Short answer: I cannot afford new 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 functionality requirement
I have no particular requirements for straight stitch machines, overlockers or other specialised machines as they are all different and, well, specialised. 🙂
Zig-zag machines however are “general purpose” or “jack of all trades” (almost), so I have a set of minimal requirements for them. If they lack some of the features, they are usually not useful to me, unless they have some special redeeming qualities.
The minimum requirement for zig-zag machines is to pass the buttonhole test: to be able to make a buttonhole with my three-step method. This method requires a zig-zag capable machine that can drop its feed dogs, set the needle left, right or centre and sew in reverse reliably without jamming, all in zig-zag. Not too much to ask, is it? 🙂
The Singer story of 2001
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.