Buying guide to hand and foot operated vintage sewing machines
This guide is to help you identify and perhaps buy yourself a lovely antique or vintage people powered machine (although some of them do have motors, we encourage people to buy the ones you power yourself). Machines can be bought in all sorts of places and for hugely varying prices, from a few pounds to hundreds. Look on eBay, in junk or second hand shops, antique shops (where you will pay through the nose), auctions or buy from specialist vintage machine sellers. If you buy from auction sites either online or local, you can never be sure the machine is in good working order unless you can try it first. Second hand or antique shops you can at least try before you buy and from specialist sellers, you will buy a serviced/refurbished machine which you know will work well and you will get after sales service as well.
Workhorse or conversation piece
What to look for in a vintage or antique sewing machine? Well, what do you want the machine for? A conversation piece which looks pretty and makes you the envy of your friends and family? A good solid work horse which you can sew on all the time and which looks quite nice? Think about what you want the machine to do and when you start looking, take a list of requirements with you.
Very old machines (some can be over 100 years old and still sew well) may not be the best if you want to use them all the time. The bobbins are smaller for one thing, and the needles may not be easily obtainable, but these are the ones which have beautiful black and gold decoration, sometimes even red or blue in stunning patterns. Choose one of these if you want a conversation piece with occasional sewing, having said that, some of these old machines will stitch beautifully and dead straight, putting modern machines to shame. A good vibrating shuttle machine will make a soothing clicking noise as the shuttle moves back and forth in its arc. Lots of quilters love these machines and use them all the time.
If you want a sturdy machine to use frequently, then perhaps choose a round bobbin machine like a Singer 15, 66, 99 and 201 (possibly the best machine Singer ever made). These have bobbins just like modern sewing machines. They will still only do straight stitch, but the majority of your sewing is straight seams and hems. Each different model has its own strengths and weaknesses. Singer 15s and all the copies by other manufacturers are reputedly the best for free motion quilting as they have an upright bobbin. 201s are good all round machines which do have dropping feed dogs which is an advantage for free motion quilting, although there are ways round this problem. 99s are smaller, ¾ size, so don’t take up so much room, but they are not lightweight.
What do you need to look for in a machine?
Does the machine look worn, is the decoration missing in parts, does the black japanning look clean and shiny or dull and muddy? Generally, the better the condition the more you will pay for a machine. Obviously you want the best looking machine you can get for your money, but if you just want a good sturdy machine you may get it cheaper if it is worn. It may be worn, but this usually means it has been well used and hopefully well looked after, oiled every few weeks and cleaned of the lint which collects under the needle plate.
What to avoid
Avoid machines which have any rust, a brown film on the black lacquer or which don’t turn easily when used. These machines have been stored in a damp place, a garage or cellar. Damp is the machines enemy, it freezes the innards and destroys the decoration. Of course, if you want a project you can probably buy this type of machine a lot cheaper, although some buyers seem to think their rusty old boat anchor is worth hundreds of pounds because it is old. The fact that these were made in their millions seems to escape them. Restoring a machine is a long process and hard work, but it can be addictive. if you have the time.
What to pay
Antique value is in the item’s rarity, not just its age. Here is a link to the ISMACS (International Sewing Machine Collectors Society) website’s article on sewing machine values - http://www.ismacs.net/sewing_machine_articles/how_much_is_my_sewing_machine_worth.html
In the end, a machine is worth to you what you are prepared to pay on the day. I have spent the last 10 years researching sewing machines and restoring them. I pay very little for the machines I buy, because I spend a lot of time restoring them and don’t really get back what I put into them in terms of time and effort. I know I can get most old machines to work well after a good clean and service. People who don’t have the knowledge but want a good working sewing machine should be prepared to pay for the work and expertise which has gone into producing that.
There is a separate page so that you can learn to identify old Singer and Jones machines.