I swear we were born into the wrong generation.
January 5, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

[SewingFilter] We'd rather avoid making the worst sewing machine related purchase of our lives? Help us decide if getting an older machine could be a better choice than a newer model.

Background info, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.

So, if you've been paying attention (or feel so inclined to backtrack through the stepping stones that are my AskMe history) you know I'm getting married soon.

Now we're having to deal with the mess that is a wedding registry. I was against it altogether in the beginning but, being the magnanimous soon to be husband that I am, we are now waist deep in decisions and discussions regarding what sheets/kitchentowels/food processors/shower curtain rings to put on our registry.

We're simple people who are pretty environmentally aware and tend to be against the ethos of disposable consumerism. We'd much rather have quality stuff that lasts or that we can repair than something we're going to have to replace in X years. This means scrounging for deals on All-Clad pans, cast iron, wet shaving gear (his and hers), a shiny red '62 Beetle as a replacement for soon-to-be Mrs.Eld's trusty hand-me-down Saturn, an so on.

Those two things combined have brought us to the current dilemma:

Do we want a classy, durable machine with support base and repair ability well in hand but might be a bit on the pricey side upfront?

Or something more modern and with more [native] abilities (that we likely won't use) but potentially zero repair ability once we're beyond the warranty period, and will only depreciate in value beyond the amazon checkout screen? Like this perhaps?

The future Ms.Eld comes from a family tradition of sewers with her maternal grandparents doing upholstery work as well as being far above average on the quilting/clothing making scale. Her sister has fashion design in her blood. We just want a portable for simple pillow/clothing/quilt repair along with the potential occasional hem task. We're far from family with a machine and pressed for space/time so portability is crucial.

I don't mind working on the machine as it needs it but I'm not looking for a side job or new hobby in sewing machine tinkering either... please advise.

tl;dr version: Old vs. New portable sewing machines. All factors combined, for the young couple that acts old, which is better?

Bonus points for a good way to bring up said purchase via registry since it will likely be an ebay/etsy/hunt forever type of purchase. Perhaps a gift-fund type thing?
posted by RolandOfEld to Home & Garden (37 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Dang, I'll never get an AskMe out the door without having to append a clarification: We're obviously considering a Singer Featherweight (221 model?) but for no other reason than it looks like what we want/need. We're very open to discussion with regards to the model as long as the buy-it-for-life side of things is kept in mind.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:00 PM on January 5, 2012

Featherweights are fucking awesome. They do not, however, do zigzag or buttonholes, both of which you may find yourself wanting.

I love old sewing machines (I've got a Singer 301, myself), but if you think you might find yourself wanting to do something more than go straight forwards and backwards, I'd urge you to get something newer. Still used, still vintage (look for metal gears), but new enough to have those functions.
posted by mollymayhem at 7:08 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have never had a single problem with older, well-maintained machines. My sister quilts on a 50-year-old machine, I learned to sew on a now-90-year-old machine (converted to electric in the 1950s!) which my mother still uses, the machines I wrote on hats with at Disneyland were at least as old as me and if I had to guess I'd say thirty years more than that. Amongst other things they are seriously much, much, much easier to take care of, and they aren't finicky.

I've yet to meet a recently-made machine that didn't piss me off. Even really expensive ones. They do many things poorly, in my opinion.

(I am also into "old" and "well-made" and am on the hunt for, e.g., a 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking. I cook on cast iron whenever possible, etc., etc.)

I have no idea how you'd communicate this on a registry. It sounds like your mother-in-law and/or sister-in-law to be are likely to be the best method of communicating this preference of yours to all and sundry.
posted by SMPA at 7:09 PM on January 5, 2012

Generally speaking sewing machines from the early 80s or older are better than new machines. They had metal parts inside back then, rather than plastic/nylon ones. They were heavy fuckers, but good. I'm not sure about the Featherweights in particular, though, as I've not used one.

I certainly wouldn't consider buying a sub-$200 new machine if you plan to use for anything more than simple sewing -- it's going to be a piece of crap. It'll be iffy on upholstery fabrics and blue jeans, most likely, so whether it will work for you will depend on what kind of pillows you have and what kind of pants you plan to hem.

