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A few months ago, I received an email from an enthusiastic Male Pattern Boldness reader, telling me I had helped convince her to buy a vintage Singer straight-stitch sewing machine. I’d been spreading the word about vintage sewing machines on my blog since the beginning, but I never thought anybody was actually paying attention!

I’d like to share some of my enthusiasm for these machines with all of you here at BurdaStyle today. Here are my TOP TEN REASONS TO GIVE A VINTAGE MACHINE A TRY.

1) Many wonderful vintage sewing machines can be purchased online for less than $75, including shipping, and at local thrift stores, garage or estate sales for even less. Check out the “Completed Listings” on eBay and you’ll see what I mean. I consider “vintage” to be any machine more than thirty years old. Many fully functional machines this age (or older, much older) can be had for a song. Some of these have names you’ll recognize like Singer, Kenmore, and Viking. Others are more obscure. When in doubt, ask the seller about a machine’s condition. (You can also ask to see a stitch sample.)

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2) A vintage machine is a “greener” choice. We all know by now that we live on a planet with finite resources. It makes sense to give new life to a perfectly functional, albeit second-hand machine.

3) Vintage sewing machines are mechanically less complex, break down less often, and are easier (and cheaper) to repair. With vintage sewing machines, there are no motherboards to break down, no computer circuits that can get fried from an electric surge in a thunderstorm. With a vintage mechanical machine, it’s generally just a question of sufficient oiling and the occasional tune up if necessary — and it often isn’t. (You WILL want to make sure wiring is intact, however. Ask!)

4) When you buy a vintage sewing machine, you’re connecting with a piece of history. There’s something about using a piece of equipment from the past that nourishes the soul. We’re connecting not only with those who used the machine before — sometimes our own ancestors — but also with those who manufactured it with pride. Singer actually makes available information about their old machines on their site, and you can find out the exact day they were manufactured!

5) Vintage sewing machines have already proven their reliability. If a machine is more than forty or fifty years old and still works, that tells you about the quality of its design and manufacture. Many vintage machines available today were top of the line and still perform flawlessly.

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6) Most vintage sewing machines use the same parts — presser feet, needles, bobbins, and bobbin cases — as new machines. Most of the accessories for old machines by major manufacturers like Kenmore and Singer are relatively easy to find — if not in stores, then certainly on eBay. Very little has changed in terms of the basic equipment necessary to sew on a mechanical machine.

7) Vintage sewing machines are beautiful. Just like the automobiles of their day, the sewing machines of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and even Sixties were uniquely styled, with personality to spare. Just like so many cars today look virtually alike, most contemporary sewing machines have a bland, cookie-cutter quality. Gone are the vivid pinks, blues, and greens, the chrome, the eccentric lines, and the futuristic styling.

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8) Using vintage machines is cool. Just like people who wear vintage clothes tend to be at the forefront of things, people who sew on vintage machines are generally independent-minded.. They’re saying, No, I’m not going to buy the latest model with all the bells and whistles; I’m opting instead for something simpler that better reflects my values.

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9) Vintage sewing machines last longer. Will future generations still be sewing decades from now with the primarily plastic machines for sale today? We’ll see.

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10) Vintage sewing machines are plentiful. Most sewing machine store in New York City closed a long time ago. But go on Craigslist or eBay, and they’re everywhere. If you buy on Craigslist, you can actually view and test the machine first to make sure you like it. (Bring a fabric sample, and maybe some thread.)

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So readers, I ask you: Do you ever sew on a vintage sewing machine?

Have I convinced you to give one a try?

New or vintage? What’s your next sewing machine going to be?

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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!”

151 Comments

  • Missing

    Mar 23, 2011, 06.42 PMby missmadeline

    Oh! Thank you for the courage! My great grandmother passed away at 102 and I got her sewing machine. It is just like that old Singer you have photographed at the top. It is sitting in my spare room and I drool over it now and then, but I have been too afraid of it. I have the original manual and everything. I am so used to my modern Janome that I thought it would be taboo to bust out the old machine. It is in perfect condition and I think I am going to give the old girl a spin this weekend. Thank you for giving me permission to honor seamstresses of of days gone by.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 07.43 PMby Peter Lappin

      You have my permission and my blessing! ;)

      Enjoy!

