Monday, December 24, 2012

Buyer, Beware!

This is a little post to hopefully help some of you who think you want to start collecting vintage machines, but are not quite sure what to watch out for.

It’s very easy to get pulled into something because it is pretty, or flashy, or because someone says  it’s “rare” and you think you’ve found a treasure.

We all know about Singer featherweights ---I’d started my love of vintage machines by picking up a couple of those in the early to mid 1990s – a black one in Boise, Idaho and a white one later in Twin Falls when we’d moved to Burley, Idaho.

And then….I bought a treadle.  I just HAD to have a treadle.


Mavis the Davis.

She’s in a BEAUTIFUL parlor cabinet –but I didn’t know ANYTHING about vibrating shuttles or the fact that this machine was going to need hard to come by parts ---and I’ve never sewn on her.  It makes me sad in a way.  I wish I’d known more at the time, but up until now she’s only been a display piece.  My hope is to get to one of the Treadle-On gatherings and find out what I need to do to get her running.

What I’m trying to say is know SOMETHING first before you buy, or you might not end up with a working or easily usable or repairable machine.

The first full sized electric vintage machine I ever acquired is my Great Grandmother’s class 15 machine :

Verna Fern, named after my Grandmother who inherited it from my Great Grandmother.

This machine is from 1941 and is SO easy to run --- it takes regular needles.  It has a full sized round bobbin – ((No funky shuttle!)) And I could sit and sew at this immediately.  And from there it was a slippery slope into machine adoption run rampant!

The first Japanese Import machine that came my way happened about 5 years ago when I first moved here to North Carolina:


Blue Wizard, 1950’s – Post war Japan.

These machines were based on the body style and workings of the Singer Class 15 machine, just like my grandmother’s machine shown above.  The only difference, besides the color is that the Japanese, with their wonderful engineering abilities were able to BETTER the design of the Singer class 15 machine --- adding the dial to the bottom of the pillar ---see the knob?  This machine can drop its feed dogs and has settings for silk or heavier fabrics.  I started a new love with post-war Japanese import machines!  The import machines are easily recognizable by the badge below the stitch length lever on the pillar.  They generally say something like “Prescision DeLuxe” or have the good housekeeping seal of approval…and it will definitely say “MADE IN JAPAN.”

Some call them singer “Clones”  But they only are up to a point….I just call them IMPORTS because so many wonderful modifications were made.

Before someone tells you that these are RARE?  Think again.  These machines flooded the states by the hundreds of thousands, if not more.  It was a way for Japan to build itself back up as a country after being so defeated in the war.  Our open trade with them was a way to help them recover.  These machines were in EVERY HOUSEHOLD.  I don’t spend more than $50 to $100 for these machines.  I have a hard time going over $50.00.

What’s the first thing that draws you to this machine?  I bet it’s the color!

And that’s what got me too --- I felt like the dogs in the movie “UP” when they’d see “SQUIRREL!!” And they are off and running in a different direction.

That’s what happened with THIS machine:


Marilyn, 1950’s Morse, Made in Japan.
See the badges on the pillar?

I bought Marilyn because of that COLOR – how could I not? 

But what I neglected to do was check her needle position.  This is an early “built in” zig zag machine – not a machine with cams.  So her straight stitch is permanently homed in the far left position.  Her zig-zag only swings to the right from the home position of left.  This means I can’t straight stitch with her needle in a center position, and when I try to get a 1/4” seam on her --- the fabric is riding on one feed dog.  This is a problem.

Now I love her – and when I need zig-zagging I bring her out and give her a work out ---but if I had known ahead of time that straight stitching was going to be hard for obtaining a good 1/4” seam – I might not have bought her.

The next day – I went BACK to the antique mall and bought the machine I had passed up – because it was not as “flashy” as Marilyn ----


Barbie, 1950’s Japanese Import.

This machine is based on the class 15 machine. Straight stitch only, which means it stitches in center position – it only HAS one position!  The feed dogs are narrower and that helps me feed the fabric for a nice 1/4” seam.  I learned my lesson.  I prefer to have a simple straight stitch machine for doing my patchwork, and this is mostly what I hunt for.  Simple.

For instance…Someone was posting about a Brother machine they wanted on Ebay.  And I made the comment…"Be sure that the straight stitch is in center position if you want it for patchwork." I saw that they won the auction, and I hope they are happy with their purchase.  But look what I found the other day:

antiquemall 036

Beautiful two-tone robins egg blue and cream Brother machine.
See the badge on the pillar?  Made in Japan.

