Where can I buy a used sewing machine? Should I buy used?
November 20, 2017 9:39 PM   Subscribe

My mom has a Sears Kenmore from the 70s, and it is solid. It's made of metal and it smells like oil. It has worked beautifully for the past four decades. Can I just buy one like hers somewhere? Should I? I'm in the Bay Area.

In my mind, a machine like the one my mom has can be bought for relatively cheap, and will be perfectly adequate for what I'd like to do. I don't need computerized stuff, and I don't need a bunch of different stitches. I need to be able to hem jeans with it and do some other fairly simply stuff. It would be nice to be able to work with other kinds of heavy material and (possibly) even get into quilting, but those would be nice extras, not requirements. It's not like I don't already have enough to keep me busy.

I've been poking around the internet (AskMe, thesweethome.com, and another site whose name escapes me at the moment). I've seen arguments against buying used, because you'd want to go through a dealership and get a warranty, but the only dealership I've found in the area (the Sewing Machine Shop, in Walnut Creek) charges an arm and a leg and only seems to have higher-end machines. They also have refurbished models, but it's all stuff like refurbished Berninas, and yikes, that's a lot of money.

I'm assuming I want to shop locally, because it looks like it can cost $100 just to ship a used machine off eBay. But I'm not finding any other stores near me, and I'm wary of going through Craigslist and getting something that doesn't work.

Is there anywhere else I should be looking?

For that matter, does it make sense to be looking for an old Singer or Kenmore from the Carter administration? Am I better off looking for something else?
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Ask around and get the word out that you are looking for a sewing machine. Often times people will have them stuck in a closet or their moms closet and would be thrilled to give them a new home. You can haunt Goodwill stores or even check out their online auctions and limit your search to your nearest store for local pickup. Poke around thrift stores. Most are pretty cool about you testing a machine out before purchase. Bring scraps to test.

I totally get the love for a simple machine. I have a late 80s singer my mom received in barter in 2010 and it does exactly what you want.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 9:59 PM on November 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

I've had good luck asking the folks who work at Stone Mountain & Daughters in Berkeley for resources and recommendations -- and I know they do, or used to do, all the maintenance and repair on sewing machines that ended up at the White Elephant Sale in Jan/Feb.

Berkeley Sew & Vac (just up from Shattuck and University) might also be worth asking. They're definitely trustworthy (I once brought my machine in with intractable issues which, embarrassingly, they diagnosed as the needle put in backwards, chided me sweetly, and sent me on my way -- no charge, of course, and perhaps this is the kind of treatment I should expect from anyone, everywhere, but they could've charged me $70 for "maintenance" and didn't).
posted by tapir-whorf at 10:16 PM on November 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have one that I think just needs minor repair that is cluttering up my house in Oakland. You can have it. It's in a cabinet. I prefer the sewing machine repair place in Millbrae.

I will get out of bed tomorrow and tell you the exact model.

Old machines are the best. Way less full featured, but way sturdier.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:27 PM on November 20, 2017 [21 favorites]

Those old singers and kenmores have reputations for being rock solid - so they’re not necessarily as cheap as you’d hope. My mom has one from the 60s that’s still going strong - but she also inherited our neighbor’s which is from the 50s - and the two repair shops near her in the Bay Area have been unable to fix it. So you absolutely want to be able to test it out before you buy it - and craigslist is a good place to start as long as you can test the machine out.

I have a pfaff that I love. It’s sturdy with metal parts and no computerized sections. I think it runs better than my mom’s singer, and my sister agrees. It is one of the entry level ones - so nearer the $250 mark. I just bought a brother from amazon that was $100 because I haven’t shipped my pfaff cross-country yet - and the brother is fine. I miss my pfaff but the brother is perfectly adequate. So, if you just end up buying some entry level brother or something, you’ll be fine for what you’re planning to do.
posted by umwhat at 10:27 PM on November 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have a Kenmore 1815 model, which I found earlier this year at an estate sale at half price ($50) on the last day. It came with all the attachments and cams, as well as the cabinet. It was a machine that had been lovingly used and cared for, so it only needed a quick tune-up at the shop. It has become my main machine, as sewing on my early 2000's model Brother felt like sewing on a toy after enough time spent on the Kenmore. I bought my own unit after watching my mum sew on hers and loving it. They truly are tanks that are easy to get your head around and can sew through just about anything. Most of the machine model owners manuals are online, either through pay sites or through dedicated Kenmore/Vintage Sewing machine groups on social media.

