Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Difference Between Domestic & Industrial Sewing Machines (or, How Not to Get Swindled on eBay & Craigslist)

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!”
- "Semi-Industrial!"

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 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.


  1. Well said!! Standing Ovation!!! Right on, Rain!

  2. Rain, you are so right - no April Fool
    It bugs me too when I see those ads
    world of difference

  3. You've done a great job posting about false claims that make me crazy. Thank you so much. I hope everyone trying to find out about the difference between domestic and industrial sewing machines finds this blog post!

  4. I think this is the best written and best illustrated commentary I've seen on this subject and should be required reading for anyone who wants to buy a vintage sewing machine.

  5. Nicely done. It always annoys me to read those stupid claims. I use industrial machines all week all day. They are awesome but there is a distinct difference as you so well described. You touched on this point but another difference is to a home sewer they can be a disadvantage - they lack versatility. You will need multiple machines. Most people do not have room for a separate double needle, zig zag, walking foot, binder, cover hem, serger, leatherwork, blind hem and strait stitch machines plus their table with motor mounts. Having one or two good home machines with helpful accessories can do a lot.

  6. Well said, and well illustrated! I sometimes get people asking me if they should buy this black (domestic) machine on ebay to do their car upholstery etc. No!!! But also pointing out one that is correctly advertised as industrial, like a garment serger, and asking with that sew their car upholstery - the answer is still NO!!! if you want to sew huge quantities of lycra gear, that's the one to get. People do not understand.
    The ones that get me are the sellers with a 1950's or 60's Morse or whatever, advertising as 'Industrial Strength'! I can understand to a point how they might confuse the old Singers, they may have seen an old 31 or a 16 in a saddlers or upholsterers shop, and thought that the 15 or 66 at the thrift store was the same... but not the coloured zig zaggers. :)

  7. Most excellent post, I have seen this crap so many times, yeah you can sew leather with that old 99 but not for long! lol Great info, you rock!

  8. Good Job, Rain! this is much needed and if you can get it wide spread..... it will help a bunch.


  9. Excellent article! One everyone who wants a vintage machine should read! Thank you!

  10. MOST EXCELLENT!!! This is the best commentary I've seen on unscrupulous Ebay sellers and helping people decide what machine they need. The only thing I can think of that would make it better for "newbies" to sewing with vintage machines would be if you included the vintage Japanese and European machines(Brother, Pfaff, Necchi, etc.)I know you are a vintage Singer fanatic, but the same thoughts apply to all domestic machines being tortured by these dishonest sellers. And how about trying to get Ebay to publish this in thier product guides section? Just an idea.

  11. Great post. Hopefully the uninformed will find this and get educated!

  12. Very well put - love the comparisons and info! My favorite picture is of the two motors side by side. lol!

  13. Rain,

    Very well stated. Thank you for this most informative article. The eBay sellers of those 'Industrial Strength' household machines has been a irritation to me for years.


  14. I especially like the side by side size comparisons of the machines and their motors--really drives your point home.

  15. You do an outstanding community service when you write such sensible, wise and informative posts. Thank you!

  16. Great post, Rain, much needed info. Here's another way eBay sellers keep their perfect ratings: run out the clock on you if there is a problem. After a certain period of time you can no longer leave feedback. Just found this out the hard way by trying to be "good" and work with the seller to resolve a problem. Silly me.

    1. You can always follow that seller & simply report any future items they sell that are fraudulent without even bothering to contact that seller about them; chances are if they did it to you, they'll try to do it to someone else.

    2. How do you do that? I recently tried to stop a seller peddling a machine, making a lot of false claims.mI first tried to correct him, and then warned him that I'd report. The ad was full of s*** like "please contact me before leaving negative feedback, because I'm oh so innocent and straight..." He fell right into the category aptly described here.
      I went to the report forms on eBay, but soon got stuck because I couldn't find a category for false claims, and no address to reach live people.
      What did I miss?

  17. Your pictures say it all, Rain! A well-written and much-needed post for many.

  18. A long overdue post. I have a vintage Wilcox & Gibbs industrial circa1928 and I love it but stye are not for everyone and you didn't even touch on the space and servicing requirements of an industrial. Like others who have posted I also have other machines set up for tasks outside what W&G can handle: a Singer 500A set up for buttonholes with a Singer buttonholer, a serger and a overstitch because the W&G only does a lock-stitch and doesn't even go in reverse.

