Restoring a Vintage Sewing Machine

Did you ever see a vintage sewing machine at a flea market or thrift shop that made you stop in your tracks and want to take it home? You can see the beauty under all that dust and grime, but aren’t sure about what it will take to bring it back to its former glory.

For those of us who sew, there is a special lure that a vintage sewing machine has that pulls us in to take a closer look at the craftsmanship, ornate details, and overall simplicity of machines made years ago.

A vintage sewing machine in need of restoration

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How my love of vintage sewing machines started

One summer, I saw an old Singer sewing machine at a flea market – no cabinet, parts all rusted, and totally unusable. And I instantly fell in love with it. I didn’t buy it, mainly because it was in terrible condition, but I kept thinking about it, and how I would go about restoring a vintage sewing machine!

A few months later, I saw the vintage sewing machine pictured above at a local thrift shop. OMG I wanted that machine soooooo bad! It was was over-priced for the condition it was in – and for my budget. But that didn’t stop me from taking out my iPhone and snapping a few pics of it!

Do some preliminary research

I wasn’t sure how much it would entail to go about restoring a vintage sewing machine, and didn’t even know how old it was, so I figured I would do a little research, and go back to the store if it was worth buying. What I did know, was that it was a direct drive machine – meaning that there was no rubber belt to make it work – and therefore, a little less that could go wrong.

In-Depth Research on a Vintage Sewing Machine

Armed with the photos from my iPhone, I hopped on the internet to start my research. I knew it was a Singer, that it was a direct drive, and fortunately I caught a shot of the serial number

Using Google for my research, I started by searching “vintage Singer sewing machine” and went to the “Images” selection for a search.

White toggle switch for the light on a vintage Singer 201-2 sewing machine in need of restoration
White toggle switch for the light on a Singer 201-2 sewing machine

You see that white toggle switch? From my research, I learned that that particular light switch feature – plus the direct drive – identified the machine as a Singer 201-2. Armed with that, I was able to dig a little deeper on Google.

One site said that this particular model was called the “Rolls Royce of Sewing Machines”, due to the fact that Rolls Royce used these machines back in the day to sew the leather upholstery when manufacturing their cars. (Source) So basically, this vintage machine is a sort of precursor to a modern industrial sewing machine.

And exactly what I need to sew leather and heavy upholstery fabric.

I went back to the thrift store to buy the machine but it was GONE!  🙁

Searching for a Singer 201-2

Now that I knew what model I wanted to buy, the hunt began. From my research, I found prices on these machines ranging from about $40 to over $400. (Okay, $400 IS ridiculous, but that was the asking price.)

A few weeks later, my friend asked if I wanted to go to the thrift store with her. (Yes, the thrift store that had the machine the last time.) Not even thinking about the machine though, I went along for the ride. I didn’t even see the machine until my friend pointed it out to me. It was tucked in with a row of ugly, beat up desks and I went over for a closer look.

And there she was! THE PERFECT MACHINE!!!!!!

Vintage Singer 201-2 sewing machine that has been restored

Do you hear a chorus of angels singing? I sure did, even though she looked more like the first photo – dirty with globs of dust all over the machine and cabinet.

A Slight Hesitation

Me, not the machine. The asking price was $45. Half of what they had priced the first machine they were selling a few months earlier. And this one was in much better condition.

But how much work is needed for restoring a vintage sewing machine?

Here’s what I based my purchase on:

  • I do have a working knowledge of sewing machines, having started sewing when I was 11 years old.
  • The first machine I used was my mom’s old, only-sewed-forward-and-backward, all-metal, belt-drive machine.
  • The second machine I used was similar, with the exception that it was “modern”, belt-driven, and had a zig-zag stitch.
  • I had that second machine for 30 years, and did all the maintenance myself.

So with that, I inspected this newly found Singer 201-2 a little closer.

