The wonderful world of sewing is filled with many different niches. From quilting to costuming to RTW dupes, there really is something for everyone. One world I have become very interested in (as an outsider looking in) is vintage sewing. I asked you, dear readers, to share your experiences sewing vintage in our fun mini-series! In this post, I present you with a tiny sliver of the richness of vintage sewing – collecting vintage machines.
Like most of you, I LOVE to sew. It literally surrounds my entire life. I enjoy learning new skills and perfecting basic ones to further transform my journey. Vintage sewing is one of those “niche” areas that I tend to lean towards. Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for old-world quality, or because I love to spend an afternoon browsing thrift shops, either way, finding vintage sewing treasures to gaze lovingly at, and sometimes even use, is one of my many quirks that makes my sewing practice that much more fun.
One particularly awesome vintage find I scored was at my local Value Village thrift store. I had a few minutes to spare before I was due to meet my husband and kids, so I popped in for some solo thrift time. I did a quick B-Line to the home furnishings section and immediately spotted the tell-tale rectangular shape of a sewing machine built into a case. My mind was made up as soon as I saw the $20CAD price tag, but thought still needed to take a peek to be sure. As corny as it sounds, my heart was pumping and palms sweaty as I unclasped the latches and lifted the lid. To my astonishment (and major delight) the machine hiding underneath was a vintage badged White, from post WWII!
When I brought it home and had the time to go through it, I learned a lot about shuttle bobbins and the era of badged “DELUXE” Japanese-made machines. Betty here is a reproduction of the Singer 128 and she’s fully operational. Unfortunately the light attachment was not included, but I understand that they were an add-on, so she may never have had one to begin with.
Soon my notions, patterns, and machine collection will be displayed in my new sewing studio. I can’t wait to get all my pretty vintage pieces out where I can properly admire them daily.
Kate is runs local sewing classes, a custom garment business and her YouTube channel, Sewing from Scratch. She’s living what some would call an “alternative lifestyle” with her husband and their 2 young kids. Follow along on YouTube and Instagram.
I’ve basically been sewing my whole life, making things by hand until I was deemed safe enough to use a hand crank, then a treadle and finally an electric machine! My mother was a maker extraordinaire — there was nothing she couldn’t turn her hand to, and so I learned by watching and experimenting. Then came school and a whole different ball game! Everything had to be checked at every stage and done “properly” — read slowly! I am an impatient sort of person so this didn’t really suit me, but I have to admit that I learned all the skills, including bound buttonholes, welt pockets and seam finishes. However, there was no real emphasis on fit, so that interest has come at the end of my sewing journey. Along the way I have acquired a love of all things vintage, including fabric, notions, machines and other equipment. A love shared by my mother, which means I have all her stuff too!
I have more than 17 vintage machines at the last count! Most of them came from my mother who was a serious collector, but I’ve managed to acquire a couple without her help.
Pride of place for me are the Singer Featherweight and Elna Lotus, both bought for me by me by my husband and transported across the continent. These machines are used constantly and are reliable and sew beautifully. I have two Elna Lotuses and an Elna Stella (one Elna Lotus is used whilst camping and I use the Elna Stella at home). I have three treadle machines and many hand cranks, most of which are put away as they are so big and heavy, but they are all operational. I have several children’s sewing machines too. I have instruction books for most of these machines, as well as a whole collection of feet for many of the machines. I sometimes feel as though I could start a museum.
Both of my sons learnt to use the treadle machine when they were younger and my youngest son always wants to sew with the Singer Featherweight when he sees me using it. Vintage machines have this effect on people, and I love that kids seem to love the engineering and therefore feel more of a desire to learn to sew.
They are always astonishingly easy to maintain as the parts are accessible and most machines come completely apart. I do use proper motor lubricant for some of the older ones rather than just sewing machine oil. I source it online from a vintage machine shop. I am very careful when cleaning the machines with decals, I just dust and wipe them.
Sewing with vintage machines is a dream. I have a very modern Bernina and to be honest, it’s not nearly as good as the Featherweight or the Elnas, all of which will sew anything, from leather to fine silk (not sure why I even have that Bernina, really!). I also have a vintage Bernina, but still prefer to use the other machines. If I was going to advise anyone on buying a sewing machine I would suggest starting at the 1960s and 1970s as these have buttonholes and zig zag features, and not much else is really needed. There are still bargains to be had with some brands, but the prices of these machines is rising as people realise how good they are. My advice to people is to check the secondhand market but to know what to look out for — research is everything when buying an old machine!