My mother has the sewing machine she got for her graduation in 60s and it's 10 times better than the one she bought me for my birthday in the 90s, despite being 30 years older. Or, rather, because it's 30 years older.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:11 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came in to say the exact same thing as mollymayhem - Featherweights are great for lots of straight stitching so the primary audience these days are quilters. Yes you can get a zigzag attachment, and many others. But why not get a slightly more modern, but still well made, machine that has these capabilities natively? You may not be able to repair it yourself but any good sewing shop can hook you up with a sewing machine repair person.
posted by cabingirl at 7:14 PM on January 5, 2012

I have an old all-metal Pfaff and it's awesome. My old roommate's father visited from Germany where he is a repairman and he was all over that thing. So easy to maintain and get worked on!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 7:14 PM on January 5, 2012

Oh, and I forgot to mention that I too have a Singer 301 that I got at a thrift store for $15, just because it's "not a Featherweight."
posted by cabingirl at 7:16 PM on January 5, 2012

An old all metal machine, even a Singer, is vastly superior to anything new. Try to find either an industrial machine or one made for Home Ec classes. I have a "Jeans Machine" made around 1980 and it's great.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:21 PM on January 5, 2012

I have an old machine from the 1960's that I've had for the past 25 years, I bought it for $5 bucks in a second hand shop, it has almost no plastic parts and apart from oiling it and my dad replacing a belt when I got it it hasn't put a foot wrong. I also have an old treadle singer that my mum got before I was born, and that's still working too though I don't use that for sewing anymore. I loved both machines so much I shipped them both from Australia to the US with me an bought a transformer so I could still use the machine and it still works no problem.

The only advantage of newer machines I've found is the auto zip/button hole thing but I cheat and use my MIL's one if I want to do that.

Get the sewing members of your family on board, I'm sure they'd have a great time finding you a good second hand machine.
posted by wwax at 7:23 PM on January 5, 2012

Response by poster: Good comments all.

Reiterating: Anything big/large is out of the question. Portable is the name of the game here, new or old.

I noticed the ability to do other things (that new machines can inherently do) via attachment on the featherweights but have no experience with how much of a PITA using them will be. I'll ask the grandma, she'll know.

So if not a bona-fide Singer Featherweight .... (I'll wait here for the clouds to close back up after the angels finish their chorus of praises) .... then what exact models to look for?

Besides a moon-shot lucky find in a thrift store I'll be on the internets/ebay/etsy/craigslist searching. Getting her family involved is a good idea as far as sourcing one but I'll have to be firm/definite with our requirements or we'll get steamrolled into one of her grandma's upholstery models (she has 3 and they're all beast).
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:30 PM on January 5, 2012

I have both the zigzag attachment and the buttonhole attachment for my 301. I haven't been able to get the zigzag attachment to perform to my satisfaction. I'm not sure if it sucks or if I suck. *shrug* I haven't used the buttonhole attachment attachment yet (just got it for Christmas/from my grandmother's estate) but my grandmother used it to make excellent buttonholes for many years.
posted by mollymayhem at 7:37 PM on January 5, 2012

Browsing around a featherweight website brought me to the 206K. Same era and form factor as the featherweight, but does zigzag. Might be worth looking in to.
posted by mollymayhem at 7:39 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks molly, exactly what we want to know.

Random tidbit: Future Ms. Eld just told me that her grandmother's final assignment in HS home economics was to make a garment. She made an entire suit. Greatest Generation and all that........
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:40 PM on January 5, 2012

I have a pretty old/simple machine, and the one thing I wish I had--and will look for in my next machine--is the ability to adjust the position/height of the feed dogs. On some machines, you can't vary the height at all, and on mine you can only drop them completely (meaning the fabric is not moved automatically forward under the foot) or leave them at the preset height (which often is too high, and therefore too "tight" under the foot, for delicate, stretchy, or loose-woven fabrics).

But setting it just right for the fabric being sewn? That would be heaven! I say just get something that allows that. More info on this here.

