The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

The Soul of Things: Or should I buy that old metal sewing machine?

A friend told me the other day she was going to start collecting sewing machines. I found this a bit odd, mainly because, though she can sew, she doesn’t on any sort of regular basis. She said she was cleaning her apartment and came across her sewing machine shoved way up on the top shelf of her closet and then, for some reason, had the thought she should start collecting them.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

Old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting & cool.

I get it; old sewing machines, especially the really old ones, look quite interesting and cool. They often have intricate decals and ornate brand badges. Most of them still work – mainly because they’re all metal and have less parts to break.

Oldie but a goodie

I used to have an old black iron Singer with a knee pedal. I don’t remember the model number but it was one of the first ‘portable’ models Singer made. The machine did run on electricity and came in a beautiful wood dome shaped case. In reality, it was actually a bit too heavy to be considered portable. I think I found it in the depths of some storage room in an old school building somewhere in Syracuse, NY. I was working for a costume designer, I think, for the opera. (Does Syracuse still have an opera? I can’t remember – it’s been so long).

We had been given the storage room as a work space and told we could have and/or use whatever was in it. I remember sitting in a corner, shelves and tables around me piled high with fabrics and boxes and just stuff, sewing tucks into big white cotton petticoats. I remember the machine being very fast. Unlike a lot of models today who have multiple speed settings, machines back then only had one: fast.

I honestly am not sure what happened to that machine. I know it made the move to Texas but it didn’t make the move to NYC, so it’s been gone from my life for almost fifteen years. I suspect I sold it at a garage sale for $20.00 or something. Or even gave it away to someone who would use it – which is sort of how I think antique sewing machines should navigate through life.

Value: only in the eye of the beholder

I know there are some ‘rare’ models that are perhaps ‘worth’ a lot of money but, all in all, I think people tend to pay entirely too much for used machines. Online auction sites such as Ebay certainly contribute to that. I suppose it’s nice that people can get some money for the old machine that’s been sitting in their basement or garage but, I also think those Ebay auctions get a bit out of hand. And they also trend, often for no discernable reason.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

Featherweights are always a popular machine and sell routinely for over $500.00. I found one, which is rarer than the black ones, but it is currently listed on Ebay at $1280.00.

It’s a beautiful machine and comes with the carrying case but no accessories. I honestly think it’s priced too high but perhaps someone will buy it. The value of things is, of course, ultimately measured by what people will pay for that thing (just look at real estate prices in NYC).

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

The case is a nice touch, since that is all you will likely get with these older machines. Through the passage of time, included accessories & attachments become rare finds.

What now?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

Go to garage sales (or stoop sales if you live in the city). When I lived in Texas, I used to frequent yard and garage sales all the time. I almost always found at least one machine at each sale. Some of them I bought but they were never for more than $30.00 or $40.00. If you are buying a machine at sale, ask if you can plug it in to see if it works. Check to see if you can turn the wheel freely and, even if the belt happens to be cracked or broken (they often are as the belts are usually rubber) make sure the light comes on when plugged in.

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

So, what should you do if you really want to collect old machines but don’t want to spend all of your extra money on it?

The needle won’t go up and down if the belt is missing or damaged but belts are not an expensive or difficult thing to fix. Check for rust too. Machines that have been stored in a garage or barn often have too much rust damage to ever run well again.

I’ve gotten out of the buy old sewing machines game (I live in a 5th floor walkup in NYC after all), especially on online auction sites. Although many of those machines are cosmetically extraordinary, they lack a “soul”. The only ‘antique’ machines I have now are my Nana’s old Singer 401K and a Singer hemstitcher we purchased for Boardwalk Empire. I’ll never get rid of Nana’s machine. Its sentimental value is immeasurable (even if it didn’t work though it does).

And that’s when things truly become priceless: when they somehow hold a collection of memories related to a person or time.

Ironing out the Ironing Details

Ironing out the Ironing Details

Random fact: My family does not like ironing.

We’re the type of people who, if something is wrinkled, minutes in the dryer are the way to work on the issue.

