Sewing School: Lesson 2 Buying Guide for Sewing Machines

Singer Sew Mate 252 from Learn How to Sew showing her sewing machine collection
This is Lesson 2 in our Sewing School series.  Today we are going to cover buying a machine (in case you don't have one yet) and next lesson we will cover basic sewing supplies. New to sewing school?  Get caught up with lesson 1: welcome and intro first.


Buying a Sewing Machine Guide
I am often asked by my students what is the best kind of machine to buy?  My answer is always, "find a good old used sewing machine.  The heavier the better, it means it has less cheap plastic."  I know that might not be as specific as some people would like, but it's true.  Machines today (much like everything else these days) are meant to break down and be disposable.  Our furnace is over 60 years old and still kicking, I doubt any furnaces made today would last over 60 years.  So you might spend $100-300 on a machine, but you'll probably spend $60-100 on repairs every 1-2 years.  Or you could buy an old heavy work horse of a sewing machine (most likely at a great price) and probably have to bring it in every 5-10 years.  What would you prefer?  Even if you have an old machine that doesn't work get it repaired instead of buying a new one!  Even if you buy a used one and it doesn't work, no problem just get it fixed.  It'll still save you money in the long run.
My Montgomery Wards sewing machine that was my grandma's my guess is from the 1980's
What to Look for in a Used Machine
So you've decided to get a vintage machine but from what decade?  A sewing machine from the turn of the century will be vary different from a machine from the 1960-1990's (my favourites are from the 70s and 80s). I would maybe buy one from the 1990's if it seems very sturdy and solid.  When you lift the sewing machine it should have some weight to it, not like it's made all of plastic.  Here are some other things to look for:
  • a light, it helps you see! It's usually located in a hidden panel to the far left of the upper part of most machines, most after 1960 will have this.
  • a foot petal that runs on electricity if the sewing machine is from the 1940's or earlier it might run on your foot pumping the pedal to power it instead!
  • you are able to find foot attachments easily for it like zipper feet, button holes, blind hemming, etc.  Many machines will work with most feet, but not all.  If it's really old this won't be the case.  My 1980's model works with standard feet attachments.
  • it has a few different stitches (button holes, zigzag, blind hem) and reverses
  • you can adjust stitch length of the stitch
  •  you can find parts easily to repair in the future (if it's pre 1960, it's safe to assume it will be pretty hard to find but you could always consult with your local sewing repair shop to make sure)

Where Can You Find Used Sewing Machines? 
  • Thrift Stores I have seen some at thrift stores myself
  • Garage Sales obviously this is a hit or miss kind of thing I would hit up large block sales if possible to increase your chances of finding a sewing machine
  • Try a Sewing Machine Repair Shop. A lot of times they take in trades when people buy new machines, they clean the machine, and make any needed repair.  If they don't sell any they probably would have good advice about where to find one.
  • Ask stores in your area that sale sewing machines if they sell used
  • Try Online Resources like Craig's List, Ebay, and Etsy.  I gotta say I was surprised by the great quality and selection on Etsy of sewing machines, I always forget they have vintage items too.
  • Try Estate sales and Auctions Estate sales are happening year round in your neighborhood.  You can check out where Estate sales are happening by you by going to estatesales.net You can often see pictures of what will be there so you know if there will be any sewing machines or not.  Check for sales on Wed or Thurs, since sales are on the weekend and often don't have much info to far in advance.  
Tips For Buying a Sewing Machine From an Estate Sale
 According to Doris on Stretcher.com "I often see older, functioning sewing machines at estate and auction sales. My experience is probably not totally typical as to price. I am still using, eleven years later, a machine I purchased at an auction for the princely sum of two dollars. I see, currently, prices under $35 regularly for older Singers--the notable exception is the small portable straight stitch machine which is VERY popular with quilters." 
Here are some tips:
  • Check out the estate sale online before going to see if they even have a sewing machine there to begin with.  I'd say typical half of estate sales do.
  • Watch for a machine from a company that is still in business, and try to buy a model not older than the 1950s. At least, if something goes wrong, there is a good chance of getting it fixed.
  • There probably isn't a good way to really put a machine from an auction, garage sale, or estate sale through an exhaustive test. If you plug it in and operate the foot or knee control and everything moves freely, take a chance. Almost anything else is a screwdriver adjustment or replacing a slightly worn part (see comment #1)
  • If there isn't an instruction booklet, look it up online or write to the manufacturer. Most are very cooperative in giving out information on their older models. Alternative go onto one of the Internet auctions--many times you will find accessories and instruction booklets on sale.
  • You can ask who is hosting the sale if the machine has been checked to work.  If you are not sure figure a possible $60-90 to repair (my last repair over 5 years ago was $70).
  • if you go on the last day of the sale usually (but not always) they will have 50% off items under $100 or $50.  So if you can only go on the last day of the sale don't sweat it.  At least if it's still there you will get a good deal!
Tips For Buying a New Machine
So you want to get a new sewing machine instead.  That's fine, just make sure to watch for a few things.
  • Do not buy a sewing machine with electronics or computers they break down often and are difficult to understand.  I had a student who had one that  I couldn't even understand! And I have seen many different machines in my day! It wasn't working and the instructions made no sense!  I also use to work at a camera shop and the more electronics cameras had the more they broke down.  It's only logical that the same can be said for sewing machines.  The thing is computers are unnecessary on sewing machines, most people only use a few basic functions on their machines ever.  
  • Don't get too excited about extra stitches offered on sewing machines.  I 'd rather have a good basic machine that's a real work horse than one with lots of fancy extras I'll most likely never use.  I never use any sewing stitch options other than zigzag, straight, buttonhole, and blind hem.  Most people never will use more than this.  With that said, if you think you really would use extra stitches I would consider that in making your decision. 
  • Check Reviews online before you buy Many big box stores allow customers to leave reviews for products.  This is the best way to find out if customers are unhappy with a product.  I find Amazon.com to be the best variety and volume of reviews in general, so this would be a good place to start.  Other online big box stores like target, Kmart, Sears, etc do too.  Keep in mind more people leave reviews that are angry rather than a satisfied customer.  So if you don't hear much negative comments and there are a lot of reviews, you probably have a winner.  I would however purchase it in a store if possible.  That way if you have problems right away with it you can return it with no problems.
  • Check out Heavy Duty Sewing Machines I've noticed that most brands (Singer, Janome, etc) have a model labeled as heavy duty.  It seems like the difference is that the heavy duty machines are made with more metal than current standard models which are mostly plastic. As I said before I prefer older machines because they have more metal and less plastic.  I have not personally tried any heavy duty machines, so I can't vouch for them but if I wanted to buy a new machine that is what I would try.

