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Vintage Sewing Machine 101

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

I own three vintage machines and they are my favourite machines to use. Not only do they look much prettier on camera, they work so much better, are powerful, smooth running and fast. If you are considering buying a vintage sewing machine for yourself, this will go into my thoughts on why they are so great, where to find them, what to look for, and how to care for them!

Why Vintage Machines?

blue singer sewing machine vintage 185j historical
My everyday sewing machine - a Singer 185J

They Are Pretty

If you like historical and vintage clothing, chances are you will prefer vintage sewing machines compared to modern machines. Here's why.

The lines are much more organic, curving and flowing, whereas modern machines are boxy and less streamlined. Vintage sewing machines often contain pretty details like engraving and painted decals.

High Quality and Easy to Fix

historical sewing diy dress form historical sewing vintage machine green
Vintage sewing machines can be so high quality!

Vintage sewing machines are made of cast iron - they are heavy duty, high quality, and have all metal parts. If you look at the underside of a vintage machine, there are just a few parts, and they are easy to clean and service yourself

They Work Really Well!

black sewing machine vintage maintenance cleaning fix clean
Historical machines have fewer parts and are easy to care for and fix

Vintage machines last a long time- as evidenced by the fact that there are still so many working historical machines around today- even from the late 1800’s! They are great at sewing, and I personally prefer the feeling of vintage machines to modern.

Inexpensive and Readily Available

corset victorian historical spoon busk nude pretty housemaid
My vintage sewing machines work beautifully for corset projects with their many lines of stitching

If you are a beginning sewer with only $100-200 to spend, you will get a much better machine if you go vintage. Modern machines aimed for beginner sewers are very low quality-they have plastic parts, and break easily. Vintage machines, as I’ve already gone over, give you a lot of machine for your money. They are excellent quality, long lasting, easy to use, and have great stitch quality, which I will talk about next.

Straight-Stitch Only?

edwardian blouse vintage fashion sewing project pattern tucks
Vintage sewing machines work so well BECAUSE they only do straight stich

Many people have reservations about switching to vintage sewing machines due to their not being able to do zig zag stitches or buttonholes. As I go over in my video, this does not have to be a big deal, and there are alternate ways of finishing seams using only a straight stitch which create more beautiful and stronger seams.

Because these vintage machines only do one thing, a straight stitch, they do it really well. There straight stitch is fast, reliable, and creates beautiful stitches - perfect for top-stitching, as well as historical projects like corsets.

They are also strong - they can sew through denim and thin leather easily, and would be perfect perfect for jeans making and even thin leather projects like shoemaking and leather jackets.

These machines work amazingly for things where the quality and or speed of your straight stitch is important - like top-stitching, and in corsetry, boning channels and cording.

Where to Buy

black singer sewing machine vintage 1936 leather
My newest acquisition - a 1936 singer

There are lots of vintage sewing machines in people’s attics, basements, and garages, and are therefore easy to find inexpensively. I would first try asking around in your acquaintance, looking at garage sales, and searching your local Kijiji or Craigslist ads.

You can also try looking on Ebay, Etsy, Facebook groups, or even asking your local sewing machine service shops if they have or know of vintage sewing machines for sale.

What to Look For

edwardian blouse lace insertion pin tucks maternity vintage fashion
My maternity Edwardian blouse- sewn entirely on my vintage sewing machine

Since there are so many vintage sewing machines around, you don’t need to settle for one that is broken or doesn’t fit your needs. Don’t buy a broken machine! Make sure it has all its components, like a cabinet, a bobbin case, foot pedal, cord, motor, etc. Does the wheel spin? Does the tension work? These things can be fixed, but it is difficult and better to buy one already in working condition if you can.

Do you want an electric machine, or a treadle? I wouldn’t recommend a treadle machine to a beginner unless it is something you are passionate about as they present more of a learning curve. It’s also a good idea to look for Singer brand machines, as their parts are easier to source nowadays.

Servicing and Caring For

18th century stays corset sewing machine vintage
I love vintage sewing machines because of their ability to sew many rows of stitching for corsets with no issues!

You can service vintage sewing machines on your own, or take it to your local sewing machine shop. Try to find a place that is comfortable dealing with vintage machines.

When you first get a vintage machine, it is a good idea to clean it as they are usually dusty and grimy. Use a vacuum, duster, rag, and a gentle cleaning solution like vinegar, Goo Gone, or even a light oil. Work from the general to the particular - first vacuuming and wiping the cabinet, the whole machine, then working down to the smaller and more intricate areas of the machine.

Attachments for Vintage Machines

blue green aqua corset victorian spoon busk silk yellow flossing
My 1890's Victorian corset - sewn entirely on my vintage machine

The cool thing about vintage sewing machines are all the vintage attachments there are for them. There are buttonholers, which allow one to sew beautiful machine buttonholes, pin-tuckers, gatherers, rolled hem feet, and so many more. You can find these on Ebay, Etsy, or vintage sewing machine websites (I will link some below).

orange 18th century jacket sewing project sewing machine vintage
There are so many helpful resources for vintage sewing machine parts and maintenance

Repair, Maintenance, and Parts

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