|Guess which one's the industrial.|
There are many eBay and Craigslist sellers selling vintage domestic Singer sewing machines and branding them “heavy duty” or “industrial strength.” Sadly, these sellers are lying in order to fetch higher prices. Beware of these descriptions:
- “Vintage Singer Industrial Strength Sewing Machine”
- “Sews leather!
- “Heavy Duty!”
- “Industrial Grade!”
Dishonest sellers know that if you put those keywords into any domestic sewing machine ad, naïve people will be fooled and extra money can be made. When I first got into this hobby, I myself was suckered because I didn’t know any better. So now I’m writing this entry to list some facts and prevent future buyers from falling into the same trap.
What’s the difference between a domestic and an industrial sewing machine?
The difference between a domestic and an industrial sewing machine is something like the difference between a regular car and a semi truck.
The basic mechanics are the same--you have an engine that powers wheels, or a motor that powers a needlebar--but the intended applications and method of usage are totally different. That Toyota is designed to get you to the office or the supermarket, or the occasional roadtrip when your spouse needs to torture you with a visit to the in-laws; but that semi will haul multi-ton loads for 10 hours a day, every day, at highway speeds. As you'll see below, a similar difference exists between domestic and industrial sewing machines.
Domestic vintage sewing machines were designed for housewives of the era. Intended to be a household tool, the machines can handle diverse materials; in the 1940s and ‘50s, the average housewife might be called upon to make everything from clothing to drapery to slipcovers for the couch. She might be sewing something as light as lace, or mending something as heavy as an overcoat. While not necessarily brilliant at any one thing, the domestic machine had to be flexible enough to cover the range.
Industrial sewing machines are intended for use in factories, where people work in assembly lines on highly specific tasks with consistent materials. Some machines are designed to sew shirt cuffs; others are designed to put the waistband on a pair of jeans; still others are designed to attach zippers. Whatever the task, the operator sits there and does that same task over and over again, and the machines are specific to the material weight and the task. An industrial machine is not versatile, but is excellent at performing a few specific tasks.
If you think about it, it’s obvious that a factory making silk bras will have different machine needs than a factory making overcoats. Both will be using industrial machines, and those machines may be completely different from each other. That's why it's pretty dumb if someone says to you, "Hey, you wanna buy an industrial machine? I have an industrial machine!" It's like someone saying "Hey, you need some medicine? I have medicine!" You have medicine, or an industrial sewing machine, that's used for what? If I'm making parachutes and your machine came from a panty factory, it does me no good. I might as well buy cholesterol pills for a broken leg.
A domestic machine is used for a few hours at a time, and during that usage, it is not running constantly. The sewist puts down a line of stitches, then pauses to adjust the material, insert or remove pins etc., then puts down another line of stitches. It is stop-and-go work and the machine is designed accordingly, with a small motor and standard-sized components.
Let's look at the underpinnings of a 15-91:
|Underside of a typical domestic machine. (Oil bottle for scale.)|
In contrast, industrial machines are designed for factories, and factories make money by running full-tilt. Your average factory worker puts the pedal to the metal and cranks out hundreds or thousands of pieces a day. Accordingly, industrial machines have powerful motors, thicker shafts, stronger bearings, and beefier gears. They use more steel inside than a domestic does.
Let's look at the underpinnings from a Singer 111w155:
|Underside of an industrial features much thicker, heavier parts. (Oil bottle for scale.)|
Whether specifically designed to sew silk or heavy leather, an industrial machine uses more robust parts than a domestic, because an industrial must stand up to the abuse of long hours of constant high-speed usage.
|Note that the beefy connecting rod, at center-right, looks like something you'd find in a car.|
While not the end-all be-all, the motor is the most obvious indication that you’re dealing with an industrial versus a domestic machine.
I recently bought the Singer 111w155 pictured up top, which is a true industrial, designed to produce automotive upholstery. Take a look at the motor that was connected to it:
Now look at the potted motor of the Singer 15-91, one of the machines I frequently see FALSELY advertised as “Industrial Strength:”
Let's look at them side-by-side:
Get the idea? Even if you know nothing at all about motors, do you honestly believe the one on the left is capable of doing the same thing as the motor on the right? If so, why would factory owners bother buying the bigger motors?
Most industrials have motors that are 1/2 horsepower or 3/4 horsepower. Your average domestic Singer’s motor isn’t measured in horsepower, it’s measured in amps (short for amperes), a unit of electric current.
Horsepower and amps aren’t easy to compare--it’s a bit like comparing how much money Person A has, to Person B’s earnings potential--but if we put them on a rough scale, 1 amp is equal to approximately 1/10 horsepower.
Some sellers will boast that they’ve outfitted their machines with 1.5 amp motors, which according to them, makes them “industrial strength.” Simply not true. A 1.5 amp motor is still less than 33% as powerful as the smallest industrial motor. So don’t be wowed by impressive-sounding numbers. Plus, as you saw above in the photos of the underpinnings, a more powerful motor alone is not enough to make a machine "industrial."
