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Apr 2, 2012

Sewing Machines and Truth in Advertising


Readers, as I get older, I notice that fewer things get under my (increasingly less elastic) skin.  I don't know if it's a function of age or just having less energy, but it's certainly not because there are fewer things to get upset about.  In fact, I'd say there are more!

That's why I'm grateful for people like my somewhat younger friend Rain who, in his most recent post, "The Difference Between Domestic & Industrial Sewing Machines (or, How Not to Get Swindled on eBay & Craigslist), takes on disreputable eBay and Craigslist sellers who list vintage domestic sewing machines as "industrial-strength" when they're not (though compared to today's cheap plastic machines they're extremely capable and well-engineered).

Rain's post is so intelligently argued and well illustrated that I can't imagine how it could be improved, nor would I have the energy to try.  

I see the kind of listings to which Rain refers on eBay all the time, and perhaps you do too.  Here are a few I found in about one minute; you don't have to look very hard.

Misleading posting 1

Misleading posting 2

Misleading posting 3 

Misleading posting 4

Misleading posting 5 

I don't know why, but none of these listings surprise me though I recognize a certain amount of misinformation in all of them.  Hype and hyperbole are so much a part of American culture -- Hello, P.T. Barnum!  -- that I learned early on to be a skeptic. 

You could do worse than to pick up one of these old Singers, even at an inflated price, and any potential purchaser has the opportunity to challenge the claims of the seller, or at the very least ask some probing questions before the end of the auction (or before clicking "Buy It Now").  I wonder how many of the buyers end up feeling swindled in the end; we'll never know.

One could argue that terms like heavy duty, workhorse, sews leather, etc. are subject to interpretation.  A claim that a machine has been re-wired when it has not (as Rain has experienced first-hand) is clearly fraudulent.  But to claim that a Singer 99 can sew leather, which is literally true but may be interpreted as misleading, is harder to judge.  Or am I simply a moral relativist?

What do you think, readers?

Have you even been misled by a sewing machine seller -- either on eBay, Craigslist, or even in a sewing machine store -- about the functions or capacity of a sewing machine, new or used?

Do you think eBay should provide information about misleading sewing machine posts, as they do about how to spot knock-off Rolex watches and Louis Vuitton handbags?

If you were selling an old domestic machine that was more powerful than today's machines but clearly not designed to sew leather, upholstery, or sailcloth -- although it was capable of sewing some of these, though perhaps not every thickness, or all day-every day -- would you include this information in your posting?

Where does truth end and the lie begin, and how much responsibility should lie with the buyer?   (Just Google "Industrial sewing machine" and you'll immediately recognize that a Singer 99 is not one.)

Jump in!

39 comments:

  1. I totally agree with this! Most of the older machines can sew SOME of the heavier materials but they STILL are Domestic! I believe some (so they won't get in trouble) say Industrial "Strength" or Industrial "Quality" so THAT is there disclaimer they did NOT actually say this is INDUSTRIAL Machine...a few do...lol

    True the ones made today do NOT have the gears and metal to go over those heavy materials so others feel the "Liberty" to say he these can be your options...well they NEED to say that this could be an Option but as always you don't know what types of thicknesses those fabrics or WHAT they are constructing!

    A True Industrial Machine will have Industrial Feet and need Industrial machine needles!! Plain and Simple!
    And there is one out there for us Home Sewists I have been looking Seriously at...Babylock has their "Jane"...portable for us at home..yet it is and INDUSTRIAL Machine...uses the feet and needles and sews a FABULOUS Straight Stitch..go check it out!

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  2. Caveat emptor my friend. I don't trust most of the stuff on Craigslist or eBay unless I know specifically about what I'm buying. Take for instance some of the pattern listings on etsy or eBay; they are listed as 1940s and rare while in reality that are early 60s and common. I find this to hold true for most things though. An informed consumer is a happy consumer. It's very much like someone saying a can of soup is "organic" vs a can of soup stating its "100% organic". There is a difference and it's silly but unless you know about it you may not be buying what you think you are.

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  3. When I’m selling something, I research and use the correct nomenclature and will most often copy and paste the manufactures description of the item (barring any copyright infringement). I’ll also include lots of pictures and a clear list of any deficiencies or variances. Potential buyers are encouraged to ask questions (which are answered clearly).

    As a buyer, I feel it’s my responsibility to know the product I’m buying well enough to make an educated decision and avoid buyer’s remorse. Experience, friends, family, the internet (including helpful sewing blogs), and books are obviously great resources.

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  4. I think that the seller often doesn't know much about the item they are selling and so when they see the exact same sewing machine listed as "industrial", they just follow suit.

