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Sewing machines - buying to last a life-time (preferably one that already has!)

 
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When I visit my sister in Ontario, I often do sewing projects for her (she cooks delicious meals for me - fair's fair!) and I do so on my grandmother's sewing machine that was bought around 1950. It's a Singer and there's not a whole lot that can go wrong with it.

When I got married, my family bought me a little portable machine which was great for sewing dresses, but when I morphed into a "farm wife" it just wasn't up to triple reinforced knees on the boys pants, not to mention tarps...

We went hunting for an alternative as I didn't feel good about "abusing" a machine (it's been re-homed to a friend who promised to use it for its designed target jobs). This was the early 2000's and it was already getting hard to find a "basic sturdy machine". There were way too many bells and whistles and machines attempting to be all things to all sewers which worried me would result in reality of a machine that did nothing well.

The choice ended up being a Janome Decor Excell 5018. The dials are mechanical. There isn't a "Mother Board" (don't get me started on that topic - there's a place for computers, but many places where they're one more thing to break and be irreplaceable/unfixable/limited-lifespan) However, *much* more of this machine is plastic and already there's a problem in the plastic lever that allows me to do a back stitch. I'm gradually getting up the nerve to try taking it apart, but it may have to wait until winter.

So this thread is for people to discuss the sewing machines they've found that are sturdy, long-lasting, repairable and whose parts would be easy to re-build even if no longer available. I'm sick of the "disposable" attitude of humans and want to be able to read about machines that have already lived a long and productive life and yet are still willing to sew new seat cushions when I go to visit them (oops - I mean, "go to visit the sister they live with").
 
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My workhorse day to day machine is a Kenmore 385. My mom was going to buy a herself a new machine and give me her old one for my 19th birthday in 1982. She was at Sears, looking at machines, and the sales guy talked her into taking two demo models. So we each got a new machine, slightly different, and we have worked those puppies into the ground, and both still run beautifully.

I have had mine open a couple of times never had to do serious repairs on it. Weirdest thing it ever did was I was sewing and there was a loud CLUNK! inside of it. I opened it, there was a chunk of metal,  looked like a counterweight to something, but I could find no place it would go. I took it to a shop, he couldn't figure out where it came off of either. I have it someplace, labeled "the thing that went CLUNK!" in case I ever figure it out. Runs just fine without it. Other than that, I have rewired the foot pedal, and greased it, and I think that's it. Lovely, hardworking, solid machine. I highly recommend them, if you see one second hand, well worth buying. I have sewn miles of fabric, upholstered furniture with it, and abused it pretty hard, it still kicks along, works close to as well as the day I got it.

 
gardener
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It seems the Janome 712t has a pretty good reputation, but then again there's not a lot of competition in the treadle market for modern machines and maybe that's just what people use because it's their only non-electric option. I haven't used one myself, but I doubt there's many people wanting a treadle machine who would settle for a fu-fu light duty machine that needs repairs often. Definitely all electrical maladies would be ruled out.

The old iron workhorses from the early to mid 20th century were definitely built before the era of "planned obsolescence," and can be considered for all practical purposes impossible to wear out under normal use. I hear that many sweatshops in Asia are still using many of these old machines to this day. Even the little aluminum Singer Featherweight is known for being extremely powerful and dependable, especially compared to modern machines. There's a guy on youtube who rebuilds old singers with heavy flywheels and bigger motors to sell for upholstering and even leather work. People definitely had a dirrerent way of looking at tools back them. And to top it off, look at how beautiful they were. Beauty and toughness...most modern stuff can claim neither!
 
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I still have a '77 Kenmore which is a rugged machine that's sewn miles of fabric.  For awhile I was doing boat interiors and awnings with it and it handled that beautifully.  Then, at a yard sale, there was a Singer 401A in a beat up cabinet for $15.  I tried selling it at a little 'antique mall' that I'm part of for $50, but nobody was interested in it.  I'd later picked up a Singer Featherweight and decided not to keep it since it didn't have a zigzag stitch and while researching the Featherweight, I found out that the 401A is a solid metal direct drive machine so I took that out of the shop and tuned it up.  That's now become my 'go to' machine.


