This post originally appeared on Keeping it Simple.
A little departure from sewing projects today – I want to talk about sewing machines instead.
I’m starting to get questions from people who would like to learn to sew, and their first question is which machine do I buy? My 3 part answer to that question is the subject of today’s post.
1. Don’t buy, borrow
When people are thinking about learning to sew, I assume they don’t know if they will fall in love with garments, quilting, home decor or some other kind of crafty sewing. Or if they might end up hating it. So my first advice is not to buy a machine at all if you can help it. Find someone who will loan you one if at all possible.
- If you have any sewing friends, ask if they’ll let you borrow their machine. If they’ve been doing it for a while, they might even have a spare machine (or two, or three, or…ahem)
- If you don’t have sewing friends, activate the mom/grandmother network. See if anyone’s mother or grandmother has a machine that you could borrow – often these offers will also come with an offer to teach you to sew – bonus! Or sometimes, a relative inherited one that they don’t know how to use – these are great if they come with the manuals, because often if you decide you want to keep the machine, they’re willing to sell it.
- Google sewing lessons in your city – there are often places that will teach you to sew using their machines
- Search Craigslist (if you have one in your area) for sewing lessons as well. Often people teach sewing classes out of their homes as a side project, and are happy to teach you on their machine. Search For Sale, but also search Services
2. New Machines
So, your friend/grandmother/relative wants their machine back, or you couldn’t find a machine to borrow. You’re looking to buy. At this point I’m assuming you have a budget (because if you didn’t you’d just go to the sewing machine store and buy the latest and greatest, and why would you be reading this?). So I’m going to assume you want to spend less than $200 for a machine, which means you have a choice – new or vintage?
Advantages to new machines
- Instant gratification – you pick out what you want and take it home, or you order online and it gets to you in a couple days
- That new machine smell
- They come with all their parts + manual
- It’s pretty easy to find videos of your new machine online if you run into an issue
- Lighter weight, therefore more portable
- Usually are able to do free-arm sewing.
- Entry level new machines (and even more expensive ones) have plastic parts. Plastic can break.
- Generally, new machines are easier to break than quality vintage ones.
The main difference between new and vintage machines is that new ones are made as cheaply as possible for their price point, which means using plastic and computers, both of which break more easily than vintage machines constructed with metal. So, if you want to buy a new machine, I recommend the
Brother LS2125I Easy-To-Use Lightweight Basic 10-Stitch Sewing Machine
(with a caveat) for absolute beginners:
The caveat is that this machine will not ever do an acceptable buttonhole; it can’t. It has a 4 part buttonhole function, but the resulting buttonhole is not anything you would ever want visible on your clothing.
I used these machines when I taught high school sewing since we didn’t have much of a budget. They withstood use by inexperienced HIGH SCHOOL sewers – meaning I saw one get dropped on the floor and it still sewed. They were also regularly mis-threaded and otherwise abused.
Now, for literally a few dollars more, you could get this Brother XL2600I Sew Advance Sew Affordable 25-Stitch Free-Arm Sewing Machine and that’s what I would do if I was buying new.
For the extra money, you get an acceptable (though not beautiful) buttonhole function, a drop in bobbin (my preference) and a few bells and whistles like a threader and thread cutter and some more decorative stitches.
3. Vintage Machines
Ok, time for the truth telling. I learned on a vintage machine from the 1970s. I now sew on a vintage machine from the late 1950s. And I own 3 other vintage machines (the same model, because who knows when you might need a spare?).
In my book, here’s why vintage machines beat new machines hands down.
- They don’t break as often. There’s a reason my 50 year old machine is still chugging along. And that I never use my spares (unless I’m just feeling sorry for them or teaching a class, then they get to come out and play)
- The quality ones can do most, if not all, of what the new machines can do, and sometimes more, and often better
- I love a good bargain
- I love hunting for bargains
- Did I mention they don’t break?
