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

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Discussion
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43 Responses to “How to Rehab Vintage Sewing Machines”
  1. 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

      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

      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

        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
  2. Nancy

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

    Reply
    • 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
      • Randa

        I have never had a problem in using any needle that I would use in my modern machines. ( And I have sewn a lot on my vintage Singers.)

        Reply
    • 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

        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
  3. 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

      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
  4. 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
  5. 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

      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

        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

    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

    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

      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

      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
    • 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

    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

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

    Reply
  10. 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

      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.
      http://go.nationalsewingcircle.com/C8821

      Reply
  11. 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

    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

    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

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

    Reply
  15. 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
  16. 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