That's the 'as found' in the shop picture.  I'm glad it didn't sell.


It's been cleaned, tuned and set into a different cabinet with more storage spaces.  The cabinet needed a lot of work, but it had been at a different yard sale for $10.


Singer Cabinet #47 as found at a yard sale.


Same cabinet with "Howard's Restore-A-Finish" wiped on it.

So far there's $35 into the machine and cabinet.  A lot of times folks don't value these old machines even though there's some amazing machine work in them.

Just to add icing to an already sweet deal, this was found at our local dump about a year later:



I'd just seen a sewing machine case in the metals bin, grabbed it and stuck it in the car to look at later since it was heavy (35#) so I knew there was a machine inside.  Imagine my surprise that it was a matching Singer 401A!  Perfect!  An 'at home' machine and a 'portable' machine.  At 35#, it has a small wheeled dolly to haul it around, but it sews so much better than new machines that it's worth the weight.

The machine at the dump hadn't been working since someone had installed a lever on the cam shaft incorrectly, but it was an easy fix.  

Try looking at your local thrift shops, estate sales or sales from where the kids are cleaning out their parents or auntie's house.  To many folks, they're just 'an old sewing machine' and not worth much.  

The only drawbacks to the Singer 401A is that it is a 'Slant-O-Matic' which means it's really easy to thread, but the feet aren't interchangeable with other Singers.  The bobbins are also just a touch bigger and thinner.


The 401A bobbins are the flatter ones with only four holes in them.  So, now I have to have separate bobbins and feet for the Kenmore (which uses Singer bobbins & feet) and the Singer 401A.  But, the 401A is worth it, it's a very willing machine and wants to get the job done, not fussy and persnickety like the cheap new machines.

There's a whole pile of mid-century mostly metal machines out there.  Find one with no electronics on it and as little plastic as possible.
 
Rocket Scientist
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I have a probably 1950s or early 60s Singer that I got from my little sister when she got a new one in the late 70s. (She must have gotten the original secondhand, I wasn't paying attention at that time.) It is butt-ugly, a square beige tank, but has done serious work for me, like sewing multiple Sunforger canvas tent roofs, and still works fine. It does not do any zigzag or other fancy things, but the levers give it infinite repeatable flexibility in its basic functions.

I also have my mother's Singer which I believe she got as a girl in the forties, a beautiful wasp-waisted black machine with gold pinstriping (and no discernible model number). She had it serviced and renewed in the 90s or so, and it still works nicely though I seldom have occasion to get it out (my wife likes it better than my big one.)

A couple of years ago I was picking up a homemade potter's kickwheel from an estate sale and noticed a sewing machine case in a corner - nobody had wanted it, and when I asked the owner about buying it, he said "just take it." It is extremely heavy, around 40 pounds more or less, and larger than ordinary machines. I haven't really looked at it but expect it would probably be good for my heavy jobs so I don't overtax my regular machine any more.
 
Pearl Sutton
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Glenn Herbert wrote:I also have my mother's Singer which I believe she got as a girl in the forties, a beautiful wasp-waisted black machine with gold pinstriping (and no discernible model number).  


If you can find the stamped serial number (often on a small plate on the front or back of them) there are places on the net Singer Sewing Machine Serial Number Database where you can look it up.
If yours has no serial number, maybe this info will help others.

I want to see your mystery brick!! Open it!!! :D
 
Glenn Herbert
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I have looked for a serial number and couldn't find anything that seemed like it could be it... maybe if I open it up there is some identifier inside the body.

I am away from the house now, will look at it and try to post a picture when I get back.
 
Glenn Herbert
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Here is the mystery brick :) It weighs 47 pounds. It is a Nelco model JA-38, with all kinds of fancy stitch capability including two top thread spool mounting spindles. It does run smoothly, though there is a sticking point when the needle is down that needs lubricating or something. When it is down at starting, the wheel needs a boost to start turning. I don't see any control that reverses sewing direction. There is a knob for stitch length. The selector seems to be stuck on doing zigzag no matter what I turn it to, or "reset".

