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I’ve spent much of the last year on my blog, Male Pattern Boldness, writing about the many machines I sew with — I love them all!

Last week’s article about vintage sewing machines elicited such a strong response, I wanted to follow up with some information about how to buy a vintage machine: what questions to ask, what precautions to take, what models to look for.

So let’s get started!

1. Where to buy a vintage machine

I’ve had good luck finding excellent vintage sewing machines on eBay, Craigslist, and at my local flea market. There are other places you might consider too: thrift stores, sewing machine repair shops (though you might pay more, you’ll probably be assured the machine is in good working condition), garage sales, and estate sales.

The benefits of a site like eBay are that the selection is tremendous and changes daily. The downside is that you usually have to pay for shipping, which can greatly raise the total cost of the machine. High shipping costs can depress bidding, however, so one could argue that it evens out in the end. (For me, shipping costs higher than $20 send me elsewhere.)

Another downside is that you cannot actually test the machine. Therefore, if you’re interested in bidding, you must ask the seller before you bid about the condition of the machine if it is not stated clearly in the description.

Many sellers will say they turned the power on and the light worked, or they pressed the pedal and the needle went up and down, but that’s it; they don’t know anything about sewing machines. Sellers who claim not to know anything about sewing probably don’t know anything about how to pack and ship a machine either. Again: Caveat emptor.

Craigslist is ideal in that you can see the machine and test it before buying. The machine won’t be delivered to your door, of course; transportation is your responsibility. Great deals can be found on Craigslist and, depending where you live, the selection can be excellent. Some people are even giving away machines free!

If you’re examining a machine at a flea market or garage sale, ask if you can plug it in and try it. There’s usually someplace this can be done.

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2. What to ask the seller?

On eBay, most sellers answer these questions in their description, but many do not because it doesn’t occur to them or they think it’s not their responsibility. In no particular order:

-Does it work? Does it have any mechanical problems?
-Is it missing any parts? (They may not know.) Does it come with a manual?
-Some sellers are extremely thorough and knowledgeable about machines, others are not. Many sellers claim not to have the pedal, which allows them to claim no knowledge of whether the machine works or not. I would not bother with a machine like that.
-If the machine does embroidery stitches, ask if you can see a stitch sample (this is especially important on eBay). Many people post a stitch sample and some even upload a YouTube video.
-If it uses external cams, are the cams included with the machine? (If not, do you really want to hunt them down? I don’t.)
-If it’s not a domestically-made machine, make sure it is wired for American outlets (or whatever outlet you use in your country). You don’t want to have to buy an adapter, which over time can strain a motor.
-Does it sew forward and reverse?
-Do the feed dogs drop (if you’ll be doing free motion embroidery)?
-Is there any rust? (I would not take a chance with a rusty machine.)
-What condition is the wiring in? Are there any cracks in the wire or taped areas? (Are you willing to rewire if necessary? I once attached a foot pedal to a machine that had had a knee pedal. It wasn’t hard but not everyone would want to deal with that.)
-Does it come with any attachments? (Depending on the model, this can save you a lot of money in the long run.)
-If there’s only a photo of the back, ask to see the front. If the photo is so blurry you can’t make out the model, ask for a better photo. Or don’t and hope you’re the only bidder on a great machine no one else can identify.

3. Risks worth taking

Let’s face it: a lot of the appeal of buying a vintage machine is finding a hidden gem. If you are knowledgeable about machines and willing to do what it takes to get the thing running, by all means take a chance on a frozen machine. Most of the time a frozen mechanical machine has not been oiled in decades and only needs a good lubrication to get it working again.

Or maybe the pedal is missing and you’re confident that — like most mechanical straight stitch machines — there’s simply not that much that could be wrong with it. If it looks good (on both top and bottom) and you know how the machine is supposed to work, give it a try.

4. My own preferences

I know what I will do and will not do. I will clean a machine and I will oil a machine but that is it. I will not purchase spare parts (other than presser feet, extra bobbins, or a light bulb) to make the thing run. I am not interested in restoring an old machine to like-new condition or stripping and refinishing a wood cabinet. But plenty of people are. I do not want to have to bring an old machine in to be serviced. I never have and hope not to need to any time soon.

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5. Shipping

Most old sewing machines are heavy — 20+ lbs heavy — and some weigh nearly twice that much. You simply can’t pack a heavy piece of machinery the way you would a handbag or a pair of shoes. Sellers should be willing to double-box their machines and use plenty of bubble wrap and packing peanuts. The pedal should be wrapped separately. There should be no metal against metal.

