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Siamese 09-09-2015 11:36 AM

Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
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Using an Old Domestic Sewing Machine for Canvas Projects

I like being able to save money by sewing my own canvas items for my boat.
Having the right sewing machine will make your projects possible. Here’s how to find a high quality, inexpensive, older domestic sewing machine capable of doing many of your onboard canvas projects.

Why Not Just Get an Industrial Machine?

An industrial sewing machine would certainly handle anything a sailor might throw at it. They’re big, so they can handle large projects, and they have powerful table mounted motors rated around three quarter horsepower. The downside of industrial machines from the occasional user’s standpoint, is that used ones are in short supply, and new or used, they’re expensive.

What About the Sailrite Machines?

Just about every sailor has heard of the Sailrite sewing machines. They’re a nice machine, and sort of a mini-industrial. For boat projects, they’re close to ideal. They’re a little crudely built, but they’re reliable and capable. And, for the novice or occasional sewist, it’s nice to have the people at Sailrite available to answer your questions.

What makes the Sailrite a good machine? While the machine mounted motor on a Sailrite has minuscule power as compared to a true industrial machine, it’s geared down more than an industrial. The Sailrite sacrifices speed for power, but unless you’re sewing circus tents, you probably don’t care. And when you have to punch through more layers than the motor can handle, or when starting from a dead stop with heavy fabric, just turn the wheel with your hand to get it started.

The other advantage with a Sailrite machine is it’s “walking foot”. Sewing machines, domestic or industrial use “feed dogs” to move the fabric through the machine. They’re located in the bed of the machine right below the presser foot. They have sharp teeth on them (maybe that’s why they call them dogs?) to grip the fabric and pull it through the machine. Feed dogs generally provide all the feeding power required for light to medium projects, but for multiple layers of heavy canvas or vinyl, it’s better to have the material pulled through the machine from below, with the feed dogs, and above, with a walking foot.

The walking foot is located beside the presser foot. In operation, the presser foot stays in constant contact with the material, holding it down, and the walking foot moves down with each stitch, grabs the fabric, and pull it through the machine, then raise off the fabric, ready for the next stitch. The foot looks like it’s “walking”. If you’re planning to sew your own dodger, or have several projects you want to tackle, you would be well served with a walking foot machine.

The only real downside to a Sailrite machine is the price. Which isn’t to say they’re overpriced. It just may be more of an outlay than you want to make to try sewing your own cushions. Used Sailrites are somewhat scarce, and get snapped up quickly.

The Low Cost Alternative

The question is often raised as to whether a home machine is capable of sewing canvas projects.

The answer is most likely no, if you’re considering one of the modern, plastic bodied machines that can be purchased for a hundred to a few hundred dollars or more. Their plastic internal parts and undersized motors are not up to the task.

The answer is an absolute yes, IF you get the right machine.

The machines I’ll discuss can be bought for anywhere from $10.00 to $125.00, with $50.00 to $100.00 being sort of a sweet spot. The price is part of the appeal of these old machines. The rest of the appeal lies in using a vintage, well engineered, high quality mechanical device that functions perfectly.

I call the period from the 50’s to somewhere in the early 70’s the golden age of sewing machines. Machines like these, that can literally be handed down for generations, will never be made again. We’re just lucky that they’re plentiful and inexpensive.

What Projects Can These Old Domestic Machines Handle?

On the low end of their capability would be curtains in anything from light fabric to exterior Sunbrella. On the high end, a Sunbrella boom tent would be well within their ability. Expect to be able to sew Sunbrella to produce a tiller cover, hatch covers, fender covers, lee cloths, helm cover, outboard motor cover, cushions, sail covers, and more.

What Makes the Old Machines More Capable?

The machines that I recommend have larger, more powerful motors than today’s machines. The bodies are cast iron or aluminum, and more importantly, the mechanical components are all steel, and far less likely to fail compared to modern machines with plastic gears.

What Are the Limits of the Old Machines?

One of the limiting factors with a home machine, no matter how powerful, is it’s ability to use heavier threads. Expect to be able to easily use V69 bonded polyester thread, which is fine for the projects I’ve mentioned. I have experimented with the heavier V92 without much success.

