Vintage All Metal Domestic Sewing Machines – Are They Really “Heavy Duty” or “Semi-Industrial”?

Here in the United States I see an abundance of listings from people offering domestic vintage all metal (and not all metal) sewing machines where a claim is made that they are “heavy-duty” or “semi-industrial”. Really? Is either of these statements true?

To narrow the discussion, this applies to sewing machines made for the domestic market, not machines that are made for commercial use. So I will start with the term “heavy duty”. According to Merriam-Webster the definition of this term is:

1: designed to do difficult work without breaking

  • heavy-duty vehicles/machines

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary the definition of this term is:

1: designed to be strong enough to do very difficult work for a longtime:

  • Heavy duty tools

Do either of these definitions fit? Well, I probably wouldn’t classify the work these machines were designed to do as difficult work, or expect that they would perform difficult work for a long time.

From my experience working on these machines, I would certainly agree that they are not likely to break any part of the machine… they either would break or bend a needle, or not pierce the material easily. In other words, it will over stress and burn up the motor, but the machine would not care (assuming it was kept properly lubricated).

So, are they heavy duty? Well compared to machines of lighter construction, yes. As compared to commercial grade machines, no.

How about semi-industrial? According to the Collins English Dictionary the definition of this term is:

  1. engaged in or given over to industry to some extent

That’s the only definition I could find in on-line dictionaries. So, are they semi-industrial? No. Say again? No.. and again? No…

No domestic sewing machine was ever designed for industrial use, and I would go out on a limb and say that no industry purchased a domestic machine for that purpose. Industrial machines are purpose built. They do one thing, they do it fast, and they will do it for a long time. An example of single use is a blind stitch, a chain stitch, a cover stitch, a button hole, etc… One machine, one stitch.

In fact, if you think about it for a minute, and apply reason to the question, the answer is a bit more obvious. Heres why:

  1. The motor on a domestic sewing machine is far too small for extended use in commercial production. Commercial machines are run 8,12, or 24 hours a day, every day. A typical strong domestic sewing machine motor may produce as much as 1/15 hp and typically have a duty cycle of about 50% (30 minutes out of an hour running at maximum speed). A commercial or industrial sewing machine typically has a motor rated at 1/2 hp or larger. The duty cycle for these motors is 100% .
  2. A domestic sewing machine requires manual lubrication every 8 hour of use. Commercial and industrial machines are typically self oiling. They contain a reservoir of oil, or have an oil pump to recirculate a volume of oil. This makes sense, as it would impact production in an environment where it was run 8,12, or 24 hours a day and a break in production was required to lubricate the machine.
  3. A domestic sewing may tip the scales at 40+ pounds for a very heavy machine and typically less. A commercial or industrial sewing machine machine starts in at about 60 pounds and goes up from there. This is due to the size of the steel components in the machine. While they both may have steel drive mechanisms, a commercial or industrial machines internals are more robust by far.
  4. A domestic sewing machine may boast a speed of 1100 stitches per minute (most less). A typical commercial or industrial machine sews at around 2200 stitches per minute, some more.
  5. A domestic sewing machine is limited to a thread thickness of about TEX 50. Commercial and industrial machines can accommodate thicker thread for a specific purpose.
  6. A domestic sewing machine has a single fabric feed system. In other words, a single set of feed dogs advance the fabric under the needle. A typical commercial or industrial sewing machine will have a compound feed system (feed dog, walking foot, needle feed) or at least 2 of the three. A few machines offered today do have a walking foot and are exceptions, and attachments designed to simulate a walking foot can be purchased to fit on most machines, but it is an adaptation rather than a feature.

There are other distinguishing features and the list could grow, but it becomes apparent at some point to ask yourself… do I really care? Is “heavy-duty” or “semi-industrial” in a description going to make a difference in your purchase decision? If you are looking for a high quality and sturdily built sewing machine for everyday domestic use, I don’t think so. If your sewing projects predominantly include canvas, sail cloth, or other than garment leather, you should look elsewhere because you need a commercial grade sewing machine from the start.

In conclusion, I do think that any all metal sewing machine is heavy-duty in their ability to handle tougher materials and fabrics than any reasonably priced new machine… but it is not recommended for continuous use. The weak link is the motor and the thread weight limitations for the fabric you are sewing. But for what the typical person wants or needs from a vintage all metal sewing machine, you won’t see the difference.

