Strikingly beautiful and nostalgic, Singer sewing machines are instantly recognisable and imbued with memories of granny’s house.
Is a vintage Singer worth the heartache for someone who doesn’t know one end of a sewing machine from another though?
Grab a brew, get comfy and let's begin.
New or Old?
There’s a really good case for learning to sew on a cheap modern sewing machine. They are less fiddly and easier to thread with a wide selection of stitch styles at the push of a button. As pretty much all basic modern machines are made from plastic, they aren’t really built to last and many struggle to sew through multiple layers of heavy duty fabric like denim or canvas. .
Vintage Singer machines have a romance and nostalgia about them. They are sturdy and well engineered, meaning you can put them through their paces with heavy duty fabric, especially if you choose a Singer 201, which has a roomy ‘harp’ space that can accommodate bulky fabric and was the favourite of professional tailors and seamstresses.
They are straight stitch machines though and can only do different stitches such as zig-zag or button holes with separate attachments, which you often need to buy separately. They don’t always come complete with manuals and as a beginner, they’re fiddly as they don’t have easy to follow thread guides.
It’s dangerously easy to end up buying a machine that’s broken, incomplete or needs a lot of TLC.
The Golden Age of Sewing Machines
The golden age of Singer machines is from the 1930s to the 1960s. Anything made before the 1930s is likely to have an old shuttle-style bobbin. As a beginner, it’s better to opt for a machine that takes round bobbins as on a purely practical level, they are easier to get hold of and round bobbins hold more thread, so it means less fiddling whilst you’re learning to sew.
The quality of Singer machines dropped after the 1960s, so choose a machine from the 1930s-1960s if possible.
The Singer 15
The Singer 15 is the oldest of the models I’m looking at. It became the template for pretty much all modern sewing machines, making it a safe choice, as needles, bobbins, bobbin cases etc are still fairly easy to get hold of. They are full size machines, so were originally mounted in tables or cabinets as they are very heavy and not particularly portable - something to consider when choosing.
Singer 15s are distinctive because the tension discs are at the side of the machine, on the faceplate of the presser bar, rather than at the front of the machine. The tension assembly isn’t labelled though, so you have to fiddle and guess to find the right tension - not easy if you’re a beginner.
Dolly, my vintage Singer is a 1936 15k, made in Kilbowie, Clydebank. She was originally either a hand crank or treadle machine, as she has a spoked handwheel and I suspect she was converted to electric in the 50s/60s.
One thing to note about 1930s Singer 15s is they don’t have reverse stitch, so you need to turn the fabric one way then the other to lock in your stitches. You may want a machine that has reverse stitch at the switch of a lever, especially as a beginner (I know I wish Dolly had this feature). If that’s the case, be sure to look for a later electric machine that has reverse stitching.
The Singer 99
The Singer 99 is a ¾ size version of the Singer 66, so is a bit lighter and more portable. Later models such as the Singer 99k-29 or Singer 99k-34 are worth considering as they are smaller, more portable electric machines with reverse as standard. Worth remembering that early versions of the 99 don’t come with the reverse as standard though.
The Singer 201
This was the top of the range Singer, considered to be the Rolls Royce of the machines, particularly as it was used by the machinists in the Rolls Royce factory, to stitch together the leather upholstery.
Considered easy to use, the quality of the machine and its stitches is still the stuff of legend today. The 201 used a direct drive motor, rather than a belt motor, so thicker material doesn’t cause the belt to slip. It packs a punch and copes easily with layers of leather. The light is fitted at the front too, rather than the back, making it easier to see your work.
Is learning to sew on a vintage machine worth it?
I think so. Yes it’s fiddly and frustrating, a bit like learning how to use a camera in manual settings, rather than the instant gratification of auto, but you’ll be rewarded with a solid understanding of the trickier aspects of setting up machines through trial, error and experimentation.
I made Finley’s first nativity costume on Dolly and I can’t deny that there’s something beautiful about connecting to childhood memories of my Nan and her Singer, through the whir and clickety clack as I stitch childhood memories together for Finley.
General Hints and Tips
- Scrutinise photos for the serial number or ask for it. The number plate is on the bed of the machine on the front right hand side. Note down the serial number and look up the model number on the ISMACS website for more information on the model number and year.
- Before buying a machine, find out where your local sewing machine repair shop is and get a guide price for costs such as servicing, rewiring and a new motor. Expect to pay around £75 for a service and new motor.
- Make sure any machine you buy includes the bobbin case and bobbins. There are so many variations of these depending on the model and year that it can be a real headache to work out which one your machine should take, especially if a manual isn’t included.
- Once you know the model and year of your machine, download a free manual for it here.
- If buying an electric machine, expect to have it rewired or the motor replaced. Do NOT remotely consider plugging it in if the wires are exposed or the plug looks dodgy. Take it straight to your local sewing machine repair shop to be tested and rewired if necessary.
- Make sure your machine comes complete with a case or at the least, a wooden base, particularly if it’s a 99k, as the undercarriage won’t function properly if rested straight on to a table as there needs to be clearance underneath it.
- As tempting as it can be, don’t use any vintage thread that comes with your machine. Thread deteriorates with age, particularly if it has been exposed to dust, sunlight or damp. It’ll snap frequently, along with your temper, causing you to blame your beginner sewing skills. You also run the risk of snapped thread or lint clogging up your machine, causing a jam.
- Don’t use harsh cleaners on your machine as they will strip off the delicate decorative decals. First, use a barely damp, lint-free cloth to remove the worst (remember water and electricity don’t mix). Next, clean and buff with sewing machine oil. Never anything else!
- Get to know your machine! Watch YouTube videos for help and have a play on scrap material. Use brightly coloured thread for practise, so you can easily see how straight or wonky your stitches are.
- Stick with it! The hardest part of using a vintage sewing machine is threading it, once you’ve got it, the rest is easy by comparison. It still takes me several attempts and a YouTube video to remind me, but I always get there in the end. You will too.
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