How to Rehab Vintage Sewing Machines

rehab-vintage-sewing-machines
You see them at flea markets, garage sales, and estate auctions: beautiful old sewing machines that you’d love to use on your modern sewing projects. Most of them are shining black with gold decorations in swirls or art deco designs. If you find a great deal on a vintage sewing machine, it can serve as more than just a great decor item in your sewing room. With some careful TLC, you can bring most of these old machines back to life, turning them into machines that you’ll rely on for years.

Unlike today’s machines with mostly plastic parts, the sewing machines from the 60s and earlier were made of metal. That’s why they’re so heavy when you pick them up: all solid metal parts. These machines were built to be family workhorses, lasting through decades of weekly use. This is good news for you, because metal parts don’t break as frequently as plastic ones do.

The worst problem with most vintage machines is decades of grime, dust, and contaminants inside the working parts. The key is knowing how to clean these parts without damaging them.



To begin cleaning your vintage sewing machine, first remove the throat plate and you’ll find the bobbin case, along with the inner works of the machine. Pull out the bobbin case and use tweezers to remove any stray bits of thread you find. You’ll need a good flashlight, and you might be able to see the works from underneath. Use tweezers, makeup brushes, or dental picks to remove any accumulated dust, dead spiders, and the like. Once all the fuzz has been removed, put a dab of Liquid Wrench on a cotton swab and use it to wipe off all the mechanical parts. Change to a new swab when the old one gets dirty. This will remove the soil that can gum up free movement.



Lay out paper towels and label each one for a different part of the machine. This will prevent the parts from getting mixed up. Remove each part carefully, taking note of how each piece was connected. Use small brushes to remove any particles from inside these parts. Inspect the belt carefully. If it’s dried out or cracking, get a replacement belt from a sewing machine store or an online parts store. There are stores online that specialize in parts for vintage machines; unless yours is very rare, you’ll be able to find a new belt. Keep the machine deconstructed until the body is cleaned.



Most of these charming vintage machines are black with gold decorations. The problem with cleaning these is that the formulation for the gold paint changed from year to year and brand to brand. The smartest thing to do is to begin with the mildest cleaning solution and try it on an inconspicuous spot at first. You’re not likely to wash away the gold decor, but many chemical cleaners can affect the paint and turn it silver. In fact, if you find a vintage machine with silver designs, it’s likely that someone tried to clean it carelessly in the past.

Begin with mild soap (like Ivory) and water to clean off the first layer of grime. Apply a soapy solution and allow it to soak in for about ten minutes. Wipe it off, then rinse to remove any residue. Assess the finish, then decide if it needs more work. If so, carefully try mild chemical mixtures such as Simple Green or 409, always testing in a small area before moving on to the whole body. Always rinse and dry after every attempt to make sure you’ve removed every bit of cleaner.

They may not do 120 fancy stitches, but a vintage sewing machine can be your go-to solution for quilting and sewing almost all your projects. Once yours is cleaned and running smoothly it can serve you for decades to come, and might even be around to pass on to the new generation of sewers in your family.

Happy (vintage) sewing!

Related article: Tips for Cleaning Your Sewing Machine

Have something to add? Leave a comment or email editor@nationalsewingcircle.com.

Discussion
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66 Responses to “How to Rehab Vintage Sewing Machines”
  1. LaBetha Cook
    LaBetha Cook

    Where could I find a belt for a very old Singer sewing machine? It is a treadle type and the orginal belt was leather. The only number I can find on it is AL992875 also 15-

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi Labetha. When it comes to finding parts for older machines your best bet is to search for them online. Many times there will be older collectors or dealers that have spare parts that they are willing to sell.

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
    • Karen
      Karen

      Buy a leather skipping rope, loads cheaper than buying a singer replacement. Just use the same staple from your old one and an awl to make the holes.

      Reply
      • Annette
        Annette

        There are a number of Amish farms in our area. They all have a special skill that they practice to earn a living. One man has a leather business, making harness for their horses, belts, wallets and because they use treadle machines (the girls and their moms) the father in that family makes treadle sewing machine belts. If you are lucky enough to have a harness maker in your community, you should be able to get one from him.