If you’re shopping on eBay, look at the seller’s feedback. Is it 100% positive? Read the negative feedback. Do other buyers mention the quality of the packaging? Check the seller’s recently sold items. Do they sell sewing machines or other fragile and heavy equipment?

It’s always good to ask the seller directly how they plan to pack the machine.

6. What models should I look for?

I am completely subjective when it comes to vintage machines. I know what I like and that’s it. I think nowadays most people want a zigzagger first and foremost. I own (or have owned) a few vintage zigzaggers, including a Necchi, a Kenmore, a Viking, and a Singer. The Sears Kenmores with 158 in the number are very highly regarded. Most were made in Japan.

Necchis from the 50s and 60s, like the Supernova, are very well engineered machines. Most come with external cams for embroidery stitches. Do you want to deal with cams? I’ve learned from experience that I do not.

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I have a simple early Eighties era Viking I like a lot. All I ever use a zigzagger for these days is the occasional satin stitch on a pocket or to install an invisible zipper (the only invisible zipper foot I have fits on the low shank adapter of my Viking). Now that I have a serger, I rarely overcast.

So it will come as no surprise that I prefer straight stitch machines. I have Singers and one White. I think the Singers are unmatched. They’re easy to use, easy to maintain, and stitch beautifully. You can find most Singer manuals online free, and there are many online groups for owners. I like to be able to sew slowly at times, and all my Singers excel at this. It’s not just the pedal: it’s the engineering.

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7. What else will I need to purchase?

One of the benefits of old Singer straight stitchers is that all the old feet and attachments are easy to find on eBay and Etsy. Millions of these machines were sold so the parts aren’t rare. Many can even be found new, though usually made in the Far East and of inferior quality. Once you start looking around for these feet, you find them everywhere. Singer buttonhole attachments are great and can still be found for $20 or less. You can even find zigzagger attachments (I have one) that will allow your straight stitcher to overcast.

You’ll need sewing machine oil, and for some machines that are truly frozen, other solvents that can break down old shellac. I’m not an expert but you can find plenty of tips online about restoring old machines. If you have some good resources you’d like to share below, please do so.

Old machines need plenty of oil. I usually oil my machine before beginning any big project.

8. Does a straight stitch machine really stitch better?

I think so. It’s not just the quality of the individual stitch; any machine with balanced tension can produce a perfect stitch. Straight stitch machines offer better control, especially for topstitching and edgestitching. The needle hole on a straight stitch machine is tiny, making it less likely that delicate fabric will get pulled through the hole. The right side of the straight stitch foot is a mere 1/8", making it very easy to see what you’re stitching when you’re in a critical place, like topstitching a collar and turning a corner.

Most of these old machines can handle multiple layers denim and leather just fine; whatever you can fit under the presser foot in my experience. They may not be up to upholstery, but some are!

NOTE: None of my machines are true industrial machines. No Singer home model (66, 99, 192K, 201-2, 15-91, etc.) should be described as such in an eBay posting.

9. Bidding strategy.

The most popular time to buy on eBay is Sunday night (I think Wednesday or Thursday is the next popular). I generally avoid that time. You’re more likely to get a good deal on Friday night or Saturday. There are generally few bidders during the day, when most bidders are at work.

REMEMBER: there are thousands of vintage sewing machines for sale on eBay every month. The model you want will reappear. No sense getting caught in a bidding war. Let it go. It will be back.

10. How about “Buy it Now?”

I bought my first vintage machine on eBay using “Buy it Now.” I knew nothing about sewing machines and the seller had an excellent reputation and had even posted a YouTube video of the machine in action. In retrospect, I paid too much for my Kenmore machine but it was worth it to know I was getting a machine that didn’t have mechanical problems. It also came with a buttonhole attachment.

You’ll almost always pay more with the “Buy it Now” option. But sometimes the convenience makes it worth it. I don’t think anybody’s getting rich selling old sewing machines on eBay, so you could argue you’re supporting a fellow sewing machine aficionado.

And that’s it!

Are there any questions I haven’t addressed?

Any advice to share?

Thanks for reading!