The missing bobbin cover is not a problem, those are replaceable.  What is a problem is THIS:

antiquemall 037

Running on one feed dog!

Someone had replaced the zig zag foot with a straight stitch foot.  This machine does straight stitch only in the “far left” home position.  That straight stitch foot covers only one feed dog.  You are not going to be able to get a good 1/4” seam on this machine because the straight stitch is only done in far left…..and it’s no good to only ride on one feed dog!

This is why I wouldn't buy a machine by mail order if I was unsure of WHERE the straight stitch position was.  I'd need to see it in PERSON first.

Now if you were a garment maker – the far left position is great for obtaining a 5/8” garment seam.  But for patchwork? I’d say no to this machine, no matter how cool the blue and cream and chrome is!

I also came across this little goodie the other day:

antiquemall 020

Montgomery Wards shuttle bobbin, friction pulley driven in a cabinet.


It’s got the old crinkle finish, popular in the 1930’s and 40’s ---and it’s a 3/4 size machine which is nice….BUT.

There was no way to plug it in and test it --- and I don’t have any more room for cabinets in my house.  It was knee controlled.  Shuttle bobbins are not my favorite, I like the ease of round bobbins.  I want machines I am going to use!

antiquemall 018

Close up of balance wheel

This machine does not run with a belt, it is friction drive….it’s got a rubber pulley that is attached to the motor…the motor turns the rubber pulley, the pulley turns the wheel.  I can’t even convert this machine to a treadle --- there is no groove in the hand wheel, it is completely round.  And those pulley, or bushing driven machines can go bumpity bumpity bump if the rubber wears off unevenly on the rubber pulley that turns the wheel.

It’s an interesting machine, but not for me!

This one also stayed behind:

antiquemall 003

Macy’s NY.

See the edge of the badge on the pillar? Made in Japan.

antiquemall 004

A bit blurry—sorry!

This is a basic black class 15 machine, Japanese import – 1950s.  These were made by the hundreds of thousands.  It is not rare.  It is not particularly unique in any way.  Yes – it has pretty gold decals….but this stopped me:

antiquemall 005


The case was broken.  There is no cover.  The light cover is broken.  The wiring was cracked and would have to be replaced. They evidently thought this was something special, but it is in fact just simply ordinary.  I wouldn’t pay more than $35.00 for a machine in this condition.  I left it behind.  Macy’s or not.

The only thing this machine has going for it is that it straight stitches ONLY ---in center position.

BTW, this is what is called a “Badged” machine.  Machines were made in large lots – and then the sellers could have their own “BRAND” put on them….such as with my blue Wizard above.  Badges can be decals – or metal plates that are screwed into the machine.  There are many hundreds of different badges out there.  The brown Montgomery Ward machine  shown above is also a badged machine.

This post got kind of long --- but I hope it helps those of you who are searching for vintage machines and actually want to USE them know what to look for.

Have fun shopping – the hunt and the find is exhilarating!

PS -- while puttering around I found a great page with several PDFs showing how to clean and refurbish Singer machines ---Specifically the Singer 66 and 99.  Click HERE to view.  The page is linked to the Tools for Self Reliance site, which provides working refurbished hand-powered machines to Africa in an effort to provide jobs and a future to those in need.

I am also adding this link to the bottom of my Vintage Machines Tab at the top of the blog...at the bottom of the Vintage Machines page is a whole list of resources you may find helpful including how to date your Singer Sewing Machine by its serial number.


  1. At first, I collected almost any vintage machine, now, I try to just collect the round bobbin machines, too. I haven't even tried to sew on most of my long bobbin machines yet. They are pretty, though. Merry Christmas! Have fun in Texas.

  2. Hi Bonnie, first of all a very Merry Christmas to you and your family.
    I tried the link in this post, but it doesn't work. I have two vintage handcranks, but I don't know where to oil them, so I hope you can fix the link.
    Thank you for all your advice on buying a vintage machine.

  3. Thanks for all the info! Very informative. I have collected several vintage singers the last few years. I love my black featherweight even though I can't get the musty smell out of the case! I have a two tone 301a, a 1950 99K and a green 185J. And my favorite my green model 15 that belong to my mother-in-law who passed away a couple of years ago. My father-in-law bought it for her in the 50s on payments!They all sew perfect a few I put many of hours cleaning and oiling them! I always keep my eye out for the old machines but will only buy if its a good deal. Happy Holidays! Pam from Lowell Indiana

  4. Fabulous post, so informative. I am drawn to vintage machines but am mechanically challenged. I think I will reread your post and just enjoy looking for a bit longer. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

  5. Hmm. My main machine has a left-hand straight stitch and I have made dozens of quilts. Must just be used to it. It was new in 1968 and says "dial-a-stitch" with a Pfaff decal and it is SOLID. Got it as a middle schooler, secondhand, for Christmas. I recently acquired a Featherweight and am very frustrated by its tendency to pull to the left.

