The Sewing Machines

It certainly has been a long time since I posted anything new here — about a year, in fact. I set my sewing aside for several months as I dove head-first in to my new job, and just picked it back up in early June. Surprisingly, actual sewing wasn’t what sparked my interest, this time — the idea of becoming prepared to start my own business was the driving factor. I find it impossible to imagine ever feeling secure in a job in technology, again, in the same way that I did even 10 years ago. My age and the vagaries of high tech mean I could find myself unemployed at any time. I guess my insecurity is just a byproduct of the times we’re living in.

My main interest has been in developing an online fabric store. But how to differentiate myself? I thought it might be interesting to offer a selection of good quality vintage sewing machines, in addition to fabrics that you don’t normally find in the more popular online stores (Indian cottons, hand loomed wool, etc.).  Now, while I have a good income, seems like a good time to experiment. And so I spent much of this summer focused on cranking out the paperwork required to become a legal corporate entity. I can even collect state sales tax!

I really thought my initial focus would be on building up a fabric inventory – but it turns out finding a way to buy fabric wholesale is much more difficult than it might seem. For one thing, I don’t have any contacts in the industry. For another, I don’t have the time (or information upon which) to travel! Because of that, I turned my attention to sewing machines.  After all, I’m not working against any kind of a deadline and I have always harbored a deep affection for vintage machines.

Singer 320K

I have to say that the experience of acquiring these machines has been a reality check, for me. Most of them came from eBay – I’ve had good luck with sewing machine purchases from eBay in the past — an orange Viking 6430 that is in like-new condition, a Bernina Nova 900 that runs well (though the frame is a bit bent). But good luck turns out to be exactly what it was. The vast majority of the machines I purchased turned out to have issues that will require a trip to the repair shop to resolve, despite having been sold as being in “excellent working condition”.

Bernina 730 Record in it’s folding table.

And I think that’s OK, when I reflect on it. I paid a reasonable sum for each machine with the knowledge that they might need work (descriptions aside). None of the problems are surprising — just disappointing. The Bernina 730 Record, for instance, has a frozen buttonholer control, which is extremely common. Someone futzed with the bobbin in the Singer 320K — also common, given that these machines do not accept standard needles (many people attempt modifications to make them do so). The Morse Fotomatic IV was so stiff I had to virtually drown it in oil to get it to make a straight stitch, and it won’t do zig zag at all (likely virtually unused given the pristine paint and super clean interior, I would wager). A Singer 222 I ordered from the UK turns out to need a new motor (also not surprising – I’d ordered one before it even arrived).

I also bought a Pfaff 262, although what I really did was buy a cabinet that came with a Pfaff 262. This one came from Craigslist and the previous owner was the seller’s deceased grandmother, who hadn’t used it in quite some time. It has a gorgeous straight stitch and a tantalizing embroidery unit. Unfortunately, said unit is completely frozen up due to lamination of a part deep in the innards of the machine.

Because of this machine I discovered a magical old sewing machine repair shop (soon to close – they just sold their shop/house). Sandwiched in between bars in a gentrified part of old East Austin, the shop is really a shack behind a 100 year old house, accessed by a very narrow alley between buildings. The elderly repairman is teaching his grandson how to repair household machines, but he himself is moving South of town to focus on industrials. He looked over the Pfaff and gave me tips on how to unfreeze it myself, then sold me a Pfaff 1215 and a Singer 301 he’d recently taken on trade.

I had thought I would enjoy taking the Pfaff apart and repairing it myself. This belief was bolstered by the fact that I rewired a Featherweight, which was a breeze. But I lost interest very quickly once I attempted to dismantle that 262. I do not enjoy taking these fine machines apart because I believe they deserve to be put back together with expertise and finesse, and I possess neither. That Pfaff 262 won’t sew anything now, straight stitch or other, and is in line to be refurbished by somebody who knows what they’re doing.

I sold my beloved Bernina Artista 180 to help offset the expense of some of these purchases. Because I wanted to ensure I have a solid, working machine of my own, I decided to buy a Pfaff Passport 2.0 (also from eBay). This weekend, I finished my first project using this machine. While I appreciated the options it offers, it can’t hold a candle to the weight, the solidity, the oiled wonder that is my Singer 201. Still, it makes a fabulous buttonhole and gives me zig zag on demand. I’m glad to have it. It will be my “backup” machine.

Meanwhile, I’m starting to fall in love with the band of misfits now splitting their time between the Metro shelves in my sewing room and the repair shop. Each one is unique and lovely in its own way. I imagine someday selling them individually to people who will love them as much as I do, and that makes me happy. They are, in a way, a savings account, for me. I will never turn a profit on them, but the next time I’m out of work and longing for a shop of my own, I will have an inspiring inventory to start with. The costs will have long since been sunk.

If you have only ever used a modern, plastic machine, I hope you will someday consider a vintage metal machine. If you are a quilter, or if you are a serious seamstress who is more interested in seams than in machine embroidery, there are no better modern machines made. Every machine has its own song, and the making of things seems to me to be more akin to a way to make these machines sing. I may take up quilting just to hear the music more often.

When I think of sewing this way, it makes me happy.

Here is an assortment of some of the machines I obtained from eBay over the summer. I hope to focus on these machines in future blog posts. I also plan to do a post full of pictures comparing stitches from each machine (something I have been unable to find online, and that I hope readers will find helpful).

Singer 320K

Singer 320K
Singer 99 Hand Crank
Bernina Artista 180
Bernina 730 Record in it’s folding table.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Bev Gunnreply
September 26 at 06:09 PM

LOVE your collection of vintage machines! Yes, we often get lemons but for the most part the machines will eventually run. And, buy stock in sewing machine oil!

Sunny Stampsreply
September 29 at 07:09 AM

I’m with you. I have a collection of vintage machines, (how do you resist when you find them for $25 or even less at garage sales?) The only one that needs work is a Singer “Featherweight” that needs a foot pedal. The rest of them hum! About 10 years ago, I bought a 1940s style Singer in a beautiful cabinet with the bench and all accessories in MINT condition for $35. Had no room for it and no idea what I was going to do with it, I was using a Kenmore very faithful zigzag/straight stitch only from the 60s at the time, and had been for about 35 years. Well, it just sat it in my living room and I admired it for a few months, and Christmas snuck up on me. I decided to give it to my daughter, who has never had ANY interest in sewing, but I knew she would appreciate the beauty of it. Lo and behold, she decided to sew some simple projects on it, and now she is a master quilter! It is her passion, and she absolutely loves her Singer! She can’t wait to get home from work and sew, and has made numerous quilts for fun and profit.
All of you younger readers, invest in a vintage machine, there is no comparison.

November 29 at 03:11 PM

Awesome post on the trials and virtues of vintage sewing machines. I’m on the lookout for a vintage Pfaff 1222e, the Pfaff’s first electronic machine and still made mostly from the heavy metal casting. I sew on three (count em’) vintage Pfaff 7570’s. The last being a purchase from a Craigslist seller for a mere $200. Turns out it wasn’t sewing because the bobbin was inserted wrong-wise and the needle was only partway in.

November 29 at 10:11 PM
– In reply to: Booth

Oh my gosh – I fell completely in love with a 7570 awhile back and very nearly bought it. In the long run, I just didn’t quite trust the seller enough to go through with it (and they wanted $500). I recently donated a Pfaff 1215, which seemed like a very good machine. It was kind of hard to let it go, but I guess that’s not a bad thing 🙂 Thank you for the compliment about my post, and good luck for your hunt for the elusive 1222e. I have seen them come up on eBay a time or two, but they sure go fast!

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