I'm a member of a number of Facebook groups devoted to vintage sewing machines, or what we call VSMs. These groups are filled with experienced and knowledgeable collectors who can likely help you through any VSM related technical issue or general question.
I still observe many new enthusiasts, even in these vibrant groups, who seem a bit timid about selecting their first machine. I want to encourage these "newbies" to jump right in, and I have some advice that might be helpful. Let's have a look at some typical concerns and questions.
What qualifies as a vintage machine?
The most wide-spread notion is that a vintage machine has no internal plastic or nylon parts. This is a slight but forgivable fallacy because many vintage machines with internal or "potted" motors do in fact have a nylon gear, and many of the machines from the 1960s have plastic trim on the exterior of the machines. But the point is that domestic vintage machines are essentially "all metal," incredibly durable, and generally manufactured before 1970 (with a very few exceptions). Let's not confuse "vintage" with "antique." A safe presumption for a truly antique machine would be that it is 100 years old or older.
What should I buy?
Almost everyone enamored with VSMs has a list of machines that were either important to them to acquire, or remain on their wish list. Reasons for coveting a machine are numerous: the quality and features, the appearance of a given model, the color, the stitch types, the rarity, or maybe some family history... "Grandma sewed on a Singer 66 Red Eye, and I want one!" That last possibility speaks to one of the key motivators for VSM collecting - an opportunity to connect with the past, meaning not just a point in time, but the "feel" and purpose of sewing from a bygone era, and the incredible lasting heirloom-quality of VSMs.
So as a new enthusiast, you may already be developing a wish list, but if you have no all-metal vintage machines yet, I want to encourage you to not necessarily wait until you locate that special machine. I want you to consider getting your hands on a VSM immediately. Why?
- They are often inexpensive. I respect each person's view of what is or isn't a significant amount of money, but if $10-40 is an easy amount to part with, locate one of the most common, basic straight-stitch machines and acquaint yourself with its operation.
- There are particular models that are abundant and easy to work on. Granted, not everyone loves Singer models, but Singer manufactured millions of great, straight-stitch machines that anyone can work on. Starting with the basics is going to rapidly give you confidence working and sewing on a vintage machine. Suppose you have your heart set on a Singer 221 Featherweight, but they are not readily found at good prices in your area, but meanwhile you can get your hands on an electric Singer 15-90 for $30, and it works. Let's suppose the wiring looks fine, the handwheel turns, the motor runs nicely without smoking, the machine is really dirty, and the decals are decent. You will learn so much, so quickly, by bringing that Singer 15-90 home and simply getting started. You will clean it, you will disassemble some of the key areas like the handwheel and the bobbin area, you will oil it, and you will sew with it. If your enthusiasm for VSMs is already burgeoning, just wait until you make a basic model hum and sew a flawless straight stitch.
- You can get help and parts easily for many classic Singers. A natural concern for any collector when considering a machine is how difficult will it be to get parts when needed? The parts supply for the more "standard" abundant models is plentiful. Some of the models I suggest are all belt driven:
- Singer 15-90 (belt driven electric motor)
- Singer 66 (electric model)
- Singer 99k (electric)
Of course there are many other abundant models, but I recommend these classic black Singers for their simple mechanics and configuration. Notice how sparse the shafts and linkages appear underneath this Singer 15 - you can handle this!
Once you become comfortable with one of these machines, you will have acquired a lot of essential knowledge. Master it, and you'll know that VSMs are for you.
Where do I buy?
If you take my advice and jump in immediately with one of the Singer models I've listed, I recommend avoiding Ebay. I'm not saying that Ebay is necessarily a bad resource, but you're going to pay shipping, and you have to make sure that your seller actually knows how to pack a sewing machine. Usually, an Ebay "bargain" will be offset by the shipping costs and potential frustration and disappointment. The best I've ever done on Ebay was $38 for a machine that arrived with its case smashed. Usually, however, I've paid nearer to $100 for a machine that would likely go for $20-50 in a thrift store. I've done that when I wanted a particular machine and I wasn't willing to wait to find a bargain. That said, maybe you just want to get started and $100 is no big deal... awesome! You'll find an appropriate "starter" machine much easier than the person determined to snag a bargain, but I'd still avoid Ebay until you're an experienced VSM buyer.