Another limiting factor is stitch length. Industrial machines, including the Sailrites, can make longer stitches. For the projects I recommend using your old machine on, the shorter stitch length is adequate.

The lack of a walking foot can make it more difficult to feed multiple layers of material. I used a heavy, PVC coated canvas to make a forward hatch cover, and the feed dogs weren’t up to the task of feeding this slippery material. The resulting stitches were strong, but the length wasn’t uniform. The material was light gray, and the thread was white, so the seams only look bad on close inspection. Next time, I’ll just use Sunbrella or a similar, non-slippery fabric.

Domestic machines are smaller than industrial machines, making it difficult or impossible to sew large projects like boat covers.

Sails are also outside of the capability of these machines.

Walking Foot for Your Domestic Machine

While they’re not the equivalent of a true walking foot machine, for around $20.00 or so, you can buy an accessory walking foot for a domestic machine, which will extend it’s capabilities.

Sewing difficult projects without a true walking foot

A walking foot serves the purpose of keeping layers of fabric from sliding apart from each other, and ensures a smooth feed. For those of us not engaged in high production canvas work where speed is of the essence, there's a good work-around.

Double sided tape, available from Sailrite, is an excellent way to hold a seam together so you can more easily manage it as you feed it through the machine.

Also, pinning pieces together as you would if you were sewing a garment eliminates shifting of the pieces.

I'll be doing a new sail cover this winter, and no doubt tape and pins will be on hand to get me through the project.

I Should Have Bought One of These a Long Time Ago

I had always heard that the old, all metal machines were reliable and good for canvas work, but I always figured I’d end up with one that was on its last legs, and might prove unsuitable for what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to buy a project.

I had no idea which of them were suitable, and had no interest in becoming an expert on them.

In the back of my mind was the fear that they might be finicky, and possibly not reliable. And what if something breaks?

Also, I had no idea what sort of needles the machine might use. What if I bought a machine that used some odd, hard to get size? And bobbins, and bobbin holders? Would an older machine use some sort of rare proprietary parts that would be difficult and expensive to replace? Who needs all that hassle?

The answer is, the old machines pretty much all use the same needles, the same bobbins, and bobbin holders and so on. In other words the items that one occasionally replaces or purchases on a regular basis (like needles) are standard items available online or from your local sewing store, or Walmart. And, of course, online. The same standard parts have been in use for decades!

I even wondered if the older machines would make as good a stitch as the new ones. Surely, there’s been progress over the decades, right? Wrong again. The old machines produce beautiful, strong stitches.

I got started with these machines when I saw an ad on Craigslist for an old machine that had been “gone through” according to the seller. Apparently, as I gleaned from the ad, the seller had a large collection of old machines, and routinely bought, refurbished, and sold machines on Craig’s. This seller was a good communicator and her ad convinced me that the old machine she was selling would bring me happiness. And, for $75.00, I figured it was worth a shot.

And, it was. The machine was a Stitch Queen, from Japan, and manufactured about 1950. It looks like an old Singer, but instead of Singer black, it’s baby blue, with a slight metallic luster, gold pin-striping, and nickel plated parts. Yes, she’s about sixty-five years old, but you can barely tell her from new, and she functions perfectly. So, where am I going to get parts? Remember, she uses the same standard stuff as every other sewing machine. And the mechanical components inside? They’re not going to break. Sure, it needs to be maintained, and I’ll talk about that later. Bottom line, with just sewing machine oil, and the occasional simple adjustment, this sixty-five year old machine has another fifty years of use left in it. She’s easy to use, as beautiful as a vintage car, and produces high quality straight stitches in forward and reverse. Her motor is externally mounted and produces all its rated power, and it’s brushes are replaceable and available when they wear out. Worst case scenario, a new motor could be bolted on, but they seldom fail.

The Post WWII Japanese Sewing Machines
Why is the Stitch Queen and others like her still a viable machine? Let’s start with where she came from. Japan.

