Monday, April 16, 2012

Antique vs. Vintage Sewing Machines

Vintage? Collectible? Antique?

Do you really know the difference? Whatever you do, don't rely on eBay or Craigslist for sewing machine valuation if you're just getting interested in older sewing machines. They are helpful to learn about different makes and models and to compare cosmetics. True worth however, is another thing.

You've heard that an item is worth what a market will bear, correct?

Many quilters have preferences in the older machines because of the quality of the stitch and have voiced their opinions on various boards and forums. I can't help but think their opinions, among others have increased the interest in these older machines.

When visiting eBay or Craigslist you'll frequently see a lot of hype in descriptions of these older machines. A machine made in 1940 is described as "antique" when in reality it has an opportunity to become an antique in the future but is simply vintage now.

Say you find Gramma's machine in her garage or attic. You want to find out what it's worth and start browsing the internet to find out what a similiar model is selling for. This is difficult for a number of reasons.

One - it's very difficult to identify a sewing machine model simply by looking at pictures. The machines made after 1920 are similiar in lines with very subtle differences in shape. Singer provides a website that will help identify it if you have the serial number. That shouldn't be hard to find because the serial number is usually on the front, bottom right-hand corner in the majority of machines you'll find now.

The decals on the machines are beautiful but definitely not an identifying feature of the year your model was made. It can ID a span of years but Singer manufactured machines with the same decals for a number of years. Granted, some are more collectible than others but the majority aren't antiques.

An antique is identified by a tariff act in 1930 as anything over 100 years. I tell you this because I don't want you spending your money on a machine that is described in ads as "antique" when it actually isn't. If you have an idea to invest in sewing machines with the purpose of a return on investment - you better know exactly what you're buying.

On the other hand if you're a quilter or vintage pattern sewer who wants to have an older machine to imitate the methods of long ago, whether a machine is actually antique is hardly an issue.

In either case, you'll want to base your purchase on condition. Many machines are sold without attachments, feet or instruction booklets. You'll find numerous listings on eBay or Craigslist for just the head of the machine. Some aren't even usable without a base of some kind because of the mechanisms underneath. Unfortunately, without the machine being complete, your investment has just dropped considerably. Depending on the model number, accessories can be hard to find. This is important because you'll want to actually use it! Hard to do without a shuttle bobbin or instruction booklet that is going to tell you how to thread it. Accessories are available for a price most times but how readily available they are will determine that price!

How to Buy an Older Machine

1. Know why you're buying it. Are you buying it for the investment? To actually sew with it? Or have you become a collector? This will determine the condition of the machine and possibly the model number. 15-91's are favored by quilters. Red Eye model 66's are preferred by some collectors. Don't even talk about Featherweights! Others buy for color, size or manufacturer. Do some research and know what you want before you actually jump in. I say this from experience!

I bought a Featherweight for $460 dollars and a few days later saw this on Craigslist for $200:

A Red Eye Treadle in an antique cabinet.
If I had seen them both at the same time, I would have had a difficult time deciding which to purchase. The Red Eye machine itself is common but that cabinet in that condition isn't. The Featherweight is also common - a dime a dozen. Decisions, decisions, decisions! One day I will have a machine in a cabinet like this not for investment purposes but to actually use. That doesn't mean that I don't want it beautiful.

Another issue I want to address is the condition you'll frequently see on those sites. Many simply leave the machines caked with gunk because they think it will devalue the machine if they clean it up. Faulty thinking. It's a mechanical machine and was meant to be used. This isn't 17th century furniture you're buying! Make sure it's at least clean!

2. Research the model and manufacturer you want according to the purpose. Research the kind of bobbins it uses, the attachments and feet that were included and the cabinet or case that was original. Does it come with the instruction booklet? Most are readily available on the internet through various forums but again - that's depending on the model.

3. Is the machine complete and in working order? If electric, is it in good condition? The older machines weren't grounded. I wouldn't want a live wire attached to cast iron, I'll tell you that. If it's not safe, you'll need to pay to have it rewired or do it yourself.

I recently bought a model 99 Singer that had a light layer of dust over it. To me, that's acceptable but it's another story for the machine to be caked with oil, dirt and who knows what unless it's rare.

4. Is the base included whether in a cabinet or case? What condition is it in? Cabinets and bases in good condition are more rare than a machine in good condition. See above for the issue of some models needing to be in a base due to the mechansim underneath. If your model requires it, make sure it has it or it's more money out of your pocket.

You 'll find some forums that say to choose your machine by the condition of the cabinet. I agree especially if you're buying an antique.

5. Look for machines at thrift stores, rummage sales and estate auctions. You might find it cheaper than on eBay. One of the reasons I decided to write this post is because of the hype and inaccuracy of information there. I was getting frustrated and I'm a beginner at this! I don't want anyone else being taken advantage of or lied to. I had the time to research but there may be those of you that do not.

And if you happen to see a treadle in a cabinet in southeastern Michigan such as the one pictured above - please email me. I'm determined to have one although I'm not sure where to put it!

Thanks and remember, I'm completely new at this. If there are any inaccuracies, please post in the comments below and I'll update the information. This is just my opinion as a new collector repeating things I've learned.

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