Choosing a Sewing Machine for the Homestead

How to Buy a Homestead Sewing Machine
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Although our society tends to view sewing as a hobby peculiar to certain creative types, the truth is, sewing machines are invaluable on the homestead. Here are just a handful of ways I use mine:

* To mend clothing, making it last longer.

* To alter clothes so they fit well.

* To upcycle old clothes into new clothes. (For example, turning a pair of old jeans into a child's skirt or an outgrown T-shirt into a dress.)

* To create new clothing if I can't find the type of clothes I want or need in stores - or if new clothes are out of reach financially. (Assuming I purchase fabric on sale, sewing clothes is definitely less expensive than buying them new, unless I buy new clothes from a store like Walmart - but the quality and longevity of home-sewn clothes are far superior to anything I can buy at big box stores.)

* To create useful items for the homestead, including curtains, quilts, pillows, pot holders, placemats, aprons, dog beds...the list is long!

In my opinion, the question isn't so much whether homesteaders should learn to sew (they definitely should!), but which sewing machine is the best choice for their lifestyle.

Is Hand Sewing an Option? 

Until the 19th century, everything was sewn by hand. So technically, you do not need a sewing machine to produce clothing and other items for your homestead. However, hand sewing is time-consuming - much more time-consuming than using a machine - and on a modern, busy homestead, who has time for that?

Age is also a factor. Once upon a time, I found hand sewing relaxing, but today I struggle to make tidy stitches due to diminishing eyesight. Those who suffer from arthritis or stiff joints will find hand sewing painful, too. So as we age, hand sewing definitely becomes more burdensome.

If you only envision yourself mending items (not creating them from scratch), hand sewing may be an acceptable route for your homestead. There's something to be said for the time-honored activity of spending evenings with hand mending in your lap. But like most homesteading skills, it's best to start practicing the craft now; after you've done hand-sewn for a bit, you may decide a sewing machine is a better option for you.  

Treadle Machines 

If you live off-grid - or aspire to - a treadle sewing machine is your best option. Treadles do not run on electricity, but instead are powered by a pedal pumped by foot as you sew. They are a bit tricky to learn to use (unless you're good at patting your head and rubbing your stomach!), but they do get the job done much faster than hand sewing. They are made to last, too, which is an important consideration for sustainable living.

Treadles do have certain limitations, though. They only sew straight stitches, so you'll need to work buttonholes by hand. You'll also need to finish seam edges by hand or with a method that only requires straight stitching (for example, binding raw edges with ribbon or running a line of stitches near the raw edge of tightly-woven fabric). Stretchy fabrics are also a no-go with a straight-stitch only machine. (For those, you either need a serger or a standard sewing machine that does zigzag stitches.)

Believe it or not, brand new treadle sewing machines do exist. Janome makes a popular model that must be inserted into an antique treadle sewing machine cabinet in order to function correctly. (See it here.) But the downside to a modern treadle is one of the biggest boons of an antique treadle: Quality of build.

While Janome is a great brand, their modern treadle machine is plastic. Antique treadle machines are metal. Really, not much can go wrong with an antique treadle; they are the most reliable sewing machines out there. If I were choosing between a new treadle sewing machine and an antique one, I wouldn't have to think long: An antique would win every time, due to the durability of its construction.

Buying an antique treadle machine is typically less expensive than buying a new one, anyway. Antique treadles are, in my experience, easy to find and often cost $100 or less. (At the time of writing, Janome's treadle is over $300 on Amazon, and still requires a cabinet to be operational.) But because antique treadles usually haven't been used in quite some time, you should expect yours to need a good oiling and a new belt. (Thankfully, these, like most old treadle machine parts, are usually pretty easy to find from either a local sewing machine repair store or on the internet.)

Do note that because the belt is leather, it is something that will eventually require replacing. Even if you buy extras and store them in a cool, dry, dark environment, they won't last forever.

What brand should you choose? When buying an antique, I recommend Singer because Singer treadles are so easy to find and parts are readily available.

Vintage Electric Machines

Vintage electric sewing machines offer many advantages, including:

* They usually cost less than new sewing machines. (I typically see them for $200 or less - often much less.)

* If the machine is from 1960 or earlier, it's made completely from metal - which means it will endure much longer than modern plastic machines. Vintage machines were designed to last!

* Parts are often easy to find. (You may even be able to repair a vintage machine all by yourself.)

* Maintenance (oiling and cleaning) can be done by the user.

Good brands of pre-1960 machines include Viking, Pfaff, White, Kenmore, and Singer.

One of my sewing machines (yes, I have more than one!) is a 1960s Viking I bought for $25 from a thrift store, complete with case, manual, and accessories. Thrift stores can be an excellent place to find vintage machines, but it's wise to take thrifted machines to a repair shop. At the very least, a thrifted machine will need cleaning and oiling. A sewing machine repair shop can also spot any problems and repair them for you right away. My Viking cost $100 to clean, repair, and buy an extra (expensive) foot for.