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    Mar 23, 2011, 01.48 PMby jennalyn

    I have a Kenmore from the late 70’s that I picked up at a tag sale 10 years ago for $25 and that is my everyday go to machine. I dropped it last year and broke the tension knob off. I was sad thinking I did it in but it was easily repaired and works wonderfully. In a search for an industrial machine I kept coming across the Singer 15-91. It was a heck of a lot cheaper and I finally got one on ebay. It is in pristine condition…you can see yourself in the reflection! I also spent a little more since it was completely refurbished and I’m so glad I did so I don’t have to worry about the old wiring now. I look at it and still drool even though I own it. To me it sounds like a purr when I’m sewing. It sews easily through all of my heavy strapping and I’m so happy I did not spend the extra on an industrial.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 01.55 PMby Peter Lappin

      My 15-91 needs rewiring so it’s on the shelf at the moment, sadly. Luckily I have a back-up. And a back-up to the back-up. And so on. ;)

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    Mar 23, 2011, 11.23 AMby minimontse

    I’m a fan of vintage machines, either. I have been sorrounded by sewing grandmas, and have got three of them: a couple of Singer from around 1930, with carved front plate and a beautiful decoration, and a Reffrey from my husband’s grandma. That one is the one I use the most, since it’s a semiindustrial machine, and it’s electrical (I have to confirm that vintage wiring needs a CLOSE inspection). It’s from the 50’s, metallic green, sturdy, a bit noisy, but really fast and it can sew almost anything. Ah! And it was one of the first ones to make decorative stitches. The problem with Reffrey is that it used to be a Spanish brand, but now the spare parts are difficult to find and expensive, since now they come from eastern Europe. I haven’t thoght about checking e-bay, thanks Peter for the idea. Anyway, everywhere I’ve asked for Reffrey spare parts, the shop owner has said to me: “If you ever want to sell the machine, I’ll buy it”. This old machines were foolproof, hard-fabric proof, and needed just some oiling and some delicate hands to take care of them. Modern plastic machines can make hundreds of decorative stitching, but…..will they last for 100 years, like these old ones can? I have my doubts, such as you, Peter.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 01.13 PMby Peter Lappin

      Sad but true; most things today aren’t built to last as they were in the past.

  • Missing

    Mar 23, 2011, 10.22 AMby Stitchgirl78

    Love your article!

    I love and appreciate the beauty and sturdiness of the old machines. Over the years, I have collected eight fully functional and pristine antique treadle machines (the oldest of which dates back to the 1850s, feeds the fabric from left to right, and has glass presser foot inserts), and two Singer Featherweight machines. Most of these machines came with a variety of attachments to make ruffles, tucks, pleats, gathers, rolled hems, etc. I like to think about how many styles of garments have been made on these machines over the life of their existence. I also wonder about the sewing motivations of the various women who have sewn on these machines over the years. Did they sew out of necessity, or did they sew for pleasure?

    My everyday machine is a Bernina 1090 that I got new twenty years ago. This machine does everything I want and need it to do, and I have no desire to look for a newer one.

    Thank you for your very nice article, Peter. I really enjoyed. : )

    P.S. I actually owned the Kenmore model you have pictured in your article. I purchased it new many, many years ago. It has now been passed down to my daughter.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 10.47 AMby Peter Lappin

      Wow, Stitchgirl, eight treadles! A dream…

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    Mar 23, 2011, 04.35 AMby kraftykatina

    I learned how to sew when I was probably around 8 on my grandma’s now my mom’s 1952 Featherweight 221. When I moved out of the house my fiancé and mom helped me buy my first Featherweight. I even found a buttonholer for it and learned how to use all the feet. A few years later I got a brand new Brother for Christmas so I could make “fancy” stitches and I stared at it for half an hour just trying to figure out how to thread it (yes, even with the pictures ON the machine!). I like my Brother but NOTHING beats a sturdy old metal sewing machine that take just about anything you can throw at it. I now collect old machines and even picked up a treadle cabinet machine on the side of the road a few summers ago. I LOVE my old Singer and wouldn’t trade a thing in the world for it!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 08.29 AMby Peter Lappin

      A treadle machine on the side of the road? Fantastic! I have found two sewing machines in the street — one old, and one practically brand new (obviously thrown out by someone who wasn’t terribly into sewing)!

