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Collecting Vintage Sewing Machines - Just Jump Right In!


For the new enthusiast, vintage sewing machines (VSMs) are a vast sea of models, with many that look remarkably similar. There are endless model numbers, especially with classic black Singers - 127, 99, 15, 66, 201 - yikes, it doesn't stop! Meanwhile, prices are wildly diverse, causing great confusion as to what most classic machines are actually worth.

I observe many new enthusiasts who seem a bit timid about selecting their first machine, or perhaps their second or even third. One common scenario seems to be that they've picked up a model that needs a little work, but it was enough to set their interest afire. Maybe it's a 99 and they've learned a bit about it, but still - what's that thing called a 201? That's a bigger number, is that a good thing? And now I see a "15" but it looks so much like the 201. What should I get next?

I want to encourage these "newbies" to jump right in, headstrong and as fearless as a modest budget will allow, and I have some advice that might be helpful.

Let's have a look at some typical concerns and questions.

What qualifies as a vintage machine?


A portion of our own Still Stitching collection.
The most wide-spread notion is that a vintage machine has no internal plastic or nylon parts. This is a slight but forgivable fallacy since vintage machines with internal or "potted" motors do in fact have a nylon gear, and many of the machines from the 1960s have plastic trim on the exterior of the machines. But the point is that domestic vintage machines are essentially "all metal," incredibly durable, and generally manufactured before 1970 (with a very few exceptions). Let's not confuse "vintage" with "antique." A safe presumption for a truly antique machine would be that it is 100 years old or older.

What should I buy?


An affordable Singer 66 can be an ideal first purchase.
To become acquainted with the mechanics of a vintage machine, and to become comfortable with disassembly and reassembly, let's avoid zigzag machines. There are particular straight-stitch models that are abundant and mechanically rather easy to grasp, and they are often inexpensive. Granted, not everyone loves Singer models, but Singer manufactured millions of great, straight-stitch machines that almost anyone can learn to work on. Starting with the basics is going to rapidly give you confidence working and sewing on a vintage machine.

Suppose you have your heart set on a Singer 221 Featherweight and you're waiting to find one at an acceptable price, but meanwhile you can get your hands on an electric Singer 15-90 for $30. Let's suppose the wiring looks fine, the handwheel turns, the motor runs nicely without smoking, the machine is really dirty, and the decals are decent.

You will learn so much, so quickly, by bringing that Singer 15-90 home and simply getting started. You will clean it, you will disassemble some of the key areas like the handwheel and the bobbin area, you will oil it, and you will sew with it. If your enthusiasm for VSMs is already burgeoning, just wait until you make a classic model hum and sew a flawless straight stitch.

A natural concern for any collector when considering a machine is how difficult will it be to get parts when needed? The parts supply for the more "standard" abundant models is plentiful. Some of the models I suggest are all belt driven:
  • Singer 15-90 (belt driven electric motor)
  • Singer 66 (electric model)
  • Singer 99k (electric)
Of course there are many other abundant models, but I recommend these classic black Singers for their simple mechanics and configuration. Notice how sparse the shafts and linkages appear underneath this Singer 66 - you can handle this!

The underside of a Singer 66 (and likewise a 99).

And the Singer-15, another relatively simple model:

The underside of the Singer 15.
Note: If you happen upon a Singer 15-91 or 201 (both highly-desirable "potted" gear-driven, beltless models) and you like the price, these are arguably better than the belt-drive models. My recommendation for the belt-driven models has to do with the fact that they are typically cheaper and great for learning.

Once you become comfortable with one of these machines, you will have acquired a lot of essential knowledge. Master it, and you'll know that VSMs are for you.

Where do I buy?


For the common machines I've listed, I recommend avoiding Ebay. I'm not saying that Ebay is necessarily a bad resource, but an Ebay "bargain" will usually be offset by the shipping costs, and EBay sellers aren't always prepared to pack and ship properly. The best "bargain" I've ever accomplished on Ebay was $38 for a machine that arrived with its case smashed.

Start by using the obvious sources - Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and thrift stores. On Craigslist, search for not only "sewing machine" but also "sowing machine." Seriously. The "sowing" misspelling is surprisingly common. Of course you will see overpriced machines on Craigslist, but usually prices will be indicative of your local market for VSMs. Remember... you can settle for a cosmetically rough machine that is mechanically complete and functional. We're looking for a bargain that will be your lab machine for learning.

Find your local Facebook "yard sale" or "buy/sale" groups and post that you're IN SEARCH OF "an old black Singer sewing machine" and that you'll pay at least $20. Almost everyone knows what is meant by "old black Singer sewing machine," and mentioning "$20" is just good psychology - it indicates that you'll at least make it worth a person's effort to check to see if that old machine is still buried in their garage; at the same time it subtly says you're not planning on spending a lot. When you get a response and you're uncertain of the model being offered, ask the seller for a serial number, then get the model information from the International Sewing Machine Collector's Society.