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12 comments:

  1. Oh! Now I'm on the look out for a vintage sewing machine! (I currently have a modern Elna 1000 sitting on my sewing desk, which has served me well) But nothing beats the clunking of a vintage sewing machine! I'd have pinched my grandmothers had I known she was going to replace it without letting me know! Oh well :) Thank you!

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  2. WOW! I'm on a hunt looking for a sewing machine;).. wish me luck!

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  3. Any specific brands for older model machines?

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    Replies
    1. No specific brands just that follow the general rule I said above, try to find one from the 60's -90's (my fav is the 70s to the early 90's). Just make sure it has some metal to it, but isn't so old that it's made very different than modern machines or is hard to find parts for. Also it's nice if the company is still around so you can contact the company about parts or questions. Hope this helps Shaina!

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  4. Hi! Can you tell me if you think this is a good deal? I found a Singer 401A on Craigslist for $250. Seller says the machine is in good condition and sews great! It comes with:

    Portable case
    Original Singer portable Table- table is custom fit for machine, table also collapses
    Circular stitcher
    Monogrammer
    Walking foot
    Professional buttonholer
    Stretch stitch accessory
    Accessory Case with lots of feet including quilting foot
    Original manual
    Singer sewing book that goes with slant sewing machines

    Please let me know if you think this is a decent price. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. I really can't tell you if it's a good deal or not Meachy, since I've never had to buy one. I got one from my parents for my graduation from high school, and then I also inherited my grandmother's sewing machine. So in terms of a good price I have no ideal. I would suggest looking around at estate sales in your area to get a better ideal of what a good deal is for used sewing machines. To check for estate sales in your area try estatesales.net and check to see if they have sewing machines pictured at any sales before going. If you go on the last day of the sale typically estate sales will have discounts on all items often 50% off. Keep in mind if you wait though it might not be there. Hope this helps!

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  5. Hi,
    I recently moved from the UK to the US and am looking to buy a sewing machine. I used to have a old brother industrial straight stitch from the 70s and LOVED IT! I'm looking for something that has a 3 step and a 1 step zigzag stitch, a straight stitch and double needle capability would be ideal (double needle isn't a necessity though. New machines don't seem to be build like older ones, but wanting the zigzag stitching has thrown me on where to start! Would you be able to recommend any models that sew through a variety of fabrics. I'm looking to sew very fine and light weight materials primary, ideally I'd like it to sew leather as well but I'm not sure that I will fine one that will do all of the above. I'd really appreciate if you have any advice!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Hannah,
      Industrial sewing machines do not have any different stitches, home sewing machines (with the exception of a few super old models or extremely low end machines) can at least do zig zag and button holes. So you shouldn't have to worry about that with home sewing machines. As for types of fabrics, a typical home sewing machine works fine with most fabrics, but you will need to change needles to work with lighter or heavier fabrics than normal. The one exception is leather, you likely would need an industrial machine for that or to sew by hand, because it's extremely heavy material.

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  6. Thanks for sharing useful sewing related stuffs.

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  7. Hi am venessa and am so new here...I don't have an idea about sewing and I love sewing (I can only sew in my mind sha) am not understanding either

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  8. I'm going to start scouring thrift stores, garage sales, estate sales, and flea markets asap! I need a machine, but the new ones are so expensive and have lots of reviews about breaking.

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  9. Am grateful for the tips. I have a basic machine that is mostly plastic and an old timer heavy duty one ie Industrial. I'll start with the small one for now

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