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?
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!