The handwheel of a vintage Singer 201-2

Here’s what I did:

Vintage sewing machine checklist:

  • Turn the hand wheel – does it move freely?
  • Any grinding noises when the hand wheel turns?
  • Examine the power cord for cracks and brittleness.
  • Tilt the machine back from the cabinet, and examine the working mechanisms on the underside of the machine.
  • How yucky does it look? Is it dry, or has it been greased recently? This is where you can guess whether the machine was used fairly recently, and if so, is probably working okay.
  • Does it run? At this point, I asked to have the machine plugged it to see if it worked.
  • Flip the light switch. Does the light go on?
  • Pull down the knee lever, and now for the Big Test:
  • Does the motor run?
  • And does the machine work?
  • Hear any popping sounds or do all the lights in the building suddenly go off? (Yes, this was actually something I thought about!)

The machine passed the first BIG test. Now what?

Now that I knew she worked, I inspected the:

decals to make sure they weren’t scratched up or missing altogether;

inspected all the engraved parts;

made sure the serial number was legible;

went over the cabinet for scratches, dings and general stability ;

took off the seat cushion to see if any of the original parts or manual were in there (they weren’t) opened the drawer to look for parts, and to see if the hinges were okay.

Test Score: 100!

She passed all my tests, and now she was declared SOLD!!!!! She was all mine.

My friend and I managed to get her loaded into the car, and get her into my house with only one small scratch. FYI, cast iron is heavy!!!

The clean-up

Now that I got her home, my first task was to give her a bath. Poor baby was musty smelling, and literally caked with greasy dust. A bucket of warm water and Murphy’s Oil Soap was just what she needed! I washed down the entire cabinet, seat, yucky vinyl cushion cover, and the machine itself. Then I dried everything with a soft rag.

A little polishing

Next, I used Olde English furniture polish – the kind with the dark stain added to it. I applied this liberally to the cabinet and wooden parts of the seat. OMG that stuff works miracles! As I buffed the walnut cabinet with a piece of flannel, all the gorgeous grain began to show, and the little dings disappeared. She was looking gorgeous, and I was getting happier by the second.

Engraved plate of a vintage Singer sewing machine in need of restoration

To clean the engraved metal and other metal parts of the machine, I used Totally Awesome concentrated cleaner. Like the name says, this stuff is totally awesome for removing grease and grunge.

The last part to clean was the cast iron machine itself. I sprayed a little Armor All onto a cloth and then buffed the machine with a clean piece of flannel.

Several screwdrivers to choose from when restoring a vintage sewing machine
Have several screwdrivers to choose from when restoring a vintage sewing machine

Examine the mechanics

Now that the outside of the machine and cabinet were cleaned up, I tackled the mechanical parts. Note: be sure to use the correct size screwdrivers when removing screws, so you don’t strip them!

Fortunately, with 6 10 working sewing machines on hand, I had a whole pile of screwdrivers to choose from. (Guess you could call me a sewing machine hoarder, huh?)

I took off the plate over the bobbin case and cleaned out the mess that was in there. There must have been a yard of thread all caught up in the bobbin case! Some long handled tweezers, sewing machine brush, toothbrush and cotton swabs came into play to get all the innards cleaned up.

The yucky vinyl seat cushion re-do

The last thing to tackle was the horrible, pea green vinyl seat cushion. I took it outside because it was so stinky, and worked on my gardening potting bench.

Taking the old vinyl off the seat that went with the vintage sewing machine

I used a sturdy screwdriver to pry up the staples, and then pliers to pull the staples out of the wood. The underside was stamped “Made in Yugoslavia”, which you can sort of see in the top right in the above pic.

New batting

Once the vinyl was off, I peeled the musty old batting off the wood and gave everything another wipe down with Murphy’s Oil Soap. After the wood dried, I cut a double thickness of quilt batting to replace the old seat batting.

Cutting a double thickness of quilt batting to use in restoring the seat of a vintage sewing machine

No need to fasten the batting to the wood, as it easily stuck to the unfinished wood. A little trimming with scissors was all that was needed.

A little upholstery

Next up was the finishing touch of some nice upholstery. I had just gotten some cool pieces of upholstery at another thrift shop a few days earlier, and found the perfect piece that fit the seat and matched the decor of the room where I was keeping the machine. The piece of fabric was in a pile of stuff I bought that was being sold for $2/pound, so the fabric for the seat only cost $1!

