Introduction: Old Sewing Machines Are Hidden Treasures!

Picture of Old Sewing Machines Are Hidden Treasures!

Old sewing machines are an undiscovered TREASURE! They are very easy to learn on, hard to break, easy to maintain and can be purchased cheaply or are sometimes even FREE!

Old sewing machines are great to learn on for people from 12 years old and up (and younger if supervised carefully!)

Using one of these old sewing machines is the best way to learn to sew inexpensively.

With a little cleaning and learning you can be sewing your own awesome creations in just hours!

This instructable will show you some basics about old sewing machines and tell you places to look for more information. Are you ready to sew? The treasures are all around you!

Step 1: Where Can I Find These Great Machines?

Picture of Where Can I Find These Great Machines?

I love for finding old sewing machines, but you can also find them in second hand shops and garage sales and sometimes even in a family member's closet :)

Look for a machine that doesn't have a lot of damage and always ask for the electric cord, foot pedal, owner's manual and all the accessories. Sometimes you might not get all of these things but the foot pedal and electric cord can be hard to track down so I never buy a machine without them.

Ask to plug the machine in and make sure it works. If you have to test it manually by turning the flywheel, remember to turn it toward you (counter clockwise).

It is nice to get a lot of accessories with your machine but you don't need them to learn with. Just the basics will work fine for most sewing.

You can bring some scraps of fabric and some thread with you to test the machine. If the owner has the machine threaded, keep the thread on so that you can see how it is supposed to be threaded (if there is no manual).

If a friend or family member is giving or selling you the machine, ask them for a few lessons!! Offer to do something for them if they will teach you :)

If you can watch video on the internet, this page has good information about the differences in sewing machines and what the parts are called:

Step 2: Safety!

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It is VERY important to understand that the needle moves up and down fast and you MUST keep your fingers and hands away from it!

If you have to learn on your own, please take the needle out of the machine, take the bobbin out and take the thread off and then learn to use the foot pedal.

Just plug in the machine and learn how to control the foot pedal. Practice going very slowly. A good seamstress doesn't sew at top speed very often! It's okay to sew very slowly. The stitches still form and you will keep yourself safe as you learn to feed the fabric under the presser foot and the needle.

If you can, please get someone with some sewing experience to watch you and teach you. You might even trade - offer to do something for them if they will teach you to sew :)

Step 3: First Things First :)

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Before you plug in your machine to use it you need to do a few things and learn a few things. Just like driving - you can't just jump into a car and expect to drive off without learning how to drive and making sure that there is fuel in the tank.

Luckily you don't need a sewer's permit!

It helps a lot to know how a machine works and also how to maintain one. If your machine came with an owner's manual please read it and follow the instructions for cleaning and oiling your machine. This will help you learn how it works and will make you confident about using your machine.

If you don't have the machine manual sometimes you can find your machine's manual for sale on the internet for just a few dollars. Try here if you need to do that

If you didn't get a manual, there is a set of 5 videos here you can watch to learn how to clean almost any machine:

If you can't watch video on your computer, and you can afford it, you can take your machine to a sewing machine repair shop for cleaning. If you can't afford that, it is still easy to figure out if you take the major cover plates off of the sewing machine (wherever you see a screw holding one on) especially in the bobbin area, and just start cleaning out dust and lint with Q-Tips and tweezers. Oil any parts that move except any belts or rubber parts. Test to see if they move by turning the flywheel toward you (counter clockwise).

Sometimes your local library will have books on sewing machine maintenance or there will be a chapter in a general sewing book that teaches machine maintenance.

**new** There is a group on that is dedicated to fixing up old sewing machines! The group is called WeFixIt

Step 4: Setting Up Your Machine

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One of the reasons that you can find these old machine in perfect working order is that they were put in really badly designed cabinets.