A Word About Leather
Sellers trying to inflate the capabilities of their machine love to put “Sews leather!” in their description. This is a ridiculous and value-less statement, because leather comes in many different thicknesses and types. The lightest, cheapest garment-weight leather is easy to put stitches in on ANY machine, including those plastic Wal-Mart junk jobs. Bring me the crappiest sewing machine you have and I’ll show you a lightweight piece of leather I can sew on it.
What these sellers are hoping is that you’ll believe that if you buy one of their machines, you’ll be able to make gun holsters and horse saddles with their “Industrial Strength” model 99s. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
Some sellers will go a step further and show photos of their machine sewing through thick leather belts. Folks, I have no doubt you can coax a domestic into temporarily sewing through thick leather. I also don’t doubt you could take the Toyota we saw earlier, tie that trailer to the back of it, and under the right conditions, get it to move. But how far do you think you’ll get? And how well do you think that Toyota’s going to hold up before it breaks down?
Here’s the bottom line: The guy bragging about his machine’s leather capabilities is trying to sell it to you. Wouldn’t you rather learn about leather machines from someone who sews leather for a living and isn’t trying to sell you anything?
If so, the forums over at Leatherworker.net are a great place to start. There’s a section called “Leather Sewing Machines” where people with decades of leather experience discuss different sewing machines appropriate for those tasks. Needless to say, you won’t find anyone raving about “Heavy Duty” model 66s.
A Word About “Heavy Duty”
Apart from the sellers who’ll actively lie to you about their machines’ capability, there are others who misinform you because they just don’t know any better. They find a sewing machine in their grandmother’s attic and figure it’s worth big bucks. They try lifting it and discover it weighs 30 pounds. They figure it’s a “heavy duty” machine because of its heft.
Folks, a domestic vintage Singer is only “heavy duty” in the sense that EVERYTHING from that era was “heavy duty”--meaning “overbuilt.” Today we have fancy software that analyzes machinery parts for manufacturers, to help them calculate the absolute thinnest and cheapest a part can be to get through 10,000 cycles before it breaks. Back then we had no such thing. So we overbuilt everything from sewing machines to refrigerators to cars. Pull the door shut on a ’54 Buick, then pull the door shut on an ’88 Buick and see if you notice anything different.
Because vintage Singers were overbuilt, they will last you a lifetime under the normal use for which they were intended. But that does not qualify them as “heavy duty” machines as that term is popularly understood. “Overbuilt” does not mean “industrial,” and here’s the proof:
Go into any garment factory today (or find one on YouTube) and you’ll see the place is filled with industrial machines, whether old or new, that each cost thousands of dollars. Vintage domestic Singers can be found much cheaper than that and are ubiquitous on every Craigslist from New York to Los Angeles. If vintage domestic Singers were good enough to serve as industrials, then why wouldn’t factory owners just buy hundreds of them and fill their factories with these less expensive, easier-to-repair machines? Do you think factory owners simply enjoy spending more money in this economy, or that they are not smart enough to hire Craigslist buyers? No, the answer is simple: They don’t do that because domestic Singers are not cut out for that kind of work.
How Do These Sellers Get Away With It?
Some of the eBay sellers advertising false industrials have 100% user ratings. If what they are selling isn’t as advertised, how is this possible?
Well, early on I unwittingly bought falsely-described machines from two different sellers that both had 100% ratings. When I became frustrated with the performance of the first, I opened it up and found some problems. I contacted the seller and he offered to refund my money in full. The second machine was listed as having been re-wired. I opened that one up too, and found out it wasn’t re-wired. That seller then claimed he had made a cut-and-paste mistake in the listing from a different machine, and offered to send me a free cabinet (that I wanted) to make things right. So both sellers got to keep their perfect ratings and lived to sell another day. (And I was forced to learn how to re-wire a motor.)
Those are just two possibilities for how a dishonest seller can maintain high eBay ratings. But I'm sure there's more to it. What I suspect is happening is that some users don’t really need industrials, but buy into the hype, the same way we buy Nike running shoes without ever spending a day on the track, or buy impressive-looking 4x4s and never go off-roading. I’m guessing these users have an inflated sense of their needs and buy an overhyped machine, and because they never needed an industrial in the first place, never discover the machine doesn’t live up to the hype. That’s my theory, anyway.
Do You Even Need an Industrial?
If you’re in the market for a sewing machine, ask yourself whether a domestic is fine, or whether you really need an industrial. Above all, don’t get your machine recommendations from the person trying to sell you the machine. Figure out whatever it is you want to do--make women’s handbags, make your own clothes, start a business repairing sails--find other people that have already done that, and ask them what machines are best suited to those tasks. Provided you are friendly, I find that most folks that have built up a lifetime of experience are happy to share it with others.
No matter what it is you want to use a sewing machine for, I can just about guarantee there’s some group of people on the internet that have already been doing it for years. Like that Leatherworker forum I linked to above. Find people with years or decades of experience and learn from their wisdom (and don’t forget to thank ‘em!). While the internet helps enable these false-industrial-sewing-machine sellers, it also empowers us to learn enough to avoid them.