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An Introduction to Sewing Machines

It’s a rare occasion when you attend an estate sale that doesn’t include at least one sewing machine. A sale I attended last week, in fact, had a cabinet machine on every floor of the home.

It was my kind of home.

Even if you know nothing about sewing, it’s hard not to appreciate these expeditious machines. Grooved and curved hunks of metal, each piece of which has both an individual purpose, and a collective goal of creating things both beautiful and practical. They revolutionized household management.

Industrial machines made clothing more affordable through increased mass production. And once home machines became affordable, the middle-class housewife, accustomed to spending many hours clothing her family, now had much more time on her hands to dedicate to other matters. What a magical contraption.

Early home sewing machines, regardless of the maker, tended to be heavy, black, and sometimes embellished with gold flowers or filigree, and powered by handcrank or treadle (foot pedal). The first electric machine was offered around 1889, but it wasn’t until more homes were outfitted with electric power that it became a standard offering for home machines.

By midcentury, the appliances became lighter, more portable, and more colorful. But even after they were dolled up with fun colors and housed in adorable carrying cases, to the uninitiated those vintage machines look formidable and often unapproachable.

But they’re not.

Like so many things built in the late 19th and early 20th century, there are plenty of vintage sewing machines that can and do continue to work effectively and reliably. And those that don’t can be mined for parts or simply appreciated for the original design and craftsmanship—a non-functioning conversation piece in an otherwise functional crafting room.

And while each sewing machine is beautiful in it’s own way, from those covered with ornate golden designs to those with a more retro feel, they’re not all created equal. Let’s take a look at a few of the makers you’ll most often find at estate sales.

Singer 

For more than 160 years, Singer Sewing Company has been producing sewing machines, owing their success to consistently putting out handsome and reliable home-use machines at a price much lower than those of their competitors.

The company was started by Isaac Merritt Singer, having invented a machine that produced 900 stitches per minute, thanks to the use of a presser foot in his design. Though his is arguably the most recognized name in the sewing business, he was neither the sewing machine’s inventor nor its first patent holder. Partnering with Edward Clark, they focused on mass production, movable parts, and purchasing plans, making the home sewing machines a reality for far more American homes than was ever before possible.

Before the end of the 19th century, I.M. Singer & Company had more than 80 percent of the market cornered. This, not innovative design, made his the household name.

While their first patented machine was made in 1861, it was the 1856 Turtleback, the company’s first domestic machine, that paved the way and set the stage for what would ultimately become the Singer Model 12 or “New Family” machine, which sold more than 4 million units by 1882, according to the International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society, before the end of the 19th century. Which is good news if you’re looking for a machine that will have relatively easy-to-find replacement parts.

So if a cabinet sewing machine catches your eye at an upcoming sale, there’s a good chance it’s a Singer.

Side note: if you’re a fan of soap operas and reality dramas, I highly suggest you read a bit more about Mr. Singer’s personal life. It was a doozy.

Husqvarna Viking

This Swedish company runs tightly on the heels of Singer when it comes to endurance, founded in 1869 as a royal arms factory, and just a few short years later transitioning to sewing machines.

Their motto wasn’t “Make clothes, not war,” but clearly it should have been.

The company made a variety of sewing machines (and eventually branched out further to stoves, cast iron products, lawnmowers, and motorcycles), many of which look like the traditional vintage cabinet machines, but by the mid-century, the design changed. Free-arm machines were introduced in 1947, and the units became a bit more boxy than the previous sleek designs. The new shape and introduction of new colors brings what now feels like a retro, almost kitschy feel to the machines. Those seem to be the type of machines that show up at estate sales these days.

Brother 

This Japanese company also tends to specialize in the plastic and boxy these days. Their wares line the crafting section of big box stores, but their offerings extend beyond what can be found there. Brother’s earlier units were metal, and often lovely pastel colors.

The Yasui Sewing Machine Co began manufacturing home sewing machines in 1980; Brother International Corporation is the U.S. sales affiliate. The company has produced more than 60 million machines, so like Singer, it’s not uncommon to find them at an estate sale, and replacement parts are easily attainable.

Elna 

Elna was founded in Switzerland in 1934, and their products have been available in the U.S. since the early 1940s.

Made of die-cast aluminum, Elna’s products tended to be lighter than their competitors, their carrying cases folded out to serve as a flat-bed table, and later models, specifically the Supermatic, successfully took on decorative stitching in a way its competitors were unable to.

Janome / New Home

Janome, a Japanese company, has been making sewing machines since 1920, though their mark in the U.S. wasn’t truly made until around 1960, when they purchased the U.S. company New Home.

There are, of course, many other sewing machine companies. Wheeler and Wilson is well-known manufacturer, even though they only produced machines until 1905, when Singer bought it out. Pfaff was founded in Germany in 1862 and the company, though acquired by Singer, continues to make machines today. White, too, was a well-known and popular workhorse of a brand, able to handle thicker materials than most other home machines. By the 1960s it was bought out by Husqvarna-Viking, which was later acquired by Singer.

Notice a trend?

There are also a number of “badged machines.” In the first half of the 20th century, it was popular for retailers, either mail-order or brick-and-mortar, to want their own line of sewing machine. Well-known manufacturers would make the machines, but substitute the retailers name for their own. According to ISMACS, there are nearly 5000 such "exclusive" names produced by half a dozen makers during this period.

Given the sheer volume and variety of sewing machines on the resale market, pricing them can be difficult. If you’re in the market for one, research ahead of time. Value can come from the rarity of the model, as well as the quality. And there is, of course, sentimental value. ISMACS is a great resource when it comes to finding out the background of specific models. They even have an archive of instruction booklets, so even the most formidable-seeming machine can be conquered.

Whether you’re looking for a cabinet-model workhorse, or a pretty pink portable number, you’re likely to find the variety and prices you’re looking for through estate sales.

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