Take your machine out of the cabinet and set it up somewhere that is comfortable for you. You should not have to lift your arms or shoulders to reach your machine and the needle should be centered in front of you. Here's a video about sewing machine ergonomics:

It can help to put a gripper mat or double stick tape on the bottom of the foot pedal so that it doesn't slide.

It is important to buy and use the right parts for your machine. Different machines use different types of needles and different sized bobbins. You need to find out if your machine uses a flat back needle and also the size of bobbin. Sewing stores like local "sew and vacuum" shops and also JoAnns or Walmart sell some supplies but be sure you are buying the right items for your machine. If possible, take a needle and bobbin that is already from your machine with you if you are shopping for more so that you can see that you are buying the right items.

Step 5: Learning to Sew :)

Picture of Learning to Sew  :)

There are many ways to learn to sew. If you like to learn by yourself you can check out books from the library and learn a lot about fabrics, threads, patterns, sewing terms, and sewing techniques.

You can join a group (Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls) and ask them to teach sewing classes. You can see if your local sewing sales and repair shop teaches sewing. Your Community Schools might have sewing classes.

There are videos on YouTube about learning to sew - Threadbangers is a popular channel on YouTube for younger people who want to learn to make easy and useful projects.

Step 6: Fabrics, Needles, Threads and More

Picture of Fabrics, Needles, Threads and More

Your local library should have books that can teach you about different kinds of fabrics. Knowing about different fabrics can help you make the very best sewing projects! You can bring your sewing book with you as you explore fabric shops, learning the texture of cottons, polyesters, silks, rayons and more. You can take your book to second hand shops to help you identify and buy garments that you can re-purpose into new garments.

Threads are different too and it helps a lot to understand how different threads can help your sewing projects.

There are many sizes of needles that are made for special fabrics and threads.

If you can find a book or a teacher that has used many different materials and can teach you about them then you will find your sewing to be much easier!

Step 7: The Three Most Common Problems

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There are three things that cause the most problems in sewing. The first is that the machine is not threaded correctly (top thread or bobbin). It's really important to thread the machine the right way. Use the owner's manual for the machine if you have it, or search the internet for instructions for your machine.

The second is the tension. The tension on the top thread and the bobbin can *and SHOULD* be adjusted when you change threads. Your top thread should pull easily through the needle when the presser foot is UP and the bobbin should drop slightly when shaken to test the bobbin tension (if you have a vertical bobbin). Here are some good links to videos about bobbin tension.

The last thing is stray threads. A clean machine is important, free of lint, dust and loose threads in the bobbin area. When sewing you should hold both threads back away from the machine as you begin to sew and bringing up the bobbin thread to the top of your project is a good habit to get into.

Most problems with sewing can be solved by cleaning and oiling the machine, taking all the thread off and the bobbin out and re-threading the entire machine. Sometimes a thread has jumped a guide or there is the tiniest bit of lint holding things up and that gets cleared out when you re-thread the machine.


OlgaW1 (author)2016-01-06

I have a White (brand) sewing maching model 167 which I found at a second hand store for $15!!! It came in a case, really clean underneath, AND with a manual! I have 3 other domestic machines and this one sews and is sturdy just like an industrial sewing machine. It's my favourite to sew with.

GenevieveL5 (author)OlgaW12016-04-10

I was given a lovely old White De Luxe machine by an acquaintance who had cleaned it up and tested it. The only problem is that it used to be set in a cabinet, and it no longer has the cabinet! I need to find some sort of base or trick something up so that I can use it. My mother's metal Singer has a plastic base it fits into, but I can't seem to find those for sale anywhere. If anyone can offer any suggestions, I would really appreciate it!

MaryR193 (author)GenevieveL52016-12-24

There's a group on Facebook called Vintage Sewing Machines. There's a guy (I think he's Ray) who makes bases. The group is a great resource. Also keep an eye out at your goodwill. You may find a sewing machine that doesn't work in a case that fits. Repurpose it!