On the other hand, a description as semi-industrial is disingenuous. Either the seller is ignorant of the capability of their machine, or they are intending to deceive the customer… so don’t believe it.

While these are my own opinions, formed from my experience with restoring numerous all metal vintage sewing machines, you may not agree. It just piques me when I read the phrase “heavy duty” and “semi-industrial” blatantly used in the description of what is none the less a fine high quality sewing machine… and these worthless adjectives do nothing to enhance, or take away from the abilities of the machine!

So if you are in the market for a high quality all metal sewing machine for practically any sewing project you are contemplating, buy with confidence knowing that it is everything you need and more!

I Hope this helps! and please visit our Etsy store at https://www.etsy.com/shop/pungoliving to see our selection of restored fine quality vintage sewing machines.

Published by pungoliving

First and foremost, I decided to share some of my experiences with vintage all metal sewing machines. It is a natural progression of my life experience exercising my hands and my mind. My background is a simple story... graduating High school, I wanted a trade. I landed an apprenticeship at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in welding. 5 years later after earning certification and working in many different environments, I decided to enroll in College and earn an Engineering. At the same time, I married a wonderful girl and started a new life. Graduating College with a degree in Structural Engineering, I began a 35 year career in the Federal Government. Along the way, we were blessed with 3 beautiful children. Earning a Masters degree in Engineering and registration as a Professional Engineer I worked for the benefit of my family and my Country. Over the years, I have pursued many different hobbies... woodworking, car mechanics, astronomy, and taking apart and putting together all sorts of things. Pretty much anything I could put my mind and my hands into. So now, many years later, I am retired and finally able to wile away my days at home with the love of my life. Her interests have always been in sync with mine, but spending so much free time with her, I realized how broad her talents are! One interest she is particularly fond of is sewing. It didn't take me long to put 2+2 together and realize that I could do something with this. So, acquiring, adjusting, servicing, and restoring sewing machines was a win-win. I have a hobby that is detailed, involves tinkering with precision engineered high quality manufactured machines, while she has an opportunity to sew on various different makes and models of sewing machines. While there are many that have information on line, and what I have to say more than likely has already been said, I wanted to contribute to that conversation and learning gleaned from my experience and research.

7 thoughts on “Vintage All Metal Domestic Sewing Machines – Are They Really “Heavy Duty” or “Semi-Industrial”?

  1. Hi, when you talk about vintage machines in this post, it seems to me you mean post-1960 machines because you imply that they come with a motor. Earlier machines didn’t, and they were far sturdier too. Can you confirm which years of manufacture are you talking about here? And also – what do you mean by “heavy fabrics” and “continuous use” exactly? That is, what kind of fabric and how many hours per day of use? 🙂 Many people have different ideas about such rubber terms. 🙂

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    1. Hello Elena,

      I appreciate your comments. First, I would like to say that I follow your blog and have found the information you post to be very informative and well written, So much so, that I have provided a link to your web page in mine for folks looking for informed discussion on the topics you cover.

      To clarify myself, and the intent of my blog, I think I need to explain my use of words in the context of what my intended audience knows, and more importantly doesn’t know about vintage sewing machines. Many questions I get from folks with vintage machines are very basic… simple things like threading, cleaning, oiling, etc. Often times they will tell me that they bought their machine online and based their buying decision on the machine’s description. Most are happy with their machine… some are disappointed.

      I think that it is important to provide folks whatever information I have to set their expectations for what they can expect from their machine, as well as what not to expect. This is the best chance for them to have a favorable experience in owning and using a vintage sewing machine. In the body of the post, I talk about industry operating a sewing machine for 8,12, or even 24 hours a day in shifts. This is a continuous service, and a domestic sewing machine was not designed for extended sewing hour after hour in such a setting. I hope this helps make my point that domestic sewing machines are not “industrial”.