The models I've recommended (and many other classic Singers) have a serial number facing the operator, on the bed near the base of the upright pillar.
Tell all of your friends and (tolerable) family members that you're looking for "old sewing machines." I have one friend who knows nothing about sewing machines who has acquired a few real beauties for me for as little as $15 each, because he frequents thrift stores and is always asking friends if they "have any old sewing machines."

"Make nice" with thrift store owners and managers and ask that they please call you if "old sewing machines" show up. Don't be specific about models; keep it simple and ensure that you get a shot at whatever shows up in their store.

Contact sewing machine repair shops as far from your home as you're willing to drive. Even if a shop owner doesn't have vintage machines on hand, they might be kind enough to direct you to a source. But don't be insulted if they aren't interested in helping - that shop owner might make his/her living by selling new Berninas and helping you find a VSM is counterproductive to them.

If you become convinced that your area of the country just doesn't have any inexpensive machines, you might find that you have to pay for shipping. However, try the Facebook groups before purchasing on Ebay. The online VSM community does a good job of identifying trustworthy sellers and flushing out the scammers. If possible post a photo of the desired machine or machines and simply say, for example, "In search of a working Singer 15-90 within 30 miles of [your hometown]." (Or however far you're willing to drive.) To get a photo of your desired machine, perform a Google Image Search.

Is it worth the price?


This is potentially an endless topic. I'm going to keep this very simple for the purposes of this article, as the concept here is to get started learning quickly about the anatomy of a classic machine and becoming comfortable with your own mechanical ability. Remember, we're avoiding the potential complexity of a zigzag model; we want a classic straight-stitch machine to learn the basics; and we're going to stick with a common Singer model so that we know we have access to abundant resources such as documentation and parts.

Any ready-to-sew electric Singer 15-90 (external motor), Singer 66, or Singer 99 that is reasonably clean with good decals, has safe wiring that doesn't require replacement, and is in either a functional case or cabinet is arguably worth as much as $100 and possibly more depending on the local market. That said, any of those models have been commonly purchased time and time again for under $20.

Meanwhile, almost anyone who has been collecting a while will have some real gems in their collection that they either obtained for free or for just a few dollars. My wife's stunning 201 cost her $5.

The point here is that if you take my advice and seek one of the common models for the purpose of kickstarting your VSM education, accept that a reasonable price range for these models is $0 - $100, depending on your budget and your patience to wait for a better price elsewhere.

I keep hearing about all these cheap and free machines people are getting, but it never happens to me! What am I doing wrong?


Some parts of the country do seem to have fewer vintage machines in the wild. This is why you have to cast your net as wide as possible. Do you have friends or relatives in other parts of the country, and you sometimes drive to them or they drive to you for a visit? Search Craigslist and Faceook Marketplace in their hometowns.

What tools and supplies will I need?


You need a solid work surface with strong lighting. Don't expect to work daintily on your vintage machine in a dimly lit area. You'll likely be turning her end over end and using fluids to clean, so if you must work on your dining table, pad the surface with cardboard and heavy towels.

Please use the correct screwdriver bits. Household flat-tip screwdrivers are usually tapered and can slip easily out of the slots of stuck and overly-tightened screws. When tightening screws, a tapered screwdriver is likely to have too much "play" in the slot and lead to widening or damaging the screw head. The solution is to use screwdriver bits which have a squared tip designed to fit snugly in the screw head slot, allowing you to impart torque on the screw without stripping the head.


Occasionally, you'll need wrenches if you wish to remove the underside rockers. I'd like to caution you that pliers and adjustable wrenches are less than ideal, and a proper wrench is always the best choice.


A penetrating fluid for stuck or rusty parts. I recommend Bluecreeper. It's amazing and has a pleasant smell. But if you can't get your hands on Bluecreeper quickly enough via mail order, a more common product like Liquid Wrench will work - just expect it to have a strong odor. Understand that Bluecreeper refers to the penetrating fluid. They also sell sewing machine oil.

Sewing machine oil (SMO). While you certainly can't go wrong with the Bluecreeper brand, you can  also purchase a more economical brand of SMO that will be perfectly adequate. Choose a product that is specifically for sewing machines.

Evapo-Rust. Many rust removal products require strong chemicals, elbow grease, sickening odor, or lengthy wash times. With Evapo-Rust, you literally drop the item into the near-odorless solution, wait 2-24 hours, and the rust is gone. The only caveat is that a metal part that has rusted deep into the metal may have a very dull appearance following the Evapo-Rust bath. Such parts have to then be polished.


Before Evapo-Rust

After Evapo-Rust

Metal polish. Not chrome polish, metal polish. Use this on the shiny nickel-plated parts of your machine.

Rotary Tool. If you really want to shine those metal parts effectively and more quickly than your bare hands can manage, a rotary tool makes easy work of the task. Many useful attachments are available for such tools, and you can buy polishing wheels in bulk on Amazon.

Dremel is a well-known brand, but other rotary tools exist.

A word of caution regarding the rotary tool! At high speeds, even the soft polishing wheel can score or "scar" your shiny metal parts. Don't automatically assume that you need the highest speed to polish a throat plate, for example. Start with a lower setting and observe how well it polishes before speeding the tool up a bit.

