I began as an apprentice in the Upholstery trade when I was 15 years old. I worked the trade all through high school and it helped to put me through college. Eventually I opened my own shop and worked the trade until 2004. In 2004 I partnered with a good friend and we began designing and manufacturing tactical gear for him and the guys he worked with overseas. This business has continued until today. All in all, I have been using industrial sewing machines of various types for over 20 years now. In that time, I have learned much about what machines to look for, and what machines to avoid. Much of this experience has come at significant financial cost, so I hope to help your readers avoid the mistakes I have made over the years.
I have read various articles posted in the past that have extolled the virtues of learning to sew and having a good sewing machine on hand in a TEOTWAWKI  situation. The reasons are many, including being able to repair your clothing and gear when those services are not available. Also, the ability to make and repair gear will be a valuable and marketable skill in a post event situation. I have not, however, been able to locate an article specific to machine choice, especially regarding industrial machines. I know you’re a proponent of the old treadle-pedal style machines, but for reasons to follow, I would caution your readers about these types of sewing machines. I would submit that everyone should have a good INDUSTRIAL grade sewing machine as part of their preparations. Like most good tools, once you’ve had one, it’s hard to see how you ever got by without it.
Over the years I’ve owned, used, sold, purchased, borrowed, repaired, and modified approximately 20 machines of various makes and models. I’ve used button-hole machines, computerized bar-tackers, double-needle machines, sergers, chain-stitchers, straight stitchers–the list is long. Of all the machines I’ve owned, one is by far the most useful. I’ve used it more than all others combined. This machine is what I suggest your readers find, purchase, and learn to use. I’m talking about a compound feed, walking foot industrial sewing machine. For those unfamiliar with sewing machines, let me clarify as best I can and give you some suggestions on where and how to purchase one.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
I should probably apologize in advance to all the good women out there who have sewn for years on small home machines. My wife, mother, aunts, etc. all have them so I mean no disrespect, but here goes… Avoid the temptation to buy an off-the-shelf home sewing machine from the local craft-mart or that computerized wonder with a million preprogrammed stitches and fancy zipper-feet they’re selling on the TV shopping network. These machines are great for the hobby quilter, craft enthusiast, and for boat anchors in a grid-down situation. Also avoid the old fashioned treadle-pedal machines of the pioneer days. They’re okay if you only intend to sew VERY thin fabric, but they’re nearly useless for sewing heavier materials, and finding replacement parts can be dicey. They take a considerable amount of technique to use effectively. I own a great old (pre WWII) industrial long-arm Adler with a treadle. It’s superbly made and amazingly durable… and unfortunately, it’s nearly useless for 99% of the sewing I do.
One of the main reasons to go with an industrial machine is the clutch motor. A good industrial machine will be set in a 4 foot by 2 foot free standing table with a large electric motor mounted underneath that transfers power to the sewing machine head via a v-belt (like the fan belt in older cars). It does this through a clutch, usually made of very dense cork. Once turned on, the motor is always spinning at full speed and by depressing the sewing machine’s pedal, you bring the two cork plates together engaging the clutch. This transfers the power through the v-belt to the head and you’re in business. The clutches last for YEARS. (I have never had to replace a clutch on any of my machines and I sew on them almost daily.) If you’re worried, you can perform a quick test. Sit at the machine with it turned off and try to cycle it by hand. It should difficult. If it isn’t, the clutch may be worn. Don’t give up on the machine just because of this, however, because the motors and clutches are not terribly expensive to replace. If you’ve got a great sewing machine, but a bad motor or clutch, buy it! You can find new motors all day for around $100. (Make sure you buy a single phase motor though, there are tons of 3-phase sewing machine motors out there and few people have 3-phase power.) My point in all this is that if you are in a long-term grid down situation, it will be relatively easy to replace the constantly spinning motor with another form of spinning motion. I have found that with some simple modifications, I can rig up a stationary bicycle to spin the electric motor. It takes little effort for someone in your group to pedal the bike while you sew. It’s best to not remove the motor because once you get it spinning, its internal weight acts like a flywheel and helps maintain the torque necessary to keep sewing trough thick materials. If you have one of those old-school exercise bikes with the very heavy front wheel, this may not be necessary, but also consider the advantages of leaving the motor intact if power ever does become available again. Get the necessary parts/modifications tested and working BEFORE the balloon goes up and then squirrel them away. It will probably be very difficult to source the v-belts and associated pulleys/etc. you need after an event. This takes some genuine backwoods ingenuity, but I found all the parts I needed easily, online from McMaster Carr. If you have some junk 10-speed bicycles lying around, and some imagination, you could probably source everything you need from them. My point is, if you can spin that clutch disc, you can sew. If all else fails, you can cycle the stitches by hand with the machine’s hand wheel and it will still be much faster and stronger than sewing anything by hand. The whiz-bang computerized machines you buy at the craft store are servo operated these days and will be completely useless without electricity. Some of them can’t even be cycled by hand without electricity. They also lack the hardy construction necessary to sew heavy materials such as canvas, webbing, and thick leather without blowing the timing and breaking components. Few things will make you say bad words like repeatedly blowing the timing of your sewing machine or breaking needles, when you’re trying to finish an important project. Think of those little craft machines like those cute little painted hammers they sell in craft stores. They may be great for putting a tack in the wall to hang a picture, but can you imagine trying to frame a house with one?