Having said all that, keep an eye on local estate sales. You can usually find upcoming listings on estatesale.org. Thrift shops are also great, though I'd stick with the less mainstream ones (i.e. Salvation Army, other lesser known charities), as Goodwill tends to mark their machines up now that they've realized people are getting back into sewing. I would also avoid getting a machine shipped, thanks to the horror stories I keep hearing of machines arriving in damaged condition. Craigslist can also be a good resource, especially when you misspell the words "sewing machine" (i.e. "sowing" "sawing", etc). The social media groups are also worth keeping an eye on, as some are dedicated specifically to selling machines between members.
posted by arishaun at 10:29 PM on November 20, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have had good luck trying my hand at buying very cheap older machines on Marktplaats (our version of Craigslist) and at thrift stores. I've never spent more than €25. That 25 euros was for an off-brand machine in one of those table cabinet things, and it's fine. I also have a Pinnock Sew Queen from Australia that I spent all of €10 on. That one is my pride and joy. Indestructible and very easy to work with.
Whatever you find, ignore the brand and try it out on the spot. That weeds out most of the chaff.

You have some chance of getting a machine that can't be fixed, but most of those older machines can pretty much always be fixed. And if you find that you've bought a lemon, you've spent very little money on it, so just toss it back into the pond (sell it for parts, as a non-working machine, so you're not contributing to the problem).

I agree that it's a great idea to let the world know that you're looking for a sewing machine. One may very well turn up in someone's attic.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:42 PM on November 20, 2017

I have a kenmore from the early 80s that I love even if I don't use it very much anymore. It saw tons of usage for quilting.

Look up the local quilt shops and quilt guilds. Those little old ladies know wtf is up with machines and where to find them and get them serviced.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 11:02 PM on November 20, 2017

If there's a quilting store or sewing machine repair place, the people there may know somebody who refurbishes old machines. Couldn't hurt to ask the folks at your local fabric store, either. Keep your eyes peeled at thrift stores, rummage sales, estate sales, and Craigslist. Try placing wantedads on Craigslist and any local Freecycle message boards in your area.

I inherited a rock solid, turquoise 1964 Singer 357K from my aunt when she got a top-of-the-line Husqvarna that does everything but stomp grapes. I call my machine Proud Mary, because her big wheel just keeps on turning.

We have a shop in my town that resells donated fabric and any other kind of sewing supplies for charity, along with sewing machines that they repair and refurbish. They also teach classes on repairing and maintaining your own vintage machine; I took one along with my friend and her 1970 Kenmore, and Mary has been zooming along like a little juggernaut ever since.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:33 PM on November 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

As an avid sewist and a super eco-conscious person I can't recommend you a vintage machine enough. Contrary to (most of) the recent ones, they were made to last. I don't live in the US so I can't recommend you any physical places but as an online ressource the Sewing Pattern Reviews forums are awesome, everybody is super helpful and knowledgeable.
posted by Ifite at 12:06 AM on November 21, 2017

You can, and people do. I don't have specific advice to offer, but if you're on Ravelry, the Vintage Sewing Machines group is an excellent resource.
posted by cellar door at 3:19 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I got an old White on craigslist for $10 a couple years ago. Works perfect, the ad said out of adjustment but really just needed to be threaded correctly. Portables are more popular so may take a longer hunt. There is a bit of a leaning curve but manuals are all online. Buy cheap and if it fails you'll learn a lot. What ifte said, a lot of older steel machines were lightly used and rock solid construction.
posted by sammyo at 4:22 AM on November 21, 2017

Call the sew & vac repair shops in your area- they may have some repaired machines for sale and/or then you'll know where to get yours serviced.
posted by sarajane at 4:23 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a vintage Sears Kenmore machine that I got for free by telling people I was looking for a machine, like tipsyBumblebee suggests, and an acquaintance had one in a closet. So far it's fantastic. It did take me a while to figure out some of the basics, because there's no manual for it online (even called Sears to confirm), but it wasn't too bad.
posted by bunderful at 5:08 AM on November 21, 2017

Freecycle.net exists to help people re-home useful stuff. I gave away a sewing machine when I moved. You can also post something you want, and are likely to have success.
posted by theora55 at 5:10 AM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

To test an old machine, in addition to fabric scraps, I would bring a fresh needle as dull ones can cause missed stitches that look like a machine fault. Also check that the bobbin is in correctly, another simple cause of problems.
My old machines stitch well but none of the buttonhole functions work and bobbin winding is wonky, more stuff to check.
posted by Botanizer at 5:19 AM on November 21, 2017 [2 favorites]

The East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse has sewing machines sometimes, although sometimes they're missing the cord to plug them into the wall which obviously makes them impossible to test. Worth stopping by if you live near there, though perhaps not worth going far out of your way for.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:20 AM on November 21, 2017

Don't underestimate how much these things weigh. You're going to want to find something local.

