Going vintage: How I learned to stop worrying and love my vintage sewing machine

March 25 | Guest post by Parachles
My beloved Singer 15-91.
My beloved Singer 15-91.
I've always been one of those "sew-ey, crafty girls." It would be nice to style myself a seamstress, but in reality I have nowhere near the chops to self-apply such a title. I'm just a woman who likes to use her intermediate sewing skills to DIY myself into a nicer space and thriftily sweet duds. And recently, I got myself a cheap computer armoire from Craigslist, and converted it into a sewing hutch — with all my sewing supplies and projects nicely stored in it.

For the last decade I've used a bare-bones, modern Singer electric sewing machine. It's been a good machine, if a bit cranky for the last while. As my husband and I were moving to our current apartment I picked up a cabinet-mounted, vintage Singer 66k on the cheap, thinking to use it for a sewing desk. As a lark, I decided to try out the old girl after we got settled in. Unsurprisingly she didn't work, so I folded her back up and kept using her cabinet as a desk for my modern machine.

Years go by and my modern machine becomes demanding — needing frequent tune ups and bogging down/eating my work more and more with every project, binding up if it has more than a shred of fluff in the feed dogs, and running loudly. Also, if I try to sew anything other than cotton it tends to skip stitches or eat the fabric. Oh yes, and making buttonholes with it is a chore sent straight from hell.
So, I've not had the heart to do much with her.

That's when I dusted off the old sewing cabinet with the vintage Singer in it and really looked at it again…

She wasn't a bad old machine, really… After tinkering with her a little, I plugged her in and nearly jumped out of my skin when she ratcheted to life! I had, originally, thought her motor was shot. All along it had really been just a minor lead/power pedal issue. I tinkered with her some more, but to my dismay I still couldn't get her to work right. I began to examine why I was so disheartened about not getting the old girl to work. It's not like I really needed another sewing machine, right?

During this soul-searching I thought about all the experiences I've had with vintage machines versus modern ones. Every post-1960s sewing machine I've worked with had become problematic within years. My current modern machine requires a tune-up nearly every time I sit down to sew a project.

On the other hand, the vintage Singer Featherweight I learned on is still running beautifully — despite its age and having suffered the abuse of being a starter machine for my sisters and me. Even my mother's neglected, antique treadle machine's action was smooth and quiet. None of those vintage machines had EVER been serviced (at least to my knowledge, that is) in my lifetime.

This realization led to the decision to put my modern machine into retirement and use a vintage machine for my everyday sewing. I found a '40s-era Singer 15-91 for $50, snapped her up and brought her home. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she fit in my sewing cabinet!

During all this my husband asked, "Why are you spending all this time and money on these old machines? Wouldn't you rather have a new one?" [Insert horrified look here.]

I explained to him…

These vintage machines are from a time when things were built to last forever.

Today's machines may have a bunch of bells and whistles, but they're only built to last for a certain amount of time before they die. The expectation of the manufacturer is that you're going to pitch the old one and buy a new one. Many of the parts (including some of the actual machinery) are plastic. Vintage machines are solid — made of enameled cast iron and steel. Even the cord is covered in rubber!

Vintage machines were also meant to handle a wide array of fabrics with ease.

Even though they're classed as "household machines" they can still handle everything from multiple layers of denim or canvas to a single layer of lace with no problem. Modern household machines have trouble with multiple layers and very heavy or light fabrics.

Many of these old machines can be snatched up for less than $100.

And that's often with a cabinet and tons of extra feet and attachments. My modern machine cost about $150 brand new (and came with very few extras).

Lastly: These machines are just freaking sweet!

I mean, go and look at her picture… she's stunning!

So, if you're the "sew-ey" kind who's living with the burden of a cranky, modern sewing machine, I highly recommend looking into a vintage replacement. My personal preference is pre and post-war Singers but don't let that box you in. There are a ton of good, vintage brands out there that are ripe for the picking. Do a little research and see which one calls to you. Check out local thrift stores, Craigslist and Ebay (but watch this last one as machines can get pricy on there). You'll be stitching vintage-style in no time!

