They are beautiful and nostalgic. They remind us of simpler times. You’ve probably seen a charming vintage sewing machine at a garage sale or thrift shop and wondered if you should buy it. We’ll walk you through everything you need to consider before you buy.
What Is a Vintage Sewing Machine?
By “vintage” we mean a machine that is no longer being made and was manufactured in the mid-twentieth century. Older sewing machines, those made before 1900, we refer to as antiques. Antique sewing machines are not electric. They are powered by a foot treadle or a hand crank. Vintage machines are the early electric models that made having a sewing machine at home popular and affordable.
There are many reasons you might want to buy a vintage sewing machine. One reason is that the early electric machines have a distinct style that reflects their era. The very early, black, cast-iron machines, with their ornate gold trim, evoke the hopefulness of the early industrial era and the time of western expansion in the US. The more modern, space-age design of the mid-century machines bring us back to the prosperity of the 1950s and the exhilaration of the space race.
Another reason to buy a vintage sewing machine is the quality of the construction. Before plastic, sewing machines were made of durable iron or aluminum. The gears and moving parts were created to take a lot of use. Many vintage machines still operate perfectly.
Yet another reason to have a vintage machine is because of the distinctive style of the stitch an older machine produces. Some clothing designers who create vintage looks turn to vintage machines for the specific stitch styles that give a sense of authenticity to their clothing. Many quilters, as well, like the look of the vintage stitches.
What to Consider When Buying a Vintage Sewing Machine
There are a number of things to consider before shopping around and making a purchase. With so many online and local opportunities to buy, here are some important things to think about before you dive in. Whether you are going to use the machine for your sewing projects, or you want to refurbish and restore a vintage model, or if you are just going to use it as a retro decoration, consider the following.
What Are You Going to Use It for?
Are you buying a vintage model because you like the way it looks or because of the kind of sewing you can do with it? If it looks you’re after, you can find a less expensive machine that may not have all the parts or may be slightly damaged. If you are going to use the machine for sewing, functionality is your first consideration.
Many people enjoy buying older sewing machines and restoring them. If you are handy and don’t mind rewiring, cleaning out the motor, or searching for specific replacement parts, you can also find a less expensive machine to restore.
Is It Working?
If you want a working machine, remember that a sewing machine has many moving parts. Older motors can get gummed up with oil, so you’ll want to be sure that all the parts move the way they are supposed to. Here are some ways to tell if your potential buy will perform with a little TLC:
- Does the hand wheel turn easily? The hand wheel will give you a good indication of the overall functioning of the machine.
- When you turn the hand wheel, does the needle move up and down? Do the feed dogs also move? You should also see motion in the bobbin case. All these parts need to move freely for the machine to stitch properly.
- Does the machine work in reverse? Reverse is an important function that allows you to finish off seams and prevent stitch raveling.
- Is the machine wired properly for your country? If you’re buying a machine made in Europe or Asia, it may be made to work with a higher voltage than the current that runs through your house. Look at the outlet plug and make sure it will work in your home.
- Look for obvious signs of wear. Check the power cord to make sure it’s not frayed or taped.
- Look all around for any rust.
- Are there any missing screws or other parts?
- Is the foot pedal or knee pedal included? If not, can you find a replacement easily?
Does It Come With Any Extras?
Also, check to see about any optional parts. For example, if the machine uses cams, are they included with your purchase? Is the seller including extra bobbins or needles?
Does the seller have the manual that came with the machine? Some manuals and instruction books are available online. Singer, for example, is one company that has made it easy to get manuals for their vintage sewing machines.
And how about the table or cabinet that came with the machine when it was originally sold? Sometimes these need to be refinished even if the machine runs perfectly. Is that something you want to do?
Will It Do What You Want It to Do?
Are you going to be sewing heavy fabrics like denim or even leather? Some of the finest vintage machines were made for industrial use. Others were made with simple home use in mind and won’t be able to handle the heavier work.
Ask for a stitch sample that was made on the machine. This is especially important if you are going to sew with fancy stitches or do embroidery with the machine.