So start by using the obvious sources - Craigslist and thrift stores. On Craigslist, search for not only "sewing machine" but also "sowing machine." Seriously. The "sowing" misspelling is a common thing that VSM collectors laugh about. Of course you will see overpriced machines on Craigslist, but usually prices will be indicative of your local market for VSMs, and remember... you can settle for a rough machine. It's not the last one you're going to buy, trust me. This is a disease.
Find your local Facebook "yard sale" or "buy/sale" groups and post that you're in search of "an old black Singer sewing machine" and that you'll pay at least $20. Mentioning "$20" is just good psychology - it indicates that you'll at least make it worth a person's effort to check to see if that old machine is still buried in their garage, and at the same time it subtly says you're not planning on spending a lot. No need to get detailed about the model in your post - many people have some general familiarity with the appearance of "old black Singers" but know very little about the models. If they have one taking up space in their shed, they'll probably send you a message and photo. If you're uncertain what model you see in a photo, ask the seller for serial number, then get the model information from the International Sewing Machine Collector's Society - they have a page of serial numbers that is essential to collectors. For an even faster solution, try Elliot Boney's web app, "Singer Serial Search."
Tell all of your friends and [tolerable] family members that you're looking for "old sewing machines." I have one friend who knows nothing about sewing machines who has acquired a few real beauties for me for as little as $15 each because he frequents thrift stores and is always asking friends if they "have any old sewing machines."
"Make nice" with thrift store owners and managers and ask that they please call you if "old sewing machines" show up.
Contact sewing machine repair shops as far from your home as you're willing to drive. Even if a shop owner doesn't have vintage machines on hand, they might be kind enough to direct you to a source. But don't be insulted if they aren't interested in helping - that shop owner might make his/her living by selling new Berninas and helping you find a VSM is counterproductive to them. Don't take it personally.
If you become convinced that your area of the country just doesn't have any inexpensive machines, you might find that you have to pay for shipping. However, try the Facebook groups before purchasing on Ebay. (I'll list some groups at the end of this article.) The online VSM community does a good job of identifying trustworthy sellers. Always post a photo of the desired machine or machines and simply say, for example, "In search of a working Singer 15-90 within 30 miles of [your hometown]." (Or however far you're willing to drive.) VSM collectors are helpful people that love to share their passion, so another group member might offer to sell you a machine at a reasonable price, offer you advice, or start networking with their own circle of friends to help you find a machine. A very kind young woman posted the beautiful green Aldens you see below in a group, stating that she just wanted it to go to someone who would enjoy it. Free. Free. My wife and I made a 30 minute drive to pick it up. We also ended up buying a couple more machines from her, and she threw in another freebie. Even though we buy, recondition and sell some machines, we will never part with this Aldens. It's a reflection of the general character of the VSM community.
Still not locating the machine you want? Use the groups to inquire about reputable sellers who ship properly. But bear in mind, once you get into having a machine shipped properly, you then lose the bargain element on the common machines that are not rare.
Is it worth the price?
We get this all the time in the groups. A new enthusiast posts a photo of a classic black Singer and says "it runs, has good decals... is $20 too much?" If $20 is a large sum from your budget, I understand - but a better question would be, "This machine is $20 and everything looks OK except some frayed wiring. I've never repaired wiring. Should I avoid this machine and keep looking?" In a case like this, you will get substantive and useful answers to your inquiry, you will learn quickly from those answers, and you'll gain the respect of your fellow group members because of the nature of your question. You will be engaging your group in discussion, because you are certain to get responses in which other members explain the cost and process of the repair that $20 machine will require; you'll get personal stories to inspire or caution you, and you will likely get links to excellent tutorials.
Now, if it's a higher-ticket item, perhaps a Singer 201 for $200, and your gut is telling you "too high," the situation is much different than asking if you should spend 20 bucks. You post a photo with "This Singer 201 is gorgeous but $200 feels a bit high. Should I?" Expect a bunch of "I paid $5 for mine," and "I paid $200 for mine and haven't regretted it." That doesn't really help, right? Post a more meaningful question. "They are asking $200 for this machine, and I feel I'm willing to go to $125. What issues are common with this machine? What should I look for?" This way you prompt responses that you will truly learn from, and you might get that really helpful member who sends you a link to a beautiful 201 for $50 only thirty minutes from your home. It happens.