Before World War II, the Japanese were masters at manufacturing. After the war, much of the expertise remained, and the ambition was there, but the infrastructure was devastated. They had to rebuild one step at a time, and sewing machines were a good place to start.

The patent on the venerable Singer model 15-91 had expired, and producing clones of the Singer was within their capability. The United States, fearing the Japanese would turn to Communism, was anxious to do what it could to help them get on their financial feet, and provided loans and assistance to get them started.

Information is sketchy as to how many companies were involved in producing the clones, but estimates are around fifteen companies, producing them under thousands of different brand names. Stitch Queen, General, House Keeper, Remington, Visetti, and on and on. Many were badged for American companies like Montgomery Wards, and Younkers, while many others simply sported names that the manufacturers hoped would resonate with American consumers.

The quality of the machines was on a par with or superior to the Singers. The paint and plating on my sixty-five year old machine is near perfect. The body is cast iron, and the internal parts are steel. There is nothing cheap about this machine or the other clones. They were built by serious people who wanted to make a superior product.

They also had a habit of using bigger motors than the Americans. Most of these machines have 1.0 amp motors, although 1.2 amp and 1.3 amp are common. For our purposes, a 1.0 amp motor is plenty, and will allow you to sew through at least six layers of Sunbrella.

One More Thing…the Styling!

Do an online search for “Singer 15 Clones”, and see for yourself the incredible variety of colors and imaginative design that went into these machines. I can only assume that with Singer and the European manufacturers enjoying the bulk of U.S. sales, that the Japanese saw styling as a way to promote their high quality machines. Immediately after WWII, the machines still closely resembled the Singers they had copied, but with beautiful pastel paint-jobs, and two-tone color schemes. By the late fifties, their machines had adopted styling cues from the automotive industry.

Some of the designs are tasteful and subtle, while others look like the dashboard of a ’59 Cadillac. Whether the styling is subtle or outlandish, the utility and craftsmanship are consistent, so take your time and find the machine that tickles your fancy.

Which Machine Should You Buy?

I’m partial to the Japanese machines. For the practical reasons I mentioned already, and because they made them so pretty. And, because the Japanese machines are universally good machines for light canvas work.

Everybody knows Singer, and some of the Singers are good choices. You can get a nice Singer that’s close to a hundred years old and still usable. My personal preference is for the post WWII machines. A good example would be a Singer 401. I bought one recently, just because it’s what my mom had when I was a kid. Aluminum body, with straight stitch, zig-zag, and a variety of decorative stitches using “cams”. The 401 is a high quality machine, with a few interesting quirks and design features, but the motor is only .72 amps. Yes, it’ll go through six layers of Sunbrella, but not a easily as my Stitch Queen. The Singers are good, but they also made some models that are dogs. One problem with the Singers is that everybody knows them, and that drives up the prices.

Which Japanese machines are good? Well, I have yet to run across a bad one. I’ll take just about any Japanese machine from the 50’s, 60’, and into the early 70’s. Look for anything with an all metal body. If the body is all metal, so are the mechanicals inside. Most will have a cast iron body. You’ll know it’s cast iron when you pick it up. Weighs about 35 pounds. An aluminum bodied machine will be a little under 20 pounds.

Some brands to look for are Sewmore, Morse (made by Toyota), New Home (by Janome), White (not all are from Japan, check the label), Brother (check the label for Japan), Stitch Matic, Emdeko, Visetti, Dressmaker, and on and on.

Look for a machine that’s cosmetically in good to excellent condition. Why not? There are plenty of them out there. No reason to get one that’s in poor condition. I recently bought (in 2015) a 1960 New Home machine for $75.00 that cannot be told from new. Green and cream two-tone with zig-zag. Just needed to be oiled. Isn't she pretty?

Really? Any All Metal Japanese Sewing Machine?

Yes, really. I was just now browsing through Craigslist to see what’s new on the market. I found several, including a “Western” straight stitch from Japan, that appeared to be one of the early clones from the 1950’s. I’d never heard of the Western brand, but I’d buy the machine in a heartbeat.