Kilnrelay (author)GenevieveL52016-07-30

If you haven't already found a solution--it has been four months-- I recommend googling "custom wooden base for sewing machine." Then search by image until you find someone who makes wooden bases by mail order, or an image you can take to someone who can build it for you.

doug57a (author)OlgaW12016-12-22

I have just bought my first machine. $30. A White 8931. I am delighted with how mechanically sound this lovely device is. Completely free of any 21st century electronic crap, designed to fail and generate sales. Looking forward to learning the machine as I get into my first project, a simple boat cover. I will be saving 600$ on this one project compared to ordering one. ( not to mention eliminating dragging the boat across town to leave with some outfit.)

RevathiS5 (author)2016-05-19

Its really good
information,Thanks for sharing this blog,keep updating more threads, Best sewing machine in chennai

bieLa86 (author)2015-12-09

What do you think of the Sears sewing machine's?

LarryW41 (author)bieLa862016-03-28

Sears no longer sells sewing machines. Bernina might be a good machine but how many can afford one? The lower priced models are now made in Asia. I use primarily machines made in the 60's.

MargueritaM (author)bieLa862015-12-22

Hi, I used a Kenmore for years and I loved it. For the most part it did everything that the expensive machines did. BUT, I could not get as good results in free-motion quilting with the Kenmore (would would not believe the lengths I went to trying) as I did on a used Bernina that I finally bought.

LarryW41 (author)2016-03-28

Bought a frozen machine? Get some PB Blaster at Walmart or auto parts store and spray it on. Try to move slowly by hand. Do this until moving freely.

LarryW41 (author)2016-03-28 is also a good place. Modern machines are mostly plastic except the Toyota Machines. All metal interior. The Morse machines were made by Toyota.

grannyjones (author)2016-02-23

----by all means, test the hand wheel! Someone DONATED a completely frozen Janome 525S to the local thrift shop! Yes, they did! I bought it for the cord/pedal control, which is compatible with my good machines. Spares are outrageous!

MonaN1 (author)2016-01-26

Olga, can you give your honest opinion? I am learning to sew and want a decent machine, which means newer in my mind, but i have fallen in love with an antique supposedly works. Do you think i should go new or old?

mikecz (author)MonaN12016-02-13

As a guy who taught himself to sew by making a backpacking tent (40+ years ago), I think a sewing machine needs the following: adjustable stitch length and adjustable zig-zag width. It's nice to have a reverse function button or lever, a bobbin winder, and for the thing to be made of metal, as much as possible. If it has these and functions smoothly, anything else is pretty much icing on the cake.

NicoleB1 (author)2014-09-28

Hi Marguerita,

I just inherited an old Singer 347 that looks exactly like yours and I can't wait to try it out! I downloaded the manual as a PDF, but I saw nothing in it that references the little wheel thing with the two stitch symbols above the rest of the control panel. I have no idea what it does, but I heard that the 347 is capable of blind stitching. Is that wheel the stitch selector, or does it do something else?


Hi Nicole,

I'm sure you will enjoy discovering all the things you can do with your Singer 347. You may know by now, but just in case, yes, the wheel is the stitch selector. To the left is zig-zag & to the right is the blind stitch. As a seamstress, I used to use that stitch quite frequently for hems. A few tips; once you have the hem marked, iron it in place, I always used a cotton cloth over the fabric to prevent any shine & depending on the fabric, use as much steam as possible to get a crisp professional hem, afterwards cut off the excess length leaving about 1 1/2"- 2" to be the size of the hem, finish the edge of the with whichever method you prefer or appropriate to the fabric. If you'd like more info just let me know, but I don't want to bore you if you know all of this. Happy sewing!

MargueritaM (author)NicoleB12014-09-29

Hi Nicole, I'm afraid that I gave that machine away, so I can't tell you specifically. I wonder if it's a way to drop the feed dogs for darning or free motion quilting?

Cann0n (author)2013-12-18

I have a Kenmore 12 (1978) and I love it. Nothing is plastic. The only issue is the bobbin winding wheel is rubber and has a flatspot. I need more practice before I venture into designing suits.

