Hi Brian,
It's been some time since I wrote you asking about sewing machines.
I see you mentioned you have changed about your likes towards vintage sewing machines.
Well, I can understand how the computerized machines improve and smooth our way to new designs
however I'm still stuck with budget and don't need fancy sewing.
My question:
I am looking into a Pfaff, Bernina, Viking.
Which models you suggest are good machines. I'd like a machine that can also sew thick fabrics (even leather)
I like mechanical machines. and I'm looking for deals at eBay and Craigs list for no more than $100.00
I am confused (or can't decide) with the number models of Pfaff specially.
Thank you and glad to see your business is growing.
Hope to see your show on PBS very soon.

Hey Daniela,

Funny how times change! Now I'm back on mechanical machines!

My big problem with the computerized machines is that functions that should be at the touch of a button are often multiple touches to get what you need. I have found the machine that does this and of course it's a Bernina 1130 which I feel guilty using since electronics especially old ones don't last forever.  (Do I turn the power off every time I step away, or is it better to leave it on?)

My current favorite machine is actually a Kenmore from the 80s.

They came in 24 and 30 stitch models, all mechanical and smooth as silk. Every one I've touched sews at full speed with zero vibration. Add to that all the functions are at the flick of the wrist and it's a winner. I've payed as much as $60 for these gems but also much less. Yes they'll sew whatever you can fit under the foot but unfortunately the foot doesn't lift as high as I'd like. This becomes an issue when sewing multiple layers of fleece or other bulky stuff.

As far as your choices go for under $100 they're pretty good.

The older Bernina will do you well and they're very sweet inside. Be sure to watch for the knee control that powers the motor and not lifts the foot. I would prefer control with a pedal. These machines will have an oscillating hook and could be seen to have more thread jams depending on how you sew.

The vintage vikings are great machines, full rotary hook and heavy duty but simple. I also found that the bobbin area of these older vikings are loud but that's subjective.  I don't feel like it's possible to break this machine, it's just solid and simple.

A Pfaff will give you a lot of bang for your buck and you're looking at either the 260 flatbed or 360 freearm. The 360 was very popular a few years back and could fetch upwards of $300 easily, now it's back down to under $100. The 260 can be had for less than $50. The mechanics of both machines are very similar and both do a lot, a lot of stuff you won't probably use. The Pfaff has a very sure footed way of sewing, feels like you're driving a caterpillar tractor.  My gripe with these machines is the markings on the dials.  I eventually learned how to fumble my way around but if you don't have the stitch wheel chart you're just using trial and error.
They fixed this with the next gen Pfaffs.

I recently got a Pfaff 1222 that I've been... disappointed in. The hype of a mechanical walking foot machine was mostly hype. The extra electronic features are bothersome and the foot doesn't lift up far enough. BUT! All the functions are at the turn of one dial and the magnetic bobbin winder is cool.  It's a good machine just perhaps not as fully functioned as I would need.  Plus I'm scared to break it, like the Bernina 1130.

I should mention that the vintage Pfaff machines are much more difficult to work on and you may very well have to send your machine away for service.  Just check ebay and you'll find quite a few that are in great shape but sew backwards or something else wonky.  I got a deal on one and sent it directly to Ken over at www.kennsplace.com.  I figured with everything included it would cost about the same as one in working order just a but more work.  Ken by the way does a bang up job with these machines.  Generally they've been diddled with by a number of mechanics before he gets them.  Mechanics like Ken are becoming hard to find.  Something to note, sending a machine away takes time, maybe even months to get it back.  It's only an option if you like waiting or have other machines to use.

I suppose the point is that there is no perfect machine for every sewing job or every sewist. Get whatever you can get your hands on and just start sewing.  If you're really looking to save money get a Kenmore from the 70s or 60s.  Nice high lift on the foot, bullet proof mechanics, good features, easy to repair, and cheap.

Also remember if you pay the right price to begin with you can easily sell it for what you paid or more.  Essentially you get to use the machine for free, just pay the deposit!

Hope that helps!


Give me Industrial features in a small space....


Rosanne writes, " I hope my question will turn out to be a simple one.  I already have 4 sewing machines. However, none of them can accommodate sewing that is rather thick under the presser foot. Because I have recently started a sewing business at home, and I'm starting to get more Home Dec jobs, I'm realizing that I should start searching for a (used) machine that is both strong and handles thicker sewing.  Can you please tell me your opinion of what I should be on the hunt for?