    For example, I was looking on Etsy for a straightening/pressing comb for my hair. I saw two that described them as items for horses or to remove fleas from dogs. There's no way both people came to the same woefully wrong conclusion as to the use for it. I'm sure one copied from the other and neither knew what exactly they were selling.

    Plus, compared to today's machines, those Singers probably seem heavy or industrial to a non sewer.

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    1. I'm inclined to agree with you, Tia. Great point.

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  5. People often mis-lead on older things. I hate the mission creep of pattern dating. 30s pattern are now 20s, 40s patterns are not 30s, 50s patterns are now 40s, and 60s patterns are not 50s.

    I pointed out a pattern was decade dated incorrectly and the seller jumped all on me saying it was "pilled' to a booklet dating from the 30s so I was wrong. HA! I did research on the pattern and found a later date.
    The moral of the story is sellers will do whatever they can in order to sell what they have.

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  6. It's not just machines either. "Industry" this and "industrial" that have been a mainstay of marketing in home sewing for as long as I can remember. I'm over it -except when I'm trying to find something and I'm getting very unsuitable results. In fact, it has gotten so bad that I don't even search anymore. I go through dealers I know (not ones you find on google) or I go to trade shows. We only have them once every two years so I build up a shopping list.

    For example, I've been looking for a walking foot (with all the whistles and bells, servo with CP and thread trimmer) but I'm coming up empty online in the price range I want to pay so I am looking forward to getting one at the show later this month. I'm also getting the buttonholer I've been coveting for two years. I am also thinking of getting a coverstitch but we'll see...

    Is it possible these machines you listed are copies? Some of them look too pristine and the prices are awfully low. Or is that what they go for these days?

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  7. I sell on ebay for paulsdomestiques1. I try to promote the machine for what I know it to be good for, such as the Singer 15-91 for free motion quilting which I have much experience with. When I see these nutty listings it makes me so mad I cut spit... because I know somebody is getting messed over and somebody will pick that machine instead of the one I have spent hours clean, greasing and oiling and putting through sewing hurdles. I try to show them how to use the vintage attachments that come with the machine instead of giving them a line of crap. My husband has re-wired a good many machines for me because I won't send them out if they look like they are a fire hazzard. I love old Singers and I know they are built to last several life times but you gotta use the dang things the way God intened or they will not last your life time...

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  8. Caveat emptor...

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  9. Well I do agree that many, if not most, vintage sewing machine listings can be ruled hyperbolic or just plain wrong it's another thing altogether to assume that being hyperbolic or misleading was the *intent* of the person listing the machine. Remember most people in this country have no idea how to even use a sewing machine let alone accurately note it's capability. They also just assume that if a vintage machine is black cast metal then it must be an industrial. Clueless and ignorant yes but disreputable? Maybe but not necessarily.

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  10. I think a lot of this misleading information comes from the fact that the sellers of some of these machines are not people who actually know anything about sewing. Many of the ones I've looked at here in Australia are sold by people who buy up bulk lots of stuff at auctions and make a living selling them on ebay. They probably get their information from other equally ill-informed sellers and think it to be true.

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  11. I've decided that most buyers and sellers on ebay are idiots (and I include myself in the idiot category, on occasion). I was bidding on a 221k on ebay recently and dropped out when it reached a price I wasn't willing to pay. I then watched it sell for nearly £80 more than one in indentical condition, as far as I could tell from the photos, that was listed as a BIN. I've also watched in amazement as an item I've listed has sold for twice as much as an identical BIN item.

    I totally agree with the other posters who have said "caveat emptor". I think most people who have something to sell look for it on ebay to see how to describe it, and then copy (I know I often do!). I've noticed that on UK ebay a lot of Singers are described as "semi-industrial". That's a good description that means absolutely nothing :)

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    1. That kind of thing seems to be a function of auctions and I've seen it happen more than once in real life as well as ebay. I try to make sure going in that I've got an idea of what kind of money these things usually fetch. I also set myself a limit. I learned those two strategies early on when I attended auctions with my Mom and with my husband.

      I've auctions where bidding reached a price that far exceeded retail because the people involved were caught up in the bidding war. Same thing on ebay. I've also been at auctions where there were obvious "shills" in the audience, driving the price up.

      And like you said, I've seen ebay auctions where the final price was far above the price for an identical item listed as BIN.

      It's very weird.

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    2. People definitely get caught up in the sport of it, trying to outbid each other. Sometimes "Buy It Now" is a well-priced option. There are sellers who don't want to deal with the uncertainly of auctions and just want a decent price for their item, which may be quite reasonable.

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    3. Exactly. If I'm certain the price is reasonable, there are times when I've gone straight to the BIN option.

