Guidance for buying a used sewing machine?
February 6, 2012 5:40 PM   Subscribe

Shopping for a used sewing machine - what should I check for, and what questions should I ask before buying?

I'm new to sewing and have been looking for a sewing machine. I found a used Bernina 830 (the one from the '70s, not the fancy new embroidery one) on Craigslist, recently serviced, with all accessories, the manual and case, etc. I'll be looking at it later this week. The sewing machine technician who serviced it will be showing it to me and can answer questions, but since I'm a beginner, I want to make sure I ask/check for all the right things before deciding whether to buy it.

As far as my sewing machine requirements go, the main thing I'm interested in is reliability; I don't care about fancy computerized features, embroidery stitches, etc. I definitely don't want one of the cheap modern plastic machines. I plan to use the machine for sewing clothes, bags, some small projects like pillowcases -- no quilting, embroidery, or home dec. So, based on my research of the Bernina 830, I think it would work for me. I've downloaded a PDF of the manual and am reading it over, and I've also watched some videos demonstrating some of the machine's functions. Based on my Google searches, I've made a list of things to do when I look at the machine:

- Test out basic functions, making sure the machine runs smoothly and doesn't make any loud noises or vibrations. Thread the needle, wind and insert the bobbin, change out needles and presser feet, test the knee lift, the stitches (straight, backstitch, zigzag, and a few embroidery stitches), the buttonhole process...anything else? Unfortunately I don't have a wide range of fabrics to test the machine on, just thin cotton, but I'll see if I can get some thicker fabrics before going to test the machine. Maybe I could take along an old pair of jeans.

- Do an inventory of all the accessories. Is there anything in particular I should check for here?

- Check for scratches or surface damage. Should I ask to look inside the machine? If so, what should I check for?

What else should I ask about or test? Is there anything in particular I need to watch out for? I think I'd be able to tell if something were seriously, obviously wrong with the machine (like if it made loud clanking noises), but if there are other less glaring things that could be wrong, I don't think I'd be able to tell. So any guidance would help. Thank you!

P.S. I did a search of previous AskMe questions, but they all seemed to be general requests for sewing machine recommendations, not so much focusing on things to check for in used machines.
posted by gg to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I found this article really helpful. It is a little bit Austin specific but she does a really good job laying out which brands are good and which are bad.
posted by magnetsphere at 5:45 PM on February 6, 2012

I don't have specific advice about what to look for, but I will say Bernina has long made great sewing machines, and that model is an excellent example. My mother saved for a long time to buy a demonstrator of that model back in the late 70s and has been happy with it ever since. My wife bought a recent-model Bernina a few years ago and she still comments on how much she loves it every time she uses it. Both have been incredibly reliable.
posted by Good Brain at 6:00 PM on February 6, 2012

Make sure the soft bits are in good repair (I'm really thinking of the belt here); if not, figure out replacement cost and ease for those parts.

If you look inside the machine it might be worth seeing if it's terribly clogged with lint; of course, it's probably easy enough for you to clean that out, but whether or not it's been done recently might be a decent proxy for how conscientious previous owners have been.

See how much the machine vibrates around on the table you're sewing on too; they can move pretty significantly and you might or might not care.
posted by nat at 6:01 PM on February 6, 2012

Make sure whatever used machine you purchase is in operating condition. Don't get one to fix up because parts for older machines are sometimes very hard to come by. As tempting at they might appear, treat any sewing machine found at Goodwill, Savers, or other thrift shop with extreme skepticism. It's possible they have been already been stripped of parts and dumped there.

Find a local authorized repair shop for whatever brand you're interested in. Go there first and ask which machines have readily available replacement parts and are easy to service.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:20 PM on February 6, 2012

Craig's List is not the only - or the first place - I'd look for a Bernina. "Sew It's For Sale" is a Yahoo!Group where you will probably spend too much money.

You're welcome.