Using a staple gun to attach the new fabric on the seat of a vintage sewing machine

I cut the fabric so there was at least 3″ all around and started on one side with a staple gun, using just one staple. Then I pulled the fabric tight, and used one staple on the opposite side. Since I had never done this before, I took my time, and didn’t trim the fabric too much.

When I got to the curved corners, I snipped off some fabric so it would fit snugly into the seat frame and not be all bunched up. A few staples secured the fabric in each corner, and I worked my way around the cushion frame pulling the fabric tight and securing with a staple.

Once the fabric was stapled all around, I trimmed it closely to the wood.

The finished and restored seat and fully restored vintage sewing machine

The seat was now reupholstered, and I am loving how it looks!

But will it sew?

At this point, I didn’t even have the machine threaded or had tried sewing on a piece of scrap fabric. I think I was afraid to do it! What if the machine didn’t sew? Well, at least I had a lovely piece of antique furniture, right?

Find the owner’s manual

The next thing I did was search the internet for an owner’s manual. SCORE!!! I found a site that had a pdf photocopy of the original manual. Not only that, but from the serial number I found that the machine:

  • was built in 1936
  • in Elizabeth, New Jersey
  • and is one of 8,000

How cool is that?

Make a new bobbin

The first thing to do was to pull the old thread off the existing bobbin (there was only one in the drawer) and wind a new bobbin. Unfortunately, the bobbin winder part of the machine (pictured above) needs to be adjusted in order to work, so I wound the bobbin on one of my other machines.

The manual didn’t indicate what size bobbin to use, but my Ninja sewing skills tell me that it’s a Class 66 because it is curved instead of flat like the other classes of bobbins. Great, because I have about 50 spares to use that are from my oldest working machine! Putting the bobbin into the case was as easy as any other sewing machine, so that was a plus.

Next, I changed the needle.

Always. Change. the Needle.

Even if you think it looks fine, change it!

I got a spool of thread, and threaded her up. Very straight-forward method of threading, but no modern needle-threading lever to rely on, so out came the magnifying/reading glasses to tackle threading the eye of the needle.

And I swear I was holding my breath as I put the scrap fabric under the needle and pushed against the knee lever to start the test sew.

SHE SEWS!!!!!!

Not only does the machine sew, but the motor sounds almost like it is purring. No clunking, grinding, or loud sounds – just a contented purrrrrrrrr.

The stitches are perfectly even, and I didn’t even have to adjust the tension. Someone obviously used the machine, and took good care of her.

How she got her name

While I was cleaning out the little drawer of the cabinet, I found a plastic bag with some old buttons. The name “Elaine” was written on the bag, and I am guessing she must have been the former owner of the machine. So I decided to call the machine Elaine.

Elaine still needs a few more finishing touches. Just this morning, I read that I can try car wax on the cast iron to really make it glow. And then there is the bobbin winder to adjust, but the how-to is all spelled out in the owner’s manual.

All cleaned up

Here is Elaine in her new home – all cleaned up, smelling much better now, and looking lovely.  Look at the wood grain on the cabinet drawer!

I consider this machine, cabinet and seat to be a steal, and total cost with cushion reupholstering was…..

drum roll….

Fully restored vintage sewing machine, cabinet and seat


Yep. Forty. Six. Dollars.

Isn’t she gorgeous?

How about you? Do you have a vintage machine that you have restored? Was it difficult?

Do tell! I want to hear all about it in the comments below!

Click on the photo to read:

Colorful sewing supplies consisting of scissors, pins, needles, thread and thimble laid out on pink, orange and purple felt squares
A pile of colorful fabric bolts arranged on a shelf. Click to learn how to read the label on a bolt of fabric
A guide to buying your first sewing machine
A vintage Singer sewing machine that was in need of restoration

26 thoughts on “Restoring a Vintage Sewing Machine”

  1. Loved your story about Elaine and all the detail on her restoration. I have several vintage machines who all work nicely but need some TLC to make them as beautiful as yours. There is nothing like a vintage machine.

  2. where did you find the list of serial numbers from singer to check when it was built and where?

    • My resource for researching sewing machines by serial number is the ISMACS International website – I have updated the post and added the link.