      Because I know that your knowledge of machines and sewing is at a much higher level than most people, so for you I will try to explain my blog post in more specific terms. You might disagree with me when I say that I consider a majority of domestic sewing machines made in the 1980’s as inferior to an all metal vintage domestic sewing machine made in the 70’s, but I do. The newest all metal sewing machine I have come across was a Kenmore model 158.1942 made in 1977, and it had a plastic balance wheel belt pulley…. Everything else was metal. I generally find that machines made after 1975 incorporate plastic in the drive mechanism. In regards to the plastic balance wheel belt pulley on the 1942, I reasoned that this part was not likely to fail in normal use, kind of like the textolite gear Singer used in it’s direct gear drive machines with potted motors on the 201-2 and 15-91 as far back as the late 1930’s. This gear has stood the test of time, and I exempt it’s presence in disqualifying a machine as all metal, even though it technically isn’t. So I am not going to split hairs there.

      With respect to machines made post 1980, there are exceptions for folks willing to purchase high quality sewing machines at high quality prices. As you would agree, this is a narrow field and I consider it an exception, rafter than a rule. I very much agree with you when you made a similar comparison in a blog you wrote on vintage sewing machines pre versus post 1975.

      In my post did not define the term vintage, since the generally accepted age for the term is 20-25 years, I find it a vague measure of sewing machine quality. For my intended audience, I prefer to highlight an “all metal” vintage sewing machine when offering my opinion on what to choose and plunk down their hard earned money for… even though this is somewhat vague as well.

      I don’t imply sewing machines pre 1980 don’t have motors. Sewing machine manufacturers have been putting motors on sewing machines for a very long time. The Singer model 66 was first offered with a direct drive friction wheel motor in 1914. Unlike the White Family Rotary, it turned clockwise to spin the balance wheel in a counterclockwise rotation. I have a 1917 version of this motor mounted on a 1910 Singer 66 “red eye”. The mounting boss that is found on the very early machines allowed the machine to operate with a hand crank. The motor bracket was adapted to fit and attach there, and except for folks who use these machines as designed or intended by using them with a treadle or a hand crank, many of them were adapted to use a motor. I have read that the transformation really took hold when power became more universally available, first in the cities, and then in more rural areas. Certainly, many of the machines manufactured after 1914 were offered with an electric motor if the buyer was willing (or able) to spend for it . The Singer 101 was the first attempt by Singer to introduce a machine intended as only electric. It was introduced in 1920 and was not embraced by the public, probably because of the limited available electricity as much as the machines high cost. Otherwise, I think it was an innovative machine , and I think it is an excellent machine. If ever anyone used the adjective “rare” to describe a Singer sewing machine, (with some rare exceptions) the 101 is about as close to “rare” as the average person is going to get… That’s another of my pet peeves and I see the term used frequently. For this reason, I don’t differentiate anything I said in my post based on a year of manufacture (even my Wife’s 1873 model 27 has an electric motor bolted to the pillar). My implication is that they are not commercial or industrial grade sewing machines… Some may disagree, but they are not.

      No doubt, the early machines made by Singer and White were heavy duty by today’s standards. The Singer model 27, 15, and 66, along with the White Family Rotary (and others) are exceptional in their ability to service the needs of the day. History has proven them to be capable of sewing anything from silk to horse blankets… and no doubt they sewed miles of them. To their credit, I consider the introduction of the domestic sewing machine to the public as important as the telephone, or the electric light when it came to the difference it made in people’s everyday lives of the day… but as tough as they are, they are not commercial or industrial duty, nor were they intended or claimed to be by their manufacturers.

      I also consider the Japanese machines manufactured in the 50’s and 60’s to very good quality machines. I have read that they are not built to the precision tolerances found in a Singer, but I would counter that by noting the effect of their “looser” tolerances is not enough to reveal itself at the needle. Vintage all metal machines made in Japan for White, Kenmore, and even Singer are extremely well built. Machines of this vintage made by Brother, Maruzen, Soryu, Juki, Janome, and even Toyota, branded under many different names, are fine choices for folks interested in a high quality domestic sewing machine… but they are not designed to operate as an industrial machine, despite the claim I see often repeated in listings attached to a machine for sale that they are industrial strength.

      This is what I wanted to convey in my post without this explanation attached.

      When you ask me what I mean by heavy fabric? Well, you got me there… It is far too subjective to say there is a clear defined boundary. I guess what I would say is, any fabric you would normally use, or sew for something in your home… garments, drapes, upholstery, etc. is fine for a domestic vintage sewing machine and is not “heavy fabric” as mentioned in my post. I relied on my reference that industrial machines designed for sewing fabrics like sail cloth, canvas, and leather, are purpose built, unlike domestic sewing machines.That is what I hope folks will take away from the post and use as my reference to heavy fabric.

