Vintage Sewing Machine Addiction: A Survival Guide

When you've been bitten by the vintage sewing machine bug, it's virtually impossible to recover. Once you start noticing the generations of old Singers, Kenmores, Elnas and Necchis, they start turning up everywhere: the thrift store, garage sales, flea markets, etc. Fifty years ago, sewing machine were built like tanks and were as common as toasters; it's no wonder they're in overabundance today.

The challenge for the connoisseur of vintage machines is two-fold: Almost any sewing machine manufactured before 1980 can be had for relatively cheap, and it's easy to fall into pound-puppy syndrome: you feel it's your duty to save these orphaned machines from the trash heap.

Since this new obsession is most likely here to stay, let's talk about managing your obsession so you don't end up turning your spare bedroom into a sewing machine museum.

The ground rules:
  • Don't buy any sewing machines that show signs of having had a hard life. Inspect the underside and peek under the covers and doors, if possible. Chips in paint, rust, or missing parts are signs you should move on. Limited chipping on the machine bed is acceptable, as are easily replaced universal parts like a bobbin case or motor belts.
  • Before you buy anything, you should know which brands are most highly regarded. The top two brands in vintage machines are the Italian-made Necchi and the German-made Pfaff. Most vintage machines manufactured in Japan are also excellent and often carry names like Kenmore, Dressmaker, and Montgomery Wards, among others. Don't pay too much just for a name: no machine is one-of-a-kind; these were mass-produced products and are still plentiful. When in doubt, keep looking.
  • Have an understanding of what features set certain machines above the rest. Look for droppable feed dogs and the more rare, but highly useful, needle position selector. Machines that used cams to create special stitches are often missing these extras today and have more internal parts that could go wrong, making these machines less desireable unless in excellent working condition and complete with their original accessories.
  • Look for "barn finds". This is a machine that likely has been sitting around for a very long time without use. The oil will have dried up, the belt may have disintegrated, and the hand wheel will be hard to turn. A machine like this could be priced low because of it's apparent unusable condition but can be refurbished with new belt, bobbin tire and oil, all for less than $10. It's a risk of course, but if the price is right you have little to lose. Machines that have been stored in a case rather than a cabinet will be in better condition, having been protected from the elements, than cabinet machines that were open to the air even if closed, and were often left in their upright position, exposing them to dust and moisture.
  • Don't pass up a super-cheap machine that happens to be missing a part or two or is in questionable shape. Motors, tension assemblies, foot pedals, bobbin cover plates, etc. are often interchangeable between brands. Buying a broken-down machine for $5 just for a tension assembly or motor you can use in a machine you are restoring will save you quite a bit over buying new. Look to see if you recognize anything you need but avoid collecting too many non-functional units, especially if space is at a premium.
  • Listen to the motor if you can. Release the knob that engages the needle and let the motor spin alone (or just the hand wheel) at full speed. The motor should sound smooth. It's normal for a dusty motor to have an acrid smell, but a choppy or clunky sound is not a good sign. Sparks are also possible at first but not acceptable after a few trial runs. Motors can be rebuilt fairly easily for those willing for follow directions, but this is time consuming and can be complicated. New motors are easily found but can cost more than the machine is worth, depending on the model. Consider, if it is a very strong machine otherwise, will you be willing to source a replacement motor?
In closing, you must learn to be selective. You can't buy them all and you shouldn't.

What if, however, more eligible machines show up in your life than you can possibly purchase? You could avoid places where old machines are likely to be found, but what fun is that? The best solution is to buy only those machines you truly love, and to raise the standards of what you are willing to bring home. Hunt for only the very best examples at the best prices.

And what of the machines you pass up -- how can you just leave them there? I suggest bringing your camera with you when you hunt, and creating a photo album of the many machines that don't make the cut. It's always fun to have a record of what you found and at what price. There's always the possibility you'll find the same thing cheaper at another time.

And if, at that time, you experience a slightly accelerated heartbeat that suggests, This is the machine I want and I want it now?

Go for it!

Fancy Sewing Machines Won't Improve Your Sewing Skills

It's important to remember that the newest, most sophisticated sewing machines available today will not a skilled sewist make.

To the sewing industry, we home sewists are seen primarily as consumers. We are encouraged to buy their products and often do, whether we need them or not. If it wasn't suggested to you that your current sewing machine is outdated and inadequate, you would never replace it, provided it was working properly. Sewing machine features must be continually repackaged in new and improved ways. The only innovation happening in the home sewing industry, in my opinion, is the marketing of the same old features!

Your actual skills may even be hindered by a more sophisticated machine. Consider that most of the ready-to-wear clothing in your closet was stitched on a fully mechanical straight stitch machine. In the 1950s, a time I consider the heyday of home sewing, the most you could ask for in a machine was a zigzag function that was capable of a few simple embroidery stitches. It was the skill of the sewist, not the number of features on her machine, that made the difference.

With today's electronically-controlled everything, one might think that anyone can sew -- or can they? How do the skills of today's sewists compare to those of fifty years ago? I would suggest that on average, our sewing skills are inferior to those of the sewists of yesterday. If you have true sewing skills then you can sew amazing and professional items on an ancient machine purchased for $2 from Goodwill, because in the end no one knows or cares what sewing machine you used when they see your work.