Oh, and switch to using the term "sewist." A sewer is where your toilet water goes when you flush.
posted by celilo at 7:43 PM on January 5, 2012

I have an old montgomery ward machine, bought at a garage sale. I don't covet a newer model in any way shape or form; I have been sewing with this for over 20 years and the phrase "pry it from my cold dead hands" does apply.

In your shoes, I'd look for a sewing machine repair shop somewhere close or close-ish, and go there and see what they've got to say and what they may have for sale.
posted by lemniskate at 7:53 PM on January 5, 2012

Having used both of my Grandmothers' 1950s sewing machines, I have to say that old machines can be better, but it makes a difference if the machine has been maintained well or not. One grandmother's White machine was kept clean, oiled, and (probably) not used very much until my Mom and I took it over, and it sews like a dream. My other grandmother's Singer was never serviced, kept in a dirty garage, and treated like whatever is the sewing machine equivalent of rode hard and put away wet. It doesn't work well at all and makes me crazy to use it.

If I had $500 to spend on a sewing machine I would buy a Bernina, like this one. I have worked in professional and university theater costume shops and those are the go-to machines. They are workhorses.
posted by apricot at 7:56 PM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have that Brother sewing machine you linked to. I got it four years ago and I love it. I can make a buttonhole in seconds, sew through a bunch of layers of thick vinyl to make purses, and it has lots of stitches that I use. Really, making a buttonhole consists of sticking a different foot on, sticking the button in the back of the foot and pressing a button. I've never used a really old machine, but I've used my mom's old Kenmores and like mine better. The walking foot is nice for layers and the darning foot is good for free motion work. (I've only used it for things like sewing faces on monster dolls and flames on a Naruto costume and a big vinyl squid on my purse, but it works well on eyeballs and fangs and tentacles.)
posted by artychoke at 8:00 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have my grandmother's old Singer, and a White. The Singer needs servicing (which we have locally, fortunately) while the White keeps plugging along. If I had to start from scratch, without a local sewing machine service, for a new machine, (especially if others could subsidize it) I'd consider the Husqvarna line.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 8:24 PM on January 5, 2012

I, like MollyMayhem, have a Singer 301a. It was a hand me down from my Grandmother and last I used it it still worked well (and I have not taken as good of care of it as I should have). I have a modern Singer and while it does everything, I don't love it the way I do my 301a.

But Cold Lurkey has it. Had my new machine not been a gift (and had I a choice), I would have gotten a Husqvarna. Those are good machines.
posted by bibliogrrl at 8:37 PM on January 5, 2012

My mom has an old, all metal Bernina from the 1970s (Bernina 800, I think). She's been sewing on it for 35 years and it still works perfectly. As far as I know, it's never needed repair. I recently got an old Bernina 801 of about the same vintage and quality (off Craigslist, of all places, for $65, unbelievably!), and it's been similar. Both machines sew through anything (denim, leather, etc.) like butter. They can't do super fancy stuff, but are is perfect for simple sewing and simple repairs, and you could do much more elaborate things with them if you were willing to do more of the work yourself than with a modern machine. I'd much rather have an old reliable workhorse that is good at what it does than something plastic and fancy that will break at the first opportunity and depreciate badly as soon as I take it off the store lot. YMMV, but I'd seriously recommend hunting around for a deal on an all-metal Bernina, or something similar (Singer, Husqvarna, etc.). A new Bernina will put you out a huge chunk of change, but you can often pick one up for a few hundred bucks or even less on Craigslist, Ebay, etc.
posted by UniversityNomad at 9:02 PM on January 5, 2012

Try Freecycle; someone may have a machine to give.
posted by theora55 at 10:19 PM on January 5, 2012

I don't think I would buy a machine that didn't have a one step buttonhole. I'm also doubtful of buying an expensive machine, despite your wife's sewing lineage, if she's gotten to this point in her life without owning one.

