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The joy of old machines

I’ve been reconditioning two old sewing machines this week.

Not that “reconditioning” requires any skill. These are 1950s vintage — the apogee, the ne plus ultra of sewing machine tech and quality. These were machines designed to last until the heat death of the universe.

“Reconditioning” has mostly meant degreasing, blowing out cobwebs, oiling, and educating myself. Each machine already ran as well as the day it was made. I discovered that each needed only one small part to make it fully operational. Given the ubiquity of these old machines, both parts were available for a few dollars on eBay, Amazon, and dozens of sewing sites.

This is the lesser of the two, a Singer 301A from 1956:

Though heralded as revolutionary by its makers, it’s a very straightforward beast. Straight stitch only. Doesn’t even perform a simple zigzag (without an attachment, also available on eBay). I got it for $20 at a church rummage sale, complete with original cabinet and a box of attachments (but not the zigzag one).

This is the champion, a German-made Pfaff 332 Automatic:

I don’t know its year of manufacture, but early-to-mid-50s. In my book, this is the ne plus ultra of ne plus ultras when it comes to sewing machines. It does everything the Singer doesn’t do and does it more elegantly. It’s so tough that even the heat death of the universe might not affect it — basically an industrial machine adapted for home use. I got it for $10 at a garage sale, complete with manual and original carrying case (which I tossed out, probably foolishly).

This puppy even threads its own needle, via a tiny device that slips into the needle’s hole and hooks the thread through. (The hook is almost invisibly small and plastic and I’m amazed it’s survived sixty-plus years.)

When I was a kid, everybody had Singers, but you had a Pfaff only if you were better off than people like us. I feel very hotsy totsy to own this now. I confess I’m a snob about sewing machines; I wouldn’t have anything made after about 1970, and any machine I own has to have almost supernatural simplicity, no gimmicks. Just pure functionality. Pfaffs rule.

Another thing I appreciate about the Pfaff: you not only can, but are expected to, get into its guts:

The Singer is more of a black box.

Of course, you can get into parts of the Singer:


And even the black-box Singer comes with a manual (available online) showing how to take various bits of it to pieces — tensioners and the like). Sewing machines presume a certain amount of mechanical aptitude on the part of their users, and women of the 1950s had it — or called in handy husbands.

My own first, and most loved machine was a White Model 764 (this one) — made by the same people who produced semi trucks. It was the first thing I purchased after getting a “real” job.

I knew that wonderful machine so well I could have operated it blindfolded. It’s long-gone now, left behind in one of my many moves.


I used the Singer to make a skirt yesterday — the first garment I’ve made in probably 30 years. When that final Pfaff part arrives this week, I’ll put the Singer away again and switch to the better machine.

I may (or may not) sell the Singer. This model, with its simple function and slanted needle to keep the work in better view is particularly beloved of quilters, which I am not.

Making clothes hasn’t been cost effective for decades. Quilters and crafters are keeping the fabric and sewing machine industries alive. Meanwhile fabric and clothing patterns have become shockingly expensive and nice, well-fitting readymade clothes are abundant and cheap — and mostly from China.

When I was a kid, making my own clothes was crucial. Back in the day (which was NOT the good old days), storebought clothes for blue-collar budgets were made for some “average” person who was not me. To cover my gangly wrists and ankles, as cheap storebought clothes would not, I learned to make my own outfits. Through high school, I made, and eventually designed, nearly all my own clothes.

The fact that I loved doing it (and believe it or not, considered becoming a fashion designer for some very short and no doubt insane while) was a plus.

Been a long, long time. But now that I have this pair of reconditioned classics, I’m now on the hunt for thrift store fabrics and notions.


  1. Myself
    Myself April 23, 2019 11:53 am

    Have you read De Re Metallica?
    If not I would strongly recommend it, that is if you like really old machines.

  2. StevefromMA
    StevefromMA April 23, 2019 12:07 pm

    Very cool, old machines and old skills were really what β€œmade America Great β€œ LOL. Never learned to sew, was a guy, no one in family sewed. Friend I know collects colorful quality leather scraps and makes beautiful backpacks and leather pouches to sell on Ebay.

  3. Myself
    Myself April 23, 2019 12:31 pm

    Not exactly machines per se, but if you’re not already blacksmithing (and smithing the nonferrous metals) I strongly recommend you start.

  4. Comrade X
    Comrade X April 23, 2019 2:15 pm

    I can say that a sewing machine brought me & my better half together oh so many years ago because of that backless top she made with it.

  5. Grant
    Grant April 23, 2019 4:32 pm

    When I got out of the army in 1972, some friends who had recently purchased a new sewing machine were getting rid of an old Kenmore tank. They gave it to me and I learned to use it to repair clothes, most often the seams in pants which were too often sewn with a rather loose stitch and weak thread. Since then I have always had a sewing machine available, and in recent years found some old Elna “grasshoppers” at yard sales. They are Swiss made and wonderful machines. To do some heavier work, I bought a Consew “walking foot” upholstery machine and it can sew heavy leather and webbing. When my parents passed away I got the White rotary treadle machine my great-aunt purchased in about 1918, with all the attachments.

  6. larryarnold
    larryarnold April 23, 2019 7:35 pm

    My wife’s machine wore out, and we had to replace it. (We took it to a woman who repairs them, and she said, “I’ve never heard one make that noise before.”) Anyway, I found out that the machines you bought are now called “mechanical” sewing machines. As opposed to computerized ones.

    Everyone in my family sews, though mine is mostly for costumes. (One of our local little theaters is the longest-running outdoor live theater in the U.S.. We also have a second little theater troupe, plus the theater group at our local private university, so there are lots of opportunities. And we do Renaissance Fairs.)

    Our new machine is mechanical, as well.

  7. kentmcmanigal
    kentmcmanigal April 23, 2019 8:11 pm

    My sewing machine is a Singer VS-2. Made in 1891. I haven’t sewn anything on it in several years, though.

  8. Jolly
    Jolly April 24, 2019 9:00 am

    How much would you charge to make seat-cushion covers? πŸ™‚

  9. Claire
    Claire April 26, 2019 11:28 am

    “How much would you charge to make seat-cushion covers?”

    πŸ™‚ Nice of you to ask, but the last (and only) time I sewed for money was just after high school when I made filmy little hippie dresses for a friend’s short-lived boutique. While I don’t think it was my sewing that made them go broke, I’m still not up for the job.

  10. Claire
    Claire April 26, 2019 11:33 am

    Neat that some of you guy-types sew — and have true vintage machines. I see those old treadle machines on rare occasions at garage sales, but the seller always knows what they’ve got. Nobody picks those up for $10.

    And Comrade X … that’s funny.

    BTW, my old White model that I mentioned, which is actually a 769, not a 764 (though they’re similar) is alive and well and in Wyoming. Charles Curley has it in his garage and may even be willing to send it to me, complete with manual, attachments, and a box of zippers, buttons, and other notions.

  11. John
    John April 26, 2019 5:53 pm

    A salute to you here Claire, operator and respecter of fine built machines!

  12. terrapod
    terrapod April 28, 2019 3:37 pm

    Just picked up a Singer 66 for about 90 bucks. Need to sew some canvas equipment covers.

    Cleaning it up now. Put a new belt on it and can make it run, but for some reason the lower thread bobbin is not moving in sync with the needle and it won’t stitch properly. Also have noted that the treadle is made for persons 5 feet tall, I am 6′ and can’t fit the legs under the machine at the right angle to make it go steadily, maybe I have to check the treadle parts for wear or they need oil… Doing research to see if i can solve the bobbin issue.

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