When you show off your new home-sewn item to others, they're unlikely to ask how many thousands of stitches your machine is capable of, if it has a needle up/down feature, or automatic tension adjustments. They will be evaluating your taste and creativity, and your fabric and notion choices. They will even be admiring your straight seams. None of those features are listed on the box of today's sophisticated, perhaps overpriced, sewing machines.

In closing, let's not allow sewing industry marketing make us lose sight of what's truly important. Machines and tools are a means to an end; they won't drive themselves.

It's the skill and creativity of the person that counts most, not the machine.

How to Save Money Buying Thread

Before I had my serger I'd never bought thread on the cone. Now I have grocery bags full of the stuff! I discovered what many people have known for years, thread on cones is not just to use with the serger! You too can easily save money buying serger thread with the intention of using it on your sewing machine.

A disclaimer: the quest for discount thread is only for those who are able to create perfect stitches with their sewing machine. Some people have trouble with less expensive thread, it could be their specific machine or simply the belief that something bad might happen. Whatever the case may be, if tension is still somewhat of a mystery to you, I suggest filing this away for later.
I'm also not going to get technical about the thread itself; if you need info on strands, manufacturing techniques, etc., Google is a good resource.

In purchasing cones of thread I've noticed a lot of price discrepancy between shopping venues.

Discount thread is not usually found at sewing machine dealers. These places seem to have the most expensive of everything, unless you find something on sale.

Walmart has a limited selection of cones, and they are inexpensive. I've been to stores all across the US and they all have the same colors: tan, black, white, dark green, red, dark blue, and light blue. These are a great starter set of colors, the thread is of fairly decent quality, and they come on 3000 yard cones. The light blue looks great in the loopers and actually goes with almost anything.

I've had luck on Ebay buying either four-color sets or purchasing someone's old box of thread. This photo is a very small representation of what I have. It shows how the cones come in various shapes and sizes. Most of these have around 6000 yard of thread.

I noticed that the more commercial thread lots usually come in neutral colors. Shipping is sometimes expensive due to the weight, and it's sometimes a mystery what you may get.
Something to watch out for on Ebay is thread size. A lot of what's being sold in lots for industrial sewing and is quite thick. This thread will seem like rope the first time you sew with it and usually requires a bobbin tension adjustment. Some is so thick it will only work in the bobbin! Here's a chart the explains thread sizing. It also explains needle sizes. I've learned that just because you can get the thread through the hole of the needle doesn't mean it will work. You must learn how to use the right size needles too.

I've also purchased thread on Craigslist. The cones I got were 16 ounce (around 10,000 yards) and by far the biggest I've ever used. The thread is textured polyester and it works great for many projects. It's a little stiff, but since it's non-twisted it goes through the machine very smoothly.
I was having problems with the thread catching on the bottom of the cone so I finally figured out putting it in a sandwich bag to prevent the thread from slipping down the cone and getting stuck. It's pictured here with a Walmart cone just for reference. These cones have to sit on the table behind your machine and may require some fiddling to get them to feed properly. Even the 6000 yard cones have trouble sitting next to each other without the bottoms touching and causing tension

An unexpected source for good discount thread is Asian fabric stores. The store I like has boxes of thread on the floor you must dig though to find for what yo like. All cones are $2 for 6000 yards!

I discovered a technique for judging better quality thread that's similar to choosing fruit at the grocery store. It's what I call my squeeze test. It requires a little understanding of the thread itself. When you look at the best/expensive thread in the light you will notice that it is smooth, with very few fibers coming off a single strand. Being smooth, this thread will feed in your machine easily. The worst quality cheap thread looks like yarn when you hold a strand to the light -- it's fuzzy. The fuzz causes the thread to drag through the machine and produces more lint.

When the cones are wound at the factory the thread with less fuzz winds tighter on the cone; the fuzzy thread winds looser. This is where the squeeze test comes in: the better quality thread cones will feel firm when you squeeze them, the lower quality will be more squishy.

Another sign of thread quality is how shiny it is, which sometimes correlates to how much fuzz it has. (Not always though because although textured polyester or nylon thread isn't very shiny, it doesn't have fuzz.) Shine is created when light reflects off the thread's surface, more fuzz means the light is diffused, less fuzz means a smoother surface and more light reflection.

I never buy regular small spools of thread these days. Usually I'm only doing three-thread serging, so I use my extra thread holder on my serger to hold a cone for my standard machine. The machines are next to each other so I just bring the thread over from the extending thread guide. Works great and very economical!

When mistakes become design elements


I was reminded today of a situation that happens to many of us when we sew: I made a mistake.

I was working on a very simple project, a t-shirt. (I'll keep the backstory short to avoid making excuses for myself.) I've been sewing button-down shirts lately. The back pattern piece is cut on the fold, and the fronts are not. This is because the front of a button-down shirt must open. For a t-shirt, both front and back are cut on folds since neither needs to open.

