Why your first machine can be second(hand): a guide for new sewists

Learning to sew your own clothes can be made extra-daunting by the huge variety of sewing machines out there. A brand-new machine that is decent quality will start at $200- $300 AUD. In order to get a better value machine (under $100), I’d recommend starting with a secondhand machine.

Why buy secondhand rather than new?

  • Quality – Many of the older machines have more metal parts and a higher quality of workmanship than a modern machine.
  • Sustainability – There’s lots of great machines out there. Save one from going to landfill, and avoid the carbon costs involved in manufacturing a new one.
  • Ease of use – Older machines can be simpler for a beginner to get to grips with. They often have less stitch choices to bamboozle you, and have buttons or knobs to select functions rather than computerised controls.
  • Resale value – If you are spending under $100 for a working secondhand machine, you should be able to resell it for roughly the same price you paid. You might resell once you know more about the type of sewing you want to do.

Where to find your machine

In Australia, Gumtree or Facebook marketplace are good options, or eBay if you can inspect in person. I would never ever buy a secondhand machine online. The delivery will be very expensive and you really need to view it in person to check that it’s working properly.

Sewing machine dealers or mechanics sometimes sell recently serviced machines. They will cost over $100 but are a safer option than a random seller.

I would avoid buying from someone you know. You need to be very thorough when inspecting a secondhand machine and this can be difficult to do when dealing with a friend.

Avoiding the duds – 3 steps to assessing the quality of the sewing machine.

Step 1: Read the ad carefully

  • What brand is it? Google them if you haven’t heard of them. One of my machines is New Home (which isn’t well known) but it’s a rebadged Janome that is solid and reliable. Any major or rebadged brand is fine. Avoid very cheap new brands like Ikea and Semco.
  • While you are googling, check out some pictures of the machine and compare them to the ad. This will help you see if anything important is missing. Check if you can find the manual online.
  • Does the seller sound like they know something about sewing? e.g. included in the description words like bobbin, presser foot, zigzag and straight stitch.
  • Avoid mini, kids or toy machines (even if they say fully functional – they are not).
  • Also avoid industrial machines, or the antique Singer machines (the lovely black shiny ones). Neither will have all the functions that you’d need as a beginner.
  • Is it working? Please please please don’t buy a secondhand machine that is not in working order. Getting it fixed will cost anywhere of $100 upwards, and there’s no guarantee that it can even be fixed.

Step 2: Get more information before you view

  1. Do ask: if the machine is in working order, and if you can plug it in and test it when you get there. If they don’t know how to thread it/ turn it on and you don’t either – give it a miss. It’s too risky and not worth your time to inspect it.
  2. Don’t ask: if it has a manual (you can usually find one online) or when it was last serviced. You won’t know if they are telling the truth about servicing and it doesn’t always tell you if the machine has been well-looked after.

Step 3: Inspect the sewing machine

  1. Put some fabric in and sew a line of stitching (or ask the seller to do it). Look out for weird noises, clunks, bangs etc. The motor might be noisy or quiet – that’s normally fine, as long as it’s consistent.
  2. Check if it’s got the presser feet that it came with. At the least you’ll need a standard clear or metal foot and a zipper foot. If the others are missing, it doesn’t matter at this stage (but I’d expect the price to be reduced).
  3. Check that all the buttons and knobs will turn or click.
  4. Check that the power cable isn’t frayed or damaged.

The table below shows some ads for secondhand machines in my area, with my verdict on whether or not they might be worth buying. As you can see, the price doesn’t reflect the quality – my pick from this list would be the $50 Janome or the $65 German machine. The $100 Brother is the worst on the list.

Brand, price in AUD, approx decadeAd description includes:Verdict
Janome, $50, 1970s“In working order, used, serviced regularly.” “Includes carry case , bobbins and manual”
👍 Photo shows nice old chunky metal machine. Sounds like it’s used by a sewist.
Singer, $85, 1960s“easy to fix if needed.”👎 Not easy to fix. And a hint that the seller doesn’t know if it works or not?
Singer, $80, 1970s“Hush Matic 527 electric singer” “Used but working well and in good condition.”👍 Photo shows nice big sewing bed. Model number makes it easy to find out more information. ‘Working well’ is hopeful.
Singer, $50, 2010s“Bought it for $99.”👎 Photo shows very plastic-y looking machine. $99 is way too cheap for a new purchase price.
Brother, $100, 2010s“Brother LS 2160”
“has broken bobbin winder holder.”
👎 Photo shows cheap and plastic-y looking machine. Brother machines are usually good quality, but you google the model number, it shows this model is about 5 years old and has poor reviews from that time. Broken bobbin winder makes this a no-go.
Gritzner*, $65, 1970s

*Don’t be put off if you haven’t heard of the brand. I hadn’t, but a quick google revealed that its a German company that is over 100 years old.
“Excellent machine, solid and stable, German make” “No longer used, all attachments with machine see photos.”
👍 Photo includes carry case that looks solid and good quality. Including all accessories is a bonus.

Getting a machine for free!

This sounds like a perfect solution but tread carefully. If someone offers their Nana’s old machine, I will still (discreetly) follow the same guidelines as you would for buying. If they say, “Oh, it’s not working but I’m sure you could get it fixed…” I would politely decline. It can be costly (and not always possible) to fix old machines. And you won’t be able to throw it out because it was Nana’s. It will sit in the corner of your dining room and you will feel sad and guilty every time you look at it.

Good luck with your search, and I hope you find a gem of a machine!

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