We’re the type of people who, if something is wrinkled, minutes in the dryer are the way to work on the issue.

Seriously. We’re the type of people who, if something is wrinkled, minutes in the dryer are the way to work on the issue. That being said, my hobby/profession of sewing is a bit contradictory for such an I-don’t-love-irons approach because an iron can be such a significant part of the sewing process.

Pressing seams, for instance, could add to the professional look of your project, and ironing your fabric before you sew can help to create more equal blocks and pieces. All in all, if you don’t iron, your product might look less impressive than you want it to, and with all the work you invest, taking the small steps to create a wonderful product could be worth the effort!

I come from an anti-iron family.

I come from an anti-iron family.

But given that I come from an anti-iron family, the idea of embracing the step can be daunting. Even picking an iron could pose a problem because there’s such a range of options. When you literally have thousands of options to choose from, selecting that right one could be a complex process. Do I get the pretty blue one, or should I pay the extra $50 for that name-brand one? What kind of features do I need, and what ones will I never use? Is this iron going to break in a month, or will it last me for years? These are the kinds of things worth considering should you choose to buy a new — and fitting — iron for your sewing.

Note: With my nerd interests, all of this anti-iron business could potentially be overlooked if I owned an Iron Man iron like the one seen here.

Note: With my nerd interests, all of this anti-iron business could potentially be overlooked if I owned an Iron Man iron like the one seen here.

Anyway. I did some research this week on iron-related topics, and I came up with a list of what I felt were the most important qualifications for an iron and the preferred method of selecting that sewing tool.

Price

Hey, remember me? I’m the cheapskate who blogs about saving money on sewing projects! Of course — of course — cheaper isn’t always the overriding criterion for an iron because sometimes things are cheaper for a reason. Maybe the $10 iron has no special functions to help you. Maybe it’s made of bad materials and will leave an imprint on your fabric. Maybe it’ll fall apart in five minutes. The point is that this is NOT the only detail worth considering, but if you can find an iron that suits your purposes for $30, why pay hundreds?

Functions

As I said, price can be overshadowed by functions that your iron can bring to the ironing board. For sewing, I don’t know that there’s a more important function than releasing steam to better tackle wrinkles in fabric. Basically, if you see an iron that doesn’t release steam, you might want to keep looking! Another detail you might want to think about is if your iron automatically shuts itself off after a span of time. While this might be an aspect that doesn’t concern you in the least because you’re so careful with your iron, if there’s a chance you’ll forget and leave your iron going, I would recommend trying for an iron that’ll automatically shut off. That choice could prevent a fire, after all!

Build

More than one source that I found mentioned older irons — “vintage” or “antique.”

More than one source that I found mentioned older irons — “vintage” or “antique.”

In a world where smaller technological devices can steal the spotlight, believe it or not, heavier can be a good thing for an iron when it comes to pressing seams! More than one source that I found mentioned older irons — “vintage” or “antique.” And it makes sense because that extra weight could make it easier to smooth out your seams with a smaller amount of effort. So should you completely fall back on your grandma’s iron from the 1800s? Not necessarily! Remember what I said about steam? But that doesn’t mean that a secondary iron for this purpose can’t benefit you, especially since you can buy used ones for such small prices (like, less than $10). For a brand new iron though, thinking about that extra weight could lead you to the right iron, as could other details like whether or not it uses a cord. As a person who can forget something is plugged up and trip over a cord fairly easily, I think cordless might be a good option for me!

And, now that we’ve labeled some of the most important traits for an iron, the situation comes down to how you can find that perfect iron even after you narrow down your options by price, function, and build. My main recommendation for this step would be to read customer reviews and try for something that received a high average rating. You might also want to look at how many reviews the product has since a 4.5 rating over 5000 reviews provides more credible feedback than a 3.0 rating out of 2 reviews. Why? As an example, a 5.0 rating could’ve been lowered by a 1.0 rating from someone who was criticizing the seller rather than the product.

Look for irons that have a lot of reviews, read through them for details that fit your needs, and pay very real attention to the average ratings. If you do, you could have the right information to find the perfect iron for your products.