        Thanks so much,
Follow up questions from me:

This comes down to if you want to devote the space to an industrial or keep it portable.  If going industrial most machines will do what you're asking without complaining.  Generally I find the needle gives way long before the motor stalls.  Depending on your area a straight stitch industrial can be had for $100.  I've never spend over $100 and I have 4.  If you're looking for portable then perhaps an older Bernina (less than $200).  An electronic machine will give you consistent punching power but a mechanical one will be "smoother" to use.  

What specifically are you going to be sewing and what is your budget?

Rosanne writes, "Space would be an issue for me, I'm afraid.  I know that industrial machines are strong. I had a "factory" job (It was actually in a home.) once, working with an industrial machine. I might be able to find a place for it if I eliminated one of my machines that's in a cabinet. However, I'd rather go with a portable. You could label my business as "eclectic". Although by far, the majority of my experience has been with garment sewing, I find I really enjoy home dec, & also repairs. I've taken custom slipcover classes, and have even reupholstered some couches. As a result, I've been getting all types of sewing work brought to me. I had a very tough time sewing some pinch-pleated, & swag & jabot, style window treatments when I get to the areas where the material has a few layers of folds. Then it takes a great deal of SQUEEZING, and turning the wheel by hand to get through it. Recently, I was given a padded golf-bag strap to reinforce, and none of my machines would do. That's when I decided that I'd better see if I can find another machine for those situations, because I'm sure there will be more.
I think we could swing getting a machine $100-$200.

Hi Rosanne, Ok so I would say the biggest issue you'll have is getting enough lift from the foot to get bulky stuff under.  If you're using the right size (as in not too big) sharp needle going through the layers probably won't be a huge problem since home dec is usually a lot looser weave than cotton (like denim).  Unfortunately I don't think there's one good answer here for you.  Here's what I know that could be of relevance to you.

  • High shank foot machines tend to have a bit more space under the foot but no guarantee. The shank size really should have nothing to do with how far it's lifted but they seem to correlate anyway.
  • A machine with a good hand wheel is essential since you'll be turning it by hand quite a bit.  Nothing makes me more irritated than a small hand wheel with nothing to grab.
  • Bernina machines with the knee lift (not the knee power, that's older) will drop their feed dogs when the foot goes up allowing fabric to be more easily moved under the foot.  It seems like it wouldn't matter but the difference is apparent when moving to a machine without this feature.
  • "Electronic" machines are defined to me as machine that has consistent punching power no matter what speed.  These machines will have smaller hand wheels because you're not really supposed to use them for advancing the stitch.  They're great until you get to something they can't punch through and then they're a big pain.
  • The more features a machine has the less "free" the movement.  The most direct path for power from the motor to needle is what you want.
Ok, now for your recommendation. I wish it could be more glamorous...

You're looking for a 1970s flatbed zigzag kenmore with the lever to adjust stitch length not the knob and external motor.  Often the best ones are the green ones.  I'm not super fond of the zigzag selector knob on this model but it's got everything else.  This model also has a blind hem stitch which is extremely handy for curtains, maybe even a left hand needle position which is also quite nice.  The external motor will allow you to adjust the belt as necessary and makes motor replacement easy if necessary.  These Kenmore machines often came with a 1.2amp motor which is about as good as it gets.  I saw a 1.5amp once but only once and it was a Consew.

These can be had anywhere from free up to $100.  Most were designed for cabinets so you may have to switch out the foot pedal if it's set up for knee.

I didn't even mention the Sailrite machines because even used they fall well outside the budget.  Another wild and crazy idea might be using a treadle...  Plenty of power, not sure on the lift, checking....  yeah nothing special.  

This is good, hand wheel could be bigger...

These are bad..

The hand wheel on this one is great but it has the knob for stitch length, no good.  
Often you can switch the hand wheel from one machine to another so it's worth keeping an eye open for orphaned machines to strip for parts.

Hope that helps! 

What would your suggestions be for Rosanne?  Hammering thick seam intersections flat is probably the best tip I can offer regardless of machine.  This is a very common issue for a lot of sewists.

a question of irons....

Hey folks.  I just got a great question from a reader.

Maria writes:

Hello Brain,

I am very impressed with your site and now a new follower.

With all the sewing you do, what is your favorite iron?  I am not pleased with the one I have (there have been many). Steam is either messy or not enough, sometimes the irons either get to hot or not hot enough. What are your thoughts?