  19. Sewed on industrial machines in college theater costume department. Worked for Wrangler blue jeans company in the 1980s. The industrial machines, on their purpose-cast tables, are larger than my current kitchen table. Once you've seen an industrial machine, you'll never again mistake one for a domestic machine. It's like the difference between a professional football linebacker and a Pee Wee football first-year punter. It's like the difference between a freight train and a Lionel HO scale model train set. It's like the difference between ... something very large and powerful and something that is adequate but much, much smaller.

  20. Fighting the good fight, as always; thank you, Rain.

  21. YOur article is so well done. I deal with these questions on a daily basis and try to provide clear info on the differnces between industrial and domestic.I don't want to lose a sale but again I don't want a customer to be disappointed that their machine will not perform heavy duty tasks for a long period. Advertisers really don't care. They just want the sale. Large stores know the customer can't come back for advice or service and if the machine quits they give you a new one or your money back. Their reputation stays in tact.

  22. Saw the article mentioned in Vintage Singers...Loved it. Sew-Gail-Sews on ebay.

  23. Thank you so much! Excellent side by side comparisom!

  24. Thanks Rain, I just Love IT!!!!! I am so glad someone took the time to point out what I have been telling folks for years. Now maybe some folks will listen! Glad you posted this, Great job, again Thanks so Much for your post!!! Carolyn in Illinois

  25. Great article; incredibly detailed information!...i don't intend rudeness however, isn't it a matter of preaching to the converted? If there are more eBay listings describing domestic machines as industrial machines (and i don't doubt this at all), shouldn't we do something about it such as report the listing or inform the seller to hopefully stem the tide of people being mislead (whether intentionally or not)?

    I recently came across a Featherweight 221 listed as a 222. I contacted the seller and gave them the correct information - my daughter also contacted the seller; days went by and the listing didn't change. The listing was eventually pulled; so i'm assuming someone reported it. Had the listing not been removed prior to the auction ending i had every intention of reporting it.

    It's very necessary that there are well written articles like this for sellers to Google if they are so inclined, but i'm guessing that both the blissfully ignorant and the intentionally misleading sellers aren't going to be Googling anything to inform themselves factually. After all the blissfully ignorant seller probably saw a similar machine listed as industrial and followed suit and the intentional misleader has no desire for fact as it defeats their purpose. So, as a concerned/interested/caring community, shouldn't we now turn to discussing what our role is, in stemming the tide of misleading auctions/sales etc?

    Food for thought :)

  26. Wonderful post! Just about every listing I see for a vintage machine calls it "heavy duty" and "industrial strength," and now I just tune out those words. I was totally flabbergasted one day when I was looking over a couple of very, very pitiful Featherweights at an antique shop. The owner was absolutely convinced they were commanding such high prices because they were being bid up by sweat shop owners to be used by their workers.

  27. I've been reading through your blog entries trying to learn more about antique Singer sewing machines. They are very helpful, especially the series about distinguishing different models from craigslist pictures. I don't have a lot of experience with sewing machines, but the ones I have used (all newer) seem not to hold up to normal sewing -- so I became interested in the older sewing machines when things were built to last.

    I'm not a sewing machine enthusiast or collector, but I want to find a durable machine that I only have to buy one time. Can you do a post comparing the older sewing machines side by side? Like, what attachments are available, what kinds of stitches (I realize most older machines only do straight stitch), can they do reverse stitches, parts find-ability, etc? I tried searching for a comparison online, but I can't find anything.


    1. That's a great suggestion, Mary. However there are undoubtedly better people for the job, like those with many years of experience sewing! I'm going to kick this idea over to what I like to think of as a sister blog to this one, Elizabeth's "My Sewing Machine Obsession" in the hopes she'll pick it up. Her blog is here,

      - Rain

    2. Mary,
      I would suggest you visit and read the Message boards pertaining to sewing machines.
      You may post your vintage desires and someone will MORE than happily suggest potential machines for you to more fully research.
      Yes, currently their exist no such charts to do what you want.
      Alternatively join several Yahoo groups specific to an era or manufacturer and read, read, read.