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    4. Another eBay tip: You can use a sniper service, like auctionsniper.com that keeps you out of the risks of bidding wars. There is no guarantee, but you can determine the most you are willing to spend, and auctionsniper places your bid 5 or 6 seconds prior to the end of the auction. I love auctionsniper.com, and no I do not work for them.

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    5. I swear by esnipe.com, myself (he he).

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    6. Heh. That's why I like the proxy bid system that ebay put in. I set a limit and leave it. If someone does a snipe bid and beats my limit, I'm okay with that.

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  12. I think that we should all have a little common sense when making purchases and reading descriptions. Quite a few people seem to believe that "industrial" means that any machine with this label can sew leather and jump tall buildings with a single bound. What about the single use machines? They have one function and they do it very well,whether it be to gather,zig zag or whatever. They are made to do their job day in and day out for years. I guess my skin isn't as tough as yours yet Peter,people have the 'net at their disposal with all the resources to inform themselves and make a wise purchase.

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  13. I'm with Tia on this subject. I think most of the sellers assume that anything not made of plastic must be industrial. Sometimes this ignorance rather than criminal intent works in your favor. I've snagged some great deals when the seller didn't know what they were selling...

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  14. SOME EBay sellers know exactly what they are listing and do inflate their prices to match their descriptions (and dupe their buyers). See this lovely Rocketeer with all its barely visible samples -http://www.ebay.ca/itm/Heavy-duty-Singer-500J-sewing-machine-sew-up-8-layers-Jeans-/330707616331?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item4cffb5c24b)
    There used to be a great open forum - needlebar.org - which had a huge gallery of vintage machines. Apparently its owner got tired of EBay and other sellers swiping his pictures and other information and has virtually closed his site down.
    OT -I had posted a picture of my FW knockoff, complete with wooden extension table there. According to his terms and conditions, he now owns that image?

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  15. Rain; reason #14 why you are the center of the sewing universe.

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  16. The crazy thing is that people seem to be misled by it. A lot of those machines sell for more than ones with accurate information. Another thing that bugs me: if you use the handwheel you can force the needle through just about anything especially on a gear-driven machine,. Yet, its pretty unlikely that a machine with a domestic motor can pierce 8 layers of leather without a lot of help.

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  17. Well, I was real happy with my eBay-purchased Singer 201-2 that arrived last Friday from Florida. That is, until I read this. I base my purchase on the number of posts on sewing blogs singing the praises of these machines and their ability to sew jeans, etc. She's alleged to have been rebuilt and purrs like a kitten. I know I overpaid, but I don't know what's a repairable machine and what's not. I paid about $100 more for her than the rusty ones that are seized up in the junk shops out here in So Cal. So does that make me a chump or ignorant or just a woman who saw what she wanted and went for it. I guess I'll find out when I tackle those curtains for the den.
    Ann in southern california

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    1. Ann, there's no reason not to be happy with the machine you bought. Singer 201's are wonderful machines and "overpaying" is a very relative term. (Think of how much people spend on camera lenses, for example -- thousands of dollars!) There's no reason to assume that the machine you bought wasn't rebuilt as the seller says. Enjoy your machine -- I'm sure it can tackle curtains beautifully!

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    2. Oil that machine frequently and enjoy it Ann! She will serve you well. I've just spent the last three days un-seizing, cleaning and adjusting a 1955 201k i was given on Saturday afternoon. I figured if i couldn't get her going (i have limited experience with the meatier aspects of servicing and repair) then at least i got a nice cabinet out of the freebie. So now i have two working 201's; one an electric foot pedal aluminium model and a 1948 black japanned treadle; they both sew fabulously. Forget about what you paid for the machine and just enjoy the pure delight that it is to sew with a 201. Download the service and repair manual (it's free) and you'll be ready if you need to do any adjustments. :)

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  18. I would also note that old "household" models were used in some factories at least back at the turn of the last century, and possibly into the 20s and 30s for manufacturing shirtwaists and similar items. Once in a while a photo of a production room floor will surface and old machines like these will be in use in that context. Obviously, these machines weren't used to manufacture saddlebags, but they were used for lighter weight work. Having an extremely fast machine wasn't as important at the time due to the extremely low wages that were paid to workers. So, there's also the issue of how one defines or contextualizes the whole issue of industrial machines.

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    1. Excellent point, Anna! I remember in the "O'Mast" documentary about Neapolitan tailors, I could have sworn they were using old Singer treadles like the 66, as opposed to industrial machines, in their work.

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    2. Hi Anna, I sincerely doubt that domestic machines were used in factory settings at the turn of the century or in the 20s and 30s, but if you could send me a link to those photos, I'd be happy to correct myself. (Singer produced industrial machines from early on in their history and did an excellent job of connecting with the factories that needed them, which played a large role in their 19th and early 20th century success.) I don't mean to be rude in my contradiction, but I'm taking issue here because statements like this are what sellers will read, believe, and use to bolster their arguments.

