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.

Saying goodbye to something you still love

I recently sold my vintage 1970’s Pfaff 1222 sewing machine. Some of you are gasping in horror right now. Is she crazy, you muse? That is a classic machine. Yes, it is. I found her in a pawn shop in 1988. She had a cracked cam stack and needed repair. The fine tech at Montavilla Sewing Center in Portland, Oregon fixed her up good as new and she became one of the most fabulous tools I’ve ever used. Such a lovely, straight-forward sewing machine. Clean, simple, even industrial lines. The system to store all the parts inside the case by using a reversible tray beneath the free arm was a creative marvel. The clicky, snappy accessories compartments in the case top-Yum! Ahhhh, happy to just think about it. So, why did I sell the machine? Because I wasn’t using it and I hadn’t for some time. A few years back I was in the middle of a big sewing project and it broke. I ran it into the shop and was quoted $300 to get it fixed. I needed another machine right then so I asked the salesperson to recommend a new one that would be of equal quality. Enter the Pfaff 2029. I bought the floor model on the spot and left the 1222 with the tech for repairs. He called a week later with the good news that he was able to do the repairs for $99. I retrieved my machine and set her in the corner. While 1222 was in the shop, 2029 and I had bonded. It wasn’t a deep and sudden bond, but one met more out of frenzy and desperation. You see, I had to finish 12 little red metallic spandex cowgirl outfits for my daughter’s jazz dance group and was already on deadline.

2029 and I got down and dirty and learned each other. This was my first computerized sewing machine and it wasn’t an easy adjustment for me. As we sewed on together I did learn that it outperformed the 1222 in one major way: it could sew through many layers of denim without skipping. It was actually stronger than my old machine. Until I started my sewing school in 2008, the older machine just sat around. In the school she was happily used again by new students and had a special friend in Jacqueline (pictured here) for over three years. After I regrouped the studio into its latest incarnation, I again had no real use for the 1222. And it weighs a ton. So it sat in the cupboard. When I started clearing out my excess possessions, I decided it was time for the machine to be used and loved the way it deserved to be. You see, the Pfaff 1222 loves to sew. I just know it. We made so many beautiful things together. I met a lovely woman while selling a different machine on Craigslist and I introduced her to the 1222. It was love at first sew and she swept off the machine and reported a week later that she was halfway through a new quilt she was making for her husband. This makes my heart happy. I still feel a little pang of something I can’t describe when I think about not owning that machine, but I know the new pairing is fresh and right. Goodbye, old friend.



Hey sewists!  Today I’d like to share my system of pattern storage.  It’s super simple and allows me find patterns quickly.  It is also very economical.  You will need:
NOTE:  As always, never buy storage items until you know how much you are going to store!  Wait until you weed through the pack.  Never, never, never! I know-I’m bossy.  Trust!

  • IKEA magazine files-these are the super-economical ones that you buy flat and assemble.
  • Something to make labels on and to write with.  I printed mine on regular printer paper, but you could write them on any paper or label.  Get creative!  Make them pretty.
  • Generic zip-top gallon storage bags.  Get the flat kind as opposed to the ‘boxy’ bottoms and without the little zipper pull.  These are bulky and get in the way.  The bags help the patterns slip in and out of the file boxes and are bigger than most pattern envelopes, so you don’t have to refold so accurately.  I gave up trying to get the patterns back in those tiny envelopes years ago!
  1.  Sort and purge  As with all the rest of my possessions, I’ve gone through my patterns and ruthlessly weeded out the excess.  I had gazillions of patterns, folks.  Now I just have tons.  This was terrifying and liberating at the same time.  I gave away many to students and the rest to charity.  If you have the time, you could sell them online.  I have bought plenty that way.  I just didn’t want to take the time to do this.
  2. Categorize  Next I categorized them in ways that are meaningful to me, so I can find things quickly.  Put your patterns in in piles by category.  The categories will change as you sort.  Let it happen!  I have 15 file boxes:

Bags, Hats & Scarves
Blouses & shirts
Dresses-formal….and so on.

  1. Count your piles.  Each box will hold about 10 patterns.  Sub categorize, if necessary.
  2. Now you may buy your supplies.
  3. Bag up your patterns, load your boxes and label.  Place on shelf and admire!  YOU ROCK.

Now go sew something fabulous, you’ve earned it!  Next time we’ll talk about storing your fave tutorials and magazine clippings in a meaningful way.  You can also see the latest class listings  here.
Until next time–
Move around, eat something green and take a stitch!
Xoxo Helen

Hello stitchers!  I hear this question so often that I’ve decided to start a little FAQs blog this week.  What machine should I get?  Well, sewing is just like with any task you take on-good tools make the job easier and generally more enjoyable.  Before you head out to the store, ask yourself these questions:

1.  What do you want to sew?  Clothing?  Crafty things like hats and handbags?  Quilts?  Auto upholstery?  Boat sails?  You gotta know what you’re making to know what tools you need.