Thank you,

Hi Maria!

Well I think you're not alone in your quest for the perfect iron.  As people who sew I feel we have different requirements for an iron than the average laundry maid.  My trusty Shark brand iron purchased from Target finally bit the dust last year.  I had used it so much that the paint had been worn through on the handle and it had a few hot glue repairs.

The features that matter to me as someone who sews are as follows:

  • Long cord
    • And forget that retractable business, that just breaks and is bulky.  Plus I never ever put my iron away.
  • No digital controls (just give me a standard dial folks)
    • I almost never change my settings, I always keep the iron set for Wool which allows me to iron everything and not worry about melting my polyester thread.
  • Good burst of steam button
    • This is essential for the sewist.  I need precise control of the steam in order to manipulate the fabric.  I want to be able to give the button micro pushes for little tiny bits of steam.  A perfect burst of steam would only come out the holes at the tip giving absolute control but that's hard to find.
  • Steams successfully at the lower temp of Wool
    • This is HUGE.  If you look at the dial they never say steam is available at the wool setting however some irons will steam at the lower temp anyway.  Like mentioned before I only use the lower temp (unless I'm ironing linen or something) so the steam has to work at the lower temp.
  • Stainless steel plate or very durable non-stick
    • Those early or cheap non-stuck coatings on irons were/are horrific.  Iron over a button and your coating scratches right off.  I like stainless steel but it's not quite as smooth as a coated surface.  Therefore I tend to lean towards the durable non-stick.
  • Advanced auto-off features
    • I never turn my iron off or unplug it unless it's leaving the building.  I want an iron that heats fast and also turns off fast.  Often I leave the iron plate side down on the table and walk away.  Because it's on a low heat setting it's no problem, my iron also senses that it's plate down and not being moved and shuts off within seconds.  I've become accustomed to the iron taking 30 seconds to warm up and feel the trade off is fine over an iron that stays on continually.  I don't want to feel guilty for leaving an iron hot all the time.  They are after all the wattage of a space heater or blow dryer.
  • Not easy to tip over
    • The most detrimental thing for the life of your iron is falling on the floor.  They really don't like it.  Many irons are designed to be rather unsteady when set up on their base.  Pair with the wobbly ironing boards most people have and you need a new iron every six months.  An iron that stays on it's base will last longer.
  • Good for right or left handed use
    • My mom is left handed and often reminds me that she lives in a right handed world. It's no skin off their noses to make an iron work for both with a cord that is in the right spot or swivels back and forth.
  • Easy to fill with water and water stays in
    • Who thinks it's ok to spill water all over your ironing board when you're filling your iron?  Also, what if your ironing aggressively, do you want the water sloshing back out the hole?
Usually I don't promote products here because there are very few that I feel are worthy of my seal of approval.  This one gets me seal:

T-Fal FV4259 Tefal Ultraglide Easy Cord Steam Iron

This iron gets rave reviews and can be had shipped for under $40.  If I had to complain about something it would be that the auto-shutoff is slightly too aggressive.  However since the iron heats fast it's pretty much a non-issue.  I have used irons from all the major brands and even the "high end" names (you know the ones) and they just don't stand up to this one.

So that's my two cents on irons!  Notice we didn't even get into all the steam generators and gravity feeds.  I think those are a whole different thing and would have to be reviewed in their own category.

a question of the collection....


A reader sent me this and I thought I'd answer it here since its a question I get asked from time to time.  He writes,

  "This email is asking your thoughts on a tough   question.  I recently found myself coming under a great deal of criticism for collecting old sewing machines.  I have about nine now, and very few duplicates.   My rule is any addition to the family must be old, and be capable functioning, even if help is needed (which is most of the time)   Today I got blasted from a guy who said 'why?'   Why waste money on junk which all do basically the same thing.  They're waste of money and space.  Well,  it's my money and my space.   Have you ever come across this attitude from people you generally respected?  Their recommendation was to pick one, maybe two of my favorites and dispose of the rest.  I disagree.    Any word of wisdom for when another similar conversation arises?"  

I think of it the same way I would probably collect cars if I was wealthy.  Each individual machine has a slightly different feel and sound.  Each does specific tasks very well and others not so much.  As much as manufacturers try there is no perfect machine that can do everything the way I want it all the time.  Granted they don't have me specifically in mind when designing these machines although they probably should.  Like everything mass produced it is designed to appeal to an audience.  I'd be interested to see exactly what the marketing demographics are as sewing has changed so much in just the past five years.  Companies like Brother that provide excellent products at entry level budgets are probably capturing a good portion of the market.  Features that used to be found only on high end machines have filtered down and it's no longer necessary to spend over grand to get pretty much every feature you want.