      Peter, I believe it was routine for tailors to use domestic models, as their workflow was considerably different from assembly-line construction. And also, of course, the tailoring profession antedated electricity and industrial motors. Must've been funny to walk into a tailor shop back in the day and see the guy pumping his feet on a treadle.

      - Rain

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  19. Peter - Thank you so much for your informative post and the link to Rain's. You both really cleared up what I suspected all along. Now I realize there's no reason to buy a "heavy duty" machine. My Bernina will do the same things. Thanks again

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  20. Hello Peter,
    New to your blog and love it. In response to your last reply to Anna, there are Singer factory(industrial) machines same size as domestics. Take the 1200 for example. It's the true "dressmaker" or "seamstress" machine, not the 201 shown in the misleading ad you posted. It is essentially a 201 outfitted for factory use, set in a factory treadle table and having a presser foot knee lift bar. In fact, for many years of production, it's shown in the Singer records as a 201. It wasn't until the last few years it was made that it shows in the records as a 1200. So this can be another reason for uninformed people to make mistakes in listing thier machines.

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    1. Hi Cari and Peter. Peter, thanks for the link. Cari, the Singer 1200-1 is in fact a model 201 that was modified at the factory with a knee-operated presser foot, but it was not designed for industrial applications; it was designed for use in tailor shops and mounted in a table known colloquially as the "power table." It was not a treadle; it had a treadle-style pedal connected to a pitman rod that powered the motor through a hanging motor controller, effectively turning what looks like a treadle pedal into a gas pedal.

      It is important to note that the 1200-1 is not an industrial, nor designed for industrial applications; even the busiest tailor did not work at the pace of a factory worker and the nature of the work was intrinsically different. Thus the 1200-1 is outfitted with the same domestic motor as the 201.

      Although the 1200-1 is considered numerically rare, I was able to find and purchase two in the tri-state area around NYC. I've heard wildly varying reports on how many of these machines were made, but the truth is that no one really knows; as you pointed out, Cari, because Singer listed them in their records as a 201 (probably because they came off of the same production lines, with the presser-bar modification made at the end) there is no definitive record.

      - Rain

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  21. Of course you're right, as always Rain. I was trying to remember with my one brain cell all the different posts from group members about the 1200. I've only ever seen one in the wild, the seller listed it as a 201 and no convincing her otherwise. I guess my main point was that not all industrials are huge monster machines.

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  22. I picked up a free sewing machine on the local equivalent of Craigslist that was in "excellent condition".

    Well, I opened it up to clean it and it was FULL OF SAWDUST! It had obviously been stored in a workshop for quite some time. After I cleaned up that mess, I plugged it in and got an electric shock! Then I put my foot on the pedal and heard CLUNK. CLUNK. CLUNK. Turned out that all the gears were metal except for one plastic gear... which was cracked in half. Oh, and I also got a big splinter in my finger from the wooden cabinet!

    Excellent condition, my arse. She was just too lazy to haul the thing to the recycling depot.

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    1. Maybe the listing should have read "Free Sawdust."

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  23. >wipes eyes after laughing< At least you didn't pay any money for it! That would truly have been insult added to injuries! I guess they added the part about "except for that one gear a bit of sawdust, and a few bare wires" in the Craigslist equivalent of "sotto voce"

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  24. Great topic Peter. It feels like people who sew speak a special language (and no its not bullshitanese;). Thats all I have for this topic. But I was in Barnes & Noble and saw your spread in Vogue and squeaked like a schoolgirl. I felt so proud as if you were a brother. All because I stop by now and then for a taste of sewing passion. Thanks so much Peter.

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  25. Very late here (catching up on my blog reading), but I had a terrible experience with this, one I'm STILL dealing with (in a manner of speaking).
    When I first got really hooked on sewing, and it was clearly time to move on up from my $99 Walmart special that was, quite literally, falling to pieces in front of me, I asked my husband for a new machine. I wanted to buy from a dealer in town, but he's an ebay fan *and* wanted to surprise me, so I emailed him a few of my must-haves, like wanting a machine with an automatic buttonholer, etc. I ended up with a vintage White machine that my husband insisted was an industrial machine, had none of my must-haves, and - get this - NEEDED A SERVICE. My husband spent $350 on this machine and, after having emailed the seller my list of must-haves, the seller told him I didn't know what I was talking about and that what I had to have was a tough, industrial machine like the one he sold him. *sigh* The machine is still sitting under my sewing table, still in need of its service, and he still brings up the fact that I don't ever use the "industrial" machine he "spent so much money on." I thankfully love the Bernina I got from the local dealer...

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    1. This is why I'm a big fan of the gift certificate! LOL

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