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Sewing Machines | Vintage Sewing

Why you shouldn’t spend $100 on a plastic sewing machine from Walmart

January 23, 2016

If you’re just getting into sewing, it can be difficult to figure out what sewing machine to buy. You want something that isn’t too advanced but that you won’t grow out of quickly. Too often, beginners find themselves eyeing up inexpensive plastic machines at Walmart or Target and asking “Is this a good machine for me?” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say no, no it isn’t.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced sewist, you can probably pick up an infinitely better vintage sewing machine for the same or less money if you’re willing to look. There are some truly amazing vintage sewing machines on the second-hand market or sitting neglected in somebody’s basement.

The first thing you’ll notice when shopping for a vintage machine is how heavy they are. This is good for a number of reasons:

  • Metal parts are more reliable and hard-wearing than plastic. Metal machines sew better for longer.
  • They won’t bounce around the table while you’re sewing
  • They will sew through the thickest of fabrics like butter. Many people who sew bags with heavier fabrics like leather and vinyl look specifically for vintage machines because they know an old metal machine will handle the work.

I see vintage metal sewing machines all the time at thrift stores in Kentucky for around $30 but, eager to prove this wasn’t just a local phenomenon, I reached out to the members of the WeSewRetro Sew & Tell Facebook group to see what second-hand machines they had spotted (and, often, bought!). Scroll down to see the vintage machines being used to crank out stunning garments and keep scrolling for some tips on what to look for and where to find it.

26

Found at a thrift store in New Jersey, USA.

27

Found at a thrift store in the USA.

24

Found at a Salvation Army store in Pennsylvania, USA.

01

Found at a yard sale in the US.

12

Found on Craigslist in the USA.

11

Ok, we’re getting a little pricy now at $100 but bear in mind: this machine will outlive you, your children and probably your grandchildren. Purchased from the daughter of the original owner in Illinois, USA.

10

Found at a yard sale in Wisconsin, USA.

13

Found at the Habitat store in Tennessee, USA.

09

Found at an estate sale in the US.

08

Found at an antique mall in the US.

07

Found at a thrift store in the US.

06

Found on Craigslist in the USA (cabinet included in price)

05

Found at a Trash & Treasure sale in Ohio, USA.

04

Found at Goodwill in the US.

03

20

Found a Re-Store in Indiana, USA.

14

Found on eBay in California, USA.

21

Found on Craigslist in Kentucky, USA.

23

Found at Goodwill in the USA. price includes all accessories. Bernina is a great brand.

It’s worth noting that this is not just an American thing. Here are some vintage workhorses from England, Ireland, Poland, Iceland and Australia…

25

Found at a car boot sale at a weekender in England.

16

Found in England. Price included all the accessories.

02

Found in England.

19

Found in Ireland.

18

Found in a thrift shop in Ireland.

17

Found as a trade-in at a Sewing Machine Center in Ireland.

15

Found online in Poland for the equivalent of $40 USD.

22

Inherited from Grandma in Iceland.

Where can I find a vintage sewing machine?

  • Your family and friends

You might be surprised how many people you know have an unused or unwanted machine lurking about in a garage or basement. Here’s what WeSewRetro-er Mary had to say about reaching out to family first:

maryfamily

Let everyone know you’re looking for a sewing machine. You never know what might turn up!

  • Craigslist.org

One of the easiest ways to find a machine on Craigslist is to set up a search with your chosen parameters (putting in a maximum price is usually helpful) and then set up an email alert. Any time there are new search results for “sewing machine” or whatever your search term is, you’ll get an email. Effortless.

craigslist

Sometimes this site can a little pricey. Be careful to factor in any shipping and handling charges – heavy machines are often best picked up in person.

  • Classified ads in the local newspaper
  • Pawn shops

How do I know if it’s worth buying?

Missing parts (like a power cable) are not necessarily deal-breakers once you know what you’re doing, but for a hassle-free first buying experience, check the machine has a power cable and a bobbin case. Accessories like needles and bobbins can be bought new inexpensively. If you’re in a thrift store, ask if you can plug it in just to verify it runs. You don’t need to see it sew, you just need to see it go.

Plan to have it serviced once you get it home. This is something you could potentially learn to do yourself, but dropping it off at your local Vac & Sew Shop for a couple of days is painless. Pricing on a service varies with condition and location, but around $50 is not uncommon in the US.

How do I know what needles/accessories/parts I need for my vintage machine?

Once you’ve got your machine home, search online for a copy of the manual. You can very often find these for free in PDF form so search hard before handing over your cash. This will tell you how to thread it, how to use any fancy features it may have and what parts you might need. If you have questions, find a community online of people who love these things and pick their brains. The Vintage Sewing Machines group on facebook comes highly recommended – they really know their stuff!

 

  1. Ok I have to ask.. Where did you find the sewing machine in Ireland! It’s so rare for me to see anything outside of the U.K. Or USA!

    1. they are my machines, and I replied to the post on the fb page. – I think everyone should buy older metal machines especially if they are learning, but everyone seems to want the fancy (hardly used) stitches. I got the singer from my local singer ship when i wanted a reliable ‘back up’ machine and most sewing machine shops take them in as trade ins and will sell them on. I would def recommend buying one this way as 3 month store warranty will also be included . I ended up picking the novum in a charity shop and at the same time was given the brother! I do currently have one machine too many now and deliberating giving the novum away on freecycle…….

  2. Oh, I’m drooling! You don’t see prices like that around here. My Habitat has an old Singer (circa 1947) in terrible condition, asking $199; same for Craig’s List. I’m in South Carolina, USA.