        Reply
    • Shawnda
      Shawnda

      I went to a sewing store. They ordered it for me. It was under $10.00. I got exactly what I needed, the right size and fast. I didn’t have to second guess myself or return anything. Well worth the 10.00 bucks.

      Reply
    • Laura
      Laura

      I purchased a new leather belt from Amazon for my old Singer model 66 treadle . I haven’t installed it yet as I need to clean up the machine which was in someone’s barn for years.

      Reply
  2. Nancy
    Nancy

    I am having trouble finding needles for my vintage machine. would you have any suggestions on where to look?

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi Nancy. I have never personally searched for needles for a vintage sewing machine, however I would recommend searching for them online. If you know the exact manufacturer and model of your machine you should be able to more easily narrow down your search and possibly find an older collector or dealer that sells them.

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
    • MaryLou Barnett
      MaryLou Barnett

      I have two vintage Singer machines and I use needles I can buy at the store, just buy whatever needle you would use for the project you have. I have some vintage needles still in the little wooden container, but I never use them. I also have all the attachments that go with the machines. Love the Featherweight Bentwood! I use it all the time, The treadle Machine works great too. There are several site on line to find parts and accessories for both machines. Just google the make and model of your machine and then – parts.

      Reply
      • Dayle
        Dayle

        Featherweight Bentwood? comWhat is the serial number on that? Is the wood section an aftermarket item? FW’s are made to set down inside a case for storage. The machine itself didn’t have any method of attaching to a top that I know of. I am curious.

        Reply
    • Laura
      Laura

      I recently purchased a refurbished Singer hand crank model 127 from a local shop. The woman I bought it from says she uses new universal sewing machine needles and gave me a set when I purchased the Singer.

      Reply
  3. Peggy
    Peggy

    I have lots,I mean lots of the old black and gold beauty that still run like a top,Treadles ones too.

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi Sherri. How you thread your machine will depend on what kind it is. Just like machines today, different brands may need to be threaded differently. I would recommend searching for a manual or threading diagram online for your exact machine model and manufacturer.

      Hope this helps!

      Reply
    • Laurel
      Laurel

      After cleaning my machine it started sewing backwards. I I push the reverse button it sees forwards. It’s a Dressmaker my mother gave me late 80s. What can I do?

      Reply
      • Customer Service
        Customer Service

        Hi,

        Unfortunately I am not familiar with this model of machine, and given the issue you are having I recommend taking it in to be professionally fixed.

        Cheers,
        Ashley
        National Sewing Circle

        Reply
  4. Ann
    Ann

    No soap or water on the old black machines, the top coat was/is shellac and and be compromised by water and ruin the decals!

    Reply
    • Ann
      Ann

      My cord shorted out on Bluegrass machine I used to make my clothes in high school. Mechanic has had no luck getting into motor. It seems to be machined together.

      Reply
  5. Ruth
    Ruth

    I rehab old machines, and I would NEVER recommend using soap and water on them. That’s a great way to destroy fragile decals. Your safest bet is to lightly brush away the loose dirt, then slather them in sewing machine oil. Let it soak into the grime, then carefully remove it with cotton balls or old cotton T-shirts. Repeat until it’s clean. Another good option (test first in an inconspicuous place) is to use non-pumice Gojo hand cleaner. Apply with a brush, let it soak in a few minutes, then wipe away gently with a soft cotton cloth. You can finish off with a thin coating of sewing machine oil to make it shine. Newer machines (1960s to present) may be ok with soap and water or water-based cleaners, but please don’t use it on Grandma’s old black machine with the gorgeous decals!

    Reply
    • Rhondda
      Rhondda

      I have my grandmother’s treadle machine but the beautiful paintwork has deteriorated – not looked -not cared for after by another family member . Is it possible to do anything about the peeled paintwork?

      Reply
      • Customer Service
        Customer Service

        Hi Rhondda. I would recommend searching out someone in your area that restores old furniture. They may be able to better tell you whether anything can be done about fixing old paintwork.
        Hope this helps!