Now... a general guideline... collectors find amazing machines for $5, or even free. My wife sews on an immaculate Singer 201 that cost her $5 and a few hours of my time to clean and service the machine. Does this mean that a $200 Singer 201 is a "bad deal?" Not necessarily - it depends on whether you're willing to wait indefinitely to find that incredible bargain, or if you really want a 201 sooner than later. But most enthusiasts will tell you that as long as the machine brings you pleasure, $20-50 (or even $75) is not "too much." A $75 Singer 15 isn't a "bargain," but if it is in good condition, it's certainly a fair deal. Any working machine that you find lovely and interesting is arguably worth $20 and maybe a bit more depending on your budget. Bear in mind, you're purchasing an appliance that is steeped in history, potentially beautiful, is powerful and sews well, has endured decades, and can last decades more.
I keep hearing about all these cheap and free machines people are getting, but it never happens to me! What am I doing wrong?
Some parts of the country do seem to have fewer vintage machines in the wild. This is why you have to cast your net as wide as possible. Do you have friends or relatives in other parts of the country, and you sometimes drive to them or they drive to you for a visit? Search Craigslist in their hometowns - do this frequently. My wife has scored many machines this way. Make the deal online, send a willing friend or relative to pick up the machine, then get the machine the next time you visit your friend or family.
What tools and supplies will I need?
You need a solid work surface with strong lighting. Don't expect to work daintily on your vintage machine in a dimly lit area. You'll likely be handling tools, fluids, and turning the machine. If your kitchen table is your only option, pad it heavily with beach towels or old blankets, and place some cardboard on top as your working surface.
A penetrating fluid for stuck or rusty parts. I recommend Bluecreeper. It's amazing and has a pleasant smell. But if you can't get your hands on Bluecreeper quickly enough, a more common product like Liquid Wrench will work - just expect it to have a strong odor.
Sewing machine oil. Obviously. :)
Evapo-Rust. This company should pay me an endorsement fee. I tout it's magical powers any chance I get. Many rust removal products require strong chemicals, elbow grease, sickening odor, or lengthy wash times. With Evapo-Rust, you literally drop the item into the near-odorless solution, wait 2-24 hours, and the rust is gone. The only caveat is that a metal part that has rusted deep into the metal may have a very dull appearance following the Evapo-Rust bath. Such parts have to then be polished, and that can require the elbow grease.
Metal polish. Not chrome polish, metal polish. Use this on the shiny silver/nickel parts of your machine. And don't use it on your Singer brass badges unless you really know what you're doing and you're working cautiously. Instead, use a little vinegar and baking soda on your badges to play it safe. With badges that include a colored border, don't rub hard. If the protective coating is worn from the brass badge, you could easily remove any special colors from the brass area.
Dremel Rotary Tool. OK, this is not a requirement, and it does cost $40 or more new. But if you really want to shine those metal parts more quickly than your bare hands can manage, a Dremel is a great option.
Here is a Dremel with some of the polishing accessories:
A word of caution regarding the Dremel! At high speeds, even the soft polishing wheel can score or "scar" your shiny metal parts. Don't automatically assume that you need the highest speed to polish a throat plate, for example. Start with a lower setting and observe how well it polishes before speeding the Dremel up a bit. But trust me... overall, the Dremel is very easy and efficient to use. If you are going to continue to grow your VSM collection, you will love it. It's useful around the home for other things as well.
Screw drivers. These need to have quality tips that fit the screws properly. You don't want to strip screw heads. It might surprise you but in many cases the longer-handled screw drivers will provide you better leverage. There are a few areas where a small ratcheting wrench with a flat-head screw driver insert will help you access otherwise difficult areas on your machine, like the screws that hold the feed dogs in place, or maybe even the throat plate if the angle is awkward.
Cotton swabs (like Q-Tips), tooth picks, small cleaning brushes. All of these can help you to access crevices and tight areas. A cotton swab saturated with Bluecreeper can perform magic in tight areas.
A heat source. Most collectors will tell you that even a hair dryer will heat stuck parts well enough to loosen old oil and grime. I often use a small butane torch when I can direct the heat on the part without putting the flame on the machine's painted surface.