A couple last things to consider…the good, older, industrial machines are completely mechanical except for the drive motor, so they are impervious to EMP attacks. They will last several lifetimes if properly lubricated and can be configured with various attachments to do a surprisingly wide range of specialized sewing tasks. If you look hard enough, you will find them for incredibly cheap. (More on this later.)
- WALKING FOOT
A “walking foot” sewing machine simply means that when the material you are sewing is being pulled to the rear of the machine by the feet, the needle is IN the fabric. This prevents bunching and gathering of the fabric and also greatly aids in keeping the top and bottom pieces of fabric indexed correctly. Having been forced to sew on a non-walking foot machine while employed in college, I will never own a strait stitch machine that doesn’t have a walking foot. If you’re unsure if the machine has a walking foot, simply cycle the machine slowly by hand, and you will see if the needle is down in the feed plate when it moves to the rear. If the needle is up out of the fabric and only the presser foot pulls the fabric to the rear, don’t buy the machine.
- COMPOUND FEED
This is sometimes used interchangeably with walking foot, but it actually denotes how many feet the machine has. Look for a machine that has two presser feet, not just one. There will be a rear foot and a front foot. This greatly improves the way the machine feeds thick materials as well as how it handles difficult sewing applications. It’ll be a Godsend if you use a binding attachment or sew heavy zippers into tents, etc.
- TOP LOADING BOBBIN HOUSING
This is less critical, but a nice feature to have. It just means that you can access the bobbin (the small spool of thread that feeds the bottom stitch), from the top of the machine, rather than from the side, or underneath. It makes bobbin changes easier and it makes clearing the dreaded “bird nests” much easier when they occur.
This may sound silly, but there are a bunch of industrial machines out there that do not have reverse. This is a deal breaker for me. It’s like buying a jeep with two-wheel drive. Yes, it’s a jeep, but you’ve just lost so much utility and versatility by not holding out for four wheel drive. You need reverse to back stitch at the beginning and end of seams so they don’t unravel. You can’t effectively bar-tack without reverse either, and if you’re making any sort of tactical gear, you’ll be doing a lot of bar-tacking.
- TIMING CLUTCH
File this under really nice to have, but not a deal breaker. The timing clutch is a bearing-actuated clutch that theoretically breaks loose before you can blow the machine’s timing if you ever jam the machine while sewing. You then simply cycle the machine slowly forward until the bearings reset and you’re good to go. I’ve only seen these on the old Adler 067 models (of which I have two), but they may be on other good quality machines as well. They are WONDERFUL if you can find a machine that has them. I can’t explain how to look for this feature without photos and a long confusing explanation, so just ask about it when buying a machine. Don’t be surprised if you get a blank stare from the person selling the machine, but ask anyway.
- THREAD STAND & BOBBIN WINDER
When looking for a machine, make sure it has a good thread stand that holds at least two 1lb. spools of thread. Most will hold three, but two is a must. One feeds the machine while the other one winds the bobbin. Also, it should have a bobbin winder. Many are attached to the table under the hand wheel, but some are built right into the machine head. These are neat little contraptions that wind your bobbin for you while you sew. They run off the drive belt and disengage automatically when the bobbin is full. Unless you plan on storing away an endless supply of pre-wound bobbins, you’ll need the bobbin winder. I use pre-wound bobbins in production for a number of reasons, but I also have an ample supply of metal, reusable bobbins that I can wind myself when needed. Pre-wounds may not always be available so it’s better to go with a long term solution.
- ODDS AND SODS
Once you’ve procured your machine, find out what length of v-belt it uses and write it on the machine somewhere. Now go out and get one or two extra belts. You can buy sewing machine-specific belts for a ridiculous amount of money, or do like I do. I buy automotive v-belts for a fraction of the cost at my local parts store. They last a lot longer too. In fact, I’ve had to replace two sewing machine belts in my lifetime. Once replaced with automotive belts, I’ve never had to replace them again.
