New to You…Old Sewing Machines

by Featured

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Mahalia, my new to me Black, Longbed 301A born in the early 1950’s

To me, there is something incredibly romantic about a beautiful old sewing machine. When I look at them, I usually see a few minor dings here and there, or sometimes a few major ones…and I think to myself, “Oh, the stories you could tell.”

First of all, who had the pleasure of bringing you home from the store, opening your box, and running his or her hands over you for the first time? Were you a gift, a splurge, or purely purchased from the need to make clothing, warm quilts, and decorations for the home?

Adelaide Elizabeth, otherwise known as “Pinky”-a 1956 Featherweight that I purchased painted in a lovely shade of pink.

I also often wonder, when I come across an old machine for sale, why on earth someone else in the family of the person who owned you originally didn’t keep you. You were rejected and “kicked to the curb” by someone who probably didn’t sew, or had a fancy new machine and didn’t need you taking up space. I feel a little sad for you, and I want to rescue you and take you where you will be shined up, loved, and appreciated.

Nellie Nelco. This new acquisition has an absolutely exquisite straight stitch. She is strong enough to sew through multiple layers…even leather! Nellie is a Japanese knock-off of a Singer 15-91 and uses the same bobbins, etc. She is vintage pink, which I say is more of a mauvey brown. Regardless of her lack of “pinkness”, I am thrilled with her. She is a real workhorse!

Some old machines are probably discarded because they are in ugly cabinets that are out of date and perhaps in bad shape with water stains, scratches, etc. The thing is, what is in style always comes back around. For example, those “ugly” mid-century style cabinets are actually back in vogue. If you have one that you want to sell, just find a millennial. They are all about the mid-century look.

Some old machines are just too heavy to be portable. Today, with the classes we take, sewing days we attend, and retreats we go to, we just can’t lug around a 50 pound sewing machine. Perhaps that is why the most sought after vintage sewing machine is the Featherweight. They only weigh 12 pounds! They have a beautiful straight stitch, and are perfect for carrying to class or retreat.

Georgia Ann is a 1936 Featherweight. She is so old there aren’t even any numbers on her tension dial! Of all my vintage machines, she is the quietest and I use her all the time for piecing quilts. I choose to take her to retreats, classes, etc. if all I am going to be doing is straight stitching.

While Featherweights at 12 pounds, and even the 301 or 301A at 16 pounds are perfect to take out of the house, those old workhorses, like my new Nelco, are better left at home in their original cabinets waiting for the next time we decide to use them for some heavy-duty sewing.

This is Francis Coronado. She was purchased recently for only $25. She currently does not work, but her motor works, and her needle bar goes up and down with the hand wheel. Even in a non-working state, she was just too pretty to pass up! Right now, she is at the sewing machine doctor getting a look-see. I hope she will be back to her old self in no time 🙂 If not, I am still happy to have saved her from the landfill. She just doesn’t deserve it. I appreciate her beauty, if nothing else.

These machines from the 20’s through to the beginning of the 60’s are all just so unique. There are lots of colors, which I love, and the body styles are generally more sleek and attractive to me. I just like to look at them. Even if they aren’t being used, they look beautiful sitting on, or in, a bookcase in your sewing space. If space is limited, why not pick up a child-sized machine or two? They are purely decorative, though many of them still work, and add such an air of whimsy to your space.

This Atlas machine was advertised as “pink” and that it “worked perfectly”…I bought it sight unseen, and had my son go pick it up for me. Well…it is actually very “peach” in color. Also, I don’t know if it works because the wires are literally stripped down to bare, exposed wiring. I won’t be plugging her in until my electrician has a chance to rewire her. She doesn’t even have a name yet. I’m considering “Lincoln” because that’s where I bought her. She is the heaviest machine I have ever picked up. If I get her in working order, believe me, she will not be leaving the house.

These old girls ( call me sexist, if you will, but I think of them as girls) are adopted, tested to see how they run, and given names. They are each unique, and special to me. I wish I knew more of their stories. Sometimes, I wish that vintage sewing machines had labels like quilts that told who they belonged to, where they were from, and perhaps why they were purchased. Maybe it is the history teacher in me, but I do love a story! Sadly, they don’t have labels.

If you are lucky enough to own a machine that belonged to your grandmother or someone special to you, you should write down her story and keep it with the accessories, book, case, or whatever you have that goes with her. If she ever falls into the hands of another, they will know her story. If that person, like me and so many of my friends, appreciates old, forgotten machines, they will love that their new family member came with a written history that they can then pass on to the next owner. All of these machines are older than I am, and I am confidant that they will live on past my lifetime because I will preserve and protect them, or make sure that they are going to someone who will do the same.

Sandi Griepenstroh

Sandi Griepenstroh


I started quilting in the early 90's as a young mom while I was still teaching high school social sciences and English. Now it is my full time job, and I love sharing the joy that quilting has brought into my life through lecturing, trunk shows, teaching everything from piecing to machine quilting, and longarm quilting the pieced quilt tops that others have made. I am a maker through and through, and I can't wait to meet my fellow makers and talk quilting!

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