Join our community!

  1. That is SO (sew? I pun!) awesome. When my folks were cleaning out my grandparents home after they died they found a foot-operated White sewing machine in its cabinet. The cable that connected the treadle to the machine was old and frayed and disintegrated upon touching it. Right now it just sits in their living room as a side table (the cabinet itself is beautiful) but I've often wondered if we replaced the cable if it wouldn't still run. 🙂

    5 agree
    • I'm sure it would! My mother's treadle hung out for years in similar straits. Sadly, she didn't replace the cable when I was still at home… But the mechanics were all in working order (I liked to hand-operate the wheel when I was young) and it would have worked beautifully with some oil and a new cable.

      4 agree
    • If I am posting late, forgive me I can't find a year when this was posted. However if you get this and are still interested in getting your mom's machine up and running (Might use a good cleaning but that isn't hard.) Sewclassic.com has a leather treadle belt. They are pretty much standard so they work on any machine.

  2. I love this! I have my mom's '60s-era Kenmore machine, and although we have to sweet-talk her sometimes (she gets grumpy when the bobbin isn't popped in just so), I wouldn't trade her for a new model. It's also been fascinating to watch how quickly my husband's taken to sewing–he's mechanically inclined already, so figuring out a new type of machine is so much fun for him.

    5 agree
    • I inherited one of these recently. We were going to sell it, but after reading so many reviews online about it being awesome, I might just clean it and keep it, as it's the machine I learned to sew on.

      3 agree
      • Don't sell it!

        They're so easy to clean and maintain! There are a ton of online resources and tutorials about how to clean and maintain just about any sewing machine you could need such a thing for. It's definitely worth the time and elbow grease you'll invest to keep your vintage machine around. 🙂

        3 agree
  3. I JUST posted about how much I love my vintage (but not vintage enough to be beautiful) sewing machine. I bought it for £20 two years ago and it is a TANK. I love so many things about having an old mechanical machine rather than a cheapie computerised one.

    I uploaded the manual to my website to help anyone else who has a New Home Model 611 sewing machine, but it would probably be handy for anyone else with a similar era mechanical machine! (They're more similar than they are different in my experience).

    5 agree
  4. I inherited my mothers 70s elna. I adore it and wouldn't change it for a modern machine. Its all metal and continues to surprise me what it will sew through. It can be a little finicky, but I still wouldn't change it for the world. 🙂

    6 agree
  5. My 1929 Singer is handcranked, and I love it to bits. I love the smoothness of all the mechanical parts, it's like an old watch or something. I picked it up at some kind of yard sale when I was 12 for next to nothing, I feel very blessed!

    Best thing about sewing machines I've ever seen? In a documentary about the evolution of their design, there was shown a 19thcen model, the body of which was shaped to look like a lion, with the lion's head above the needle. The name of this model? "The Beast". I. Am. Not. Joking. Do want. Do most definitely want.

    5 agree
  6. I have a vintage, 1940s, electric New Home machine, table-mounted with a knee pedal. It worked for a while after I cleaned and oiled it up, but now a mechanism seems jammed as the hand wheel will only turn halfway. I've been meaning to get it fixed for literally years now, but don't know where to start. Any recommendations?

    3 agree
    • Try looking for a local sewing shop. Usually they do sewing machine repairs, you can even check out your local Joanns if you have one.

      4 agree
    • If you have a local fabric store, they can either do it for you or point you in the right direction.

      4 agree
    • When I took my old machine into get serviced, they'd correctly diagnosed what was wrong before even looking at it based on what I told them. A Janome dealer might be a good place to go, if not just ask around where other people get their machines serviced. Most service people love old machines because you can fix them most of the time (unlike a mother board!).