If you can locate them, buy a couple extra sets of feet for the machine. Get a set of zipper feet in right and left hand configurations if you can. I also have two sets of welting feet for my machines, but that’s a throw back to my upholstery days. If you intend to use a binding tape attachment for your machine, you’ll need a set of special feet for that too. They can be sourced online on the various auction sites, or from industrial sewing machine suppliers. While you’re at it, get a bunch of extra needles for the machine in various sizes. I keep a large supply of 140, 150, and 160 sized needles on hand. These machines are very strong and will shatter a needle quite easily if you happen to tweak the fabric enough to deflect the needle into the feed dogs. They also become dull over time if you sew a lot of dirty canvas, etc.
If you can get the operations manual with the machine, grab it! Most of them are available online, but not always. Many are out of print and cost a mint to get reproductions. The internet has alleviated some of this, but not in all cases. You NEED the operational manual to make sure you can readjust the machine should you blow the timing. It is not an easy task if you’re inexperienced at it. If you can’t manage to retime the machine, it will be completely useless.
Industrial sewing machines are VERY heavy. I put all mine on casters so they can be easily moved around my shop. I highly recommend you do this if the machine you buy doesn’t have them. These machines are big and take a lot of space in a small garage. It’s very nice to be able to just push them out of the way when not being used.
I stated before that I’ve used a number of different machines over the last 20 years. Some were and are great, some were real dogs. I give the following as my personal opinion. It’s based off 20 years of work in the trade, but it is certainly not the last word on the subject so please don’t take it as gospel.
If TEOTWAWKI happened tomorrow and I could save only one machine from my factory, and that machine had to last me the rest of my life, I would grab my old Adler 067. It was the first machine I ever bought and I’ve sewn well over a million stitches on it. It was a used machine when I bought it, so who knows how many stitches it’s sewn over the years, but it will outlive my grandchildren if they keep it oiled. I wish I knew how many pounds of thread I’ve put through it over the years. In my opinion it’s the finest straight stitch machine ever made. It has all of the things I’ve listed above and the old 067’s can be found at outrageous discounts if you look around. The Adler 167s are outstanding machines as well. My second choice would be one of the older Pfaff industrials like the 145. They are equal in quality and toughness to the Adler, but lack the timing clutch. I also own a couple JUKI machines and they are great. I have a double needle and a computerized bar-tacker made by JUKI and I have no complaints. They are a great value and if you’re going to buy new, that’s the way I would go. I highly recommend you buy used, old, and German, but if you do buy new, I’d go with JUKI. I’ve used a few CONSEW machines over the years and they’ve been hit or miss. I’ve used a couple that were good, and I’ve used a couple that were just dogs. Same goes for CHANDLER (except the ones that were actually made by Adler). I’ve never used SINGER machines, but if you read the forums they were really hit or miss too. The consensus seems to be buy the older machines. The rest I’ve used were very specialized machines and really don’t apply here.
- WHERE TO BUY
I’ve purchased machines from dealers, out of the back of a van, from internet auction sites, yard sales, estate sales, and from defunct businesses. The internet auction sites are great, but shipping is often as much or more than the machine itself. If you do go auction site, consider just buying the head unit and then sourcing a stand (table) and motor locally. Search the local classifieds for anything that says “industrial” or “commercial” sewing machine. You can find great deals that are close enough to go pick up. Also, research the sewing machine dealers in your area. Most dealers buy and sell used machines. You’ll usually pay more, but they may give you a guarantee on a “refurbished” machine. They are usually good sources for parts too. Keep a sharp eye out for yard sales and estate sales. There were a lot of us upholsterers back in the day but we’re an endangered species. The throw-away economy we live in has made upholstery a very difficult business to be in. Many of the old craftsmen have hung up their scissors and are selling off their machines. Many of the auto-restoration crowd bought a machine thinking they would do the interior on that old muscle car and then find out it’s not as easy as it looks. They get sick of it taking up space in the garage and the machines end up at swap meets and yard sales. Be patient and be creative in your search and you’ll find some real gems for a few hundred bucks. I once bought five machines from a defunct business for $25 each.
I really hope you will consider adding an industrial sewing machine to your list of tools. I believe it will serve you so much better than relying on a small home machine to keep your clothing, tents, backpacks, and other gear in good repair for the long haul. If you will take the time to really learn how to use it, it can provide a supplemental income for you now and possibly a life-saving means of barter/income after the SHTF. May God bless all of us with wisdom and persistence as we prepare, and may we be successful in all our efforts.