I've been in the market for an industrial sewing machine for a while now, and I was willing to consider any strong machine at a reasonable price under $100.
I sew a lot of denim and I've learned to squeeze out every last bit of power from my vintage sewing machine pool. The problem is that I spend a lot of time walking the needle by hand instead of having the machine do the work for me.
I'm no expert on industrial machines by any means but this is what I think I know: There are two main options when it comes to industrial machines, the portable all enclosed models or the kind mounted to the table with huge motor underneath. I was willing to take either one and most likely would choose portable over huge motor and table setup. No matter which way you go when you start looking at industrial machines things get expensive fast.
The table mounted machines are designed to be used at high speeds for long periods of time. The large motor spins at full speed all the time allowing you to engage the sewing machine (head) by way of a clutch pedal. This setup works amazing well since you have access to the full momentum and power of the motor at any time. Table mounted machines are usually big on power but lacking in the feature department often being designed for one specific task instead of all around sewing. Things we take for granted like zigzag and reverse are not always included. Depending on your motor and table setup they might require a 240 volt outlet or even three phase power, neither which you'll likely have in your sewing room.
Portable industrial machines are much like an all metal vintage home machine with a more powerful motor. They're designed to be used in high demand situations like dry cleaners or for someone sewing sails. They are not designed to be used constantly like in a garment factory. Since I am sewing jeans this style of machine would most likely work out great for me.
but... Beggars can't be choosers.
I check craigslist a lot for sewing machines and other items. People selling on craigslist don't want to hassle with ebay and shipping. I've found the prices are usually better and the transactions are simple and easy. I usually don't check out of my area but for some reason this past weekend I decided to check what they had just over the border in Florida. Wouldn't you know it there was a posting for three industrial machines someone was selling.
Taking county roads way out into the middle of no where I was reminded of just how beautiful and lush it is here in the South. The sewing machines were being sold by an elderly couple who had a dry cleaner business at one time. There was an industrial serger, hemming machine, and what they referred to as the "straight stitch". The machines hadn't been used in at least 7 years and were being stored in something like a uhaul trailer out behind the barn.
Humidity in the South is not kind to bare metal and there was plenty of rust distracting me from buying this Pfaff 138. After closer inspection I noticed that what was rusty was easily replaceable things like the tension disks and bobbin case. The actual machine did not have any rust and the motor under the rusty table looked clean as well. Curiously looking around the trailer I noticed at the back this old guy had a HUGE safe, being polite I resisted asking about it allowing my imagination to fill in the blank with bars of gold and old treasury bonds.
We struggled to get the machine and table in the back of my SUV and I paid him the asking price of $100! I could tell he knew it was worth much more but was just beyond worrying about such things. Of course since I didn't take the machine off the table the top heavy thing promptly fell over narrowly missing my back window and doing quite a number on the plastic interior. I should have known better, but was so thrilled about the machine I wasn't thinking straight. The machine did not suffer any damage whatsoever which was a relief.
For me there is almost no better fun than getting an old sewing machine home for the first time and opening it all up and seeing what it's about. This Pfaff 138 was was dry as a bone! No oil or grease anywhere which means it was very stiff to turn. I use Marvel Mystery Oil as my sewing machine oil and when applied to this dry machine you could actually see the metal wick the oil like a sponge. It was most satisfying to feel it loosen up with each oiling point until it was smooth as silk.
Speaking of Marvel Mystery Oil, Steve DeCosa passed along this story told to him by an oldster at a gas station which I find fascinating: "During the Depression, when I was in high school, I worked as a mechanic in a sewing shop in the Garment District in NYC. Those old sewing machines had visible oilers on top, and when it got hot the oil would stink, and the ladies who ran the machines would complain. The owner, whose name was Marvel, (pronounced Mar-VELL) told me to go down a few doors to the candy factory-I think it was a 'LifeSaver' type candy- and get a couple of gallons of Oil of Wintergreen and some food coloring. We mixed it with the 10 wt. sewing machine oil to make it less offensive to the ladies. It became popular with the other shops, and Marvel made more money with that oil, than with the sewing. Whenever anyone asked what was in the oil, Marvel said, 'Don't ask... It's a MYSTERY!' and that's how the name came about!"
Works for me! From what I hear it's mostly kerosene anyway which wouldn't you know it can be used as a sewing machine oil and degummer. It does a great job of removing the old yellow oil build up that you get a lot on old machines. You can pick it up at Walmart or any auto parts store, you can put it in your gas tank also however the benefits of such use are debatable.
Ok I've gotten off topic here, back to the Pfaff 138.
The Pfaff 138 is actually quite an amazing industrial machine and can be picked up used, head only, for around $700 on ebay! Wow that's expensive and seems a bit steep! Part of the reason for this could be the features but I can only speculate here. This machine has reverse, zigzag, and something I was shocked and thrilled to find, needle position (left, center, right). These features make the Pfaff 138 an extremely versatile all around industrial machine. Instead of gathering dust waiting for a specific project, the Pfaff 138 can be used to sew any textile from leather to silk. As an example the machine came with a box of size 60/8 needles, that's for some very delicate and lightweight sewing!
The downside to this machine is needing different bobbins, machine feet, and needles than any of my other machines accept. I did find an adapter that would allow me to attach a low shank universal snap on foot adapter so I can use all my guide feet but it costs $45! I know this won't break the bank but just seems so crazy that it's almost half the price I paid for the machine itself. That.... is just the way the world works.
I have a little movie and slide show I did for this machine. It's really me practicing with my video editing software disguised as a sewing machine demonstration of sorts. I tried not to make it too cheesy for you.