I haven't yet been able to find information on how to use the controls. I bought what is supposed to be a pdf instruction manual for $10 from sewingmachinemanual.com , but it hasn't arrived yet.
IMG_2728.JPG
Nelco JA-38 case
Nelco JA-38 case
IMG_2729.JPG
the machine
the machine
IMG_2730.JPG
the fancy stitch mechanism
the fancy stitch mechanism
IMG_2731.JPG
the controls - no reverse?
the controls - no reverse?
IMG_2732.JPG
heavy duty undercarriage
heavy duty undercarriage
 
Glenn Herbert
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Hah! Looking at the pictures, I notice the "R" on the front of the stitch length selector knob. You can only reverse while pushing the button. I like my Singer where you set the stitch length by turning a screw wheel on the lever, then flip up or down for reverse or forward.
 
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Try a treadle powered sewing machine, such as a singer.
I feel most that you'll find are still fully functional and have already survived several generations of use.
We have two singers and they work great.
 
pollinator
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Pearl Sutton wrote:
If you can find the stamped serial number (often on a small plate on the front or back of them) there are places on the net Singer Sewing Machine Serial Number Database where you can look it up.
If yours has no serial number, maybe this info will help others.



Thank you! Found a similar data base today with a Goggle search that only tells date of manufacture. Interesting trivia to know but useless for looking for spare parts or a manual. Wife's grandmothers Singer model 66 from 1950 is soon to run again!
 
Pearl Sutton
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William Bagwell wrote:

Pearl Sutton wrote:
If you can find the stamped serial number (often on a small plate on the front or back of them) there are places on the net Singer Sewing Machine Serial Number Database where you can look it up.
If yours has no serial number, maybe this info will help others.



Thank you! Found a similar data base today with a Goggle search that only tells date of manufacture. Interesting trivia to know but useless for looking for spare parts or a manual. Wife's grandmothers Singer model 66 from 1950 is soon to run again!



I had looked up my treadle machine, 1926!!
 
Jay Angler
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This is sideways for this topic, but my son found this video on the principles and evolution of machine sewing, and I couldn't think of a better spot to put it:
 
William Bagwell
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Jay Angler wrote:This is sideways for this topic, but my son found this video on the principles and evolution of machine sewing, and I couldn't think of a better spot to put it:



Not at all, found it very informative!

Last week just before finding Pearl's serial number data base I was on Ebay hunting for similar machines to see if they knew the model number. (None did) But found a spare parts machine for only $15. Local pick up so no shipping! A model 66 from 1927, rough shape compared to our 1950. Head only, no stand or foot switch. Has some accessories / attachments that are missing from the other that would cost way more than $15. Needs re-wiring but so does the 1950. Slight possibility it will run as well:) If so will dedicate it for leather / webbing, etc. Have a 32 foot roll of 'restoration' wire on order. Modern plastic covered wire with a cloth outer cover so it resembles the original wire.
IMG_20231203_103504844_HDR.jpg
[Thumbnail for IMG_20231203_103504844_HDR.jpg]
 
Jay Angler
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William Bagwell, if you do some restoration work, please take lots of pictures. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd be interested!
 
William Bagwell
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Jay Angler wrote:William Bagwell, if you do some restoration work, please take lots of pictures. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'd be interested!



Will do. Debated just cheeping out and using modern three conductor wire. Might even be safer... Wife wants something that resembles original and I think two conductor is legal as long as that was what was originally used. Twisted cloth covered wire is widely available, parallel is less common but out there if you search. Round rather than the original oval, but close enough and the right color.

The 1950 pictured above has the flat black finish. Wife has researched it and they warn to never use water to clean. Rubbing it down with sewing machine oil is the recommended way to clean. The 1927 has shiny black paint and is a lost cause as far as 'restoring' so who knows what will happen to it...
 
