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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