Where do vintage machines come in then?  It's interesting watching the market as old stuff becomes more rare and highly sought after models see their prices increase year after year.  I admit that I will often hold back blogging about machines that I wish to own because it drives the prices up.  I actually own a number of machines that you guys don't even know about yet!  

Back to the point.  There's a difference between old treasure and old junk and everyone draws their own line.  At this point to me any black Singer looking machine is junk, I know, sacrilege right?  I'm not saying these machines don't work great and have tons of potential life left in them.  What I'm saying is that they're so common I see no need to keep a bunch of them around collecting dust.  I also don't see the prices going up much except on the "special" ones.  I'm obviously not the only one who feels this way.  That being said I still own at least three of these. (no not special ones)

I collect what I like and what will retain or gain in value.  I'm not using these machines anymore because I have more modern machines I like better.  That being said every so often someone wants to try one and we make a go of it.

In the end I collect what I do because for whatever reason that particular object makes me happy to own or I haven't gotten around to getting rid of it yet.  I've learned that it's easier to leave a boring machine on the side of the road then have to dispose of it later.  I only need so many door stops after all.

Here's my current inventory.  I also have a few machines at home that aren't pictured.  Remember, I have a "legitimate" reason for having all these...   I think?

In no particular order:

Fly on The Wall....

First of all this video is an experiment, I'm not really expecting it to be ground breaking. When I first started sewing I needed to see real people sewing real things.  All the books and tutorials are great for learning techniques but I craved seeing how it all came together at the machine. Here I ignore the camera while I sewed three pairs of pants assembly line style.  I think you'll see the pockets come together.  You'll notice no ironing or pinning just folding and sewing.  In this case I'm using the Pfaff 138 for it's speed not it's strength.  Strong but not heavy thread and a size 80/12 needle which has come to be my favorite size for general sewing.  I'm obviously a total sewing nerd because I could watch stuff like this all day....  Real people sewing real things, hopefully no nose picking....

Introducing Sophie....

Sophie and I have worked together for a bit more than a year.  I had hired her as an instructor at the other sewing studio and when I left she followed me.  Sophie is also self taught and it shows in her ability to take on rather ambitious projects with little worry they may not succeed.  She has a very much "Make it work" attitude when it comes to sewing.  Making it work is an excellent skill to have when you teach sewing classes, especially to kids.  Sophie has much better design aesthetic than I do and most of the design elements you see in the studio are her doing.  Our skills compliment each other and we make a good team. 

Sophie sews at home on the Bernina 530 which I gave her as a gift when it was clear she was due for a machine upgrade.  The knee control on this machine is for sewing, not for lifting the foot.

When the lights go out....

I guess they didn't have 6'3" men in mind when they designed these?
Boston didn't get hit with hurricane Sandy nearly as bad as other parts but many of our neighborhoods did loose power and still have not had service return. Most of the damage was from high winds, luckily it did not rain enough for the widespread flooding that could have been a very real possibility.

I grew up in the country side of Northern California and it was routine to loose power for days or even a week at a time in the winter. Mom still lives in the house I grew up in. She has the monitor heater and electric baseboard units but she will never give up her wood stove. When the lights go out she knows that at the very least she will have the fundamental comfort of heat and that makes her feel safe.

One of the things that bothers me most when the lights go out is not being able to sew. Just the idea that I can't sew anytime I want makes me anxious. In my head I consider the possibility that the power may never come back on and then what? I'd have a huge collection of useless machines and equipment and in that case a HUGE need to be sewing as a necessity.

Last year I purchased an old treadle sewing machine from the early 1900s for $40. The iron base and wooden top with drawers was in great shape, the machine attached, not so much. I removed the machine and replaced it with a newer Necchi BU with chipped paint from the 1950s with zigzag and reverse stitch capabilities. I had to remove the middle drawer so my knees don't hit when I treadle. Now I have a very functional and "modern" non-electric treadle sewing machine.

Now when the power fails I know that somehow it's all going to work out. Even if I don't do any sewing by candlelight I still know that I can and somehow that makes all the difference.

What brings you comfort when the lights go out?
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