    3. The vintage sewing machine world is a small circle. DreinPA let me know of this question.

      I think that the Vintage Kenmores (source code 158 or 148) are the BEST machines. Some even have built in button holers. I am using a Kenmore 158.96 now. I love it. The 158.1760 that I have has stretch stitch as well as a gazillion decorative stitch cams that I never use.

      In fact, Kenmores of this vintage are selling rather high on eBay right now. Look on Craigs list. You will find one for far less.

  28. Excellent article!! Thank's a lot...

  29. Thank you so much for an informative and timely post for me. I'm looking for something that can do upholstery/naugahyde on a vintage trailer. THANKS!

  30. Hi, Love this article and the pictures! The industrial motor looks like something off my car ;). Very informative. Thank you so much.

  31. I think this post transcends vintage sewing machines and should be put into practice with anything you look to purchase on ebay or craigslist. Thank you for bringing it into such crisp focus for us all.

  32. Wow. I just found your blog and I think you have summed this topic up so well! I have a small addiction to sewing machines and I am constantly looking at Ebay and craigslist for another machine to add to my collection. I love how you have summed up the difference between and domestic and industrial machine. And I really like you humor.

  33. Excellent exposé! I use both an industrial machine and a mechanical old Bernina, the latter for the precision work like installing small zippers or doing short seams.

  34. good info and exceptionally written

  35. Your blog is one of the best site for understanding sewing machines. Love reading your articles.

  36. Thank you for posting this.

  37. extremely helpful, thank you very much!

  38. This is a great article and perfect information prior to buying a machine. I am currently looking for a machine that I can use to mend sails which will potentially be quite thick. I need a machine that is pretty powerful but wary of falling into the trap you describe. I know very little about the brands involved or what to get, so if anyone has any recommendations I would be grateful. So far I am looking at Jones, New Home, Janome 538, Hilmar, Brother. Any tips or models to look for would be gratefully received

    1. I recommend you start by buying a purpose-built machine, unless you want to spend money twice. (The way this famously goes is: People buy a machine ill-suited to their task to try to save a few bucks, experience failure & frustration, then finally buy the right machine, spending way more than they would have had they only bought one.) Look into a company called Sailrite.

  39. I don't want to buy a vintage machine but your comments and suggestions have made me rethink what I am looking for in a domestic machine. For instance I want to make jeans and I was questioning whether a domestic machine with a slightly bigger motor than another domestic would make much difference. Now I don't think so. I thank you for that.

  40. This is a great blog and thanks for taking the time to put this together. One thing to point out about specifying the power of a motor. Rating a motor in Amperes is really a gimmick that was started by vacuum cleaner companies and has carried over to the home sewing machines. It means very little because the current it consumes can either produce heat and power depending on it's design. You can use Watts rms instead which is moving closer to the truth but you must declare the efficiency of the motor to complete the story and most electric motors are in the 70% efficiency range. Horsepower at xx efficiency actually is the most accurate way to specify a motor but it must be rms not peak horse power and at a specific motor rotational speed. From there you can calculate true torque using the formula Torque=HP*~.7/speed. It amazes me how manufacturers have clouded specifications just to confuse the consumer.

  41. Great post! I'm currently looking for an industrial sewing machine and this article will help me a lot.

  42. I like to tinker with sewing machines and recently got a 21W180 Compound Feed (much like the later 111w series) and a 95-1. Both machines were basically DOA industrials, but came around with much oil and a little patience. The 95-1 is a high speed lockstitch machine and is getting a new internal drive belt .. the leather one is shot after 75 years.

    Both of my machines were Craigs List finds, one $30 and the other $60 (both with functional power stands). I am tickled that parts for the 1911 21W are still available disguised as component of the 111w (a very copied machine).

    Happy Day.

  43. Hey question!!! I want to get a good sewing machine, What do you recommend? I usually do around 30 dresses per month, mostly using satin, lycra and chiffon. The cheap sewing machines don't last much and are kind of slow.

  44. Thanks for this educative writeup. I'm about to buy an "industrial machine". Now I know what to look out for.