      3 agree
  7. Yes! This entirely! My history with modern electric machines isn't great – I sew a lot, so there's a lot of wear and tear. My current Toyota machine is actually doing alright, but I have a hand turned Singer (early 1900's) that I love so, so much. my husband picked it up for about £20 and all it needed was a decent clean up. It's virtually indestructible (not to mention really pretty) there's actually very little that can go wrong with them once you get them up and running. I'm considering getting a motor added to it (my Nan did that with hers in the 60s and it's still going strong), but there's just something so beautifully simple about it the way it is.

    5 agree
  8. Cables are easy to find! I love my treadle machine! Sooooooo delighted to find others are rediscovering a love of the genius that is the Victorian/Edwardian sewing machine!
    Its so nerdy. I LOVE IT. This post today makes me just giddy — hooray! I found another sewer who understands!!

    For others — If you have a machine and need a cable!? No worries! The wonders of modern sellers and the interwebs are here to help. Likely your machine will work just fine! I also recommend finding your machine's instruction booklet. Many are now online free for the reading. The more you know, the more comfortable you will feel taking your vintage beauty for a spin!

    Cables — Rubber and leather — were used back in the day. Both can still be located today.

    Leather version: Etsy seller = The Treadle Lady. She also includes information on installing. And she notes: the leather, like leather shoes, stretches overtime, but she shows you how you can snip and shorten your leather loop to get it back to tense + happy.

    Rubber version: Amish store called Lehmans have them. Again, cut to fit. But awesome. https://www.lehmans.com/p-1551-sewing-machine-belt.aspx

    [[OH! And to add to the discussion, some folks may like to know that Lehmans has a set up so you can use modern machines without electricity. Nope, not kidding. Friends of mine who are hard core "preppers" really like it.]]

    I am a trained seamstress and costume maker. I know my way around all sorts of expensive fancy pants modern machines. Some are more headache then they are worth! As for me I will keep my 1900s Singer in her elegantly carved cabinet. I love to use it. And there is plentiful information out in the wild world of the interwebs to help ladies learn about their machines and how to care for them. I called my machine The Iron Lady well before there was a movie. I enjoy a biopic with the best of them, but *my* Iron Lady is the best. Ha ha haaa!

    P.S. Look under the cabinet by the base wheel. Notice a decorative "cage" like element? Back in the day, ladies who used these machines had those voluminous layers of long skirts. That decorative cage thing is so ingenious and useful — its a Skirt Protector! Our ancestors called it the Dress Guard. Genius! Once you know what it is and where it is, you can't NOT see them every time you pass by a vintage machine set up. I have been known to stall a historic house tour to look at their machine on display. I often then teach the tour guide little things about Treadle Machines. The dress guard makes for an interesting social history lesson. The more I have learned about my machine over the years, the more I am impressed and the more I fall in love. As a history geek, I always feel connected to ladies of the past when creating with The Iron Lady. Can't get that timeless connection with a plastic machine.

    I wish you merry sewing with your treadle machine! Lets wrassle up finding these historic gems and give them love and a new creative lives! Its like they say about adopting a pet — you wonder who saved whom– did you save the machine or did the machine in fact save you?!! Food for thought. Thank you again for this post today!!

    5 agree
    • 😀
      No worries! I'm glad to share my love of the vintage Singer!

      The 15-91 is actually a dedicated electric with Singer's potted motor. Not a treadle… but really the best of both worlds, imho: the convenience of electric with the work-horse nature of the cast-iron/steel works combo.
      My 66k, however, was converted from a treadle (it's motor is detachable) and I plan to make it into a hand-driven machine for detail work and quilting.

      Now to your question: The machine saved me, most definitely! When my machine isn't running properly I just loose heart to sew. Now that my machine is reliable I am itching to sew! 😀

      4 agree
  9. I learned on a 1970s era White and had an old Elna for a while, and I inherited my grandma's old Singer (which is a Rocketeer and not a pretty to me as the older vintage Singers). I just got a brand new Kenmore for Christmas but recently made a new friend who is completely in love with vintage machines and loves to fix them. So I took my two old machines over and I think we have the Singer working again and the White is back to good condition. I totally admit I still love my new machine but it's nice to have the solid backup of the White again.