And now my mistake: I cut my t-shirt like a button-down shirt, meaning I created a right and left front where only one piece was needed. Not wanting to waste fabric (not that there was any left to consider wasting), I sewed my mistake right up. My t-shirt now has a seam down the front and...I like the look!

The reason why I'm writing about this is that sometimes we make mistakes in sewing that we can't undo and the best solution is to incorporate the error into our design. This also applies when removing stitches will damage a piece of fabric, or undoing a seam will take more time than sewing the entire garment.
I was recently working on a dress shirt using very fine weight cotton, extremely fine thread, and very small stitches. Ripping out a seam would be next to impossible. After setting in the sleeve, overcasting the seam allowance, and top stitching, I realized that I had put the sleeve placket on the inside of the arm! In this case there was no fudging it and certainly no taking out stitches. I put my work down, let out an extra loud moan, and went downstairs to clear my head. First, I reassured myself that the worst case scenario was a short-sleeve shirt (that's not so bad right?) Needing even more space, I went to the gym, where I got the answer I needed. Out of the blue it hit me: I'll just cut the sleeve off at an angle, stitch on a new sleeve end and redo the placket. Bingo! A design element! As you can see, it doesn't look bad at all.

I'm convinced that many established sewing techniques and designer details were born out of a mistake. (Think about french seams. Seems to me like a mistake gone good.) Next time you have that "Oh @#$%!" moment, take a step back and let your problem-solving mind take over. You might be surprised at what you and your innate creativity come up with!

About Brian

Before sewing clothes, I started sewing hair (!) back in 2003, making hair extensions for my hair salon in Las Vegas. My first sewing machine was given to me by a drag queen. It was a 1957 Kenmore and I still have it.

I grew up with a mother who made us clothes. I remember watching TV with the sound of the sewing machine rumbling above our heads. Our clothes were very basic back then: elastic waist shorts, simple button down shirts, and for winter she made jackets. My grandmother also sewed and did more intricate work including home decor items that I remember being in awe of as a kid. Unfortunately neither thought to teach me how to sew.

My Mom's machine was available and while she didn't exactly discourage its use, she didn't encourage it either. (I had a fascination with taking things apart and she may have been a little uncomfortable leaving me with her machine.) My brother did some sewing when he was in high school and I can see him doing it again some day. Sewing is obviously in my blood, because I feel like I've been doing it for many, many years.

Besides one dress shirt back in 2003, I really started sewing clothing in the summer of 2008. I was irritated that I could not find a good swimsuit that fit properly and cost less than $50. I realized that they were basically just very expensive underwear, so I decided to do it myself. Since I didn't know spandex was supposed to be difficult it wasn't, and after I made bags and bags of rejects I finally got a pattern I loved. Things have progressed a lot since then.

At this point I'm obsessed with sewing and simply can't stop!

I have a fetish for old heavy sewing machines and the $1 table at Walmart. I have two Necchi Supernova's and another Kenmore I picked up for $2 at a thrift shop. My Kenmore serger came from Ebay, cost less than $75, and is a true work horse. My coverstitch machine also came from Ebay, but I usually think of ways to get around needing to use it. It's a good machine but takes practice. Someday I may try out a newer computerized machine but for now I don't really see any need. Garment industry workrooms are not using any computerized, electronic, or plastic equipment so why should I?

Usually I pick a pattern and sew it until I know and understand everything about it and get the fit perfect. I end up with a pile of rejects and a deep understanding of construction details. Thankfully, the longer I sew the smaller the reject pile gets on new projects.

I've done swimwear, underwear, jeans, slacks, t-shirts and lots of button down shirts. I'm about to get into the dress shirts more, and after that, things like sweatshirts with zippers and hoods. I may even sew a suit at some point but don't have any place to wear one right now. I really like focusing on street wear clothes that everyday people wear everyday.

I have eclectic style and enjoy doing unique things. People expect the unexpected when I'm around.

Button Collections

Finding old button collections is a fun way I explore the past and get a glimpse into a collectors personality. Almost every person I know who sews has a box or bag of buttons. The collections are passed down through generations or donated when the owners pass on. Some collections are highly personal with the buttons being the keepers of memories for someone. Others are mainly functional, in the past clothing would never be discarded with the valuable buttons still attached!

It is easy to find button collections. Thrift shops, eBay, yard sales, and your own relatives will all have buttons. If possible hearing the stories behind the buttons is a wonderful way to connect with people. It will surprise you how inexpensive a valuable an interesting collection can be. Here's a selection from my various collections, if you'd like to see more visit my Picasa gallery.

I keep my collections together as I found them. Mixing all the buttons would ruin the value I find in the collection. To me the collection is the personality of the collector, their energy is still here for me to explore.

What does this collection say about it's owner?

The colors are fantastic on this all plastic collection.
I want to eat this shiny green one!
An trouser button collection!
Trouser buttons are usually made from metal and show great wear on the paint.

Shell buttons are my first choice for a shirt.
Ceramic are interesting and keep their color.

The nylon and plastic are the most common,
the vintage ones seem to yellow over time.

An elegant black button for a jacket?
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