Where to Find a Good Machine

Craigslist is probably the best place to find a machine. Some are priced properly, and some are priced sky high. Just like sailboat sellers, some people are not realistic. Machines on Ebay tend to be priced higher thanks to their wider market, plus you have to ship a 35 pound piece of metal. You’ll find plenty of nice Japanese machines within 50 miles of your home.

There may be someone in your area who buys and sells old machines and will advertise them as “gone through” or refurbished and may be a good source for your first machine. They may be an enthusiast who can demonstrate the machine for you, let you sew with it, and show you a little about taking care of it. This way, you know from the start that the machine is ready for your project. That’s how I got my first machine, and soon I was searching Craig’s for machines that were “mom’s machine, but we don’t use it anymore and we just bought a new, computerized machine”. I buy these for twenty to seventy-five dollars, oil them, adjust them a little, and end up with a machine that will last another fifty years. The plastic machine they bought will hit the trash long before that.

Use Bing or Google and search for the Japanese Singer Clones. Look at the pictures, and you’ll quickly be able to identify them when you start looking on Craig’s. Usually, the sellers know nothing about the machine, because it was stored away somewhere by their mom, and hasn’t been used in twenty years. Ask them to find the label that says where it’s made. You want Japan. No China, Taiwan, etc.. Get the brand, and a model number. Most of them have the model number on a little plate on the bottom edge of the machine. If the seller can’t see it, they may need to lift it out of it’s case or cabinet to get a look at it. Then just Bing it, and you’ll likely come up with a little useful info on it. Search on Youtube and you might see a review.

The typical seller doesn’t know if the machine works. It’s up to you to figure out if it’s a good buy. I’ll discuss that later.

Just a Side Note

A lot of sellers refer to these older machines as “industrial machines” or “industrial strength”. That’s dishonest, and I’d be cautious with any seller who makes that misleading claim. These machines were made for domestic use. They just happen to be made much better than today’s machines.

The Kenmores….your shortcut to a great machine?

If you want to buy an excellent machine, without doing any homework, just buy a Kenmore. Make sure it’s made in Japan, and make sure it’s one of their “158” series machines. The styling on the Kenmores may be a little boring, but you won’t find a better machine.

The 158 series machines came in many variations over the years and were labeled as 158.16520, 158.17300, etc.. Often, the seller will refer to a 158.17300 as simply a 1730, etc., so be sure to contact them and inquire.

The 158’s from the mid to later 1960’s often used 1.2 amp externally mounted motors. Later, they moved the motors inside the housing, and used a double pulley system much like the Sailrite machines to gear them down for more power. Very nice. Most of these machines have 1.0 amp motors. I recently bought a 158 series with a 1.2 amp motor and a double pulley system. Here she is:

The later 158’s are aluminum bodied. They’re all metal inside, but tend to have plastic trim, plastic handwheels, and the cover over the double pulley system is plastic. These plastic exterior parts do not detract from the performance and reliability of these machines.

I don’t have enough experience with the pre-Japan Kenmores, or with their 148 series Japanese machines to give a recommendation on them.

What About American and European Sewing Machines?

There are many all metal european machines from the same era that will be the equal of the Japanese machines for your marine canvas projects. I’m avoiding them in this article in the interest of simplification. Many of the machines from Singer, Pfaff, and Husqvarna, and Necchi, or Elna could be excellent choices, but they tend to be more expensive, and there are many that I would avoid. By steering you towards the Japanese machines, I keep it simple, and there is no shortage of these machines from which to choose.

How to “Survey” a Classic Sewing Machine

You’ll need to evaluate the machine once you find it. If you know how to sew, this will be easier. If you don’t, it would be nice to bring someone who does. Cosmetics are easy enough. You ought to be able to find a shiny machine with just a few, or maybe even no scratches or blemishes.

To check the mechanicals, try to gently rotate the handwheel. If it turns, that’s a bonus. If it turns easily, that’s a huge bonus. If it doesn’t turn, most likely the machine needs to be cleaned and oiled, or thread is tangled up in the bobbin area. If you’re a newbie, you should restrict your purchase to a machine that turns.