  3. Elaine is lovely! My Mom asked me if I want my Gram’s old treadle sewing machine a couple of years ago. At the time I just didn’t have time and I wasn’t sewing much, so I told her to give it to my sister. At least it’s in the family, but now I’m kind of kicking myself for not taking it. 🙂

  4. Great story and congrats on the new member of the family! I picked up a Singer 15-125 recently, and it came with the wrong manual – a 201-2! If you would like the original for your baby, I’ll gift it to you. The copyright is 1957, but I don’t think anything had changed in all those years. Shoot me an email.


    • Thank you for the offer, Marty! Actually, I recently bought an 1888 New Home treadle, and found an original manual for the 201-2 in one of the drawers!

  5. I have a couple of these old girls. One thing I’ve learned is if you search for them you will find them. I didn’t go for the beauty but for the stitch. Most people will pass on one left to grime and scratches not realizing that beauty is only skin deep. I’ve found that Singers old cleaning solvent, kerosene is probably the best to remove the grime, carefully. Following with a dampened rag of water. A premium non-yellowing car wax is then applied. With all the how to repair on the internet it’s not long before you have restored the machine maybe not to factory fresh finish but to factory fresh stitching.

  6. Hi,
    WAY off topic, but I am guessing that you can help.
    I have a Singer Model 774, and top tension mechanisms are not working properly.
    Do you have any advice on Web resources to find detailed diagnostics for this (relatively) modern machine?
    Rog Smith

  7. My mom had a machine in same cabinet. Think she bought hers around 1948-49. My cousin currently has it. It was used continually throughout its life.

  8. That’s a nice machine! I recently got a FREE vintage machine but I’m running into obstacles trying to get it workable. It’s a Franklin and I think I need to replace the motor and belt but it’s hard to find the right motor. I’m worried that I might be in over my head trying to fix up a motor. 🙃

    • Replacing the belt is easy enough, and I don’t think swapping out the motor is all that difficult either. Take a look at this motor and belt kit from Amazon – looks like it works on most machines

      Since you got the machine for free, it may be worth the $21 to try it!

      • Thank you! I’ve been scouring eBay but my machine is rare. I will see if the Amazon one might work.

    • Check out Vintage Sewing Machine Garage on YouTube. He’s got some videos on cleaning and refurbishing old motors. The videos are quite thorough and easy to follow. I bet you can do it!

  9. I have a 1891 sewing machine from singer. Can you restore it? If you can’t do you know where I can take it to be restored. I don’t trust doing it myself

    • No, I am sorry, but I do not do restorations for others at this time. You may want to see if there is a local sewing machine repair shop in your area that can do the restoration. Thank you for asking though!

  10. What about the electrical wiring. Is it safe at that age?

    • When I examined all the wiring for brittleness and cracks, it looked like this particular machine had been rewired at some point, since the wires looked fairly new. Old machines have cloth covering on the wires, so those may need to be replaced.

  11. i found 3 sewing machines that are all vintage and rusted, i will find a way to restore them and hopefully will be as nice as yours.

  12. My daughter recently purchased a vintage Singer (1950 or 1951 model) for $75.00. Last weekend, her 12-year-old son who has been a “Mr. Fix-it” since birth, rewired the machine and stripped out two motor-mount screws. Last I heard, he had ordered screws and was awaiting delivery. I told my daughter, if he succeeds in restoring this machine, and word gets out, vintage machines may start following him home.

    • That 12-year old may have found himself a very lucrative business! There aren’t many sewing machine repair shops around any more.

  13. Elaine is beautiful and you’ve done a wonderful job of restoring her. Thank you for including all the products you’ve used, I cleaned the woodwork of my 1912 Singer Treadle about 10 years ago so can’t remember what I actually used. Today I spent the morning cleaning the iron base. I dusted it using an old toothbrush, very lightly sanded it with fine sandpaper and wiped it again, then applied one coat of rust converter (primer and sealer) which dried black. It’s already looking great but 1 more coat to go.

    • I’m glad you found the products useful. The Old English furniture polish with stain is a little miracle in a bottle for antique wood!

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