I also bought the Brother cs6000 4-5 years ago. It's super portable with it's handle, has a cute case that holds everything, and works perfectly for mending and straight hems. The DVD that came with the machine showed how to get in the guts and make minor repairs, although I've never really had a problem with that. And I've got it all set up on the dining room table with it's quilting table, so I can make my first quilting square this weekend as part of the metaquilter project. I've never used an old machine, but my new machine is great.
posted by Kronur at 11:47 PM on January 5, 2012

Seconding older, all-metal Berninas (1970s and 1980s). I grew up using two – mother's and grandmother's 830s – and both were still around last I knew. Bernina 830 photo (wikipedia).

As for newer machines, I've heard mixed things about Brother. I have a Pfaff hobby 1030 from early 2000 that sews beautifully; does all the basics, no fancy-schmancy stuff. But... if it ever needs to be repaired (which it hasn't since purchase in 2002, and I've used it for everything from quilting to jeans to stretch fabrics), I wouldn't even be able to look inside of it. None of the inner workings are accessible without special tools (except the obvious, the bobbin carriage). It is reliable though, sews great stitches, no tension problems at all in 10 years of regular use. Buttonholes are dead simple, I love how easy it is to do them accurately with the buttonhole foot (came with the machine).

You want reliable tension; this is the main complaint I hear about contemporary Brother and Singer machines. Pfaff and Bernina are a lot better on that front.

Recently, though, I found an old all-metal machine made by a defunct manufacturer abandoned in the street :D It was left out for early-morning trash pickup. Someone took care of it, the thing's movements are like butter. I could hardly believe the difference with my Pfaff. Everything's accessible, too. It has straight stitch, zigzag stitch and an "L - M - R" knob for needle position (to do buttonholes more easily, still leaves all the rest to the user, though), and that's it.

All depends on what you want – rock-solid reliability, go for an older all-metal machine. Singer Featherweights aren't alone in quality. I'd love to have another Bernina 830; it was an awesome machine. For better portability (omg the metal machines weigh a ton) and dead-simple buttonholes, go for a basic contemporary model, my personal recommendation would be for a Pfaff or Bernina. They're more expensive, but they're also better quality, generally.
posted by fraula at 12:00 AM on January 6, 2012

I have a Brother XL-6452, which is a modern machine, and a Kenmore model 52, which is about 50 years old. I'm very fond of my Brother, but I'm in love with the Kenmore. That thing is a BEAST, more powerful than my Brother and quieter. It does zig-zag stitches and buttonholes. It sits in a cabinet, but I think I could get a plastic base for it to sit in so it would be portable (though heavy). The one thing it doesn't have is a free arm, which is handy for sewing small, circular things like pants hems. But if I had to choose, I'd go with the Kenmore.

However, I sew a lot. If you and your wife just want something light and easy to pull out and use every few months to do a minor repair, I'd go with the machine you linked to. But if you think you'll be sewing on a more regular basis in the future, I'd go with a sturdier, all-metal machine and sacrifice the portability.
posted by christinetheslp at 1:04 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can I suggest a slightly different perspective? This is not the mistake of your lives. It's not even the mistake of your sewing lives. It's one machine, which you'd like to function to do a few simple garment repairs, perhaps a few baby blankets, a patchwork pillow and some buttons. If you really fall in love with sewing and quilting and lust for a different kind of machine, you'll make a new decision based on new information. You can sell your old machine or save up for one for a few months, or keep your eye out on Craigslist and thrift stores. This is not some kind of binding arrangement for life. Any new sewing machine with half decent reviews will suffice for your purposes, and with regular oiling and cleaning, they are unlikely to fall apart in a few years. They also tend to be much lighter and more portable.

If a wedding registry really wasn't your thing, and sewing isn't a major hobby for either one of you, then make the decision that is easiest for you and your guests, which is likely a new machine. On the other hand, if you especially care about the functionality or the feeling of the older machines, then identify one which can be easily purchased for you.

If you weren't jazzed about registering in the first place, try not to fall into the trap of making the"best possible choice" for each item. Not everything has to be a future potential heirloom.
posted by barnone at 1:12 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Featherweights are great, as stated above, but they don't do zigzag and are pricey. And th zigzag attachment looks a bit hookey.

The older Pfaff are also excellent ... the 130, 230, 260, and 36X models are all within your scope, and all do zigzag (130) and many other stitches (the rest).

