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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Friday, March 13, 2015

An op. ed. in praise of older sewing machines and finding them on ebay

First off this is a shot of one of the storage bunks in the old R.V. 

Pretty normal looking. In my world at least.

 (BTW I have only been here a week those swag numbers are going as soon as I develop some enthusiasm for sewing something other than clothes, which itself is iffy).

Up there I have a Bernina Minimatic ($220) , a Pfaff 786 ($200 bought for my daughter) and a Pffaf Hobbylock ($130) 603A. I also have a Bernina Sport 701 at home. ($245)

I have put the prices in here because I want to make the point that first class machines can be bought for reasonable money. The Bernina Sport is my main machine at home (I gave my Pfaff 7570 embroidery machine to my daughter, the Sport has a better straight stitch IMO and is so smooth). The 786 is going home to my daughter, the 603A (a three thread and has never been used, still has the styrofoam on it) and the Minimatic are going to stay here and wait for me to come down every year.

All are older machines, all were bought on eBay. All are first class machines and work impeccably. With some cleaning and lubricating done by me and the husband they have never had official service work since I bought them.

Now here's the op. ed. part (in the newspaper business an op ed is an opinion editorial which means its printed on the editorial page but was submitted, and the editors want to make sure you know it is just some nut's own ideas.)

These are my personal opinions on sewing machines bought second hand (I could write lots about that particular industry just let me know if you want more).

I worked once a very long time ago as a sort of free lance educational consultant for Pfaff and had a turn or two being a Vanna White to the service manager when he was doing technical training sessions. I picked up a few things.

So starting somewhere, probably in the middle and leaving some stuff out, here is how I go about finding a really good machine on eBay.

1. I only look for really strong mechanical (as in the parts are metal) older machines, made in Europe. The Germans and Swiss had great machinist traditions and good steel and excellent, although different hooks (the stuff under where the bobbin is).  

I look for Pfaffs or Berninas for that reason and nothing newer than about 20 years or so. It helps to know the model numbers. Feel free to let me know if you have other ideas but I tend to go for a Bernina 700 or 800 series (be careful you are getting the older machines, they are recycling these numbers in newer machines to emulate the classics). You just can't beat that stitch IMO. 

Pfaff also had some great mechanical models but you want to find one with the IDF, the built in walking foot that was Pfaff's claim to fame until the patent ran out a few years ago and other companies could use the idea (Janome for example). 

Understand that some in a line like the Bernina Record 830 have great cache but that mechanically all machines in that line are the same inside, just a few features are different.

One Pfaff I like is the 6091, a strong basic machine about 20 years old that was their entry level with the built in dual feed.

For sergers I like the Pfaff 786 and 788, great machines with a neat feature like you just have to change the foot to go from an overlock to a rolled hem (why did they stop making that? So easy). I also like the early Bernettes by Bernina (all sergers were always made in the east, the best ones in Japan, some by Juki in those days, none were ever made in Europe) which has a swing foot which makes threading the needle a breeze. The older sergers can be less user friendly but are reliable.

I have to tell you I would avoid an Elna serger (if I taught a class these were absolutely always the fussy ones) but would consider an older Juki, they after all made and make so many of the industrial sergers and know what they are doing.

2. I would never buy an kind of computerized machine sight unseen. If there are any issues with those machines you have to replace the boards (easy to do they generally snap in and out) but many of those boards just aren't being made anymore or if you can find one can be more expensive than the machine.

3. I tend to favour sellers who look like they are doing estate type sales (you can pick this up by what else they are selling), sometimes a dealer has a trade they oil up, replace the needle and post it and charge too much. Don't panic if they say the foot pedal is lost or the foot is missing. These are generally pretty easy to find at a good price on ebay and usually mean the machine was left aside rather than worked to death. (I basically got my Sport as a body only and assembled the missing parts and came in about half what the complete machine would have cost me).

That said it is interesting to see what they offer with the machine. Original box can be a good sign, as is the original manual.

4. What to look for when you have the machine. Well these are all very good, but precise, strong machines and assuming the electricals are all right the main issue is that they may be stiff because they are dry. The rule is to oil, just a bit but often, parts where metal moves against metal. Open it up, Bernina is easy for this, and apply the oil where they have little red dots and where metal is moving on metal, including the hook in the bobbin. And of course put in a new needle.

My strong recommendation is to go online and buy a service manual for the machine you have bought (usually about $10-15 ) and follow the instructions carefully for opening up the machine and oiling and cleaning it. 

There are two things you should never do:

  1. Use anything but a fine machine oil on the machine. A good oil is clear and is air soluble. You can buy this online. Make sure it is clear and for sewing machines and get it from a sewing machine site. Do not under any circumstances use yellow, mulitpurpose type oil, or household oil or even the general machine oil your old time dealer may try to sell you. That kind of oil will just get hard over time, never evaporate, and gunk up the machine. Actually a neglected machine is a better buy that one that got misused with the best of intentions
  2. Let anyone handy in the family near it. Just because unnamed person did a great job fixing the lawnmower and has some great oil out in the garage does not mean they are the safe person to be working on your machine. A careful woman with the sense to look at a service manual may do a better job. I once saw a serger that had the timing off that a husband had "fixed" by shaving off the parts that were hitting each other. You get my drift.
Finally know when you need professional help. Although I believe you need this less than you think (most service jobs are about needle changing and oiling to be truthful) you absolutely need someone with the right gauges to fix timing.