  • Missing

    Mar 22, 2011, 11.44 PMby jenbaez

    I have a beautiful Singer like the one your’re hugging and I never thought of getting it up and running…. came from my first husband’s grandmother (he passed away unexpectedly at a young age) anyway I think you’ve just inspired me to see how it works. It was well taken care of and came with quite a bit…. although I don’t think I have an instruction manual. Can you give me any info on the model no. or age of it? Thanks so much! I can’t believe I never thought of trying it out before…. :)

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 12.00 AMby Peter Lappin

      Jen, you can find out its age down to the very day (and location where) it was manufactured here:

      http://www.singerco.com/support/serial_numbers.html

      If it’s exactly like mine it’s a Singer 66.

      All you need to get it running is a belt (and some sewing machine oil). You can find the belts on eBay and you’ll have to install that yourself — you can find instructions online. It’s very do-able.

  • Missing

    Mar 22, 2011, 11.23 PMby myeclecticmess

    A friend recently gave me her MIL’s old Singer 15-99. I love it! It came in a plastic carrying case so I went on a search for a cabinet. One day at Goodwill I found the perfect cabinet that came complete with a lovely aqua Singer. Alas the blue baby was beyond repair, someone had smashed the front of it. But the old black beauty fit the cabinet perfectly. Another friend recently gave me his ex-wife’s old Singer but he couldn’t find the power cord and foot pedal so it still sits in a box until he gets through more of her crap. ;)

    My everyday machine is my 10 yr. old Bernina 180 that I finally managed to get an embroidery module for via ebay. It is my modern day work horse. I also have a newer Viking 870 Sapphire that I’m not a big fan of, gotta ebay it soon. I work for a Bernina dealer and vacillate between wanting to someday upgrade to the Grandmama of all machines, the new 830 or something lower down the line. But I’ll always keep my 180 as long as it runs and my older vintage babies. I’m sure I’ll come across some other old mechanical machines that I’ll appreciate for their reliability and beauty.

    A working Featherweight is always on my bucket list. My middle sister inherited our Great Grandmother’s old New Home treadle machine. There are three girls in my family and the sister that inherited that machine is the only one that doesn’t sew! Maybe I can work out a trade for the china! LOL
    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 23, 2011, 12.02 AMby Peter Lappin

      Great story. I should receive my featherweight any day now. Here’s hoping it arrives intact and sews!

  • Missing

    Mar 22, 2011, 09.51 PMby outdooranimal

    You can find parts and all sorts of useful advice from vintage collectors and rebuilders at Yahoogroups.com, look for the group of “shade tree mechanics” called WeFixIt.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 10.27 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great to know, thanks!

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    Mar 22, 2011, 09.24 PMby lyarost

    Your top photo drew me to your post. That’s my Singer! Whenever a new sewist asks me what type of machine to buy, I always steer them to estate sales. Vintage machines are definitely the best bang for the buck, and manufactured much better than contemporary entry-level machines. They usually include all the attachments you will ever need, including button holers, rufflers, and bias tape feet. My 1941 Singer has such a great owner’s manual that I can do almost all the service myself, and the Singer repair shops can still do the tough stuff for me, (including the power cord and pedal cord that my machine required when I purchased her.) Plus, whenever my Singer isn’t working properly, I can be pretty sure it’s something I did, rather than her being temperamental. Hooray for the vintage machines!

    1 Reply
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    Mar 22, 2011, 08.38 PMby monicapetrus

    I still use the machine my mom got when they arrived in America in 1968 – a light blue Brother (I don’t know the syle #). It weighs a ton but work great!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 09.24 PMby Peter Lappin

      Those old Brothers were cool — if only for the colors!