Kittykylie (author)2013-10-13

I have just bought an old Alfa challenge of my mother in law. Just gotta learn not to put my foot down to the floor!

Covo (author)2009-09-04

I have an old Elna (handed down of corse) that works but needs constant adjustment, slips when it starts, and often tangles. Can anyone advise if it is worth fixing or using the above techniques to purchase a used one.

jeanicrowe (author)Covo2012-08-04

Have you tried a good cleaning? Make sure it is spick and span inside. If that isn't it, its probably the timing. Timing is easy to do with instructions. I would look on the net for a site on timing.

Don't forget to oil the machine after cleaning! You can find the directions for oiling in the manual-and always use colorless sewing machine oil, not multipurpose or even naturally tinted oil. Sometimes cleaning removes too much oil, especially as lint and dust tends to soak it up. Running an older machine without fresh oil is similar to running your car without oil...

If the machine is the least bit noisy, try oiling it according to the manual (too much oil can get into the thread and fabric you're working with). Machines will often skip stitches*** when it needs oiling...try not to let it go that long though.  For occasional sewing, oil at least once a month.  A trick to make sure that fabric won't get damaged from stray oil, before rethreading the machine remove the needle and "stitch" a paper towel for a few inches.  Don't oil a machine with any thread or fabric in it.

***Note: skipped stitches can also be caused by a needle that needs replacing.  A good guideline is a new needle every project or at most every 3 hours of sewing time.  Going longer makes your sewing sloppy even if it isn't readily apparent at first. Don't wait for something to go wrong before changing the needle. 

Also, another good habit to get into is to brush out lint whenever changing the bobbin.

Great reminders - Thank you!!

jeanicrowe (author)2012-08-04

I have a treadle machine, a treadle converted to electric, one of the first electric models, a singer from the 50's, a Kenmore from the early 80's and two fairly new brothers. My oldest works just as well as my newest and I get to burn calories pumping that treadle! While new machines have great features like auto stitching (no foot pedal) and lots of fancy stitches, for plain old straight seam sewing they are work great. A dirty machine won't sew-the thread will bunch up, it will skip stitches and sometimes none of the stitches will lock. The very first thing you should do is take off the bobbin plat, remove the bobbin and give that machine a good cleaning with a soft brush. Get all of the dust, lint and thread out. If it still doesn't sew, it is probably out of timing and on older machines that is pretty easy to do yourself. I have a book on timing sewing machines but I bet you can find instructions on the net. Those two things will usualy fix ny old macine as long as the motor works and the inner gears aren't frozen.

SasquatchKid (author)2011-12-18

I'm 14 years old and I'm a guy this past summer I got a 1951 singer machine for 20 dollars ad I am mad because I can't figure out how to thread it

Goodhart (author)SasquatchKid2012-02-16

which thread? The upper bobbin or the bobbin under then needle and foot/guide?

Lardyvegan (author)2011-11-01

I recently cleaned up my grandma's Singer 315, given to me years ago after she passed, and after paying 99p for a replacement bobbin pin, and a few pounds for a dowloaded manual, I think I'm good to go!
I'm looking forward to learning to make clothes and cosplay costumes (my daughter is an anime junkie!) and maybe even some Steampunk style outfits for myself.
Glad to see the old machines are held in such high regard! :)

kurt steffen (author)Lardyvegan2011-12-11

Love your handle! It's just TMI, and that's what makes it fun. My first machine was singer flatbed portable made in brazil--with about 25-35 cams that did everything but scour the kitchen sink. Bought an external (used-estate sale) singer buttonholer that worked perfect on my first two men's shirts. Then it was a fancy Pfaff Hobbymatic, and from there, my first (like mom's last) Pfaff 1222e. It was stolen shortly after I bought and refurbished a Pfaff 1471 Creative, with IDF (integrated dual feed--[both upper and lower feed dogz--too cool]) Right now, if I need to use anything more than that, there's a friend in Fresburg that has Pfaff industrial in his upholstery shop, and we've got an industrial machine at school as well.

