Crew · Sewing machines

Why I don’t keep post-1975 machines

Short answer: I cannot afford machines of quality that I require, and I cannot afford to waste money on machines within my budget.

The quality requirement

This is first of all solid mechanical construction with all hardened steel parts. Cast alluminium may also be used on parts that are not load bearing, such as the body casing or some parts of the feed mechanism. It is not acceptable to have plastic gears or tin shafts, they just don’t last. It is even less acceptable to have parts of the hook race mechanism made of plastic and painted in silver colour, as I’ve seen a few times. Surely, if you found it necessary to paint your plastic silver, it means you didn’t think people would accept a plastic part there? Pathetic.

I am not actually opposed to plastic as such. I wouldn’t object at all to a plastic body for a sewing machine, but it appears that if there’s plastic on the outside, there is also plastic on the inside.

Another thing I am weary about, is belts. Some machines use timing belts instead of shafts. Belts are fine as long as they hold, and they are usually a lot more robust than plastic gears, but they too eventually break leaving the owner with a nightmare of finding a replacement.

I must add here that some machines use very common easy to find general purpose motor belts inside as well as on the motor. Such belts present no problems, so I don’t mind those.

The Singer 2001 story

It was Christmas 2001 and I decided to upgrade my basic Anker to something that could handle chiffon and fine silk without tissue paper. I also wanted “fancy” stitches like blind hem (had enough of doing it by hand). Singer had just brought out a new electronic model, and the local shop was doing a special offer on it, so if I gave up my Anker as part exchange, and paid in three installments, I could just about afford the new machine.

It was sewing so lovely and smooth! It even managed to go over seams with only small stalling, as long as those seams were not too thick. It could sew chiffon and silk, but also coat weight wool, and seemed absolutely perfect.

Two coats and three dresses later, it started stalling and skipping stitches, so I took it back to the shop for a service. “But you completely wore it out!”, was the verdict. “What did you do?” – “I made two coats and three dresses.” – “Yes, that would do it. It’s not meant for real sewing, it’s just for regular household use. You ground down the plastic gears.”

What?! Not meant for sewing?! Apparently, “regular household use” meant sitting in a cupboard doing nothing.

Can I have my Anker back, please? No, that one was long gone, they did not keep such “obsolete” machines without electronic controls or fancy stitches. Oh well, can my Singer be repaired then? It’s still on warranty since it’s been only three months after purchase. “Sorry, warranty does not cover normal wear and tear. And anyhow, those gears cannot be replaced, they are one way clip-on. Replace the whole machine or live with it.”

And I was charged a full service fee as well, because they oiled it, i.e., “performed maintenance”.

This was the point when I decided to learn how sewing machines worked so I could do my own maintenance beyond oiling. I managed to tune my Singer a bit so it would not stall, but skipped stitches were due to worn out gears, so I learned to live with that, meaning I went back to a lot of hand sewing.

The story of a vintage New Home 632C

Some ten years later I was doing a lot of heavy duty sewing with synthetic leather and thick upholstery, and my very expensive computerised Pfaff was feeling the strain. That was a good machine costing ten times as much as the unfortunate Singer, but it too had a few – only few! – plastic gears which were not meant for heavy duty sewing.

Not wishing to ruin my Pfaff, I looked around for an alternative and discovered that vintage machines were to be had on eBay, cheaply and in great numbers. Some 30 machines later (bought, studied, fixed, resold), I zeroed in on a particular model: a New Home 632C by Janome (note the ‘C’). It’s a flat bed forward-facing vertical oscillator machine with built-in useful utility stitches and stretch stitch, plus it also takes double needles. It’s well built, sturdy and reliable, with an aluminium body, so not too heavy – a good choice! But it has a few plastic gears.

The New Home 632C works very well until the plastic gears wear out, then it just fails. Skipped stitches, chewed up fabric, stalling, jamming – no end of trouble. I went through five of them in half a year of sewing, and some appeared to have had very little use before me, so were almost new!

This was my last spell with plastic gears. It’s just not worth the trouble. And I can fix my machines myself, imagine how much it would cost you in service fees! For me, it is simply unaffordable.

Are there modern all-metal machines?

Yes, there are. I asked Brother last year, and they pointed me at a straight stitch only basic flat bed model for just £6,995. I asked Juki, and they had a very similar model for £1,995, but it did have nylon belts in it. I didn’t bother asking Bernina.