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

41 Comments

  • Missing

    Jun 23, 2013, 05.45 PMby hfedor

    I have come across my grandmother’s Good house keeper zig zag Model 805b. it works great and looks like mint condition. Are these worth anything? I have no idea where to start or where I could take it to. Thanks, Heather
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    Mar 29, 2011, 11.15 PMby scissorbuzz

    I inherited a Singer 185J last year. I ditched my old “new” machine right after and never looked back. I struggled with the old “new” machine for ages…. the settings, the constant malfunctions, the stitching was never right either. UG! I didn’t find the Singer 185’s manual until later but i just never needed it. Took a guess on threading and winding the bobbin and I was up and sewing in seconds. I am still a little confused with the attachments… I have crates of teeny metal contraptions and have no idea how to use them or what they’re for. A little overview of the potential of attachments might make a great future article… hint hint

    1 Reply
  • Missing

    Mar 29, 2011, 10.34 PMby tacomapat

    I have an eBay tip. You can avoid the entire bidding process by using an eBay sniper service, like auctionsniper.com. I don’t work for that company but have used it many times over the past several years and it’s an excellent alternative to engaging in a bidding war. Five seconds before the auction ends, it posts your bid, only up to the level where your bid will win (if you have bid enough to win the auction).

    I bought my first sewing machine in 1970 – an Elna, made in Switzerland, and had a love affair going with Elna for decades. I have just one Elna now – I bought it used in a sewing machine store, but I got some good advice from a sewing machine repairman a few years back about my plan to purchase another used Elna. He advised against it because the parts are very difficult to find – no more Swiss factory, another company purchased Elna, etc.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 30, 2011, 01.42 AMby Peter Lappin

      That’s too bad. One of the really good things about old Singers is that most of the old parts are still available.

      Thanks for the sniping tip!

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    Mar 29, 2011, 09.29 PMby amyadoyzie

    Hi! Love your informative posts. I was able to get a non-working vintage Kenmore 158.16250 for free off Craigslist in 2004. I took it to a sew and vac shop and had it tuned up/replace a broken belt for $100 and it’s still running like a workhouse (and it even survived a clunky journey through FedEx from from southern California to Portland, OR!)

    But… I will admit that I don’t think I’ve been particularly kind to it. I clean/dust it out occasionally, but I think I’ve oiled it just once! I’m nervous about oiling it because I don’t want to over-oil it. I actual have the above mentioned PDF for basic clean-up and I printed out the original manual when I got the machine.

    I am also curious about vintage Singers and might think of getting one, what would you say is THE go-to vintage Singer for an intermediate sew-er like myself?

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 30, 2011, 01.38 AMby Peter Lappin

      Everybody I know who has one loves the Singer 15-91. It’s a straight stitcher of course, but it’s a wonderful machine. As far as over-oiling, don’t worry about it. A few extra drops isn’t going to do any harm, just make sure if you’re starting a project that your work area is clean of all oil!

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    Mar 29, 2011, 08.23 PMby tinyseams

    I found a very nice Pfaff 955 mechanical machine 1980’s vintage on Craigs list. Paid $50 and it works perfectly. It needed some cleaning, oil and a tension addjustment. Very simple fix. I love Craig’s list because I don’t have to pay for shipping or worry about getting a damaged machine in the mail. It’s nice to see, hear and feel the machine before making a purchase.

    1 Reply
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    Mar 29, 2011, 08.22 PMby tinyseams

    I found a very nice Pfaff 955 mechanical machine 1980’s vintage on Craigs list. Paid $50 and it works perfectly. It needed some cleaning, oil and a tension addjustment. Very simple fix. I love Craig’s list because I don’t have to pay for shipping or worry about getting a damaged machine in the mail. It’s nice to see, hear and feel the machine before making a purchase.

  • Missing

    Mar 29, 2011, 08.08 PMby heatherngillis

    Another great source for vintage machines: real (as opposed to ebay) auctions! If you live in an area that has old-fashioned estate or farm auctions, even if a sewing machine is not mentioned in the auction listing, there will probably be at least one, and the people who go to auctions mostly either don’t want one or already have one (this goes for a lot of basic household stuff—if you need the basics, and auction is the BEST place get it all at once, and for almost nothing). Last winter, I picked up an early ’50’s New Home zigzag machine, in beautiful condition, with all the attachments, the receipt, needles, thread, and fabric, for $6! Even the little chair was still there and in good shape. Took it home, cleaned it, oiled it, and it sews beautifully. There was also a treadle at the same auction, that went for under $20. It needed a little more work than my machine did to get it going, but not that much.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 29, 2011, 09.19 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great point, Heather. Thanks!