Two tips: avoid the $10 rotary tool available at Harbor Freight. It is garbage. I also recommend a model that plugs in as opposed to a rechargeable unit.

Cotton swabs, tooth picks, small cleaning brushes. All of these can help you to access crevices and tight areas. A cotton swab saturated with Bluecreeper can perform magic in tight areas.

A heat source. Most collectors will tell you that even a hair dryer will heat stuck parts well enough to loosen old oil and grime. I often use a small butane torch when I can direct the heat on the part without putting the flame on the machine's painted surface.

You can purchase a heat gun for under $30.

A small butane torch can be very helpful. Please be very careful!

Cleaning products for the body of the machine. This topic alone merits its own article, but here are some basics:

  • Original Gojo (No pumice!) - cuts grease from the black finish on classic machines.
  • Mineral Spirits - good for cleaning the entire machine, but particularly greasy areas including internal shafts, gears, etc.
  • Light compound/polish - Meguiars brand auto polishing products can be used to enhance the black finish on classic machines, but take care with the decals.
  • SMO - Sewing machine oil was the original recommendation for cleaning the surface of sewing machines by Singer. After cleaning with the above products, a final polish with SMO is always a good idea for the preservation of your finish.

Gloves - like snug-fitting latex or nitrile, or even thin mechanic's gloves - will allow you to clean your machine without ruining your fingernails or staining your hands excessively with dirt and grime.


Please note that more advanced work such as rewiring a motor or foot pedal requires additional tools and supplies, but those tasks go beyond the purpose of this article.

I bought a common, classic, straight-stitch machine, and I'm scared to take it apart! Now what?


If you paid a modest amount as described above, and as long as you take care not to strip out screw heads during disassembly, it's very unlikely that you'll hurt that all-metal machine in any irreparable way. Let your fear provide healthy caution, but go ahead and disassemble your lab machine... you have to learn!

Take many detailed photos prior to removing or adjusting any part; take photos to excess. Make drawings to remind you how particular areas are to be reassembled, and take notes.

If by some stroke of great luck you get your hands on two of the same model, imagine how easy it is to disassemble one, always using the intact machine as your blueprint for reassembly. This article is about jumping in and learning fast. If you want to advance quickly, you have to be willing to dig into that machine, and that's why I don't want you to pay a lot for your first VSM. If you accept that your first purchase is largely for learning, you can relax, take your time, and rely on the VSM online community to help you through any difficulty.

How do I get my spouse involved?


While it might seem that most VSM enthusiasts are women, there are a lot of men who find them fascinating and worthy of their time and effort as well. But the ratio of women to men can't be denied, and sometimes the ladies wish their husbands would get involved. Collector and restoration specialist Will McCann makes this point:

I always tell guys I meet that VSMs are like classic cars. They've got motors that need work, chrome that needs polishing, lubrication issues, parts that need sourced and replaced; all the things guys love about working on vintage cars, but VSMs don't take up your whole garage. And they're cheap! Imagine if there were millions of classic cars out there that you could buy for a song, and have the satisfaction of fixing up and restoring to their former glory, and half the people who owned them would give them to you for free because they just want them out of their house. That's VSMs.

I followed your advice, took my machine apart, and now I can't figure out how to reassemble it!


First, return to your photos, notes, and drawings that you took of each area prior to disassembling. Attempt your reassembly, and learn from your mistakes. For example, reassembling many areas requires that items are reassembled in a particular order.

Secondly, search YouTube and Google trying a variety of search terms in natural English: "How do I reassemble a Singer 15 bobbin winder?"

If you're a member of the many VSM Facebook groups, you can photograph the state of your machine, concentrating on one area at a time, and post your photos and questions to the appropriate group. You are also welcome to reach us at Still Stitching and we will point you in the right direction.

Want to learn more?


You might be interested in our Jargon Glossary.

Learn the parts of a basic straight-stitch machine with this diagram.

Browse our entire Blog or just the Tutorials.

Our documentary film Still Stitching is the only feature-length film on the passion for vintage sewing machines - 100 minutes of beautiful machines, history, technical features, and personal stories. Eight collectors and enthusiasts provide insight and humor on their passion for VSMs. Be warned! This movie contributes to an addiction for VSMs!


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What We Do at Still Stitching:


Our Film

  • We produced the only feature-length documentary on vintage sewing machines. Still Stitching has delighted thousands of viewers and urged the expansion of many collections. Many viewers tell us they watch it repeatedly. Ladies tell us that the film helped draw their husbands into their passion for vintage machines.

Custom Paint and Restoration

  • We are fortunate to assist many clients with procurement, high-end restoration, and custom painting of vintage sewing machines. While Singer 221 Featherweights are the most frequently painted model, we paint many other models such as the Singer 15, 66, 99, 201, and 301. We also refinish cabinets, treadle irons, and vintage sewing machine cases. Interested in our services? Contact us!

Presentations

  • We are available for presentations to guilds and other groups interested in vintage sewing machines. Our focus is historical education. Rates are reasonable. Contact us for more information.

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