I recently bought a 1954 Singer 401 from the daughter of the original owner. It didn’t turn, but there wasn’t a scratch on it, so I took the plunge. On the trip home, I carefully wiggled the hand wheel a little and it broke free. At home, it received cleaning and oiling and ran like new.

Take a medium size slot screwdriver with you. Any of the machines that have zig-zag stitch capability will have a removable metal top cover that removes with just a couple screws. Careful not to scratch it, okay? Pop the top and you can take a look at the mechanicals. See if there’s anything obviously wrong. Unless you have some experience, there’s no reason to buy one that doesn’t look clean and nice inside.

Note: Many of the Kenmore machines don’t have screws holding the top on. They’re held on by spring hardware, so just firmly grip the top panel and carefully lift it up and off the body of the machine.

While you’re looking inside, look for any plastic parts. They’re usually white. And they’re often broken. If it has plastic gears, don’t buy it.

Inspect the bottom of the machine. If it’s mounted in a case, remove the case to get a clear look at the mechanical components underneath. If it’s in a cabinet, it’s probably mounted on hinges that will allow you to rotate it backward for access to the bottom. Look for dirt, corrosion, and missing parts. There’s no reason to buy a machine that doesn’t look reasonably clean and corrosion free, unless you have more experience and the machine is free.

This isn’t like surveying a sailboat. Five or ten minutes and you’ll either buy it or walk away. If in doubt, walk. There are plenty more on Craigslist.

Features / What to Look For

All you really need is a machine that does straight stitch.
The next feature to possibly look for is zig-zag. If all you do is Sunbrella projects, like covers and so on, you’ll never need zig-zag, but it’s nice if you’re working with materials that have some stretch to them (like if you want to sew a fleece pullover). Of course, zig-zag is essential for sewing sails, but these domestic machines aren’t up to that sort of duty.

Another feature, found on some zig-zag machines is L-M-R needle placement, or the ability to shift the needle slightly to the left, right, or leave it in the middle of the presser foot. If you know this is a feature you want, get it. If not, don’t worry about it. You won’t need it for your boat projects.

Some of the machines also use “cams”. A cam is a plastic disk that snaps into a receiver in the top of the machine, and allows the machine to produce decorative stitches. Certainly not necessary for your boat projects, but who knows. You might make a set of Sunbrella curtains and use a cam that produces a nice embroidery pattern that will decorate the edge of your blue curtains with a contrasting white thread. Machines that use cams typically come with a set of 12 to 24 of them.

Some machines have the ability to assist in making button holes. This feature sometimes requires external attachments to accomplish this task.

That’s about it for features on these vintage machines. These machines are a study in ingenuity and engineering, but that’s about as far as they got with purely mechanical means. Today’s sewing machines manage all their wizardry with computer chips and software.

Sewing Tables

Many of the machines on Craigslist come with a table. Usually, the table is original to the machine, and has been chewed on by the family pet at some time but is fully functional. Most tables have a cutout in the top that the machine fits in. They allow the machine to swing down into the table for storage, and allow the machine to be rotated back to expose the bottom for service. If a table is included, that’s nice, but I wouldn’t pass up a good machine for the lack of one.

Any of the machines can be set on a tabletop and used, although they can be a little unstable and may slide around when you push the reverse button. My favorite sewing table is an inexpensive office table/desk that I modified to accommodate a sewing machine. A quick study of the bottom of my sewing machine and a little jig-saw work allowed it to sit into the table. Works fine, and looks better in my office/sewing room than a beat up old table.

If you find a machine that’s mounted in a table, you’ll want to separate it from the table for transport. Unplug any wires that may impede separation. There will be two hinges that attach to the back of the machine’s base. Each hinge has a slot head screw that you can loosen to separate the machine from the hinge. Have someone rotate the machine backward so you can look under it, and locate those screws, loosen them a few turns, and easily pull the machine away from the table.

What About a Manual?

If you’re lucky, the machine you buy will have it’s original manual. If it’s gone, you might be able to do a search online, and for ten dollars or so, download a PDF of the original. Now that I’ve been buying, fixing, and selling (and sometimes keeping!) for a year or so now, I’ve found I seldom have need for a manual anymore. One of my Kenmores had a feature I couldn’t figure out, but it’s easy to find manuals for Kenmores. Don’t sweat it if you can’t find a manual; these are simple machines. There are forums where nice people will help you.