When looking at used vintage machines, I recommend only considering machines where:

* The hand wheel turns without difficulty.

* The needle bar goes up and down.

* The feed dog (which moves the fabric under the needle) moves every time you rotate the handwheel.

* The bobbin case rotates (or swings back and forth) when you turn the handwheel.

Because a large number of hobby-sewists prefer vintage sewing machines because of their durability and reliability, many repair shops and dealers sell repaired vintage machines. These machines will be more expensive than those you find in thrift stores, but buying already-repaired machines from a dealer allows you to try out the machine before you buy it.

New Sewing Machines

I have mixed feelings about modern sewing machines. I hate that they are all plastic. I hate that the parts aren't made in the U.S. and that if the machine breaks, you have to send overseas (often to China) because parts might not be readily available locally. Less expensive (say, under $400) modern machines are not designed for repairing; the manufacturers expect them to break after a year or three. Parts are literally not made for these machines, and I've had sewing machine dealers tell me manufacturers threaten to remove their dealership status if they even attempt to repair these "cheap" machines.

Several years ago, my 1980s Pfaff stopped working correctly and instead of repairing it, I fell for all the bells and whistles of the new machines. Embroidery stitches! Self-threading needles! Sparkle and buzz! I gave my Pfaff to a thrift store and bought a Brother for about $300. The Brother soon broke, and I realized my error. Getting rid of that Pfaff was a huge mistake!

I really cannot recommend one of these cheap modern sewing machines, unless you're a hobbyist who wants to see if you like sewing before you invest more money into a machine. But since good vintage machines are in the same price range, I advise you to buy one of those instead.All that said, there are some reliable modern machines out there - but you'll have to pay $1,000 or more for them. Juki, Jarome, Pfaff, and Viking are good brands. As with most tools, you're usually better off buying the best machine you can afford.

Buying used is a possibility, but I only recommend a machine that has "low miles" and passes all the tests I recommended for vintage machines.There's no doubt new machines offer perks. They tend to have helpful features like automatic threading, auto thread cutting (which is a real time-saver), the ability to see when the bobbin is running out of thread, useful and fancy stitches, easier speed control, smoother stitching, and so on. If they break, as long as they are higher-quality, it's pretty easy to get them repaired; your local dealership or repair shop can do it. (As far as I can tell, however, parts are only manufactured outside the United States.)

On the downside, modern machines are harder to repair yourself, compared to treadle or vintage machines. Most manufacturers also tell consumers not to oil their modern sewing machines; manufacturers want users to take their machines to a dealer once a year for this type of maintenance.

What About Sergers? 

Sergers are a type of machine that sews a seam, trims it, and finishes the raw edges all at once. This is greatly time-saving, but it's not the least bit necessary for any type of sewing, even (contrary to popular opinion) when you're sewing stretch fabrics.

Many people use sergers because they feel they offer a more professional finish - that is to say, they give a result similar to mass-produced clothing. But higher-quality clothing (think couture) is still sewn with a regular sewing machine.

Because sergers are all plastic, complicated, and expensive, I personally don't they are a good homesteading tool.

What About Industrial Machines?

New or vintage industrial machines are more powerful, more dependable, and longer-lasting than most consumer-grade sewing machines. Sounds great, right? But the downside is they may be difficult to find, cost considerably more, and often only sew a straight stitch. Also, despite what many people believe, not all industrial machines can handle thicker fabrics like denim and leather.

In addition, industrial sewing machines are easier to injure yourself on. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was a manager at a fabric store, there were several employees who also worked part-time at a local clothing manufacturing facility. They admitted that nearly every new employee at the facility ran one or more needles through her fingers, simply because she was unused to how fast industrial machines worked.

Also, unless your sewing skills are already excellent, an industrial machine will go too fast for you to get quality results in your sewing.


Unless sewing is your passion, probably one sewing machine is all any homestead needs. But if you "catch the bug," you may find yourself bringing home back-ups. I have two back-ups on our homestead.

The machine I sew on most often is a modern, consumer-grade Juki (see it here), which I use primarily because it does everything I need with more power and smoothness than my other machines.

But I also have that vintage Viking I mentioned earlier. It's there mostly in case my Juki needs to go in for repair. I also use the Viking for special projects. For example, recently I was sewing aprons that required a lot of gathering.

Gathering feet are a bit of a pain to put on a machine because they require removing the shank that holds the sewing foot in place. Still, for each apron, I discovered that using the gathering foot saved me one hour of sewing time. That's huge! To make the sewing most efficient, I put the gathering foot on my Viking and whenever I needed to gather, I just rolled my chair away from the Juki and over to the Viking.

Finally, I have my grandmother's Singer treadle - one of the last all-metal treadles ever made. (The story goes she had to special order it because, in 1947 when she purchased it, all the stores were carrying electric machines.) As soon as I'm done restoring this classic, it will be a handy back-up if there is no electricity.

But, like most people, I started out with just one sewing machine. It wasn't fancy or expensive - but with it, I learned how to sew. Which machine will you choose to help your homestead become even more self-sufficient?

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