Buying Vintage Sewing Machines

Which and Why?

I’m sure you’ve noticed a lot of my posts lately feature my vintage Singer sewing machines. That’s because my sewing room is undergoing some major changes!

Please keep in mind that this is not me endorsing these machines, it’s simply my opinion based on experience and my sewing preferences.

I actually started down this path some years back, and abandoned it, but I’m all in now! My vintage line of choice is Singer 400 series… hands down, my favorite. My sewing room lineup now is:

  1. Singer 401amy main machine. Zig zags, can use 2 needles at once.
  2. Singer 403aback up to the 401a, and generally always set up with a walking foot. Zig zags with top hat cams, can use 2 needles at once.
  3. Singer 404straight stitch only, my piecing machine.
  4. Singer 431gextremely difficult to find in the United States, a German version of the 401a, with… yes… a free-arm! I need a free-arm!

All four are slant shank machines, and can share presser feet and bobbins. They use standard 15X1 needles, and class 66 bobbins. It’s far easier on both your wallet and your space if you don’t have to buy multiples of everything. Needle selection is a big deal to me, as I tend to often sew with either super fine, lightweight threads, or bulky threads. Slapping a size 12 universal needle in a machine would seriously effect the quality of my work.

Another feature I adore about the Singer 400 series machines (the 500’s, more commonly known as Rocketeers, also have this feature) is that they can sew with two needles. Not a twin needle on a single shaft, but two needles. Twin needles are limited in size and type, and expensive, but any two common household needles (15X1) will work! No more having to stop and wait for an online order for a special size.

I can’t emphasize enough, you need to know what you want to sew and what features are necessary for you in a machine before you start shopping! If you haven’t a clue, then sit down with someone that does and pick their brain.

When Jim I started buying vintage machines some years back, we didn’t have a clue. I didn’t grow up with anyone sewing in my family. My mom dabbled a bit, but she certainly never taught me to sew. The old curvy black machines caught my eye, elegant, classic, and timeless.

I did a little research, and decided the Singer 201-2 and the Singer 15-91 would be the machines I’d start with. They are both some of Singers best, with the 201 series probably being the machine that made Singer famous. Not only are the lines on it gorgeous, it has the most perfect straight stitch ever made, and can sew through just about anything (domestic) you might task it with. Quiet? There will never be another like it. The machine positively whispers. Or maybe it purrs.

The 201-2 and the 15-91 are keepers. Incredibly strong and reliable. But they really never made my heart go pitter pat… which it does, over the right machine! I am probably going to sell mine. Maybe.

Of course, the adorable Featherweights came next. Because I was intrigued with sewing doll clothing, the free arm version was the Featherweight I really wanted. My first was a 221k, the next two were both free arm 222k’s. And what beautiful specimens they each were!

My 221k came from Graham Forsdyke, the premier Featherweight expert in England (now retired). That little machine made the jump over the pond and came to live with me.

My first 222k came from Desk Dave, who did a stunning paint job and restoration job for me, and the last and final 222k came from Canada, in pristine original condition. They are the cutest machines you will ever see, and the sound they make when sewing is positively entrancing. Really. It’s the sound that made me have to own one.

But I discovered in time that the featherweights were never going to be the machine for me. When they sew, they produce a stunning stitch. When they get their panties in a wad because you changed bobbins, or simply a different color of the same thread and suddenly develop tension tantrums… uh uh. Not for me. I know they have a cult following and people in polite society do not discuss this problem, but I assure you, IT IS REAL. But… I need a free-arm! And the 222k’s have it! And so I sold my Featherweights.

After some research I learned that Singer made a few other vintage free-arm models… mostly produced outside the United States and extremely difficult to find here; post-war marketing determined that the feature was unnecessary and too expensive to produce. If you look long and hard, you might find one. The 320k, 421g, 437g, 631g, 634g (g=Germany) are all free-arm models.

I was lucky enough to score a Singer 421g in great, if not museum quality, condition. These are are so hard to find in United States, they make the free-arm Singer 222k featherweights common in comparison.