    1. Keep looking:) your machine will pop up.
      Yard sales, church sales, auctions, estate sales, are all good bets. Spring is coming, watch for City-Wide yard sales.
      Don’t forget Ebay. Search a radius you’re willing to drive for a local pick-up.
      Tell everyone you know you’re hunting.
      Good luck!

  3. This is fantastic advice! Now that I think of it, most of my sewing has been done on second-hand machines. When I got back into sewing, I bought a new Singer and it performed better than I expected, although when I felt I’d outgrown it recently, I went right back to second-hand with a Bernina from the 1980s… which was more expensive than the new Singer!

    I dream of finding something like the machines you listed. One day, I’ll walk into a garage sale and find that hand-crank Singer I’ve been dreaming of for so long…

  4. I have that second picture down! Except mine is aqua, bought in 1969, not new but refurbished! I love it so much (and I have a newer machine, too) that I bought two more just like it to keep at my children’s homes so I could sew for my grandchildren when I visited. Ebay is a great place to buy a used machine and to buy the missing parts (or to find out what feet are available, etc.)

    1. I have that one, too! It is one of my favorites. Bought it for $25 at a garage sale. It is the only (I think) vintage zig-zag I have.

  5. I got my singer (1910 model I think) when I bought a sleeper twin size sofa off craigslist. I showed interest in it, but hadn’t brought extra cash. The person just wanted it gone so she threw it in for nothing extra. It’s was very dusty so most of the painted design is ruined but it has all the parts and the cabinet is still in great shape too!

  6. As a 13 year old, I learned to sew on a Singer Treadle machine. My mother wouldn’t let me use use her electric machine. Not only is it good mild exercise, but a Treadle machine will sew through anything. Since then I’ve had many machines, both new and used. I recently downgraded from a Bernina with many stitches to a Bernina with fewer stitches; for fashion sewing I simply don’t need all the stitches. After helping a young beginner sewer with a cheap big box store sewing machine, I told her I couldn’t sew with it, either and that she should get an older metal machine. Now when people ask me about machines, I always tell them to buy a used older machine. I would also recommend that beginner sewers talk to experienced sewers, since most of them have multiple machines. some of which they may be willing to part with. People give me machines since they don’t know what to do with them and I am always happy to find a deserving home for unwanted sewing machines.

  7. I wouldn’t bet on a $50 sticker for tune-ups. My local shop offers tune-ups for $130 (I’m getting mine for a discount, at $70, because I bought the machine there). But that’s still not a bad price if you got the machine for dirt cheap.

  8. You need to be sure that any bobbins you buy fit that machine, because sizes and shapes can vary–it does make a difference. I’m glad you mentioned a manual. Some that you showed, not necessarily the ancient ones really need a manual and an experienced seamstress cannot operate them without it.

  9. One of the photos shows a Janome model 415, found at a Goodwill for 10 dollars. I have that same make and model of machine, sitting next to me as I type this. Mine was new 20 years ago, and it got a LOT of use, as I sew most of my own clothing as well as doing commission work. I’ve since upgraded to a newer Janome model, but this one is still set up as my “back-up” machine, and is also used if I am doing a project that needs two different colours of thread. 🙂

  10. I have been sewing since I was 5 and now over 40 have just invested in my first computerized machine. I thought to mention that though much of what you have said is good advice there is still good advice in favour of buying one of the machines from Walmart you are so against. 1) They are well recognized brand names like Singer and Brother. 2) They are guaranteed to come with a selection of accessories. 3) If the new sewer is learning from someone who loves Singer it is a good place to start or if they know Singer and haven’t sewn in a while it is a great place to jump back in. 4) If the new sewer is teaching themselves, like I did, than the manuals and often dvds that come with newer machines can be invaluable learning tools that will help teach techniques and vocabulary so that you can continue to learn and improve your sewing skills. 5) I had my first Singer, bought from a rep as a school buyout, die suddenly a few years back and in the middle of a project with little time and money to spare I bought a Singer from Walmart for just over $100 and have been very happy. 6) Every machine has its eccentricities and it will take time to learn them… Check on line reviews of anything you are interested in buying to try and avoid the lemon amoung the apples. I just thought you were doing your readers a diservice by ignoring the other side of your topic and not letting them decide for themselves. Thank you for your article and the opportunity to comment.

  11. I have a Singer 201 (1957) in a cabinet with matching bench that I got at an estate sale for $37. I love it-it’s a workhorse!

  12. What about eBay?
    I bought a fantastic Bernina 707 for A$60.00!
    It sews like a dream and had instruction book and ten feet.

  13. Such lovely machines. My mother gave me her Singer Featherweight (early 1960s, I think). No buttonholes or zigzag, but it’seems lovely to relearn how to sew on the machine I experimented with as a child.

  14. I started on an $89 plastic Singer from Wal-Mart. It was (and still is) the most heavy duty, reliable, work horse out there. I upgraded to a fancy computerized Singer and have all sorts of problems with it and find myself going back to my workhorse. Now, my Huskavarna surger is a whole other story. When buying one of those I suggest go big or go home. Oh, and getting a suerger that opens completely out for ease of threading.

  15. I have searched high and low for a manual for my Coast to Coast Idle Hour Deluxe in a beautiful turquoise.
    Can anyone help? I am a new sewer and need all the help I can get. Thanks

  16. Good advice! I have several vintage machines and they sew great. It costs about $100 to get a machine cleaned up and serviced in my area (Dallas, Texas). The place I take mine is really good at cleaning them up and finding accessories for me and they are usually cheap.

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