How Do I Maintain My Classic?

These old machines just need a little love. And love comes in a little bottle labeled, “sewing machine oil”.

You can find plenty of wrong information on sewing forums with regard to oil. No, WD-40 isn’t a good lightweight oil for sewing machines. On one forum someone was an advocate of using olive oil! Don’t use 3 in 1 oil, either, as it’s notorious for gumming up sewing machines after they sit for a while.

Sailrite will sell you a bottle of the right stuff with a nice adjustable tube that will get into tricky places. Otherwise, you can get it at Walmart or elsewhere. Even sewing machine oil will tend to get sticky and varnish-like when a machine is stored for longer periods, and is one of the reasons older machines may not turn.

Oil frequently. Each time you get your machine out of the closet for a new project, give it an oiling. The new machines don’t require as much oiling. When they quit working, you take them in for repair at considerable expense, or just throw them away. Or put them on Ebay.

Some machines will require grease in addition to oil. If you look inside the machine, and it has gears with teeth, you need to use grease. Many of the zig-zag machines will have gears that need grease, and all of the machines that use cams will have gears to grease. I like the Tri-Flow synthetic grease you can find online. Expensive, but works great and you’ll use very little. Don’t use grease anywhere but on the gears. Singer makes a less expensive grease, and basic grease for wheel bearings is okay. Don’t use lithium grease.

The winch grease you may already have would be fine on the gears.

When I bring home a new-to-me old machine, I put it on the kitchen table and work on it for two or three hours one night, and do the same for a second night. And maybe a third. That may sound tedious, but these old machines are engineered to be be easily worked on, and I find it enjoyable to breathe new life into them. And, it’s a great way to get to know the machine.

Special Tools?

Nope. Just about everything that needs to be removed or tweaked can be done with a slot screwdriver. Ideally, you’ll want hollow ground screwdrivers instead of the more common wedge shaped variety. They’ll fit the screws much better. Get a set of bits with a universal handle for not much money. Other than that, maybe a couple of wrenches you already have in your toolbox. You’ll discover that these machines, unlike so many of the things on your sailboat, were engineered to be easy to work on. I find it MUCH easier than working on a diesel or just about anything else on my boat.

Okay Then, How Do I Oil It?

You’ll find enough information online to get you through the oiling process, but they key thing is, if it moves, oil it.

Youtube is a good source, too. I can’t point you to the definitive how-to, because at this time, I don’t think there is one.

When I’m doing a thorough oiling, I like to remove the belt from the handwheel and then remove the handwheel and clean and lube it’s bearing surfaces. It’s pretty simple, and only requires a couple screwdrivers. You’ll find more online for this.

Every sewing machine has a cover over it’s left side (as you sit facing the machine). Remove that cover, or if it’s on a hinge, just swing it open. You’ll see several moving parts that need to be oiled. Turning the hand wheel on the right side of the machine will cause the parts to move, making it obvious what needs to be oiled. Sparingly!

Zig-zag machines have removable covers on the top. They’re usually removed with a couple screws, or may simply snap off if no screws are visible. Note that some removable tops have holes in them that will funnel a drop of oil to the critical components. That’s nice, but removing the cover to get to ALL the points is better. Under the cover, you’ll find plenty of parts that move. Anywhere metal parts meet and move, apply oil. You’ll see metal arms that pivot on pins, and you’ll notice that each has a tiny hole where you can put a drop of oil. If you don’t find a tiny hole, put the oil in the most logical place. There isn’t much you need to take apart aside from a couple covers. There are more moving parts under the machine that need to be oiled. Be a detective. You’ll figure out what the various parts do. And if you don’t, oil them anyway.

A gooseneck lamp of some sort to light up the interior areas is indispensable. Paper towels and Q-Tips work well for cleaning, and WD-40 is good as a cleaner/solvent. You may encounter frozen mechanisms where PB Blaster will free things up. I’ve used WD-40 and a little heat from a propane torch to get things moving, followed by liberal sewing machine oil. Wipe off the excess to avoid fling. Sewing machines don’t have tight tolerances, so it just takes a little persistence to get them moving freely again.