      I’m sorry if I am rambling on, but I hope you will appreciate my intent to educate folks, in perhaps broad terms, what to avoid when considering the purchase of a vintage all metal sewing machine. I do however stand by my posts description of what is commercial or industrial, and that a domestic sewing machine of any vintage is not… After all, if someone purchases a vintage sewing machine to realize their dream of making and selling men’s leather wallets on Etsy, they will be disappointed in the Singer model 15 they bought because the seller claimed was industrial strength and was great for sewing leather belts, etc. You and I both know that it is buyer beware, and I hope that what I wrote in my post, clarifies this to some extent, and inform someone looking to purchase a vintage sewing will have a realistic expectation of what these wonderful high quality vintage machines can do.

      Thank you for sending me your comment, I apologize for using vague terms in my post’s conclusion, Hopefully, this won’t be noticed at the 50,000 foot elevation for this topic I intended, but I do hope that someone will question the description of “commercial” or “industrial” when they are considering the purchase of an otherwise fine Singer “fashion mate”. I don’t consider either of these terms to be rubber in any context applied to a vintage domestic sewing machine. I think it is down right deceptive.

      Please feel free to comment me and give me your opinions on any topic I post, I value your opinion and try to be both accurate and informative. I may miss something, but I am always willing to learn more or at least defend my position on any topic I write about… and I apologize for the long response, probably could be a blog post in itself!

      Have a blessed evening!
      Lee

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      1. Hello Lee,
        It is interesting that in the USA (is that where you are based?) electrical motors appeared as early as 1914. Here in Europe we only started seeing them in 1960s, even on professional models.

        Regarding the meaning of the word “vintage”, there is a difference as well. We consider “vintage” things that are 40-100 years old, and “antique” things that are over 100 years old. Things that are younger than 40, are just “old”. 🙂 Although of course here too you will also find people saying that their mother’s 30 year old machine is “antique”, I guess everything is antique to a teenager. 😉

        And finally a comment on “industrial” versus “domestic”. I agree with you completely that those are different things, but you’re missing the third class: “professional”. These machines were meant for tailor’s shops and homeworkers. In Germany for example, a “factory seamstress” referred to a person doing sewing work for a living, but not actually sitting in a factory building like today, but rather working from home. They had to buy their own machines, too. These were of the “professional” class – meant to work 8-12 hours a day, every day, without too much maintenance. But they were not meant for sewing leather or canvas, but rather clothes, including coats, so still “heavy duty” by today’s standards. These machines were also typically larger than domestic variants, and they were always treadles (or perhaps electric in the USA), and never hand-cranked. Singer 13, 27, 66 were designed and marketed as professional machines. Their domestic (or “family”) counterparts were models 12, 28 and 99.

        Professional machines exist also today. All big brands make them, but you won’t find them at your local store. Their prices are also typically 10-20 times that of a domestic machine, but still 5-10 times lower than those of an industrial. For example, Brother quoted me £6,000 for an all-metal straight stitch only machine, while Juki could do it for £3,000 but it had nylon belts in it. Janome sells theirs for £2,000-£8,000, depending on “grade”, i.e., the amount of plastic components.

        The reason for the difference between “industrial” and “professional” is the type of sewing that is done. Industrial machines, certainly today, are each set up for a single operation in a conveyor belt setting. The operator sews almost continuously at high speed. By contrast, “professional” machines must be capable of sewing many different elements in succession, in a stop-and-go fashion, when the operator makes almost the entire garment from start to finish. This is a very different way of using the machine, and is much more like the way domestic machines are used, but for many more hours a week.

        Finally, to an experienced sewist, there is a world of a difference “at the needle”, as you put it, between high precision machines like Singer and wobbly domestics. Although to an occasional sewist all machines might feel the same.

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      2. Hello Elena,

        Yes, I am in the US, and I completely disregarded the fact that there is a world of experience beyond my own. I really don’t include the many fine European vintage machines because they are not common here and it is notoriously hard to find parts for them… and expensive. I guess I need to start posts such as this by saying… “Here in the USA” and I certainly don’t want to alienate anyone by supposing their experiences are similar to mine.