The 130 is well-known and bullet proof - and around the same price as a featherweight. The other models above are all a lot cheaper. One thing they all have in common is all metal mechanisms ... something modern machines are lacking (plastic parts are cheaper ... but more likely to break during hard or long work).

Personally I own a Pfaff 130 and I love it. It will sew through 5+ layers or leather or canvas. No modern home machine will do that happily or reliably (or for long without stripping gears). It was a hard decision between it and the 362 ... but I don't do decorative stitches.
posted by jannw at 1:45 AM on January 6, 2012

In your shoes, I'd look for a sewing machine repair shop somewhere close or close-ish, and go there and see what they've got to say and what they may have for sale.

I'd second this advice. A good shop will let you both test drive a bunch of machines. I love my 1990s Husqvarna 400, but you'll find the machine that's right for you.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:24 AM on January 6, 2012

I have an el-cheapo, sub-$200 Brother I got as a gift about five years ago when I was casually thinking about getting back into sewing. It has been an awesome machine -- it has made two baby quilts and an unknown number of pillows, toaster covers, and curtains, and right now I'm quilting a twin-sized quilt on it. I like it much better than my mother's all-metal machine. Yes, I do have some tension issues, but keeping the lint well-cleaned and changing the needle tends to sort those. I wouldn't assume a low-end Brother is "disposable" -- I'd think of it as a good, basic machine that will answer all of the needs of simple home sewing.

If you do get further into sewing, you'll know what you need in a different machine. I know if/when I start sewing upholstery fabrics or denim on a regular basis, I'll need to upgrade. But for now, the Brother has been great.

On the thrifting front, I've heard a lot of machines showing up at the thrift stores in my area these days have already been stripped, to the point where a sewing machine repair guy in my area usually doesn't work on thrifted machines because they're usually missing some vital part. If you go the thrifting route, make sure you know what to look for.

For more information on sewing machines in general and the Featherweight in particular, I'd highly recommend Male Pattern Boldness's posts on the subject. He has (at least one) vintage Featherweight and a whole bunch of other machines. Reading through might give you more information about the different machines and the rehabbing process.
posted by pie ninja at 3:27 AM on January 6, 2012

pie ninja came in here and said what I was going to say, which was to check out MPB and even email him (he's super nice).

FWIW I have a Husqvarna C20, that while it has problems, is happy generally to travel and can be repaired. I like it. However, I also have a treadle, some kind of Singer Featherweight that needs to be repaired, a Pfaff from the 80's, a Kenmore from the 70's, a White from the 50's . . you get it right?

Every machine is different. Of any of them, the 70's Kenmore (very similar to the one in this post) is one of the most reliable and easy to use.

Good luck. In general, I'd ask for money for this, rather than registering for anything, because it's so, so personal, and there is nothing worse than a machine that makes you want to pull your hair out.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:20 AM on January 6, 2012

WHen I got my first sewing machine 10 years ago, I wasn't sure how much I would sew so I got a Brother. It is a great machine and I made many quilts, dresses, PJs, curtains, fabric bowls, free motion paintings, and other fiber art on it. I put hundreds of hours on it and then I handed it down to my mom. I sewed on it for 9 years and in that time I learned what I wanted in a more expensive machine.

I was planning on upgrading to a Bernina but I tried the Janome Horizon and fell in love. So if you decide to go with a more expensive machine, make sure you really take the time to test drive them.

I know there is some major cool factor to owning and old Singer... but you really are going to want a zig zag stitch... so I would start with a newer machine and learn what you like to sew. Or if you like to sew at all.
posted by LittleMy at 6:15 AM on January 6, 2012

My mom still likes her Necchi Supernova from 1961. It's kind of machine age, but very Italian in turquoise. My dad used it on upholstery leather and 14 ounce denim all the time, and it has zigzag and button hole stitches. Bobbin winding is anti-deluvian, but not horrible. It's all metal and weighs about 30 pounds. Thread tensioning is very straightforward, and it does nice work on silk and other slippery stuff. Raising and lowering the feed dogs is done by wrench that comes with.

