June 3, 2021
Vintage Sewing Machines: A Buyer’s Guide for Businesses
By: Peter Gregory
Whether you’re building your own fashion label from scratch or expanding your clothing startup, you need to invest in the very best equipment you can afford.
Vintage sewing machines can be a great option for a clothing startup. You have to put a bit more work into sourcing and maintaining the machine, but there’s no better way to buy professional-grade kit on a startup budget!
In this guide, we’ll give you a quick objective overview of vintage sewing machines as a business investment. You’ll learn the pros and cons of buying pre-loved machinery, and we’ll share some advice on how to buy a reliable vintage machine that really can help you grow your business.
When you’re starting up, cash is tight and every second counts. You need to pour 100% of your energy into serving clients and growing your business. You have to keep costs low, but at the same time you can’t compromise on quality. You also can’t afford a machine that breaks or overheats — it could stop you getting vital orders out the door.
When you buy a vintage machine, you generally get a better quality machine than you would a brand-new budget or consumer grade device at the same price point. Vintage machines aren’t always the right choice for your business, however. As with all second-hand business investments, you need to shop around and inspect the machine in person to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
Cheaper To Buy
By far the biggest advantage of buying an older machine is the price. Most vintage sewing machines, if you shop around, can be picked up for very little money. You have to put in the leg work and find the best deals, but it’s time well spent if you can find a great machine.
Proven To Last
If a sewing machine is a few decades old, and it’s still in working order then that’s a very good sign. You can’t ‘fake’ longevity — the only way to be sure that a sewing machine will stand the test of time is to see how well it works generations after the initial build date.
Does One Thing Really Well
If all your business needs is a machine that delivers a simple, precise straight stitch, then a vintage machine is ideal. Older machines were custom-built to deliver millimetre-perfect stitching in one simple style. They may not be packed with extra features, but you can count on them to do one job very well.
Higher Build Quality
Commercial machinery is often made from a better grade of materials … this can dramatically increase the lifespan of your machine. Any ‘moving parts’ in a vintage machine are built to exceptionally high standards. Newer machines often use plastic parts. This might be fine for DIY and hobby enthusiasts, but just isn’t strong enough for constant commercial use. If you’re buying for business, you need to know that you can run this machine all day and count on it. Components can’t break, melt or crack when you least expect it.
Easy To Maintain
The best way to stop any sewing machine — new or old — from breaking is to clean and oil it regularly. You need to be able to access the inner workings easily so that you can remove any excess lint and oil any moving parts. Some new low-cost models come with hard-to-access casings. Lint can build up in hard-to-reach corners, and unseen moving parts can rub and fuse over time. As a rule, vintage machines are much easier to open up.
If you’re trying to run an environmentally-friendly business, then picking a new machine full of hard-to-replace circuitry is just not a good option. You need to choose a machine that can be repaired, so that it doesn’t go straight to landfill when it dies. A second hand sewing machine is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of your business.
A machine that has proven its worth over a number of years will hold its value. It will be much easier to resell in future … especially if it’s been refurbished.
The Quirks Of Age
The older a sewing machine gets, the more quirks and oddities it seems to develop! It can take a while to ‘learn’ how an older machine likes to work — sometimes you have to meet it half-way and adjust your own technique to match the machine.
If you want a broad choice of stitch patterns, or advanced options like buttonhole stitching and embroidery, then a vintage machine is probably not the right choice for you. Newer machinery is better for any complex stitching behaviour, as a rule. Older machines also don’t always have open arms, which can make it very hard to stitch sleeves and trouser legs.
Fewer Online Reviews
With a new machine, you can usually find a lot of customer reviews online. The same doesn’t really apply to vintage sewing machines. It’s hard to get candid, accurate reviews because as a machine gets older, it naturally strays from its factory settings. A good review for a machine with an identical make and model number might not apply to your machine. It all depends on how the machine has been treated over the decades.
You’re Taking A Risk
At the end of the day, when you buy a brand-new machine, you know it’s under warranty. You know it comes with instructions. The same can’t be said of most vintage machines (unless you buy refurbished). There’s always a risk that the machine you’re looking at is a dud. That’s why we recommend inspecting any vintage equipment in person.
If you get a very old machine, the cost of an annual service might surprise you. It’s hard to get parts on end-of-line machines, and you need to work with specialist engineers who know how the machine works. What’s more, if you buy a secondhand machine that has any electrical circuitry whatsoever, the machine can be permanently paralysed if the motherboard blows and you can’t source a replacement.
Wear & Tear
If you pick a machine that has worked hard for generations, the moving parts and gears will have worn down over time. This can impact accuracy and cost you precious time to repair. There is a solution to this: it’s called buying refurbished.
Refurbished machines are battle-tested sewing machines that have undergone a full service and are sold under some sort of guarantee. Any worn or broken parts should have been repaired or replaced by a specialist, and you should expect a warranty from the shop for at least 12 months. Wherever possible, we recommend you buy refurbished machines. They give you some of the protections of ‘buying new’, at a very reasonable price point.
There are bargains to be found on online sites like eBay, but if you’re buying a second-hand sewing machine for commercial purposes, our advice is to always buy through a specialist retailer. When you buy as a business, your consumer rights are weaker than if you buy as an individual. You need to buy from a reputable retailer to protect yourself.
When you’re buying any piece of complex machinery, you should always test it in person before you buy it. You should see the machine with your own eyes and — most importantly — you should see how it runs. Bring a swatch of fabric with you and try some test stitches on the machine before you part with the cash. Listen out for any strange noises that could indicate issues inside the machine. Look for a consistent stitching speed, and check for accuracy.
Ask the seller about the history of the machine. If the machine spent decades in a factory with one or two careful operators, it may be in better condition internally than if it has been used by lots of less-experienced sewers (like in a family home or a school setting, for instance). Find out when it was last serviced, too.
I hope this guide has given you some insight into the pros and cons of buying a preloved sewing machine! Vintage is a great choice for many clothing businesses, but you need to shop around, and keep your eyes open to the advantages and disadvantages.
Some of the newest machines on the market are truly incredible … but they tend to come with a matching price tag. If you think you’re going to need embroidery and advanced stitching capabilities, then a modern machine may be a better fit for you.
Whatever you do, just go for the very best machine you can afford, and make sure that it’s going to be easy for you and your team to work with.
Thanks for reading!