What to replace my mother's 40-year-old sewing machine with?
April 28, 2014 8:31 AM   Subscribe

My mother's ~40-year-old Sears Kenmore sewing machine is finally giving up the ghost. I know nothing about sewing machines but do know that it looks a lot like the first images here. Any suggestions on what to replace it with?

My mother is the type of person who needs help changing the password on her email, so she is not interested in any new-fangled improvements to the sewing machine. I am looking for suggestions for something as similar and low-tech to her old sewing machine as can be found today so that she can sit down and know exactly how to operate it. She has had the thing repaired a few times already, so I am hoping to find something new, but as simple and as similar to this old one as possible.

Most of her sewing is quilts, though she does the actual quilting by hand.
posted by zyxwvut to Shopping (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There are some very good basic models at the big box stores for under $100.

Sewings machines haven't changed all that much over the years. I too would avoid anything computerized, just because mechanical stuff is easier to fix than computerized things.

Singer and Brother make fine machines at popular prices.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:37 AM on April 28, 2014

When you say it's "giving up the ghost", is that a diagnosis from a sewing-machine-repair person? Because those old models are definitely repairable and IMO very much worth repairing. The new cheapo machines are no comparison, and she may be very disappointed with some $100 model in comparison to the old Kenmore.

At least around me, all the sewing machine repair places are also vacuum cleaner shops, for some reason that I can't quite figure out. But that might help you find one. And typically they also sell used machines, so if the old one really is dead they might be able to set you up with a similar replacement.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:49 AM on April 28, 2014 [19 favorites]

I would do as Kadin2048 recommended, and see if there's any way to prolong its life. They don't make machines like they used to.

That said, I bought a Pfaff Hobby (I think 1132) because the reviews said it was a sturdy little thing, without the computerization so common today. I learned to sew using my mother's old all-metal singer from the 60s, so I wanted something similar. I've been pretty happy with it - easy to use, doesn't feel as plasticky as other lower end models, and I quilt, sew through multiple layers of denim, and generally put it through its paces. If it died today, I would replace it with the same thing. I think your mother might be pretty happy with it, too - but check to see if there are any special feet she needs - the hobby series are somewhat limited, unless you go with second-party feet.
posted by umwhat at 9:08 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

She should get another 40 year old machine. I would advise anyone looking for a machine to do the same, as they are infinitely better than the new plastic ones.

The advice on sewing machine repair shops is very good, though you can also find deals all the time on craigslist and at thrift shops (my own mom is very happy with the $20 White we picked up for her at Salvation Army after her high-school-era machine became problematic). You can bring along cloth, thread to test them out very easily (I brought a screwdriver too, as it is easy to see with the lid off if it has been cleaned and maintained). Kenmores are very common and will be easy to find, though Singers and Whites age well too.

It is normal, btw, to tune up a sewing machine yearly, and should be considered a typical part of the cost of owning one if you don't want to diy it.
posted by susanvance at 9:08 AM on April 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am just here to say the same as others -- find a good shop, get it repaired. Even if you spend $100 bucks on the repair, it will last you another 40 years, easy. (I currently sew on my Grandmother's 1934 electric Singer featherweight, and I expect it will outlive me.)
posted by anastasiav at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I sew and have to disagree about the $100 machines. They are crap. The internals are plastic, they don't hold the correct tension and don't "feel" right. If she is using an all metal one the cheapo plastic ones will frustrate her. When my grandmothers went we replaced it with a newer kenmore (around $500) which she has been very happy with. I have my mothers 20 year old Bernina and am happy with it. I suggest repair what she has, by used and get it "tuned" up or buy a new higher end machine.
posted by saradarlin at 9:57 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

nthing repair. I recently got a quote for about $80-$120 to repair/refurbish an older sewing machine so the cost is the same.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:03 AM on April 28, 2014

I would vote repair. I lug around my 1938 all metal Singer every time I move because it beats any modern plastic machine. Yours might need just a new belt or a thorough cleaning or some such.
posted by nat at 10:05 AM on April 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for getting a full checkup from a repair shop. It is highly likely that a 40-year old machine can be repaired and tuned up for far less than what it would cost to buy a new machine of comparable quality.