  • Missing

    Mar 22, 2011, 06.02 PMby bonnet0uk

    I bought a 1916 hand crank Singer from a car boot sale for £10 two years ago, it worked perfectly from the start and was very well looked after, it is now my sewing machine of choice. I prefer to use it as I feel more relaxed when using it, up to my electric anyway. I’ve since gone on to buy a couple more, both need work though, you can see them here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bonnet0uk/sets/72157625808342779/

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 09.23 PMby Peter Lappin

      I have to try a hand crank some day. Just not sure I could sew with only one hand on the fabric.

  • Missing

    Mar 22, 2011, 04.23 PMby j8783b

    I learned to sew on a Singer with a treadle. I love your last picture especially, it looks exactly like my Mom’s machine. If I had the space I would have a treadle along with my electric. That beast could sew through anything!! Leather, multiple layers of denim, and multiple layers of canvas. We used to make corsets.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 05.13 PMby Peter Lappin

      I love treadles — and so easy to use.

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    Mar 22, 2011, 03.16 PMby laneandme

    I purchased my first Vintage machine, a Singer 15-89, at a thrift store with the intention of tearing it apart to see how it worked. I was going to practice tearing a cheap, vintage machine apart before I started working on my recently purchased vintage 301A and putting it back together and if it didn’t ever work again, hey, it was only 10.00 bucks.

    I took her home, tore her apart and came to know her intimately. I was TOTALLY amazed at the BEAUTIFUL SIMPLICITY with which these Vintage Singers were made. I fell instantly in love. I found a great website/ blog for people interested in bringing these machines back to their previous usefulness. www.sew-classic.com. I bought a few parts to bring my machine back to working condition, which really didnt take much at all. All the parts were easy to find and inexpensive to purchase. My brother and I then spent a weekend building a beautiful oak base box for her to sit in with an attachment compartment built in. She is SOOOO beautiful.

    Even though I have 6 other machines, (3 kenmores, a babylock serger, a New Home and a Singer 301) This machine is the machine I choose to sew on. I love to hear that beautiful sound that she makes as she sews those strong straight stitches, and I imagine whom she might have made those same stitches for over the last 76 years. My 10 dollar machine is my pride and joy. She makes me WANT to sew something every time I look at her, just so I can hear her operate. How did anyone ever think they could improve upon the fantastic simplicity of these older machines? My newer machines certainly aren’t built like this baby and I know they won’t still be in operation when they are 76 years old. BTW, I still haven’t re worked the 301 A yet. I just can’t stand to put this machine to the side. I can’t imagine liking that 301 as much as I love this machine:)

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 03.55 PMby Peter Lappin

      What a beautiful post. It sounds like you found a gem!

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    Mar 22, 2011, 03.14 PMby Karen Alexander

    Nice to see younger sewists discovering the “old ones”….Vintage machines are grand, and in my sewing world they have their place. My 221 Featherweight is my “go to” quilt piecing machine. My old Elna 62C is also a great portable dressmaker. And the sheer joy of running my 1913 model 15 treadle (sans electricity) gives me a nice workout from time to time. For several years, I collected and restored vintage machines, but these days, just don’t have time… I have too many UFO’s to finish! I do sew clothing, as well as quilts, and my very modern Viking Designer model does things faster (no presser foot lifter!), as well as quick embroidery an d decorative stitches… I couldn’t life without any of them. But my vintage machines are special. A word of caution to all, any machine over 40 years old likely has cracked frayed or brittle wiring. DON’T hazard a shocking experience, be sure that any machine with questionable wiring is correctly re-wired. There are many great Yahoogroups and other discussion groups that will help you learn how to do this yourself… Happy vintage machine hunting, and happy Sewing! - Karen Alexander Austin, Tx - Link to my gallery of machines… http://www.webshots.com/user/karenquiltstexas

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 03.56 PMby Peter Lappin

      Great point about the wiring, Karen! Definitely something to inspect closely and address if needed.

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    Mar 22, 2011, 02.35 PMby raving

    I recently bought an early 70’s/late 60’s Frister and Rossman sewing machine at a yard sale for £3! Amazing bargain, and it works brilliantly, the trick was carrying it back home across London…

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Mar 22, 2011, 03.56 PMby Peter Lappin

      Those old machines were heavy!

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