        The third class never crossed my mind… I guess because I was addressing my peeve that I see so often with people claiming a domestic machine is industrial or commercial… either out of ignorance or to inflate the price. Your observations are right on point with me though. I did some research in the Singer 201 and came across a site authored by Alex Askaroff who had a detailed post on the 201 and the folks that used these machines to earn a living, just as you describe. Imagine, making a garment without a zigzag stitch. I wonder if a 201 would perform as well today as it did when new. Somehow, I think age must takes it toll and it would be hard on the machine. Here in the US, the tailoring industry, home bound or otherwise, has been replaced with retail stores selling clothes for less than my Wife can buy the fabric.

        I restore vintage sewing machines as my retirement endeavor, and I have a fondness for the older vintage black singers. I have a 201 on my bench now and thinking about how close I can make it sew like it did when it was new. Believe it or not, I have purchased parts for the 201 and the 99K from the UK because they are cheaper and hard to find here! I will do some more research and follow your blog for information and the European perspectives with respect to the sewing machines history and culture.

        On a side note, I really do like the way you have your site set up, very nice. I’m new to blogging and my site certainly pales in comparison to mine.

        Best regards and have a great weekend,
        Lee

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      3. Hello Lee,
        You don’t need zig-zag to make clothes… 🙂 All you need – and all any tailor would use up to today – is a straight stitch machine, an overlocker and a buttonhole machine. If you do decorative stitching, you’d also have an appropriate fancy stitch machine, or whatever other special operations you need. I know because I make clothes. Chinese import is cheap here too, but it is made of poor quality materials and it never fits. I grew up in 1970s when making your own clothes was what everyone did, so I know how clothes should fit, and I don’t wear stuff that pulls and pinches. Or shrinks in the wash. There are clothes of good quality to buy, but the prices are through the roof, and ready-made clothes will never fit quite as well as something made especially for you.

        But anyhow, of course you focus on machines available locally, I do too! 🙂 We had a Singer factory in Scotland, so Singers are abundant here, but in fact German machines are extremely common too. Before 1935, Germany was producing more sewing machines than the rest of the world put together… yeah, including the USA.

        As to how the machines age, I find that the more you use them, the better they sew. When I look for a machine for myself to sew with, I stay away from the ones with impeccable decals, as pretty as they are. I choose a machine that shows a lot of use (bed decal rubbed), yet good care (column decal intact), and after a clean, these machines sew like a dream. Sitting in a cupboard for a century really does the machine no favours, those gears need work.

        Regarding the website, other than making the menu, the rest is done by the theme you choose – completely automatically! I think mine is called “Buttons2”. There are so many themes to choose from!

        I’m glad you find my blog useful! 🙂 I repair machines because I sew, and I require quality and cannot afford my own private repairman. 🙂 I sew a very large range of fabrics because I make almost all of my own clothes, from light to heavy, and of course stuff for the home, like curtains, especially since we recently moved. All on vintage machines because they do the job better. All motorised because that’s easier on my knee arthritis than treadling. But I know some professional tailors in the USA (yes, they still exist!) who use treadles in their studio and save a lot of money on electricity costs. Plus being able to sew during the numerous power cuts and not needing to have your own generator. And no, they are not Amish. 🙂

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  2. I am new to this site and I have absolutely loved reading your blog and Elena’s replies. I have learned so much already just in the last 15 minutes. I am going to follow you. I have recently taken up a new interest in sewing. I use a digital Kenmore 385.19233. I also have a Kenmore 158.48 that needs to be restored, thus how I found this site. Please let me know if you restore this model. I will send you more information on the machine when I hear from you. Thank you, Deanne

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    1. Hello Deanne,

      Thank you! I’m glad you found my blogs informative. Your Kenmore 158.48 is a very nice machine. They are very sturdy, well built, and quite heavy. You mentioned that your machine needed to be restored. What exactly does it need? Any good quality all metal vintage sewing machine like yours can be restored, but generally, they will perform quite nicely with some simple steps in cleaning and lubricating.

      Please send me some pictures of your machine and let me know what’s going on with it to pungoliving.gmail.com. I would be glad to assist you in any way I can.

      Have a wonderful evening!
      Lee

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