    4 agree
  10. My mother still uses her mother's 1940s sewing machine when she needs to sew upholstery fabric or multiple layers of denim, because that thing can handle anything you can throw at it. I've got a newer Singer and a Kenmore, but for anything picky, I'd much rather be on my grandma's old machine!

    5 agree
  11. I have a Singer 774 and I love it. Yes it weighs a lot more than any of my friend's new machines but you know what, the steel isn't going to get brittle and shatter. I love my older sewing machine.

    6 agree
    • You *want* your machine to weigh more. Heavier machine = less vibration = better stitch quality and a smoother "ride" altogether. Manufacturers have tried to compensate with electronics so they can producer lighter ( and cheaper ) machines. I'm not sure they've succeeded.

      4 agree
  12. My husband got his parent's old blender when he moved out. Made in East Germany, brought over by them when they immigrated. The only reason we don't use it now is because finding a new gasket is impossible, but I've kept it around because I think we can macgyver one someday. The old machines we have are the best!

    3 agree
  13. My mother has her mother's singer that I am about to bring home for me. That baby broke down once so mum took it to the shop, the little cog they replaced along with the full service was free because it was still under it's 35 year warrantee. We didn't have a reciept or anything they just looked up the serial number that have all, at some stage, been input into a computer system and bam, fre service. It is amazing. I love that machine, it does everything I could possibly want!

    3 agree
    • 35-year warranty? Crikey. That's pre-'80s-consumerist-craziness craftsmanship for you, I guess. I was shocked when my new shower unit was guaranteed for 3 years! 35 is the stuff of dreams…

      4 agree
      • Mum couldn't believe it when she went to pick it up and they said " No charge, it still has three years left on the warranty"

        2 agree
  14. So glad to hear all of these stories! I've been having the same types of problems with my newer model Janome, to the point that sewing became too frustrating to be enjoyable. Once I decided that I wanted design and sew my wedding dress, I knew I needed to find a more reliable machine. I'd read a lot stories recently about how great these older machines are and found a sweet 1964 mint green New Home 532 on Craigslist. Came with the table, all of the different presser feet and accessories, the manual, everything…and it works perfectly. So cheap I nearly felt bad about it. But I am finally excited to sew again!

    3 agree
    • I was the same way before I got my vintage Singer up and running. I just didn't have the heart to go through all the rigamarole that went with a sewing project on my modern machine. Consequently my sewing pile was sky high! DX Now I'm all fired up to sew again. 🙂

      1 agrees
    • Hey Claire, I am new to sewing, and I have recently bought myself the same model of sewing machine! Mine is a blue New Home 532… it works great and I really love it, but unfortunately mine didn't come with many accessories or instructions!!
      I have been trawling the internet to find a manual or a copy of one, but all the websites selling these look dodgy and I don't want to give them my bank details! But I am getting really impatient to get sewing!
      Do you think there is any chance that you could either email or post me a copy of your manual?
      I will put my email address into this comment with spaces in-between all the letters (for security reasons – I've seen others do this so I guess it confuses spam or something!) …but if you can send me the manual, my actual email address doesn't have spaces.
      z o e c o u r t n e y @ h o t m a i l . c o . u k
      I really hope you can help me out and look forward to hearing back from you soon! zoe 🙂

  15. I love my singer, she's 126! I use her for everything, I have one modern (1940s) sewing machine for fancy stitches but I gave away a new sewing machine for free when I moved house. I need to keep away from freecycle! Me and electric sewing machines don't get on, electric ones ruin all my fabric by stealing it off me too fast

    1 agrees
  16. Yay! I was just given my grandmother's machine from 1965. It's been regularly used and cared for by my very meticulous grandfather and it is perfect.
    I recently used a friend's new machine and was quite unimpressed.

    1 agrees
  17. I <3 my Singer Featherweight! It does straight lines and it does them well, I also have the button holer attachment, but I just ask my mom or gramma to do those for me because I don't have instruction booklet and don't know how to attach it. Doh!