And speaking of embroidery, check to see that the feed dogs retract so you can do free embroidery with your new toy. Some vintage models won’t do this.
Are You Up for Any Restoration?
Are you willing to do what it takes to restore a worn machine? The perfect model may need new wiring, or the motor may be frozen with old oil and may need significant cleaning. Some fine sewing machines have lost a pedal along the way, or the cabinet may need to be stripped and refinished. Consider carefully what you might need to do to get the machine in top condition.
Another consideration is the availability of replacement parts. You will need new bobbins and needles eventually. Ask the seller if he or she knows where to get these parts. Many of the machines we’ve listed below use bobbins that are standard today, but some use different sizes. A few older machines used a kind of shuttle instead of a bobbin. These are notoriously hard to find if you need a replacement.
Who Made It?
Because you’re dealing with an old time machine, you’ll want to be sure that it was made by a reputable manufacturer. This will help ensure that you can find information and parts for your machine.
Singer is the most well-known name in sewing machines in the US. Singer rose to the top of the market in the early 1900s. Singer machines were so popular that the replacement needles and bobbins they designed became the industry standard.
Most modern sewing machines, and several of the vintage machines below, use model 15 or 66 bobbins. These are easily available in any craft or sewing store. The standard needles are known as 2020, or HA-1 or 12X. 1. Check to see if the vintage machine you are buying can use these needles. They are also available anywhere.
There are so many vintage Singer machines out there that you can probably find an instruction booklet for your vintage Singer if you need one. There are even online communities dedicated to caring for and using popular Singer models, for example, the popular Featherweight machine.
Other manufacturers made good machines too. Some of them we have listed below. Do some research and make sure that you will be able to find replacement parts, bobbins, and needles that will fit your new machine.
When Was It Made?
The best vintage machines were made between about 1910 and 1950. Sewing machines of that era were built to endure lots of use and to last for a long time. Up until the 1960s sewing machines were built with metal gears. After the 60s, manufacturers began using plastic. It was lighter and cheaper, but plastic gears wear out much sooner than metal ones.
It is harder to take care of older, antique sewing machines because it is more difficult to get parts.
Consider that older machines may need more in the way of maintenance. Most old machines need to be oiled more frequently. Also, consider that replacement parts may be more expensive for some less common machines.
Other than those considerations, a vintage sewing machine is worth whatever you are willing to pay for it. In an ideal world, you will be able to find a well-running vintage sewing machine at a rock bottom price at an estate sale or in a thrift shop. Keep hunting until you find your deal.
Of course, cost and functionality are not the only considerations in buying a vintage sewing machine. Vintage items are collectible and have an emotional value as well. Does the vintage machine you are considering have a good story that goes with it? Sometimes it’s more fun to use a machine that has some interesting history behind it.
You’ll also want to consider aesthetics. Maybe design is more important than function to you. Do the older, cast-iron treadle machines have the vintage look you want? Or does a more space-age look from the 1960s appeal to you?
Where to Buy Your Vintage Sewing Machine
One online option is Ebay. One advantage of Ebay is the large selection of vintage products available. Another is that on Ebay you have the ability to bid to your comfort level. You might be able to score a fantastic deal.
But Ebay has disadvantages too. One is that you will probably end up paying for shipping. Some older sewing machines weigh 20 pound or more. This could add significantly to your cost.
Another disadvantage is not being able to try the machine out before you buy. There are some inexperienced sellers on Ebay who have simply plugged the machine in and when they see the light go on, they declare that the machine is working. A more experienced seller will list many details of the machine’s condition and may even have videos that show the machine in action. They may also provide photos of stitch samples.
You might get lucky with Craigslist and find a local seller. This will give you the opportunity to go see and feel the machine in action before you buy. You might also find a good buy at a local thrift store or second-hand store. You can also look for estate sales in your local area. Many private sellers will give you a really good deal for a vintage machine.
If you shop flea markets, you might find a great machine for a reasonable price. Just be sure that you find a place to plug it in and try it out before you buy. You want to be sure it is working.