        Reply
  6. Mandy
    Mandy

    My grandmother’s machine is nearly 100 years old. It is all I use but when I started to sew my daughter,s wedding dress in pure silk chiffon, I thought I had better use my mum’s or sister’s fancy modern affairs. After struggling with all sorts of problems, I reverted to my old faithful. Perfect!

    Reply
  7. Kevin Morrow
    Kevin Morrow

    Where would one look to find a cabinet for a treadle sewing machine as I have the head off of a 1936 28 machine that I would like to make into a treadle? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi, Kevin. I would suggest looking at local antique shops. Sometimes you may be able to find things like that there. If you have no luck with that I would recommend searching online. You may be able to find an old dealer or collector that might either have what you need or know someone else who does.

      Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      These kinds of machines can be found at old antique stores, flea markets and sometimes pawn shops. Where you find them and how good of condition they are in will determine how much they are. You might also be able to find older machines like this online, for example on Ebay.

      Reply
    • YVONNE
      YVONNE

      Blossom, I have an old National treadle sewing machine with a wooden treadle stand that I would sell. I live in NE Kansas. I have not done anything with it for years so I can’t tell you if it runs or not. It is stored in the house. If you are interested at all I would get it out and take pictures and see if I can answer any questions you might have. I know that this is not a ‘Buy and Sell’ forum how could we get in contact safely?

      Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi Dona. I am not familiar with that specific machine, however, I would recommend talking to someone who deals with antique machines either as a restorer or a seller. They would probably have the most information. Aside from that, I would recommend searching for that machine on the internet. There are many different sites out there that either have information about that machine or are looking to sell or buy that machine.

      Hope that helps!

      Reply
  8. Mark
    Mark

    I have a Minnesota A and need a couple of shuttles, bobbins, belts, but don’t know how to order parts for this machine. From what I have researched, They were built by the Domestic Sewing Company and marketed by Sears under the name Minnesota. I want to make it a usable machine but do not want to invest time in it if parts are not available. I also need a roller that is inside the cabinet, there are two of them that are part of the metal frame work. As you lift the machine from inside the cabinet the rollers follow along the wood. Hope I explained this well enough to help me. If you know where I can find the owners, parts and attachment manuals, It would be very much appreciated.

    Thanks
    Mark

    Reply
  9. Eli
    Eli

    Thanks for sharing the information regarding the inner & outer parts of this vintage sewing machine.

    Reply
  10. Stuart Baker
    Stuart Baker

    I just bought a old National treadle sewing machine in a four drawer chest. It’s very dirty and I’m reading things about cleaning properly, yet I don’t know what and where most of the parts are. Does anyone know where I can find a copy of its manual?

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hello Stuart,
      Online is probably going to be your best bet for finding a manual for it. I was able to find this site that has a lot of older machine manuals available, perhaps they will have what you are looking for:

      http://www.tias.com/173/PictPage/3923249983.html

      Hope this helps!

      Cheers,
      Ashley NQC Video Membership

      We’d love to have you be a part of our community. We are convinced you will enjoy the benefits of becoming a member and having access to the best instructional how to videos and professional tips. We would like to offer you a special promotion for your first year membership.
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      Reply
  11. Shirley Peters
    Shirley Peters

    I found a site that used an old stocking! As a belt. Which worked great. I shall be using this to re convert a treadle back as it should be.

    Reply
  12. Jackie
    Jackie

    I have a very old singer it work with your knee I have never seen this before a metal peace goes in the front of the machine it is a metal and all black and white

    Reply
  13. Shirley Smith
    Shirley Smith

    I have been gifted with a Standard treadle model 1161997. I need some information on it if anyone can tell me anything about it, I would appreciate it.

    Reply
  14. Yvonne
    Yvonne

    My Singer sewing machine was patented in 1887. Just trying to find someone to help me get it going.

    Reply
  15. Marge Yoder
    Marge Yoder

    I have a 1957 vintage Victor precision sewing machine .All the cords need to be replaced and the cover is in bad shape ,but it still works .Am afraid to plug it in to see about the motor .It worked well 30 years ago ,but haven’t used it since . Can any thing be done to it .I hate to toss it out .