Timing means that the parts have to move in the right sequence at high speeds with just passing each other exactly where they are supposed to can do that without crashing into each other. If they crash that means the timing is off and everything has to be loosened up, parts that are broken and bent replaced, and set up with the right measurements between the parts so it won't happen again. (You see how technical I am). 

You know you have a timing problem (most common in sergers) if you see and hear pieces hitting each other, things stop.

You are most likely to have timing problems if a machine has bent needles or, tellingly in sewing machines, scratches along the throat plate, usually from someone "helping the machine along" or trying to keep going through too many layers.

So that's it. 

Bottom line the best machines may be the least expensive if your think about it.

Disclaimer to this op. ed.: 

Of course there are many good new machines out there but let's face it if you all you want is a nice sewing machine with a beautiful stitch and can live without needle down, thread cutters and embroidery stitches, they are out there.


Leila H said...

I'm all for buying older used machines. In fact, the sewing machine I use almost exclusively is older than I am. But I do want to caution people about buying sewing machines on ebay. I bought three machines on ebay that were not packaged properly and arrived damaged. Machines that come in a case are less likely to be damaged during shipping, but I even had a machine in a case that arrived damaged. I would contact the seller and make sure they know how to package a sewing machine for shipping before you buy it.

Judith Stansky said...

I only have "old" machines and am very happy with them. Your post made me think of my mother, who lived in Florida for about 25 years. The only things she had trouble with were the belt on her sewing machine and the tendency for metal parts of rust. The rust was held back by heavily oiling the machine, especially when it was being stored. The belts were changed as part of regular maintenance. I thought you'd like to know. How lovely it will be to have machines waiting for you; less hauling, more fun.

Kathrynsb said...

I completely agree. We have a beach house in Mexico and I keep a Bernina 610 there. I dont know how old it is but it sews like a dream just straight and zigzag. I can fix it and if I need it, so can the sewing machine repair guy in town. I save silica packs from pills and stuff it full when we leave so it doesn't rust and carefully oil clean and grease the gears
I got it on ebay and it came from Canada
It will out live me
I have on old white server I bought new long ago
It gets the same treatment
And works like a champ

Taking a serger through airport security was challenging

sewingkm said...

I am a prolific sewist and always buy used Pfaff machines. Most of my sewing buddies who sew less than me buy these outrageously expensive new machines. I just don't get it especially since they don't use the computerized embroidery features. My sister has a Bernina 830 and talked about getting a new machine. Luckily I was able to talk her out of that move and appreciate her jewel. Your post was very informative - thanks! Karen

badmomgoodmom said...

I'm not sure that a beginning sewist can count on buying a good sewing machine and sourcing all the required parts on eBay.

When you look at the new sewing machine market these days, the ratio of junk vs. solid machines is quite high. What's the ratio of junk vs. solid available on the resale market? And how is a newbie supposed to navigate that?

Florida may be a special case b/c of the high #s of older people retiring from sewing there. But, go to an urban area with a young populace and there is a shortage of good vintage machines for the # of people who want them.

That said, I have Juki-built sergers--one Pfaff, one Bernette--and a New Home/Janome and Bernina sewing machines.

My advice to new sewists is to avoid Singer like the plague and stick to the European brands and Janome.

Barbara said...

Badmomgoodmom great points. However I teach young sewers and I see them spending $300 for a Walmart machine they are just going to fight with and I see that money better spent with a more reliable older machine. I hate to see them apologetic because they don't have thousands to spend on a sewing machine, and I want them to get sewing. Given the choice between engineered steel and plastic I am pretty clear where a good basic machine can be found. Agree too that Janome are nice machines, in fact they manufactured Pfaff's basic machines for many years. These days of course the same OEM (original equipment manufacturer) can produce many lines in the same factory. Of course this was just an op. ed. and other thoughts are so important.

Angela said...

I love the older mechanical machines. In our house we have a Singer 401, 301, 348, and a treadle Singer 66. Also, a Kenmore 1030. They all work great (except the treadle needs refurbishing, but that's a few years down the road). I have used ebay to source parts. The machines were either inherited or bought locally through craigslist or quilting forums. This weekend my friend and I went to a quilt show where there were large $12,000 machines hooked up to giant computer screens. It made me aware that my experience of the physical act of sewing is much, much different LOL!

As far as cheap Singers, some are better than others. Just look at the productivity of MrsCharisma, and she's done it all with an inexpensive Singer machine and the Brother 1034 serger:)

Fashionista said...

I have a Janome machine that has trundled along for 26 years and a Janome overlocker (serger) that has trundled for 27 years. They are all metal construction and are a great weights workout if you have to move them. The machine was the ants pants at the time I bought it new but in reality is quite basic compared to the monsters of today! I get them serviced every couple of years as I'm not the prolific sewer I would like to be.

A few weeks ago I was queuing in the post office when I spotted sewing machines for sale for $250 and $299, some breed of Brother. What the???? I thought a post office sold stamps and mailing stuff.......

Digs said...

My mom sews on a Bernina 830, she got that brand new way back when; I have a 30 year old Kenmore, and suffer from Bernina envy just from the few times I've used hers. But when I once looked on ebay, they were very expensive even recently. So you're very lucky to find reasonable prices for these superb oldies.