As you work your way through the various oiling points on your machine, keep turning the main shaft so all the parts move and the oil is able to work into the right places. You’ll notice that as you keep cleaning, oiling, and turning, it will become easier and easier to turn, until you’ll be amazed at how little effort it takes to move all those parts.

If it’s a zig-zag machine, don’t forget to set the selector lever for various stitch widths and watch to see which parts move so you can oil them.

All knobs, levers, etc., should be lightly oiled for free movement. This will make the machine work like new, last longer, and be a pleasure to use.

Tip: Standard sewing machine oil has always been the best oil to use. As I mentioned before, if the machine is stored away for a long time, it can become varnish-like and gum up your machine. I got a tip online for using Mobil 1, 0 - 20 viscosity synthetic oil motor oil. I’ve used it on a few machines now, and find that it performs very well. I use it in the same long spout bottle that my sewing machine oil came in. The possible advantage of the Mobil 1 is that it won’t become varnish-like. Time will tell, but it sounds reasonable to me.

If you’re used to maintaing a sailboat, you’ll find these classic machines easy to maintain. Oil, a few simple tools, and a little patience will keep them running like new.

Edited portion follows:
Pictures, or it didn't happen!

Here's a link to my first old machine, the 1950 Stitch Queen. See how she runs through six layers of Sunbrella without a whimper.

MarkSF 09-09-2015 11:51 AM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
My experience is that any work with Sunbrella (I have a lot of covers) is really a struggle without a walking foot. As soon as you get to more than a couple of layers, you start to struggle without. The biggest enemy is that binding material. Even the Sailrite can struggle with that stuff, any kind of domestic machine without a walking foot, forget it.

Siamese 09-09-2015 12:09 PM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine

Originally Posted by MarkSF (Post 3017778)
My experience is that any work with Sunbrella (I have a lot of covers) is really a struggle without a walking foot. As soon as you get to more than a couple of layers, you start to struggle without. The biggest enemy is that binding material. Even the Sailrite can struggle with that stuff, any kind of domestic machine without a walking foot, forget it.

That's too bad you had that experience. I used to have a Consew 206 RB6 industrial machine with a walking foot, and it could do ANYTHING.

But, I used my all-metal domestic machines to easily make a Sunbrella helm cover, forward hatch rain cover, and a boom tent for my Catalina 28. These tasks were well within their capability.

I would agree that as you do bulkier, more complex projects like dodgers, that you'll exceed their capability.

MikeOReilly 09-09-2015 01:11 PM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
Interesting analysis Siamese. I will say I tried to make an old all-metal Japanese machine work for our cruising needs. After running it through a number of tests I concluded it would not be worth carrying it with me on board. It worked great for light material, but my main need is sail and sunbrella repair. I found my good old Japanese machine could not consistently manage sunbrella, nor a few layers of sailcloth. And the lack of good walking foot just made the whole project too difficult for this neophyte sewer.

Probably if I was a more skilled sewer I could make it work, but I found it became an exercise in frustration. Compared to a Sailrite-type machine (there are others, not just Sailrite), I just found it way too difficult to actually do anything.

MarkSF 09-09-2015 01:29 PM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
I also used a domestic machine to make some covers. The trouble is, I had to make too many compromises. Not as many layers as I wanted, couldn't use the strong binding, no leather or vinyl. Compared to the commercial grade covers that the boat already has, which are very sturdy, the ones I made are not very robust. The domestic machine struggled to even repair the commercial covers.

Then I bit the bullet, so to speak, and bought the LSZ-1. Since then I've been re-doing some of the repairs, and will probably re-make some of the covers I made.

glymroff 09-09-2015 06:26 PM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
just 2cts here... i bought my gal a sailrite lz1 for a present a couple of years ago... she went thru all manuals videos etc. but, for sure w/ in a short period of time on any project (cushions, sail patches, canvas stuff), she would start swearing at the machine as it would go out of whack and need adjusting.

finally while we were stuck in the DR for engine issues, we met another couple who had a Sailrite, and together they worked thru several issues w/ the machine(s), that's right their machine had similar issues. We were lucky enough to find a guy that was a commercial canvas guy, who had several of these machines. He informed us that you had to constantly adjust the machine when doing heavy work, otherwise it would slowly go out of whack.