    1. Claudia.....try adjusting the pressure foot tensioning knob--on the top left hand side of the machine. If it's too tight or too loose (can't remember which) it will cause the fabric to pull to the side as it passes under the presser foot. Also, Dave McCallum, in his book "The Featherweight 221 and I" , advises to "remove the presser foot tensioning knob and add a drop of oil" every once and awhile. He also adds that you don't have to be afraid of anything flying apart, "just remove and let a drop of oil fall into the hole and wipe the threads of the know with a little as well." I hope that helps you.

  6. I love my Featherweight. It doesn't pull to the left - or the right, either. Maybe there is something to adjust there? And musty case problems? I don't have those either. It's my second machine and I sew with it regularly. It sits in my SewEzi table with a special insert made for Featherweights. I made a little dust cover for it and never use the case. Anyway, Bonnie, this is a very special Christmas present from you as far as I am concerned. I am interested in other vintage machines, but was hesitant to buy anything besides Featherweights due to lack of knowledge. Your lengthy and informative post is extremely helpful. The link to the Tools for Self Reliance web site is awesome. Thanks for taking time out of a busy holiday schedule to post this. Merry Christmas!

  7. Awesome post! I started sewing on a White in the cabinet with a knee bar and have a featherweight and a Made in Japan I just got per your influence for $20 at Hillsville this year.

  8. Great collection of machines you have. When I left home at 15yrs to start work, I boarded with a lady in town and she had an old treadle machine. I think it was a Singer and it had the knee shaft thingy too. I luv all things old.
    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family.

    Lis Martion

  9. Thank you, the link is working now.

  10. Awesome post! I learned a few things. I too have been hesitant to buy anything but Featherweights. I have several, they all have a musty unused smeel to the case. I leave them open and it improves.

  11. Great info, Bonnie! You are such a giver! Thanks...Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  12. Thanks for all the info. I have been looking but have been looking at vintage machines. It is good to have this extra info.

    Hope you have a wonderful Christmas with you family.

  13. What an education! WHEW! I've bookmarked this so I can read it again and again. So much to learn!!! Thank-you! I do have two feather weights and another old Singer. But I learned more with this reading. Now to go download those PDF files!

  14. Merry Christmas to you Bonnie!! Thank you for all of the info about the vintage machines. They certainly are addictive especially the colorful Japanese models!

  15. Great info! Thanks! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  16. Thanks so for this very informative post. I'm not a collector at this time, nor, at this time am I ever planning to be one. But who knows? I'm female gender and that permits me to change my mind, so now at least I'm better informed! Great Post!

  17. You know so much about these beautiful machines and are so nice to share that information with us. I think I will stick with trying to find a featherweight to be used to traveling with and leave the vintage collecting to you. I'm going to save what little extra room I have for storing fabrics! Thank you for all you do.
    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  18. Bonnie, I told you about the Atlas machine I bought about 2 months ago. What I didn't tell you was that just a week or so before I bought it, you had posted about finding one and how much you liked it. I was looking for a featherweight that day and almost didn't buy the Atlas, but remembered your post and thought "if Bonnie bought one, that's good enough for me." Plus, the price was right. I have really enjoyed the machine since I have had it, and am using it to piece Easy Street, which is my very first mystery. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  19. Great information. Thank you.

  20. I have a question for you, is it possible to sew with the machines that have straight stitch only on the left, with the 1/4 seam on the left vs the right, that we are accustomed to? Then you would have the fabric being fed by both feed dogs, right?

  21. Thanks for the info. I've been looking for a machine for my daughter, but rarely see one in my area. The Pfaff would of been great but alas just got online after spending the day in Christmas dinner prep with my daughter, SIL and son so I missed that one. When I do see a machine it seems overpriced or I'm not sure they would run well for her, an advanced beginner quilter. This blog will definitely help in the look. Thanks again.