Jim jumped on the bandwagon and fell. Hard. For the Singer 301’a. He bought seven of them. Did I mention he bought the first Bernina and that’s how I came to own my first Bernina 170… I inherited it after he lost interest? He didn’t really lose interest, he simply became too busy.

The 301’s are great machines, fast as hell, and sew a gorgeous straight stitch. I still prefer the 400 series, with the larger bobbin and top loading bobbin access. They’re easier to clean and service, and I’m fanatical about keeping my machines cleaned and oiled.

They are also lighter than the 400 series machines, making them a great choice for traveling, and more popular with quilters because of that.

For me, if I’m going to take a machine somewhere to sew, I’m going to put the machine in a rolling trolley with all of my necessary tools, so this is a moot point. I will take my 404 and be happier.

I bought a Singer 401a in mint condition. Oh my… how I adore that machine! Not only is it, in my eyes, a beautiful machine, it sews like a dream. I love the slant shanks… while not considered as “strong” as the 201-2 or the 15-91, it will still out power any modern domestic machine. And the visibility is great!

My 401a is my pride and joy of my vintage collection. She is in museum quality condition, sews absolutely beautifully, and I confess to paying a ridiculous amount for her. I don’t care, she will be a faithful companion for the remainder of my life.

Next came a vintage Bernina… the brand of my heart. An 830 Record, and man could she sew! Fabulous presser feet, and no one makes presser feet like Bernina does, and a knee lift. How I love a knee lift!

But the Bernina didn’t make the cut either. Why? Parts.

So here’s the deal. My vintage machines must meet a few criteria, or they can’t live here with Jim and me (and Miss Myrtle!) forever.

  1. Must sew fabulously, and accept any type and weight of thread.
  2. Must use common sized needles and bobbins.
  3. Must have parts readily available.
  4. Can’t use belts. Why? Belts slip, but mostly, it’s a part that needs replacing. Give me a gear driven machine any day.

When I was trying to decide between keeping the Singer 401a and the Bernina 830 Record for a main vintage machine, I’ll be honest, the Bernina was hands down my first choice. But these machines are as old if not older than I am, and despite being built like tanks, they all need parts eventually. There are a gazillion vintage singer machines floating around, parts are readily available… for SOME models. Bernina, not so much.

Jim is servicing a gorgeous Singer 319w for a friend. I positively lust over its predecessor, the 306. These machines are half siren and half beast, sexy as hell and oh how I want one! But they only check off number one on my list… they sew fabulously.

The Singer Featherweight 221 models are generally easy to find any part you need for them, and their 222 sister machine can share most parts, except for the stitch plate. Woe to anyone with a damaged stitch plate on a 222, because finding a replacement may be a life long endeavor, and a pricey one at that. The 221 stitch plates are a dime a dozen and have been re-manufactured.

My 421g suffers this same problem. It shares ninety nine percent of the same parts with its American cousin, the 401a, but the stitch plate is different, and nearly impossible to find a replacement. If I didn’t need a free-arm so desperately, this would have been a deal breaker for me. At least I knew this ahead of time and will baby that stitch plate.

Research is your friend. Know what you are getting into. Or might need in the future.

Being a girl, a very picky one with some OCD issues… I like pretty machines. It’s pretty much a requirement for me. When I shop for a vintage machines, the first thing I check is if the paint is excellent, the decals and clear coat intact (unless it’s a candidate for a paint job, then who cares) and no major chips or dents. I don’t care if it is covered in grime and hardened oil. It takes a lot of elbow grease, but those filthy machines can be beautifully restored.

Mechanically, I don’t much worry about it. Lucky for me, Jim is a mechanical engineer, a master machinist, and a darn good mechanic. If I had to pay a service technician to put in the labor that Jim does for my machines, I might as well go buy a high end new one.

But I do try and make certain the obvious parts are in working order… the hand wheel rotates, the needle bar and presser foot bar aren’t bent, the stitch plate and bobbin case aren’t chewed up, etc.

CJ Tinkle

Your feedback is always welcome! If you have a question, I will respond to it here.