MargueritaM (author)Lardyvegan2011-11-02

Good for you! Thank you for sharing your story too - yes, many people treasure their old sewing machines. Welcome to the group :)

kurt steffen (author)2011-12-11

As luck would have it, about 3 years ago I found a Pfaff Creative 1471 at a St. Vincent's thrift in my zip code (ok, Redwood City).
The machine was in the back, and hadn't been priced. It didn't have a manual ($5 to download a printable PDF file, or, $15-ish to snag an immaculate printed original! It had a working electronic pedal, but needed a Radio Shanty $8.90 power cord.
The machine 'as-is' was priced at $25. At home, and plugged in, the '888888888888' across the electronic display said, "I need a new brain." That was a no-brainer. SamTrans-to-BART-to-a 10 minute local busride, and I was at a Pfaff dealer in Walnut Creek that had a rebuilt chip for $235-ish. Student discount: no labor charge (Canada College Fashion); the machine was ready in an hour, so I upgraded it's lighting system with a $45 improvement. Hey, it's that baby, and my 1958 (flawless!) Singer featherweight! That's all for now. kurt

Goodhart (author)2011-11-22

I can attest to the problems that can arise from too much or too little tension....broke a few needles and even bent the lower bobbin in the process. Going too fast (rushing the material through) was probably another reason I broke the one needle *sigh*

XysflightchampX (author)2011-04-14

OH MY GOSH!!! I was just looking around and came across this because I saw your Singer Model: 347 (at least I hope that's what it is). I just got two sewing machines. The first went up in smoke the second I pressed the pedal; it was old, simple, and i didn't like it anyway and after all I have a running Singer treadle machine in it's cabinet as an antique. The other was a Singer Model: 347 and I LOVE IT!!! I oiled it up and it runs great. The first thing I made was an 8x8 inch square quilted block. It's just 16 little squares stuck together in a simple pattern haha. The second thing I made was a simple pin cushion. I haven't read this article yet (for fear of loosing this loooong comment haha), but could you please reply with any comments of your own on your machine? I would love to hear more!


I got that Singer either free or for less than $50 and after cleaning it thoroughly and running some test fabric through it, I gave it to a young mom (a friend of my daughter's) who is teaching her daughter to sew. They only had one sewing machine and my daughter thought it would be nice if they had two - one for the mom and one for the pre-teen daughter.

So, I can't tell you a lot about it. I didn't really use it, I just made sure that it ran well and then bought the supplies (bobbins, needles, etc.) and gave it away. I DO know that it is a very nice, reliable machine and I am really sure that the pre-teen who has it will be using it for a long time :)

I am thrilled that you love yours!


Typogoddess (author)2011-01-22

when i was in seventh grade, i bugged my mom and she brought out her 20 lb. Singer UltraStitch 10. It had ten stitches, constantly ate my fabric, and had a habit of making NOMNOMNOM noises... but i learned from it. My brother sewing machine is due tomorrow. 80 bucks!

MargueritaM (author)Typogoddess2011-01-23

Hurray!! What are you going to sew first? Clothes, household items, quilts?

polly75 (author)2009-09-03

Love your instructable! A member of the Treadleon group (dedicated to people powered machines) posted it on the list. I have a Vintage Italian Necchi group on Yahoo--come join us and find out about the wonderful Supernovas and lots more! We think they're the Cadillac of sewing machines!!

Allan Wells (author)polly752010-08-03

I love my old Necchi Supernova! Last week it was too cold to go up to the garage where my industrial machines reside so I set up the Necchi in the lounge room(with wood fire heater). The Necchi sewed up the canvas gaiters (in places up to four layers of canvas!) like a little trooper ; never missed a beat/stitch!!! And it only has a 0.3amp motor.