    Has anyone ever bought extra feet for their machine? Especially zig zag or ruffles/pleats? I only have the regular foot, free-hand foot (for free style quilting) and some plastic zipper feet.

  18. I've been sewing since I was a little girl. I've found that each brand seems to have a "sweet spot" for producing machines, a period of time when they really got it right.

    My sewing machine history:

    1) Mom's 1970's Singer
    Just awful. Top of the line but it jammed all the time, right from the start. Cannot tell you how many times Mom had it fixed. When I inherited it, I junked it. But I have sewn with Featherweights so for me the Singer rule is the "older the better".

    2) My 1990's Brother 1990
    The first machine I every purchased. Bottom of the line and a real clunker. Stitch quality was dreadful and you had to fight the presser foot every step of the way. This is a case when newer is better — Brother seems to have improved but I would still probably never buy their lower priced models.

    3) My 1990's Bernina 150
    In the late 90's I took a couple of sewing classes at the local JC. If you have the time and inclination I thoroughly recommend these. Not only was the training valuable, but I was exposed to the older Bernina line ( 1960s – 1980s ). They are TREMENDOUS machines. The stitch quality is great and they are soooo smooth and quiet. Based on this I bought one of the new-at-the-time 150s. It was a good machine but not the great machine I was expecting. When lead me to buy…

    4) My 1980s (?) Bernina 1630
    An awesome machine, much better than models that came afterward in terms of stitch quality. It's no surprise that this one is nearly all metal and the 160 had a lot more plastic to it. I think manufacturers at that time were attempting to replace fine mechanical design and machining with advanced electronics. So you had more embroidery but stitch quality and overall smoothness decreased.

    Later in the mid-2000s I checked back in on the electronic machines and Viking seems to have overcome the stitch quality issue that plagued the 90s. If I were purchasing a *new* machine today, I would look at Viking again. But honestly? When my niece comes of age, I'm going to buy her an old Bernina.

    And maybe another one for me. 😉

  19. I learned on an old black Singer portable, that my mother still uses, which is getting close to 80 or 90 years old now. I inherited my grandmothers Zig-Zag Singer from the lat 60's, and flat wore it out after years and years. I found a similar one 6 years ago and it's still running beautifully, and I have all the attachments.

  20. After reading this article, I decided to try and find myself a vintage sewing machine. I sew by hand and being a perfectionnist makes sewing sooo long! I was never interested in bying a new machine, my mother's needed to be repaired every few years even if it was really expensive. Well, I looked all over the internet to undersand how to maintain and repair old machines, and when someone put an add for a free sing 1954 not working properly, I jumped on the occasion. After two days work, undersanding how the machine works, it's quirks (reading the instruction's manual would have made the process much much shorter, but I rather search like mad other peoples comments on internet) and changing the wires (eay peasy Internet tells you everything), it works like a charm, is beautiful, I am so glad. Besides it's great to use a device I actually understand, it does not have a thousand stitches, but i never actually ised more than the basic ones anyway. Long message short: Thank you OP and OBH for introducing me to those amazing oldies!!!
    Now I'm on the hunt for other old devices that never break. Reliability is the best quality in my book

  21. YayAntique! I love me old 1947 Singer. I have a new, fancy shmancy Brother, which is great, but it just feels good to break out the old girl from time to time. I fully expect her to outlast the new one.

  22. In ancient times, he caused man to be born from the dead bodies of
    the first of these animals who died. Some seeds need to stay warm to germinate
    and others have to be put in a refrigerator.

    Be weary of, fantastic forks may be valued a great deal more fitting
    to forks create bracelets.

  23. If you tossed out the original packaging, check the black support
    bars for the labels A or B; the A bar is the larger of the two.
    It also has a built-in lock offs, and built in tether anchors for versa-tether.
    I have found that prices and discounts are much easier to come by, and buyer ratings and reviews can really
    help make the decision.

  24. I have several older machines just picked up a new home 532 and she sews great and pretty!

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.