Another hidden gem of a possibility is a local sewing machine repair shop. If you are lucky enough to find one at one of these retail shops, you can be reasonably certain that it has been tuned up and cared for by a professional.
Recommended Vintage Sewing Machine Models
Singer 15 Series
The Singer 15 Series were very popular when they first hit the market. There were many sold, so they are not as expensively rare as other vintage models. The 15s only do straight stitching but can accommodate an attachment that allows for zig-zag stitches as well.
The 66 is a full-sized machine with a straight stitch. Like the 15 Series, it can accommodate a zig-zag attachment. This also applies to the later improvement of the 66, the Singer 210.
Singer 99 and 185
These popular models were made ¾ sized, so they are lighter weight and more portable. They use the same zig-zag attachment as the previous models. Beware when you are buying to check the model numbers. The 185 is a great little machine, but the 285, which was a later attempt to re-design the 185 has many glitches.
Singer 221-1 Featherweight
The Featherweight is one of the most popular sewing machines of all time. It is still favored by quilters and vintage enthusiasts. This machine was the first that was marketed as a portable. It is made of lightweight aluminum instead of the old cast iron. The Featherweight uses a non-standard bobbin, which might be a cause for concern, but there are so many people still using their 221s there is even an online community, so finding parts and bobbins isn’t too much of an issue.
The 331 is also made of aluminum. It is the first Singer model to have a slant shank. This was an innovation developed to make it easier to see what you are sewing. The 331 uses the same non-standard bobbin as the 221.
Singer 400 Series
The 400 series feature a retro-modern design. For the first time, Singer made sewing machines that were beige instead of metallic black or green. This was also the first Singer machine that had a built-in zig zag capacity. It also introduced the use of separate cams that the sewer inserts to customize the stitches. The cam system was an important innovation in decorative sewing. With the 400 series, Singer developed the 66 bobbin that has become the industry standard.
Singer 500 Series
With the 500 series Singer introduced precision needle plates to accommodate different stitches. It also features a two-needle capacity and continued the use of inserted cams for decorative sewing.
Beyond the Singer 500 Series
In more modern times, Singer moved to using plastic gears. In the 500 series, they also went back—for some reason—to using non-standard bobbins. Though these machines have a retro look, they are not the best choices if you want a hardworking vintage machine.
Singer Athena 2000
The Athena 2000 is worth mentioning because it was the first Singer electronic sewing machine. You could program it to create stitch designs. It debuted in 1975, but the electronic components had so many glitches that they discontinued it soon after. If you get your hands on an Athena, you’ll have a historic find, but you may not be able to find anyone who can repair it if something goes wrong.
Union Special 43200G
The Union Special is famous with denim clothing designers because of its industrial capability and because of a peculiar design “flaw” that creates a distinctive chain-like stitch. These machines were made from 1939 to 1989 and are still in such demand that it is hard to find one to buy. When they were discontinued buyers in Japan and other parts of Asia were quick to see that this classic was still going to be in demand. They began to snap them up. Today, on eBay, the Union Special goes for between $3000 and $5000 — if you can find one!
New Home Parlor Cabinet Treadle and #4
New Home sewing machines were popular around 1906. They are non-electric, vintage models, operated by a hand crank. We include them here because of their beautiful ornate, gold-on-black design that was typical of the time. If you’re looking for a non-electric machine, this one is durable and will do the job.
White Family Rotary
White was the second most popular sewing machine manufacturer, after Singer. They produced the Family Rotary from the 1890s until 1950. It is a classic vintage sewing machine that was popular enough that you can still find parts for it today.
The Necci was an Italian brand that was first sold in the US after World War II. Necci was the first manufacturer to include zig-zag functionality without a cumbersome attachment. If you are looking at a Necci, make sure you are buying a model that was built to work with US electrical currency.
Vintage sewing machines are beautiful and functional. Whether you are buying one because you love the way it looks, or if you are more interested in the style of stitching only available on a vintage, you’re going to love looking into all the possibilities. Like many other vintage enthusiasts, you may find that you would like to own more than one!