Cleaning products for the body of the machine. There are a number of aggressive or time-consuming techniques for improving a VSM's finish. For now, be aware that you should never use ammonia based products like window cleaner on the surface of your machine. Avoid water as it can damage the decals on some machines. Sewing machine oil is safe for cleaning and shining a machine - after rubbing to clean the machine, buff the surface with a dry cotton cloth much like buffing a car or furniture. Stubborn dirt and grease can be tackled with distilled vinegar and a stiff brush like a toothbrush, but avoid the decals and wipe away excess fluid as soon as possible, followed by a light buffing with sewing machine oil. These are just the basics.
Surgical or "medical exam" gloves. Huh? Well, I'm a dude, but I still got tired of trying to get my hands clean after working for hours on filthy old machines. The thin, skin-tight synthetic gloves don't impede my ability to handle small parts. You can get 100 gloves, or 50 pair, for under $10. Check Amazon. I still get lazy sometimes and forego the gloves, but I pay for it with time spent scrubbing my fingernails!
Resources. Almost no question has gone unasked or unanswered online regarding VSMs. Facebook groups, YouTube, and Google searches will help you immensely. You will find detailed tutorials on cleaning, tuning, and operating most common machines.
Please note that more advanced work such as rewiring a motor or foot pedal requires additional tools and supplies, but this goes beyond the purpose of this article.
I bought a common, classic, straight-stitch machine, and I'm scared to take it apart! Now what?
If you paid a modest amount as described above, and as long as you take care not to strip out screw heads during disassembly, it's very unlikely that you'll hurt that all-metal machine in any irreparable way. Let your fear provide healthy caution, but go ahead and disassemble that $20-40 machine... you have to learn! Take many detailed photos as you work on it prior to removing or adjusting any part. And if by some stroke of great luck you get your hands on two of the same model, imagine how easy it is to disassemble one, always using the intact machine as your blueprint for reassembly. This article is about jumping in and learning fast. If you want to advance quickly, you have to be willing to dig into that machine, and that's why I don't want you to pay a lot for your first VSM. If you accept that your first purchase is largely for learning, you can relax, take your time, and rely on the VSM online community to help you through any difficulty.
How do I get my spouse involved?
While it might seem that most VSM enthusiasts are women, there are a lot of men who find them fascinating and worthy of their time and effort as well, even if the fellas are outnumbered in the online community. But the ratio of women to men can't be denied, and sometimes the ladies wish their husbands would get involved. Collector and restoration specialist Will McCann makes this point:
I always tell guys I meet that VSMs are like classic cars. They've got motors that need work, chrome that needs polishing, lubrication issues, parts that need sourced and replaced; all the things guys love about working on vintage cars, but VSMs don't take up your whole garage. And they're cheap! Imagine if there were millions of classic cars out there that you could buy for a song, and have the satisfaction of fixing up and restoring to their former glory, and half the people who owned them would give them to you for free because they just want them out of their house. That's VSMs.
What are some of the best Facebook VSM groups?
- Vintage Sewing Machines - a massive group packed with helpful members.
- VSMLife - a group intended to extend well beyond the "should I buy it?" stage of collecting.
- Vintage Sewing Machine Swap & Shop
Begin with those groups, and you will likely find yourself locating and joining many others. Some groups are devoted to particular brands or models of machines.
Here's a little more inspiration if you need it...
I had never put my hands on a Singer 9 or its predecessor, the Wheeler and Wilson 9. But these things just aren't rocket science. My wife purchased a set of these two machines - the Singer in horrible condition, and the Wheeler and Wilson in good condition.
First I broke the W&W 9 down - way down - cleaned it, and reassembled it.
Then I tackled the Singer.
If you start now to learn the basics on one of the easier, abundant machines like a Singer 15, 66, or 99, you simply will not believe how quickly you can advance. Come on... you can do this stuff!
Want to learn more?
Our documentary film Still Stitching is the only feature-length film on the passion for vintage sewing machines - 100 minutes of beautiful machines, history, technical features, and personal stories. Eight collectors and enthusiasts provide insight and humor on their passion for VSMs. Be warned! This movie contributes to an addiction for VSMs!
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