    Reply
    • Dawn McDonnell
      Dawn McDonnell

      Hi Marge I just got a Victor Sewing machine. I do not know anything about it and wondering if you know the history. I can’t find anything online. Thanks.

      Reply
  16. Robin Cheyne
    Robin Cheyne

    I need an owners manual for a National Sewing Machine 626 This is all on the back of the machine National Quick system Model 424-6 Serial 110/120v 60HZ Allied National

    Reply
  17. randall davis
    randall davis

    I have a beautiful National sewing machine. I want to use it. Going to happen but I help. Thanks to anybody

    Reply
  18. Teresa Bolen
    Teresa Bolen

    I have my grandma treadle singer machine,is any parts available, like the part that goes around the wheel

    Reply
  19. Judith Spencer
    Judith Spencer

    I have a New Home that I purchased in 1969. It sews good but the dial that turns when making button holes is frozen. Do you think it can possibly be fixed

    Reply
  20. Maria
    Maria

    Seems like my machine is frozen. Needle does not move when I turn the wheel

    Reply
  21. Pat Rogers
    Pat Rogers

    I have an Art Deco style Singer Sewing Machine that I would like to sell. It even has a lot of items in the drawers including the tool set. I have used it to do simple repair jobs. I’m in Florida if any one knows of someone who would like a machine in wonderful condition. I also have the matching bench.

    Reply
  22. Stephanie Povey
    Stephanie Povey

    I would not use any of the cleaners listed in this article. The absolute safest chemical to use for surface cleaning is sewing machine oil.

    Reply
  23. MAY
    MAY

    Care & cleaning vintage sew machines seem very helpful, can’t wait to start on my old Singer.

    Reply
  24. Charlotte Miller
    Charlotte Miller

    How do you clean it off rust? Mine got left in in a storage unit for a year, and now it’s rusted real bad.

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hello Charlotte!

      That’s a great question!

      The ‘Ask an Expert’ section is currently for members to our online community. We do have a promotional offer if you are interested. This would include access to expert advice (like this), plus discounts, hours of Premium videos, etc. Please feel free to take a look. You can message us right back with your question if you decide to become a member and you will have a response within 1-2 business days from our experts!

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      Reply
  25. HANG
    HANG

    I have a heavy duty old singer sewing machine and when I sew it, the machine doesn’t pick up the bottom thread and the top threat went through just break on every stitch in the bottom side of the fabric. What causing and how can fix it? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Customer Service
      Customer Service

      Hi Hang,

      This sounds like a tension issue. Here is the checklist I go through when I’m having tension troubles:

      1. Is your machine threaded correctly?
      2. Is your bobbin filled and inserted correctly?
      3. Is your needle dull? A dull needle will create all kinds of tension problems, including thread nests on the wrong side of your fabric. If you suspect a dull needle, change to a fresh needle and test.
      4. Ensure your thread is good quality. If thread has been sitting in direct sunlight or in a humid environment for too long, the fibers will weaken and result in a lot of thread breakage.
      5. Are you using the right needle for your thread? Some needle types have different-sized eyes. If using a thread that’s too thick for the needle eye, thread breakage will occur. A smaller eye will increase tension on thicker thread and a larger eye will not place as much tension on the thread. A thicker thread, such as a topstitch thread, requires a topstitch needle, which has a larger eye to keep the tension even.
      6. Clean your machine. If there’s lint in your tension discs, under the throat plate or around the bobbin, it’ll put unwanted tension on your thread.
      7. If these things are still not working out for you, you may have a damaged part. If you’ve ever dropped your metal bobbin case on the floor it might have thrown something out of whack, and in that case, a trip to the sewing machine doctor may be in order.
      8. Ensure you have the correct size bobbin in your machine. If your bobbin is too tall for your case, the thread will jam up.
      9. Even if your tension is balanced, both needle and bobbin tensions may be too tight, resulting in a puckered seam, or a lot of thread breakage.

      I hope one of these tips will clear up the issue! Best,
      Nicki

      Reply