2.  How much money will you spend?

So let’s say the answer to #1 is ‘I want to make some clothes, some household items like curtains, maybe a quilt or five…just general sewing, nothing really heavy.’  You want a basic, domestic sewing machine.  Let’s say the answer to #2 is $200 to $1000.  Yeah, I know that’s a big disparity, but I’ll talk more about that later. Let’s go shopping…

Here’s where to go–shop at a local sewing machine dealer that you can trust!  Don’t know of one?  Ask a friend who sews or a sewing instructor who they like or go online and read reviews about SERVICE and quality.  When you buy your machine from a good dealer, you get a warranty, lessons (how-to use your machine lessons, not how to sew specific items) and often all servicing for 2-3 years. This is a good value in most cases.  Depending on the machine, a complete tune-up is around $70, more for some models and around $130 for computerized machines.  AVOID:  box stores, chain fabric stores, anywhere that will not service your machine in-house.  You may save a few bucks initially, but you’ll likely be sorry if anything goes wrong with your machine.  Don’t like who you’re dealing with or feel pressured or like the salesperson knows nothing about sewing?  Go somewhere else!

Here’s what to bring on your shopping trip.  Your sewing project wish list, some pieces of fabric that you will likely sew with. The tester fabrics at the sewing dealerships are all perfectly stiffened with fabric sizing and they can fake you out! Oh, and some scissors (tho it’s likely that they have some handy.  I like to be prepared). A notebook.  Take notes on which models you like and the price.  Lastly, bring the ability to walk out without making a purchase!  Now you have some idea of what’s out there, the model numbers, and what they cost.  Go do your homework.  Search online for reviews that are independent.  See what the buzz is.  Unhappy consumers are pretty anxious to tell about what they hate, so keep that in mind, too.  Call or email a sewing teacher!  We love talking about sewing machines and have opinions that could help you make a good decision.

More soon about finding a good used machine in a thrift shop or on CraigsList.

Until then–move around, eat something green, and take a stitch!


Cutting the House in Half

I’ll just spill this out on ‘paper’ before my head blows up. You lucky readers! I am in the process of downsizing my sewing and teaching space from 475 sf (plus a 10 ft wall of cabinets and a few shelves in the garage) to a new studio that is only 162 sf—AND the space will be shared with the laundry equipment. Why? I’m building an apartment for my 89 year old mom in the lower level of my home. Three generations: mom, me, my two daughters. I think I’ll name it the Gabba Gabby Hey House, in honor of The Ramones. Mom hates The Ramones, but we agree on lots of other things, like how fabulous it is to SEW!

I figured out once that I had moved 21 one times, and that was about 3 moves ago. You would have thought I’d be smart enough not to collect more crap than I could fit in a car. Even though we are not moving out of our house, we had to move out of the entire lower level. I had a LOT OF STUFF down there! Not a small amount of it was/is fabric, yarn, patterns and, um, 19 sewing machines. 19. It’s as cathartic as it is shameful to say the number out loud. I justify it by telling myself that I’m a seamstress and a sewing teacher and, and, no one needs that many machines. I immediately got the number down to 14 by giving away 5 machines to former students and a good friend. That helped…a little. We haven’t even started in on my crazy magazine collections, books, pattern books, notions, ugh. Did I mention craft supplies? Mountains of it was stored in the garage. I just kept pulling out boxes. The ‘craft’ area had sort of devolved into a nightmarish pile of mess and unfindable supplies (Word is telling me that unfindable is not a word. I beg to differ). But everything had to come out and upstairs in order to start the remodeling project. I met the exit deadline with minutes to spare, by sheer will. I have never felt so truly controlled and imposed upon by my possessions. Too much stuff. I know there are volumes written on the subject, so I won’t bore you with more decluttering advice, but I will share with you the feelings of hopelessness I felt while dragging it all upstairs and wondering what I’d do with it all and how I was going to live with it piled in my living room and bedroom for two months. Yeesh. I have to go through it all and purge. Purge! Purge my fabric stash? Are you crazy? What if I need something? What if? Oh my, I sound like a hoarder. Last I heard there are still fabric and craft stores all over town. Funny that they are called STORES. I totally stole that from some organizer author woman.

So, going thru and cleaning out and clearing out all the fabric. I had about 15 or 20 plastic bins, some 8 x 20ish and some 15 x 20-all full. I emptied at least half by giving it away to my students on the last day of classes, and then by giving more away to Goodwill. I still have tons. I am going to n0w go thru and touch each piece and ask myself if I’m really ever going to sew it up. This will be an interesting exercise. Stay tuned…

Here are some pics of my old, lovely sewing lounge and the bare new space. I hope you’ll follow along and read and watch the progress. I’ll be posting pics and looking for set-up advice for my new, much smaller, clutter-free, uber-efficient sewing salon (nook, palace, corridor—help me name it)! Please join me…..and in the meantime…

Move around, eat something green, and take a stitch.
Xoxo Helen