Raiders of the Lost Stitch
The moment the cheerful “ping” of the bell on the antique mall door is heard, the mission is already clear: find the vintage and save it. I imagine this rush is the way archaeologists feel when they happen upon an excavation site, or, the way my husband feels when he happens upon the clearance snack food aisle at the grocery store. I have not yet been to enough therapy sessions to tell you why I have felt the immense need to collect vintage sewing machines — but no one asks Indiana Jones why he does what he does, so I digress.
When I began sewing my own clothes I had to use a vintage machine. It felt like a rite of passage, and, the only way I could take the intention of sewing my own vintage-inspired wardrobe seriously. That, somehow, owning the vintage machine and mastering it would make my newly sewn wiggle dress wigglier. Vintage machines are accessible AF in Missouri. Every family has one in their garage that was handed down to them and very few seem to know what to do with them. My heart wants to believe this is because families want to hold onto something that was a part of their loved one’s life and something that they cherish — but my head knows that grandma had that sewing machine because she had to have it, Billy ruined his overalls all the damn time, and no one is moving it out of that garage because the machine and cabinet are heavy and you gotta borrow dude’s truck to move them. So the machine sits — and it waits — for a vintage-loving person to feel ambitious enough to teach themselves to sew on it.
Those sleek all-metal lines. The. Paint. Color. That very intentional and functional cabinet. (The hidden compartment for the sewing machine and those false drawers are very Indiana Jones…). The marled electrical cord that may or may not electrocute you, maybe not now, but, soon. The person at the checkout counter (and every older relative of yours on Facebook) will evidently tell you that “this old thing can sew through anything,” which isn’t a lie. That baddie will full-on sew right through your finger. That is, once you understand how it works.
Thankfully, the internet exists. For the vintage sewing machines I own that are in working order, I was able to find a copy of the user manual online, though, this mostly just informs you that you do not yet possess all of the necessary parts to use your machine. Thankfully, eBay exists. Oh, wait, you need a zig-zag stitch? Better hope to Besty that you have that cam disc somewhere in the musty box of thingamajigs that came with your machine. Are you feeling overworked like Grandma yet? When I said that I wanted to feel like a nostalgic 1950’s housewife, this was not exactly where I thought my vintage sewing journey would take me. There are far fewer cocktails, perfect hair sets, and cute dresses being made here than anticipated. (There’s a whole other essay there, obviously.)
Hunting, owning, loving, repairing, and cursing-all-to-hell a vintage machine is exactly what Grandma probably did with hers, too. It is in those moments that I find the connection to the past that I hoped to feel while sewing with my Singer 328k. When it sews, it knocks and smells faintly of hot, old electricity and oil, kind of like my Grandpa. It taught me how to sew. It taught me how each machine has its own personality and intricacies. It taught me to read the instruction manual, and to read it again. It hurt my feelings and taught me to be more patient with myself. Like Grandma, it taught me lessons the hard way, that I will never forget. This is the reason if you ask anyone if you should buy a vintage machine, they’ll most likely tell you yes.
After a few years of sewing on my Singer 328k, I was given an entry-level modern computerized machine. It taught me that evolution happens for a reason. It also taught me that there’s a reason that you never find older computerized sewing machines in an antique store — they don’t last long, they aren’t worth saving, and they’re certainly not cute. Can I crank out sewing projects faster? Yes. Speed, I believe, is the reason most abandon Grandma’s machine for a newer one. That, and they can’t find that one damn cam disc they need! Thankfully unearthing vintage sewing machines from thrift stores doesn’t involve snakes. But, don’t tell Indiana Jones that because I don’t need him edging in on my good vintage haunts.
Hello! My name is Jessie, and you can find me on Instagram: @threadbare.betty.
This little Who We Are series has been such a wonderful look into an area of the sewing world that I really didn’t know much about. I’m seriously feeling inspired. I hope you are feeling equally inspired! So what do you think Sewcialists? Will you be dipping your toes in the pool of vintage sewing?
Amanda is a tired mom of 2 boys sharing everyday normal life over at @mandabe4r. Maybe someday she’ll find time to finish something and post it on the ‘gram.