- Thanks to eBay, they’re almost as easy to find as new machines
- You have to hunt for them. If you don’t like combing Craigslist and garage sales, or waiting on eBay auctions to end, then get a new machine.
- They’re all metal (so they don’t break) which means they’re heavy and less portable
- Old machine smell can leave something to be desired
- They’re not always in stellar condition, so it can be hard to tell if they’re a good deal when you’re new to sewing
The machine I have (pictured above) is a Singer 503 Slant-o-Matic, also known as a 503a or a Rocketeer. I’ve sewn on a lot of vintage machines, and this one is my all-time favorite, followed by the Singer 500 Slant-o-Matic, which is a very similar machine.
One of these, with all its parts and accessories, in perfect working condition, is worth $150-$200 in my book. Which is a little more than those entry level new machines above, but seriously I have had this machine for 15 years and have never felt the need to upgrade.
Commonly missing/broken parts on this machine to look for (all these things take away from the price/value):
- The top cover can often be broken off
- The nose cover on the left side of the machine can be broken
- The foot pedal – sometimes people sell these without it – you can usually buy a replacement on eBay, but without one the machine doesn’t work
- The spool pins are sometimes missing/broken
- The rubber tire on the bobbin winding mechanism can be worn out
In mint condition, this machine should run perfectly and come with
- A manual
- The foot pedal
- A working light bulb
- A zipper foot and a universal foot. The original kit also included a straight stitch foot
- A ruffler attachment
- 11 black cams for decorative stitching (at a minimum make sure it comes with the zig-zag cam)
I totally agree with your assesments of the machines. I learned on my mom’s old viking but since she gave it to my sister, I have had to buy my own. And now that I am obsessed with sewing, I have the bigger, more expensive models. If you are going to sew a lot, I definitely would recomend the investment into a mid-range to top of the line machine. I have a brother 6000D I LOVE.
I decided to learn how to sew in April 2012. I researched online for a budget machine and read as many reviews as I could about the machine from different sources (i.e. Amazon, Consumer Reports, etc). I decided on the Brother XL2600i and I couldn’t be happier. I have used it very consistently since then and I just ordered a Brother serger. My machine was about $80 and shipping was free.
Thanks for writing this post – I loved hearing about your experience with vintage machines and your advice was new sewers is great!
I, too, agree with your choices of machines. I actually have the same vintage machine and go to it before I go to my newer one. I have 2 vintage Singer machines and a newer one (which is now old since machines have changed quite a bit when I bought the new one!). Thanks for your post. It was awesome information.
I have that exact model of machine in my collection. It came to me after my dad’s cousin died about 8 years ago. She sewed miles on it and made her daughter’s wedding gown in 1960-something with that machine.
I really need to use it more often! I have several “modern machines” and I tend to go to them.
It was nice to see your post. I’m new to the site, having found my way here via the Free Baby Boy romper pattern. I have a new grandson born a month ago and I think I’ll have to make up one of these for him. I also saw your Youtube video on the romper.
Melly, I am currently in the market for machine. Or not. I am an experienced seamstress out of the loop for a couple decades! New models have not held up to my abilities or standards. I decided yesterday to search out another vintage machine to accompany my 70’s White. I also have a Singer 301A, but still need something a mite heavier. I can’t justify the cost of the newer machines knowing plastic parts and electronics/computers will need professional maintenance. I can justify the same cost on a steelhead with low maintenance. You have given me the boost I need to drop the quest for a modern and go for the vintage machine. Thanks!
I know this article was posted several years ago, but I wanted to let you know that I used the information on the 503A to purchase one of my very own. When my modern, second-hand machine died in the middle of a project this weekend, I knew I had to find a machine a little more heavy duty and durable. I found this post and a 503A sewing machine listed on Craigslist and knew it was fate! I appreciated the information about broken/missing parts to look for and what to expect of a machine in mint condition. I was able to purchase with confidence, so thank you!