Buying a vintage sewing machine has many advantages that simply cannot be found in new domestic sewing machines. Quality materials, quality manufacture, precision mechanisms, style, and power are some of the features vintage sewing machines have to offer. Well, they don’t build them the way they used to, in fact it would be prohibitively expensive. Even after 50 years these all metal pieces of machinery are still capable of sewing a fine stitch. With minimal cleaning and oiling, they can sew for another 50 years or more!
The biggest choice is what machine to buy. So many brands, so many features, such a wide range of prices makes choosing the right machine for you a little more complicated. Even if you know exactly what you are looking for, how do you know that any particular sewing machine you are looking for is going to live up to your expectations.
I see many listings online for any particular (not rare) sewing machines and the prices vary widely from very cheap to very expensive. What sets them apart? Well, the answer is really simple… you do. Always keep in mind, the lowest price, or the highest price, does not necessarily mean the best value.
Some listings may say “runs” which really means the needle goes up and down. Some say “great condition”, but what does this really tell you about the machine? Some say “serviced” but again, what did the servicing include. I see “heavy duty”, “commercial grade”, and “industrial strength” for machines that are not and were never intended to be. Some say “rare” or “antique” . How should this affect a fair price?
So, the bottom line is what you know, and what questions to ask. If a machine is simply described as “runs”, then you probably should. Most likely, the machine has been passed down, traded, “worked” on, or has an unknown history. There is no way to tell what is worn, misadjusted, cracked wires, condition of motor and so on. The seller obviously does not know either.
A machine listed in great condition has similar risks. What does it even mean? Before considering this machine, ask questions that are important to ensure the machine is worth the price. What makes it in “great condition”. If the seller knows, he/she should bend over backwards to tell you.
“Serviced” is a vague term and the definition of what constitutes “servicing” a sewing machine signifies very little without description. Is servicing just oiling , dusting, and adjusting the thread tension? Or does it include a thorough checklist of the many parts and mechanisms that are so important to a sewing machines performance? Has the wiring been replaced. Has the motor been disassembled, cleaned, and lubricated. Has the sewing drivetrain been adjusted to factory service tolerances. Well, these are questions you can and should ask. Someone who has really “serviced” the sewing machine should be happy to tell you all of the steps he/she took in servicing the machine.
What about sewing machines listed as “rare”? Well the truth is less exciting. Except for a very few examples, no sewing machine model is rare… millions of all but a very few models were produced in the last century and a quarter. Check it out… Singer kept a record of every sewing machine model they ever produced. You can look up any serial number and find out what day, what year, what model, and how many were made. Japanese vintage machines are less well documented, but tens to hundreds of thousands were made. If you see a claim that a particular model is rare, do a little research before you pay a premium for rarity.
How about “heavy duty”, “commercial” or “industrial” being applied to a domestic sewing machine listing? Should you pay a premium for these descriptions? In one word… no. Except for those that say otherwise (to the detriment of the buyer) no home domestic sewing machines is “industrial” or “commercial” or “heavy duty”. While they will sew heavy weight garment fabric admirably, it is just as important as to how fine a fabric it can sew. They were not designed to sew heavy leather, canvas, or such. I will say that a vintage Singer model 66 is about as heavy duty as you can get in a domestic sewing machine. They are that way do to the nature of their construction and materials, not because they were claimed to be. Same thing goes for practically any all metal sewing machine I can think of… They are built tough, and compared to new models are certainly heavy duty.
What about the words “antique”? Does this add any value to the price? Well, except for sentimental value, the answer is no. The difference between an “antique” machine and a “vintage” machine is that to be an antique, it must be at least 100 years old. To be vintage, it must be at least 20 years old. Sewing machines built before 1900 are “Victorian”. Well, these machines really fall in a niche market. People love them and buy them and use them. They are great high quality machines, but they lack many features most people take for granted today. Feed dog drop and back tack was not available. Forget about zig-zag or other fancy stitches, they only made a straight stitch. This may or may not appeal to you. Yet, they can and do produce a very strong straight stitch, and many are family heirlooms.
So whats the point of all of this? Well, what I hope you take away from this post is This: Don’t decide on any machine you are considering based on price alone. It is worth paying more for a machine that has been truly reconditioned to sew like new and last for a very long time. I define Reconditioning as when you try to keep a sewing machine as close to original as possible, but only correct obvious cosmetic and mechanical problems and new wiring. The seller would be happy to tell you what steps he has taken to bring the machine to the peak of its performance… This is the machine you want to buy. You can expect that it is not going to be the lowest price, but it will be the best value. Differentiate between price and value. Ask questions. Be confident that your money is well spent by understanding that it costs more to buy a machine that has been reconditioned by a knowledgeable person who has spent time and money to make it so.
Anyway, that’s my advice.