With a piping foot, I can really produce welting yardage fast. It's a workhorse.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:45 AM on January 6, 2012

I do almost 100% of my sewing on a 1920's featherweight, I don't miss a zigzag very often.
posted by davey_darling at 8:43 AM on January 6, 2012

My mother sews professionally. (She is in the "soft goods custom design and manufacture" industry.) She buys industrial antiques -- '50s and '60s era -- for the workroom stuff. She has a weekly routine of oiling and delinting and belt tightening/replacement that's awe inspiring and has a professional repair guy come out once a quarter (and a scissor sharpener guy who does house calls!). Yes, old machines are awesome. But (as someone who has pinball machines in her home), they are for people who also enjoy doing that kind of fixing/maintenance like a sort of mechanical gardening.

I live in a "we're too old for this world" household as well (besides all the tech) and I've found myself just as frustrated with poorly cared for antiques as modern disposable crap. So we've gone to looking for modern, but really well built and repairable things. (Strangely, it means our house is full of stuff built in Germany and Spain?)

Berninas are awesome modern machines. If I took after my mom (and grandma) in the sewing department, I'd invest in one (and a Bernina serger. Oooooooh.).
posted by Gucky at 8:46 AM on January 6, 2012

I bought a non-electronic Janome last year. I went for it as a) I don't have the skills necessary to fix a sewing machine, so wanted the security of the very long warranty b) electronic things can fail without the problem being obvious (to me, anyway) c) it's my first machine and I don't need the stuff electronics do, nor the cost of buying anything fancier as I wanted just something to learn on. Aside from having to buy a piping foot, it did all the things I need it to do bar serging.

If you can fix things easily, I'd go for an older metal-bodied model (mine is mostly metal-bodied), but if you want something to learn on that won't be a job to maintain in itself, I'd go for a decent new model and keep an eye out for something else once you know enough to upgrade. I was advised at the time that anything cheaper than £200 wasn't designed to last long, but again that's new prices. My friend who has been using a machine for decades loves her old metal Singer, but she knows how to fix it if things go wrong.
posted by mippy at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2012

You already have so many good recommendations, mine is completely superfluous. But I love my 1972 Kenmore 158 so much, I need to say it here. It is portable, but with all steel parts; it can sew through anything I can dream up including multiple layers of leather.

Perhaps your registry gift should be for the local machine shop where they sell vintage machines?
posted by vers at 5:02 PM on January 6, 2012

Older machines are fun. My mother has a Pfaff 1222SE that is an electronic metal monster that can sew through anything and has a built in walking foot. Unfortunately, Pfaff no longer makes parts for it, so if the local Pfaff shop repairman can't dig a part out of his personal inventory, she's in trouble.

At least Singer still makes parts for all of their machines. I do have a handful of old Singer machines that would probably be just fine if I got them serviced. But I haven't because I also have a Janome Sew Mini that is a cute little machine for light to medium work, and if I break it I'm only out $50.

If I was to buy an actual new machine, I'd get a Pfaff, Husqvarna, or Bernina. But I'd first go to my local sewing machine shop and see what trade-ins they've got. You might pay more there than on eBay, but you'd get to try the machine first and you'd know that a repairperson had checked it out.
posted by monopas at 5:31 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update: We went with a Singer 99 for what seemed to be a good price.

We've got it home and it's working fine except for a few, hopefully small, things:

1) A bit of noise at high speed that isn't apparent at low speeds originating from the motor area. I'm assuming this is due to the belt being a bit loose, I wet the belt a bit and it seemed to clear up. The motor is already set as far from the pulley as possible, so I'm guessing that means we have a new belt to order.

2) The spinner that holds the bobbin when it's being filled seems a bit hard to turn. Sometimes it's fine, others it's a bit bound up. I'm hoping some oil and a bit of playing with the tension adjustment there will clear things up.

The main thing I'm curious about now is what the proper terminology is for our machine's shank? Short? Is that right? I'm pretty sure that's the main important factor with regards to attachments, though lord knows what I'm missing...

The adventure begins... thanks all for the advice, we couldn't pass up the price...
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:55 PM on January 8, 2012

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