Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Choosing a Vintage Sewing Machine - To Actually Sew With

I am now officially a woman obsessed.  Obsessed by obsolete crusty old sewing machines.

I think it could possibly also be a sign of getting old.  As a Young interested in sewing it was always the Old Girls who exclaimed over the wonders of their Singer Featherweights and the zen properties of treadle sewing machines.  I always thought they were crazy.  Who but a hoarder could possibly want a collection of  decrepit old sewing machines incapable of an automatic buttonhole....that needed oil for christ-sake?!

Yet here I am...stalking ebay and scouring the internet for information on old old machines that have faded from memory.  What's worse is that I already have a working vintage machine.  I have no need for another....but I want one!

It seems that I am not alone in my obsession because the blogosphere is suddenly filled with crafters discovering these cool old machines and giving them new life.  If you think you might be falling victim to this madness yourself, here's a few things you might want to consider before you hit buy or drag that dusty old Rocketeer home from the thrift store.

Antique/Old fashioned Type?  

The really old machines are generally the really old fashioned looking black ones with the gold decals.  Usually they are Singers or Singer clones.  They are old, but they made them to last!

The good:

They are everywhere, and there's lots of information on the internet on how to do them up and identify them.
Easy to come buy parts and accessories.
Lots of cool accessories (rug makers, embroidery hoops, sock darners and fancy button holers just to name a few) and feet often come with the machine.
Sews through heavy fabrics like butter.
Easy to find manuals online.
Easy to use.
Beautiful stitches.
Some machines have a lot more room in the harp - great for quilters.
Easy to repair and maintain yourself.
Really, really well made.  Which they should have been, since they were hellishly expensive back in the day.

The bad:

Not terribly portable...with the exception of the Featherweight, they weigh a tonne and are pretty big.
Ancient wiring can be dangerously deteriorated.  It will almost always need replacing.
Sellers tend not to know anything about them at all so you will need to identify the model yourself.
Usually does only one stitch - straight stitch.
Some models can't even reverse.
Strange presser feet or knee bar controls to get used to.
The really old ones can take bobbins or needles that are really hard to come by. have to be prepared to oil it pretty much every time you use it.  It's not that big a deal, but it's something to keep in mind.
Some sellers think that just because it's old, it's valuable.  Machines can be grossly overpriced, even if they are a rusted pile of junk that doesn't even work and were produced in the thousands.
While the mechanical parts might be almost indestructible, the pretty finish can be delicate.  Don't even think about cleaning the grime of ages off it before you have researched.  Even water can silver the decals.

Zig Zagger?

The more modern looking machines are known as Zig Zaggers...because they are capable of doing a zig zag stitch.

The good:

Zig zag!
Retro good looks and a variety of fun colours (important!).
Some machines have cams that allow them to do more decorative stitches...and monograms!
More lightweight than their antique counterparts.
Foot control is more in keeping with modern machines.
Usually in better condition...but not always.
Often come with the manual.
More likely to be able to pick one up cheaply as they are perceived as an obsolete item, rather than a valuable antique.
You don't have to worry so much about accidentally damaging the finish while cleaning.

The bad:

A bit more complicated to repair and maintain yourself.
Wiring could still be dodgy.
More to go wrong, harder to adjust.
Can be harder to find missing parts/feet accessories.
Cams for decorative stitches might be missing/hard to find.
Some more obscure brands have no information on them online so you might be on your own if you have a problem....or even can't figure out how to thread it correctly.
A little more complicated to use and thread.
More dodgy models/lemons.  Some of them were really bad!

Regardless of you decide to purchase, you should always research first to see if the particular model you are considering was a good one or a dud reknowned for some particular issue or quirk.

And last of all, make sure you check:

What needle does it take?  Are they still being made?
What bobbin does it take?  Can you easily find replacements/extras?
Where does the bobbin go? Some of them are right under the machine so you have to flip it up to replace the bobbin - annoying!
Can you drop the feed dogs?
How do you drop the feed dogs?

I hope you found this helpful and that perhaps by reading this you have saved yourself from being lumped with a paperweight or collectors item rather than a usable sewing machine.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Sharon! Thanks for visiting my long-neglected blog... I am thinking I will get back to it at some point! Your kind comment made me smile :o)
    As you might know I share your love of the old machines and my Singer Centennial is such a fave... sooooo reliable, though it kinda does that sewing-by-itself thing actually!! I haven't tried it for free-motion quilting but I really should. Just haven't got a table unfortunately.