How to Choose a Good, Used Sewing Machine

Buying a used sewing machine can be a daunting task, but you can find a real gem if you:  a) know what you’re looking for, specifically, and or b) are willing to do some research and testing. Why buy a used machine?  Well, as the old adage goes, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”  I actually believe this is true.  I’m not all that in love with computerized machines.  It’s what is available and I have them, use them, accept them, but there’s nothing like an all-metal mechanical beauty from the 1970’s or earlier to ignite  this sewist’s heart on fire.  I’m still using the Singer 301 that belongs to my mother and that I learned to sew with 50 years ago.  It made it through Mom sewing many, many garments and hundreds of diapers.  Yeah, mom used her hemming foot to finish the raw edges of yards and yards of birdseye cotton for our diapers!  Back to the topic at hand.  How do you know if a used machine is good?  First, gather your test kit, gumption and patience together and let’s go shopping.

Sewing machine shopping test kit:  Thread, snips, sewing machine needles, fabric samples (I bring denim, a lightweight woven and a squigly knit), seam gauge (to be sure the needle positions are accurate), extension cord (yup, I’ve sampled a few machines in garages and it’s best to come prepared), bobbins.  I have a small variety of bobbins, but old machines often use a proprietary bobbin and some lines had a different bobbin for each model.  You likely don’t have them all, but you can’t test a machine without the proper bobbin, so either call the vendor/owner and confirm they have a bobbin, or find a bobbin for that particular machine.  I’ve usually been sorry I bought a machine based on just how it sounded when run.  It’s best to see it stitch.  If the owner has no bobbins it can also be a hint to as how far the machine has wandered from it’s loving original owner.  If all the parts and accessories have disappeared, it may be more work and cost to get it going than it’s worth.  Best to find something with all the goodies included.  An old Bernina or Pfaff foot control can cost $50-$100.  Eek!

Ask before you drive.  How is the machine cosmetically? What does the machine include? Ideally, the operator manual, power cord, foot control, bobbin case, bobbins, extra presser feet.  Also be aware of whether a special buttonhome attachment or foot is included or mandatory for this function. If these things aren’t included, I pass.  I’ve put together too many packages bit by bit and watched my great $50 find turn into $300+ after servicing and parts-collecting.

How to test a used sewing machine:  Inspect the appearance.  Is it rusty anywhere?  Run away! Only allow little nicks and scratches.  Gouges and dents are signs of dropping or use as a door stop.  Never okay.  Turn the hand wheel.  If it won’t turn, move on.  If it turns with difficulty, ugh.  May just need lube or may have other problems.  Still a pass for me.  I can’t clean out old, stiff grease, but if you like a project and don’t mind the smell of solvents, be my guest. If the hand wheel moves freely,  plug in the machine and run with the foot control and no thread.  If it purrs, continue.  Thread up and sew straight, reverse, zig-zag.  Make sure it moves easily between functions and makes beautiful stitches.  If it doesn’t, it is a warning and no, it won’t get better if you love it and give it a good home.  Old machines, especially the cool Euro makes from the ’70s have ‘camstacks’ that function to make the different stitches and they are often cracked.  Open the top of the machine and look.  If cracked, move on.  Look at the stitch length and make sure it changes properly with the control.  If the stitch length looks off, this can be tough to fix on an older machine. Does the needle move positions as engineered?  Test! Understand that you still will likely need a professional servicing.  Add $80-$100 to your bargain price.

Consider the source.  Here is a list of possibilities, in order of preference, and how to handle each.

1. Your trusted sewing machine dealer will often have refurbished vintage machines that have been tested and come with a warranty.  You can’t go wrong and you have recourse if something fails.  This is the safest way to find a vintage machine in good working order.  You will, however, pay a bit more. They usually have a yummy selection at House of Sewing Machines & Vacuums in Vancouver, Washington.

2. Ebay or another managed auction site can be a fine place to get a machine.  I have both bought and sold machines on Ebay.  There is some seller responsibility to disclose any problem and in some cases take returns, too.  Beware of crazy shipping costs!  I paid $127 to send a machine cross country (Fed Ex, they pack, insured). Make sure all the stuff listed above is included.  Do a google search and look up value before bidding.

3.  CraigsList, garage sale or other buy-at-your-own-risk outlet.  Ask questions before going.  Where did they get the machine?  Best answer:  “It belonged to my beloved mother who adored sewing and kept everything in pristine working order.  The machine, case, and all accessories are included, and I also have a ton of Armani fabric that she gave me and I have no use for. Will you take it?”  Worst answer:  “I don’t know, it’s been knocking around here for years”. Bring your kit, test.  Be skeptical.

4. Rummage sale or thrift store Beware.  There is a good chance that the machine has not been handled with care.  Usually they will plug them in and make sure they work, but that is usually the extent of it.  Be sure to test the machine using the guidelines covered and if it’s a runner, go for a smokin’ deal.

Super-groovy vintage machines are fun to sew with and look fabulous in your maker space. Some of my favorites are those pictured at the top of this post:  Pfaff 1222 and 1222E, most of the Viking 6000 series, Singer Touch ‘n Sew (if cherished and well-cared-for.  They can be quirky).  The Bernina 830 (with her smashing red case and accessory box, expect to pay $500 and up, depending on condition), 1970’s Kenmore 158 series machines-tough and great, any singer before about 1973, particularly the 301, 400 & 401 and the ultra-cool 500 series that includes the coveted ‘Rocketeer’ model 500A and of course the Featherweight. There are more, but these are some of my faves.  Be thorough in your testing, be willing to walk away from a potential dud and keep your sewing machine tech on speed dial.  I’m happy to answer questions in the comments here or by email.

Hugs & stitches,


Intentional Sewing

Intentional sewing means that each garment I make has been chosen and constructed with much thought and care. It means that it is needed, already has a place in my capsule wardrobe and therefore is deserving of precious closet space. It is a good design, made from quality fabrics and notions and sewn to fit me perfectly. Throughout the life of the garment it will be cared for and respected and I will be grateful to have it. Too deep? Is it? Think about it. From a financial standpoint, it’s not always cheaper to sew your own clothing (but perfect style and fit is priceless, of course) and you will spend many hours choosing the pattern, altering it to fit your body, finding and preparing the fabric, and finally sewing up the garment. It will be a labor of love and intense satisfaction. Why should it be done haphazardly or with any materials that don’t make your heart sing? Why should we ever sew with anything less than great intention?

Making becomes more and more satisfying as you improve your skills.  Add to your bag of tricks as you are ready to progress.  I offer sewing for adults from beginning to fine-tuning with sergers and pattern fittingOpen sewing sessions introduce you to new perspective and a community of sewing friends.