  22. Thanks for your post - I am actually NOT into vintage machines at this point in time but you just helped me solve a great frustration nevertheless: I got a new Pfaff Quilt Expression 4.0 a few months ago and one of my only gripes has been that it doesn't always pull fabric in well with the 1/4" foot. Duh - that foot is designed in a way that the fabric only travels over the left feed dog! The feed dogs are 1/2" apart while on my Bernina Virtuosa 150 it was only 3/8" (measuring the inside distance). I put my 0A foot on instead and moved the needle 2.5 to the right and I get beautiful 1/4" seams with no problems!
    Many thanks from New Zealand and Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  23. I have my mother's Montgomery Ward shuttle bobbin machine that I learned to sew on. It looks very much like the one in the picture, same finish and bobbin winder, but the MW emblem is different. It is a 40's model and sadly, doesn't sew any longer. My local repairman says it is just worn out. It is still a treasure to me because of the memories of watching Mother sew and then learning my first stitches with it!

  24. Thanks for the great info and the links to maintain the Singers! I looked at my 1950's Japanese Zigzag, and yes it does have the off-set needle position. I've used this machine for about 45 years since I was little and am so used to it, I never thought about the 1/4 inch...I just eyeball it..so it works for me.
    Merry Christmas!

  25. I have an early 1950s Bernina, but no other vintage machines. I would love to get a featherweight and a treadle someday. Thanks for some very helpful info.

  26. Anonymous1:07 AM EST

    Thank you for this post Bonnie. You are a fount of knowledge and so willing to share what you know. I don't know if I want to be a machine collector, but if I find one that is priced well and works well, I would buy it, but then isn't that how collections start! Have a very merry Christmas and thanks again for this interesting post.

  27. That was super interesting, thanks! Now I want to go examine my Pfaff and where the feed dogs are and all that... Curious how many machines you own (even after how many you pass up!) (:

  28. This organization - tools for self reliance - is known over here as "Gered Gereedschap", saved tools. In the past two electric machines were donated to them, and additional one hand crank and one treadle. I wouldn't give the self powered machines out now, but it helps that I know that at least four families are having bread on account of these babies I sent.
    On the list - yep, after the redo of the bathroom! - is one handcrank from my neighbour, it's at least pre war, WW II. DH loves to clean it and get it running, like heaven to him! =^} The site you mention is very helpful, thank you!
    In an hour we will go out to have lunch with my parents, I take the food, they should provide coffee, tea and merry faces!
    Love from Amsterdam,

  29. Thanks, Bonnie. This post feels like a Christmas present to me from you. I have purchased some vintage machines (three) and this year got my Featherweight, but the case latches were broken and even though the spouse offered to replace them (he is a gun smith) for $50 I had reached my budget limit and could not do that. I got the rolling insulated cooler you mentioned from your spouse. It works. I have two machines in cabinets. My sister's old Touch n Sew that has broken and I had it repaired and 15" of sewing and it broke again. I gave up. I got a National in cabinet and it does not work. I want to get this one operating this next year. And I have a heavy singer that I think was converted to electric. It needs work also. No repair shops around here so I need to look for a 'guy'. LOL Thanks again and Merry Christmas, Bonnie from a very grateful fan.

  30. Thanks for the great information. I bought an old Singer that I have yet to really 'play' with. Just kind of busy and need time to check her out. Alsoa friend of mine is giving me a treadle, I really want to try and get her working too.

  31. Thanks for all the sources of information for vintage sewing machines. I've just picked up 2 Singers, a 99-13 and a 201K. The 201 has been fully serviced, the 99 hasn't been touched since the original owner, neither daughter or granddaughter had any interest. The granddaughter is in her 60's! New cords will be the first order of Evelyn, named after the owner. I'll take her for servicing if she doesn't purr after a cleaning. She has the Centennial badge so I found the article about this badge interesting.

  32. I have searched the internet for so long until I found your blog!I was so pleased to finally find a picture of my prized Blue japanese sewing machine that is just like mine...How I acquired us is a wonderful story in itself..in 1980,one day I helped out in the consignmentshop of my bosses boyfriend in my home town of Key Largo,Fla.I spotted it in a far corner and immediately fell in love! I asked Peter if he would trade me for it instead of what he was going to pay me for working that day and he thought it was a fair trade! The best days work I ever remember doing! I was 20 and a new mother,and had already been a seasoned seamstress since age 14.Iit happened that I carried it with me for 20 years before I ever got the notion to actually consider its functionality and only after moving to Texas and living there for 3 or 4 years.I could not have imagined just how superior it proved itself to me to be and what an absolute powerhouse and workhorse it is! And at it's smallest stitch setting it seems to sew about an amazing tiny 20 to 25 stitchesper inch and laughs at fabric thicknesses that would crush a modern machine.I always made sure to be extra careful not to get my fingers near the needle while sewing as I was certain it would have no problem sewing through them too! What a wonderful and so beautiful machine ! I can't brag on it enough,and thank you so much for letting me discover someone else who has one they love as well as I do!🥰


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