MargueritaM (author)polly752009-09-03

Thank you for the invitation :)

RetroLeatherHatter (author)2010-01-04

Great Instruct! I,ve been sewing for 20+ years with machines and hand methods! I sure appreciate the quality construction of the older machines!  Just don't have room to collect them! I do have an industrial machine(Consew 7360) I bought new 8 years ago, because home models aren't  powerful enough to sew garment-weight leather on a daily basis! I used a Necchi(made it Taiwan) I got new in the mid-'90s from one of those "school overstock" sales that pop up at hotels around the country. It served me well for a  while, until I got more serious about  the finer art of  leather hats! I love the industrial unit, would be very hard to use any home-sized ones(they feel like toys in comparison!) BTW, my Consew has electronic speed control and needle positioning ( Perfect for the detail work on my hats).

The older ones are definitely awesome. I have a late 40's model Singer that I call 'Megachunk'... It got that knickname after I was boasting to a friend how it would go through leather... So I sewed together two pieces of plywood with upholstery thread and it didn't miss a stitch!

Allan Wells (author)2010-07-16

Thanks Marguerita for this instructable. This may sound like a dumb question but what is the technique for bringing the bobbin thread up to the top of what you're sewing? This would save me having to backstitch as I could then just tye off the threads with a reef knot.

MargueritaM (author)Allan Wells2010-07-23

Hi Allan, I have a video about bringing up the bobbin thread on YouTube here - I hope it helps :)

Allan Wells (author)MargueritaM2010-07-24

Thanks Marguerita, You are a really good teacher. Very concise and clear. I'll give this a go sewing my bushwalking gear. Regards, Allan

Allan Wells (author)2010-07-16

I found it nearly impossible to get an industrial machine to go slowly until just recently when one of my Grade 3 students (9year old) at School told me, ' Mum just puts my sponge ball under the pedal to slow hers down'. Works a treat!!! A length of shockcord tied to the pedal and the kneelift shaft works just as well. When it comes to domestic machines my old Husqvarna 2000 has a reduction gear which you activate by pulling on the bobbin winder gizmo. It reduces sewing speed by one fifth but at full motor power. I wish all machines had this feature or something similar.

Allan Wells (author)2010-07-15

So true about old sewing machines, especially the ones with metal gears! My mother bought an old 1950's Necchi Supernova machine at a garage sale for $8.00 and gave it to me as a joke. The wooden base was broken. The base took about 10minutes to repair. It is an awesome machine and so easy to maintain! I also have a couple of Husqvana 220's and a Viking 2000 machine, all of which are well made and sew well but their 'Achilles heel' are the nylon drive gears which eventually shatter and render the machine useless because Husqvarna have not supplied/stocked the gears for many years. I had to learn to manufacture replacement gears myself using silicone moulds and polyurethane. For canvas and leather I use two old industrial machines on got on ebay for the grand total of $21; a Singer 491 and a Pfaff 260. They are awesome machines but oh so fast. A relative gave me an old but lightly used Empisal machine from the early 70's ( at a guess) which works well but does have a plastic drive gear. My advice for new sewers is look at ebay or garage sales.

MargueritaM (author)Allan Wells2010-07-16

Thanks so much Allan for your story! Great advice too :)

SeaSkyShore (author)2010-02-21

I certainly agree that older machines are better than newer by far.  I recently acquired an old White Sew & Serge (late 70's) from my mother and I am in love. It is a dream to sew with and so easy to maintain!

ddlearns (author)2009-09-05

Another common problem is that the needle is inserted into the machine backwards. Be sure the flat side of the needle shank is facing the correct way for your machine,

Remember, kids: The pointed end goes DOWN. ;-)

MargueritaM (author)ddlearns2009-09-05

Thank you so much for that tip!

About This Instructable




Bio: Hi, I am a quilting teacher and book author who lives on a budget. I love writing, sewing, quilting, teaching and playing with my pet ... More »
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