I had my great-grandmother's old White for years and years and only gave it up because I couldn't bear lifting it onto a table anymore. It was a solid machine and someone else is probably enjoying it now.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:15 AM on November 21, 2017

I get them from estate sales all the time from anywhere from $35 - $100 (because the cabinet was pretty, they knew nothing about the machine inside) (I mean, they knew it existed but not what kind it was or if it worked, etc.).
posted by dawkins_7 at 7:25 AM on November 21, 2017

Last year I traded up my solid cast iron 1950's sewing machine for a used ~20 yr old machine at a local sewing machine shop and I couldn't be happier. I swore I wouldn't give up my Arnold Schwarzenegger Portable (so named because of how many muscles it took for me to lift it) but in the end I caved. I was surprised at how much I loved the simple but more advanced features, like the auto-thread-cutting button. I hadn't known what I was missing, until I had a younger machine with more features. The main reason that I gave up the old machine was that they said they wouldn't be able to find an exact-fitting belt for it, so it wouldn't run as well as it used to. So I put my repair money in to a newer machine.
posted by molasses at 7:38 AM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

Get it used! Much better quality and built like a tank. The downside is they're heavy. Mine weighs about 35 pounds.

I bought a used Singer Fashionmate 360 from the '70s, and it's solid. I paid $35 for it. I bought it off Craigslist, so, no warranty. Be prepared to spend $100 or so on a tune up at a sew-and-vac shop. They'll adjust everything, oil it, give you a new needle, and change all the belts. IMHO, it's money well spent.

I found used cams online through a yahoo sewing forum years back, and the machine works great. In fact, my friend (who's a better sewer than me) is jealous of how solid it is, and I paid a fraction of what she paid for hers.
posted by onecircleaday at 10:56 AM on November 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

I bought a vintage Singer a few years ago and it sews like a dream. I spent an afternoon cleaning and piling the mechanisms, replaces the power cord & light bulb, and sourced the right bobbins (sort of tricky!). A little effort will go a long way and you may not need a professional tuning.

Once you do get your machine cleaned and running, clean out the lint periodically and you will void funky buildup.

No regrets on going vintage. My machine is heavy duty enough that it is almost industrial.
posted by countrymod at 1:18 PM on November 21, 2017

I recommend you buy a late model used Bernina or Pfaff. They are the best home machines available and you’ll be able to sew deco and denim to fine sheers with ease. Don’t get swayed by a million stitches, all you need is straight, reverse and zig zag and you can sew ANYTHING. My Bernina is basically a portable industrial and I have sewed everything from chiffon to boat tarps and will until I die and some lucky person gets it and does the same for another 50 years. But I’d plan to spend more like $2-300 for a used machine in good condition.

If you find an old Singer it will cost less but you want it from the 70’s or older imo. I sewed a ton on a 1940’s Singer but it lacks zigzag so it was limiting. However the cams on old Singers are known to make the very best buttonholes ever, I’ve heard of sewers who keep an old one solely for buttonholes.
posted by RichardHenryYarbo at 1:25 PM on November 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

I regret giving up my Janome that I bought in 1980. It did straight, buttonholes, overcast and zigzag. I bought a new Husquvarna about 8 years ago - all computerized with a million stitches, and though I use it regularly, it has been in the repair/maintenance shop annually for one thing or another. I've probably spent more on fixing it than it would cost to get a new, more solid machine. Get a machine you can clean and oil yourself. Use quality needles and thread. Lots of repair places sell refurbished machines - that's my plan for next time.
posted by Enid Lareg at 7:12 AM on November 22, 2017

Are we the same person?

I've been on this same journey, and can tell you that the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse had three sewing machines (hidden about the store) as of two weeks ago. In fact I took photos of them, so I can tell you that one was a Brother XL-2600i, one was a Morse MZZ in original carrying case (though it smelled a bit suspect) and the last I didn't drag out from its hiding place because it seemed new, cheap and plastic. Prices were around $40-60.
posted by books for weapons at 5:10 PM on November 22, 2017

Here to preach the Kenmore love!!! I have a Kenmore machine that was purchased new in 1984. I was 12, and it was my big Christmahanukkah present. Since making Barbie clothes for my little sister and Issey Miyake-inspired dresses from black garbage bags in the early 80's, it's been in continuous use for 33 years and I suspect I will use it until I leave this great green earth. Once every few years I disassemble it and do a deep clean and oiling, check the belt, etc. Personally, I'm forgetful/sloppy enough that I would avoid some of the much older machines that REQUIRE constant filling of a bzillion little oil reservoirs, each of which threatens to alternately go dry and burn something out or ooze overspilled oil on your fancy fabric...
posted by SinAesthetic at 5:56 AM on November 23, 2017

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