I bought my late 70's/earlyl 80's Pfaff on there and I love it. I also got a length of Versace silk, and a bunch of other stuff I am not going to name because no one needs to know that much about my stash.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:05 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Check your local quilting/fabric shops to find out which repair people and service centers they recommend and see if they have any recommendations about used machines. Cute little old lady quilters know their stuff and generally aren't out to screw anyone.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 7:49 PM on February 6, 2012

Best answer: The 830 is a fantastic machine. Old Berninas were built like tanks, and they're usually rather expensive for old sewing machines—people hang on to them for dear life because they just never stop sewing. I have a 707 myself, and it's a phenomenal workhorse that's dealt with quilts, flat-felling denim, and rolled hems on silk chiffon without a hiccup.

Check the feet it comes with to make sure they're the ones you'll need. Old-style feet for Berninas are eye-wateringly expensive; you don't want to buy the machine and then lay out hundreds for the feet you need right away.

Check that the top thread tension adjustment is working correctly and adjusts easily. The disc system the old machines used is occasionally hinky, I find.

Knee lift should be smooth, not clunky (ohhh, how I envy you the knee lift)

Of course all stitches should be even and pretty, the action should be smooth, needle screw and foot attachment lever fully engage-able and tight, and you should be able to transition between stitches easily. Watch for a burning smell from the motor.

The pedal is an interesting thing on the 830e (e for "electronic")—apparently, the original pedals with these machines had a single-stitch control that malfunctioned pretty often. If it has a replacement pedal it will sew just fine, like a normal 830; if it's the original, it's pretty rare and congratulations!

Finally, check to see if you have a Bernina dealer in your area. Any vac & sew shop will be able to service it, but you'll gain tons of knowledge if you can take it in somewhere where the clerk knows the machine well. I used to be able to take mine in to a lady who sold them when they were new; she was able to tell me all kinds of interesting quirks, tips, and tricks that I never would have figured out on my own.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:42 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I definitely don't want one of the cheap modern plastic machines.

I would have said the same once, but the all-plastic, computer-controlled, very modern Janome 3022 I've been using since 2007 has been nothing but sweet, reliable relief after a string of heavy, classic, built-like-a-tank machines that needed lots of maintenance and still never quite worked right. It's unfazed by layers of heavy fun-fur, canvas, neoprene, denim, or whatever. It never needs maintenance, oil, or even much in the way of cleaning. There's nothing vintage or classic or stylish about it but it is doing its job very well indeed.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:50 PM on February 6, 2012

Best answer: I dunno... I think a new, inexpensive Brother might be better suited to your needs as a beginning sewer. Since you don't have a lot of experience with sewing machines you will constantly be second guessing -- is that an OK noise or a bad noise. Is the machine supposed to do this?

It's very hard to find parts for old machines. Berninas are awesome. An old 830 is a great machine for someone who wants a workhorse. But for a beginner, I would still recommend a mid-grade ($200-$800) new machine.

That being said, if you really have your heart set on this machine, take it to a Bernina dealer and have them check it out. They will be able to tell you what kind of condition it is in and how much it will cost you to fix it up.

When looking at used machines bring a bag with thread, bobbins (for THAT model), fabric scraps with you:
- check to make sure it has all the feet you need
- try sewing a 1/4 in and 1/2 in seam
- try sewing on cotton, denim or duck cloth, satin, and sheer
- try sewing through 3+ layers
- try the buttonhole function
- test out the zig zag stitch. Make sure it can be adjusted to the widths and lengths you need
- make sure the bobbin turns smoothly and the thread feeds smoothly
- check the stitch tension. Try adjusting it. Does it adjust properly?
- start a long seam, take your hands off the fabric, does it feed evenly?

Those are some of the things I look at when I test drive sewing machines.
posted by LittleMy at 5:48 AM on February 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

one more thought - if you want to go in the new machine direction, I really like the Babylock Molly/Janome Sewist 500/Elna 2800 (they're all made by Janome and are pretty much the same machine. It's a good, solid machine that can do more than the basics but doesn't have a lot of stuff on it that will break.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:38 PM on February 8, 2012

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