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    Mar 29, 2011, 07.17 PMby ferret-mom

    Fantastic article. I have just found out after reading this that I have my grandads Singer No 99 with knee control…. It has been hidden away for many years :( having just opened it up, its amazing… has all the manuals & so many attachments (even the little oil bottle) only problem is the electrical lead is in a very sorry state. I am now looking into seeing if I can get this sorted so I can try it out……

    1 Reply
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    Mar 28, 2011, 07.59 PMby newdawnk

    I’ve obtained two vintage machines this year. The first is a White Rotary 77-297908 manufactured by White Sewing Machine Corp, USA. It came mounted in a small cabinet with a knee controller. The second is called The Elgin. It came in a travel case and is fully functional and has all these cool attachments with it. I only paid $20.00 for it at a swap shop. I’m wondering if you’d ever heard of either brand. Let me know. I’ll put pix on my profile. Thanks!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 28, 2011, 08.12 PMby Peter Lappin

      Yes, yes, I’ve heard of both. White is a famous sewing machine brand and they’re still around I believe. I love knee controllers! $20 for a sewing machine is fantastic.

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    Mar 27, 2011, 01.20 PMby lubynite

    I inherited a Singer machine from my grand-grand-grand mother, like the one you posted (with the table and rotant pedal)..It works great and it’s a good exercise (it’s really heavy)…it’s from 1890!!! :)

    1 Reply
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    Mar 26, 2011, 12.11 PMby notdeadredhead

    I bought a Signature brand machine for $20 a couple of years ago that actually has a “sewing” and “darn” nob on it. X^D I’ll post a pic as soon as possible, if anybody has any info on it. I’ve only done some basic searching, but I’d love to know more about it! It works wonderfully, and I’d love to keep it around as long as possible! Thanks!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 26, 2011, 02.59 PMby Peter Lappin

      That’s a brand I haven’t heard of but $20 for a working machine is a steal. Congratulations!

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    Mar 25, 2011, 06.54 PMby laadylizz

    Bought a great vintage singer 221 featherweight sewing machine at a antique shop for $50 and it works great.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 25, 2011, 08.09 PMby Peter Lappin

      Congratulations! I envy you!

  • Marjorie_sister_weekend_04_09_large

    Mar 25, 2011, 06.53 PMby margif513

    Thanks for the info. In the last 2 months I’ve fixed a couple of "vintage " 70’s Singers up. So easy! And quite by accident I stumbled upon a beautiful 1920’s Singer-in it’s original table! That was quality!

    1 Reply
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    Mar 25, 2011, 02.26 PMby frankiesoup

    As mcphoon says, what makes a good machine is a matter of personal preference. I still thought I’d take this chance to recommend my 1895 Jones Family CS though!

    I have had two electric machines since I purchased the Jones for £20 (around $30) five years ago and still prefer it to the modern equivalents. In fact, I got rid of my Brother VX-1125 because the stitch quality just couldn’t compare to the old CS and as a result I never used the Brother (My other ‘new’ machine, incidentally, is also a Jones. This one was made in the USSR though and needs a bit of work by a pro to get the needle to engage – I couldn’t resist the 50s chrome detailing though!).

    In all the years I’ve owned the handcrank CS, I’ve never had to alter the tension and I can sew any type of fabric which will fit beneath the foot. It’s only snagged once, and having sewn countless miles of fiddly patchwork, I really don’t think that’s bad going!

    A few words of advice for anyone considering the purchase of one though: Check the rubber on the wheel that winds the bobbin. If the rubber outer ‘tyre’ seems cracked, or slightly too large for the wheel it’s on then you will have to replace it. Also, the Jones Family CS series don’t take modern needles. It requires organ needles which have a completely round shaft – easy enough to come by when you know that’s what you’re looking for, but a bit of a pain if you buy the machine without knowing this before hand.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 25, 2011, 04.18 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great info. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of Jones Family —.In the USA I think that name is associated with breakfast links (sausage)! LOL

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    Mar 25, 2011, 03.11 AMby rifka

    Great post Peter! I’m constantly perusing Craigslist for machines and often come across vintage Singers. Many listed as industrial machines, so thanks for the note on what models shouldn’t be considered as such. I know it’ll vary depending on the condition and model, but any guidance you could share regarding price points would be greatly appreciated. What would you consider a reasonable price for a machine in working order? What is too much? Thanks!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 25, 2011, 07.50 AMby Peter Lappin

      Well of course a lot depends on one’s budget. Generally I wouldn’t pay more than $100 for a vintage sewing machine but there are exceptions: a Singer Featherweight, a treadle (with table), a 15-91 or 201 in excellent condition…

      I say $100 because there are so many wonderful machines to be had for less than that — sometimes MUCH less.

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