The world hasn’t changed. Back in the day when sewing machines were built to last, you had to take out a loan to afford one. Today you still need to take out a loan for a machine of comparable quality.

I have a 100 year old Singer 66K that cost me £18, motor, pedal and all. I did have to clean and oil it, but now it runs like a dream.

The magic of 1975

My absolute cut-off date for sewing machines is 1975 because machines made after that are practically guaranteed to have plastic gears in them. It’s not about the date, it’s about the gears.

Plastic gears and internal belts appeared around 1960 and started to proliferate across manufacturers. So I am fairly confident buying machines from 1950s or earlier as they will almost certainly be all steel. I am suspicious of machines built between 1960 and 1975, you find both all steel and plastic machines in this period. After that, it’s avoid unless proven not to be plastic.

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11 thoughts on “Why I don’t keep post-1975 machines

  1. I’ve got two machines made i the period ’75-’80 and both (Bernina 807 and Viking 6570) have plastic gears prone to failure. The gears involved are still available though and because they’re otherwise great machines, it’s worth the cost of replacing the parts if and when they fail. I think the issue with machines of that era are that engineers were still learning how to use plastic for mechanical parts. Technology has moved on so modern machines are capable of being designed for durability with plastic parts – and I’m sure high end machines are. Low end modern machines and heavy duty materials isn’t such a good combination though….

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    1. Yes, of course there will be exceptions. However, Brother, Juki and Janome all told me that their “Professional” range machines have exclusively steel gears everywhere, and also no belts. Those are the machines meant for heavy use, not always on heavy materials but for many hours a day, every day. Like if you sew for a living. These machines also offer a decent harp space and are usually limited in functions (e.g., straight stitch only), they can also be delivered with a table because, let’s face it, it’s important. You don’t find these in regular shops because they are not of interest for “domestic use”. These machines are also very expensive (in the thousands). However, they are not industrial machines, they don’t come with a huge motor and don’t do 15,000 stitches a minute, as this is not needed for a tailor. It’s the same concept as it was a hundred years ago, really: industrial, professional and family use. The professional range disappeared in 1950s, but some of the better domestic machines of the time could fit the bill, but we have to be careful. On eBay you often see them advertised as “semi-industrial”, although in most cases it’s an exaggeration. 😉
      Actually, I have two machines with plastic gears: 1969 New Home 580 and 1986 Memory Craft 6000, both by Janome. The plastic gears drive fancy stitches on 580, and on the Memory Craft they are not the same plastic but resin and Teflon, so much more robust, and yes, it works smoother for fancy back-and-forth movement. But I would not use my Memory Craft for regular sewing.

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  2. I’m so glad I accidentally found you! I have a 1986 Refrey model (I live in Spain) and it fits all the reasons why 1975 is the magic number. I don’t normally name inanimate objects, but I have lovingly named mine “El Tanque” because it’s olive green (like a military tank) and it weighs a ton because it’s made completely of steel. It’s an interesting model because you can oil its parts very easily because it has strategically placed holes all around it so all you have to do is squeeze the oil into the little holes on the exterior and then open the “front end” and oil the mechanism that raises and lowers the needle. It’s so vintage you can reconvert it to a pedaller (no electric motor). I got it for free and it luckily came with an instruction manual. I’ll never need another sewing machine ever. It’s a tank, after all! I think it’s great because it doubles as a weapon. Imagine burgling my house when I happen to be home. I can just bop you on the head with my heavy sewing machine, only very lightly so you don’t die, call the cops, and presto. After, I can sew with it!

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    1. Hello Tony!
      If your machine has oiling holes, it sounds like an old-style machine (made to last). All old style machines have oiling holes – have a look at my post “No oiling required – myth or fiction?” under Maintenance -> Cleaning, Oiling and Restoring from the menu (here’s a link to that, if it works). And I have a little tank too, but mine is grey. 🙂 It’s under Sewing machines -> Crew from the menu.

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      1. Thanks for the suggested posts! It was definitely made to endure everything, probably even a tornado or a hurricane! No doubt it’s the last of the models with oiling holes. I’m pretty sure in 1986 it was difficult for the company to market this model because by then Singer was making plastic ones. I love mine and don’t want to use anything else. It’s accurate and a dream to sew with.

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      2. No, it’s a Refrey, a Spanish sewing machine company which is no longer in business, probably because it couldn’t compete with Singer because they kept making them out of metal.

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