughter recently inherited a Mardix sewing machine. I'm not sure of the make or model, but I do have the serial number. Any ideas how I could find a manual or information about the machine? Daughter is using a borrowed Singer and would really like to be able to use her new-to-her machine.

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    Replies
    1. My only advice would be to hunt around on Google and see what comes up. You can try asking on the message boards on Pattern Review too. Good luck with it!

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  32. After reading your praises for the lovely straight stitches of your Featherweight (on your jeans project, I think), I found this post and starting the legwork of finding one for myself. I am now the happy owner of a 1948 Featherweight 221! :-) I may not have got a fabulous bargain, but I paid what I consider to be a reasonable price, and it came with a button holer (plus some extra templates) and a zig zag attachment (plus extra cams). I've got it all freshly oiled and lubricated. I am so excited about the button holer! (I loved your video of it.) Two good pairs of scissors also came with it - one Singer brand, and one Gingher brand. It even came with vintage oil (original cost: 39 cents) and grease.

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  33. Excellent article, my favorite on the blog.

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  34. Dawn, I hope your free Necchi received "because people were moving and just gave it away" wasn't the one that I learned to sew on (in the late 50's). In cleaning out our Mom's house, my sister claimed it as, hers, took it home to Michigan (she KNEW I wanted it myself). A couple of years later they moved and she gave it away. Still irks me!

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