If you do decide to purchase a replacement, my BabyLock BL9 is very similar to your mother's machine, in terms of functionality. It is built like a rock, is delightful to work with, and has all metal gears. I believe it was around $250. In contrast, the $100 Singers and Brothers available at big box stores have plastic gears and will not last more than 2-5 years for anyone who sews regularly, even with annual servicing, and will be irreparable once those cheap plastic gears wear.
posted by amelioration at 10:16 AM on April 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing repair. Those machines are excellent quality and much better than anything you can buy now--they have metal gears, not plastic, and are generally very serviceable.

If it really is dead (and I seriously doubt that) many similar machines end up at thrift stores and flea markets and need nothing more than a cleaning and replacement belt.
posted by epanalepsis at 10:27 AM on April 28, 2014

I have an older model Elna which is very basic and is about as reliable as you would a sewing machine to be. I bought it in 1996. The current equivalent model is the Elna Exlpore 220.

I've used my mom's Singer (1960's vintage) and the Elna is so much nicer, IMHO. It's easier to thread, easier to adjust, easier to wind/load bobbins. My only complaint (and this is a general complaint for all machines) is that when I'm warmed up, it's too slow. Oddly enough, I heard a similar complaint from a buddy of mine who was making dirigibles when he ended up buying a vintage industrial sewing machine (reclaimed from a sweat shop) because it could stand up to his demands (admittedly, he was doing miles of seams).
posted by plinth at 11:18 AM on April 28, 2014

You can get better machines than the big box specials. Prices seem to go from $500 thru the roof, as you can see here: http://www.alberoni.com/singer/

I bet that when you find that repair shop, you'll find he does a trade in business as well.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:37 PM on April 28, 2014

If you do buy a new ~$200 machine, buy a Brother. They are better quality than the Singers at the same price. This comes from reviews by quilters who use them for piecing. But no new machine works the same way as a vintage one, so there will be a learning curve. Also, she'll need new bobbins and accessories.

But the Kenmore is very very repairable. For less than the price of a machine half as good, it is almost certainly repairable, unless one of the plastic outer knobs is broken. Sears still does repair them. Most parts are findable. I've just been working on a pair of Kenmore 148.13110 machines from 1975, and they are solid all-metal machines that work very nicely after a good cleaning out. Repair places often don't actually clean them out, because it takes a lot of time to do.

You imply that your mother isn't at all technical, so she may not have oiled that machine. It needs oiling all over the inside regularly (every 6 months for regular usage, more often if she uses it every day). The oiling points should be in the manual. It is amazing what a good oiling will do for a machine. Use sewing machine oil or Tri-Flow oil, nothing else is acceptable. Especially not WD-40.

It is also possible that the motor needs cleaning out. Carbon can build up over time. Or you could look for a Kenmore of the same era for a donor motor. Whether manufactured by Marzen (models starting with 158) or Soryu (148), I believe they used the same motor.

If nothing else, do donate it somewhere so that it can get a second chance. Memail me if you'd like any more info or have any questions.
posted by monopas at 2:18 PM on April 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

My wife had an old Kenmore she got from her grandmother. It was horrible, which she knew, but she didn't appreciate how horrible it was until she got a Bernina, which she just loves.

I am not saying to get a new Bernina, or even an old Bernina, but I am suggesting that throwing more money at that thing may not be a good idea.
posted by Good Brain at 3:43 PM on April 28, 2014

If you're not going to get her old one repaired -- and I would -- she could go to a sewing machine store and try them out. Sewing machines are tools, and people can be particular about aspects of them that other people don't noticed. I wouldn't buy someone else a sewing machine unless they told me which model they wanted.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:45 PM on April 28, 2014

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