“I friend has said I can have her Mum’s sewing machine. Should I take her up on her offer?”

“I saw a machine listed on ebay, would you tell me if it is one to bid on?”

“I was at a car boot over the weekend and there was a sewing machine for £15 – would you buy it?”

Stop, stop,stop this uneducated madness I say!

I have been asked this question many, many times and I spend alot of time discussing with people what they should know about purchasing a used sewing machine. I decided it was time I wrote about it  (plus it gave me an excuse to show you a photo of one of my oldest machines – my Jones hand machine)!

This was originally going to be one post but as I got writing, I realised that in order to give you the full treatment, it was best spread over three updates. So I apologise as perhaps you don’t want to “stay tune for what happens next” but it would be a very long post otherwise.

There are two kinds of sewing machines (hand powered and electric) and for the sake of this post, I will discuss electric. If you want me to, I am happy to share my knowledge about purchasing a hand cranker (yes, that is what it is called here in the Studio!) in another post but my experience is that they are mostly for decorative purposes so less things need to be considered.

So- you are staring at a lovely 1960’s retro looking sewing machine. And you think it would be a sweet addition to your sewing room.  Can I just say, I am a huge fan of older machines so I am the first to tell people that an older well looked after machine is a great thing to have. But the issue is that it has to be well looked after and very often, used machines come with a complete lack of knowledge of when they were last used, where they were stored etc and this is why it is really necessary to proceed with caution when staring at the used machine.

When I am asked to look at a machine, here is what I look for (and I come armed with a spool of thread and a fresh size 90 needle – more revealed later):

  • does the machine come with all the extra bits that make it easy for you to use at home (a lid to store it away with and a key to lock it if it is a lockable wooden lid, a box of additional sewing tools such as extra bobbins and an instruction booklet are the basics I look for and dare I point out the obvious  – a power cord?).  Finding any combination of these that are part of an old machine is hard to find as normally, it will l have misplaced when moved between new owners. I will give you links at the end of where to go for the missing bits so don’t let that be something to put you off – it is just an additional cost if you decide to replace them (and depending on the make of the machine – the additional costs can start to add up).
  • in preparation of giving it a test drive, if you are able to check the belt to see if it is dried or cracked do so. If the belt does appear to be a slightly faded black colour and has cracks, I would be aware that running it might mean that it will snap (it has happened to me a few times – quite exciting to hear the “thwack” and then watch the rubber fly off).  You can decide if you want to take the chance or not. Also, if you are able to look at the motor and the bobbin race, check for excessive dust as again, this would make me think twice about firing it up as if there is alot of dust, it is indication that it has been sat unused and not cared for for an extended period of time.
  • checking the electrical connection is absolutely essential and there is no grey area on this one – don’t plug it in if in doubt. Older machines do not have an “on/off” button so essentially when you plug it in, it is on.  So the wiring is wonky or the plug is hanging off the end of the wire – I wouldn’t turn it on and this is where perhaps, I would consider getting an engineer to look at it.
  • Look for missing tension parts – springs etc.
  • Double check to see if it still has its spool pin as sometimes, this has been removed or snapped off.
  • Manually turn the fly wheel to see if the feed dogs are engaged and that it can move through a full set of stitches (if not, it may be seized up or rusted).

That list should help you get a better idea of whether you want to buy it or not. If you want to research purchasing missing bits:

Resources for older sewing machines:

  • contact the manufacturer direct for a missing manual- Google is the one to go to for this. Some have links from their website, others do not. Just depends on the company.
  • there are PDF manuals for downloading on the internet: this one says free but as this is just a huge list of external links to other sites, it can be hit or miss if it is free and if the links are still updated (I did click on one which took me to a dating website…hmmm). This one has a very complete section and you can download them as a PDF ( I looked for one for my Bernina and it had it for $10.00 – or £ 6.50 – which seamed reasonable to me).
  • Getting additional parts for your machine can be a bit trickier and the price that you pay can vary widely:  I did a google search for an accessories box for my singer 99k and got varying degree of success with the search. Ebay came up trumps but also found the parts via sewing but they did seem a bit pricey. It all comes down to research!
  • And lastly, before you purchase anything from a dealer online – do a search with the dealers name plus the word “reviews” – you may be able to find feedback from other people who have dealt with the dealer and will be able to see if they are a reputable dealer or not!

So that my friends, is part one. Hopefully, it will help you decide if you  want to proceed to the next step…. the test drive!



P.S. – have you had an experience when buying an older machine you want to share with me? Feel free to share by commenting – link at the top!