Long story short, a couple of weeks later we sold the machine to a guy in PR who owned a fabric store. We bought a commercial/professional grade Singer that happened to be on sale at Walmart!!! They just wanted it off the shelf. It came w/ a walking foot as well. My gal LOVES it!!! it is easy to use, lighter, 4times cheaper, and so far has done everything we need it to, including canvas.

My point here is not to bash Sailrite. We did meet another guy who loved his, and he did quite a bit of work for himself and other boat buddies. my (our) point is that you don't necessarily have to go w/ an old, or expensive machine. Heck if ours breaks in a year I won't mind dishing out the money for another one. I can do that 4 times over a decade probably and have two things. HAPPY sailing gal, and cool stuff on the boat!

MarkSF 09-09-2015 06:49 PM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
"it would go out of whack and need adjusting." What adjustment went out of whack?

I've just finished making an entire set of salon and V berth cushions, and have also made several Sunbrella covers and done numerous repairs. The only thing I've had to adjust is the thread tension, and that is only when I switch between V-69 and V-92 thread. I could have got away without adjusting, but wanted a perfectly symmetrical stitch (between above and below the cloth). It should take about a minute to adjust the thread tension.

The only other adjustment I know of, is the timing. There is no way that should change, unless you really are abusing the machine. I managed to hit a zipper head-on with the needle. I swear the entire machine leaped 6 inches off the table. Thought I'd done some damage, but no adjustment was needed.

The one explanation I can think of, is use of Teflon / Tenara thread. Everyone reports problems with getting the right tension with it. It even says as much in the manual! Don't use it if you don't have to.

Missingyou 09-09-2015 09:18 PM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
I have a Juki 563 Walking Foot with Reverse. 1980's? This is a beast with a large format bobbin, and I bought it used at a very reasonable $500. Would I do it again? Probably not, these old machines are all very well used and you can't guarantee their condition. I would have likely just spent the money on a newer one such as the Consew 206 RB6, as Siamese said above. $1200 with table?? I learned to sew canvas on the Consew with Tenara Thread and it was fine. Why would I buy something new made in China versus my older Japanese Tank? I think it has to do with the amount of wear my machine has and this translates into fewer failed stitches. Mine will sew well for awhile then start acting up. It can be aggravating. I'm still relatively new at this but I remember the Consew just worked.

As for thread? You should only be using Tenara in my opinion. Why bother with Polyester unless it is absolutely going to stay inside. The UV will destroy it and you will be restitching in 5-7 years. I'm not so sure about the tension for Tenara but for me it has been more about the needle. I currently use a Groz-Beckert MR Longarm Needle in a 16. I may even try to go to a 14. The Tenara has different friction characteristics than Polyester so needle size seems more critical. In fact the thread I am using is a Tenara knockoff called Solar Thread. I'm not happy with it, it's cheaper but it unravels easier. Don't do it, buy the Gortex Tenara.

guitarguy56 09-10-2015 09:03 AM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
I have the White and Necchi (Japanese) sewing machines... both are solid all metal (no plastic gears) and very rugged... sewed all sorts of auto/marine upholstery (leather and ultraleather), repaired sails, you name it... the best machines so far I have bought... many machines I bought did not hold up and the poor nylon gears/construction just stripped causing the machine to given away or tossed.

aeventyr60 09-10-2015 10:00 AM

Re: Choosing a Domestic Sewing Machine
Mostly utter twaddle. We bough a stock standard Singer sewing machine in Mexico in 2000, it sewed vast quantities of sunbrella and many sail repairs up till 2012. we just bought another, no name, non brand, made in China, probably a POS for 150 bucks...The workout it's been given over the last four months would kill most of the machines mentioned above. If it dies tomorrow, I'd buy another.

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