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This thread is up my ally! If there is something that should be utterly dependable it’s a sewing machine- it fixes the things that proved unmatched for their task. Anyway had 4 machines, but felt that was a bit redundant so passed one on to a family member. That one had belonged to my mom, and was a simple zig zag machine. No lcd screen or any of that. It had no name on it so I can’t tell you the brand. But it has proved pretty hardy.

Currently we have a Sailrite as our general purpose machine. It is the only new machine we’ve had, so jury is still out for it’s longevity, but it seems well built. Probably close to 50lb. It’s built for repairing sail cloth on boats, so also has the option to hand crank and work with out electricity. Therefore no computer as well. It’s a versatile machine that we have used to make everything from light weight clothing to leather holsters (7oz veg tan). I don’t think it would be good to use for that heavy of leather on a continual basis tho.

A few years ago a friend’s brother retired from the taxidermy field, and passed on a singer fur sewing machine. Singer only made a few of these machines before selling to Bonis, so ours is probably from the 30’s If I remember right.  It a gem. Creates an “overcast” stitch along the edge, similar to a whip stitch. We also happen to have someone in town who knows the machine inside and out and can source parts and do repairs. We had him tune it up when we moved here. It is the smoothest running machine I’ve touched.

Last year my husband walked into church in a homemade wool coat. We were new to town at that point, so didn’t know many folks at church yet. The man greeting (now a good friend), commented on the coat, and when he heard that my husband had made it, he got very excited and started telling us about an old machine a friend of his had in Arizona. Long story short he brought that machine back from Arizona and gave it to us this spring. It’s stamped with US, so I wonder if it was used for one of the wars? 40s era maybe. Also one of the neatest machines I have seen. It has a long arm and the foot can rotate 360 degrees so you can sew in any direction. I think it’s called the Singer Boot Patcher. You can put the shaft of a boot in the arm and sew around it or along it longways. We just moved into a 300sqft garage apartment while we build our house so unfortunately this one is in storage. Haven’t really gotten to use it yet but we have a lot of plans for it when we have space!

Anyways, all our machines seem to fit the “built to last” objective so I thought I’d share what we have. I have learned that befriending older people can gain you not only years of wisdom and insight, but occasionally a useful item that would otherwise be hard to acquire. Two of our machines came from people who had something great and wanted it to continue to be used.

A pics of the boot patcher and fur machine are below.
5698006B-0EA4-4574-AF7B-3F41C31307E5.jpeg
Singer Boot Patcher
Singer Boot Patcher
9515B7DC-0B5B-4B7E-B043-11B49C5E573F.jpeg
Fur machine
Fur machine
 
Jay Angler
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Eloise Rock wrote:Anyways, all our machines seem to fit the “built to last” objective so I thought I’d share what we have. I have learned that befriending older people can gain you not only years of wisdom and insight, but occasionally a useful item that would otherwise be hard to acquire. Two of our machines came from people who had something great and wanted it to continue to be used.  

I think your collection is awesome! I think many older people also still have that desire to see things like boots and clothing repaired instead of just tossed out because of a small fault.
 
Pearl Sutton
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Eloise Rock wrote:It has a long arm and the foot can rotate 360 degrees so you can sew in any direction. I think it’s called the Singer Boot Patcher. You can put the shaft of a boot in the arm and sew around it or along it longways



OOOOOH!  I want one!!!  Wow.
There have been a lot of times I really wished I had something that would do that, then I sighed, and got out my hand sewing stuff because the machines I have couldn't do what I wanted.

Thank you for infecting with my head with something else I want!!
 
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Oh, color me GREEN!! Those two machines! Wow!! That long arm one really would have been handy for some jeans I wanted to patch, this summer, instead of doing it by hand. Very nice!
 
William Bagwell
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William Bagwell wrote:
The 1950 pictured above has the flat black finish. Wife has researched it and they warn to never use water to clean. Rubbing it down with sewing machine oil is the recommended way to clean.



Look a little bit better? Also, should the rewiring project be here or in a separate thread?
IMG_20231210_103811360_HDR_1.jpg
[Thumbnail for IMG_20231210_103811360_HDR_1.jpg]
 
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