There are many types of antique sewing machines, including hand-held, tabletop, and treadle models. Machines dating to pre-1870 tend to be rarer and look different than later ones. Each individual who created sewing machines in these earlier years had his own style. Later, manufacturers borrowed and pirated ideas from their competitors, and sewing machines became more standardized. Some of the variances include the pillar style, the type of stitch, and the needle orientation — horizontal or vertical.
The sewing machine's pillar, or body, is generally located on the right hand side of the machine. It holds the mechanics of the machine, and an arm extends from the pillar across the top of the machine to the head. The head holds the needle and performs the actual sewing task. Pillars may be open or closed, skinny or fat, square-shaped or fire hydrant-shaped. The arm may be closed or have decorative openwork.
Often the simplest machines are the hardest to obtain, and many of these are found only in museums or no longer exist. One example is Heyer’s portable sewing machine, which he invented in 1863. The machine is one piece of bent metal stripping that a person can push on to drive the needle and thread through the material. Heyer mounted his machine on a piece of wood, and it fit easily in a seamstress's purse. Many inventors tried to create compact, inexpensive sewing machines, and they are highly prized by collectors.
Larger, more complicated machines became popular. For collectors, antique sewing machines sold before 1870 are rarer and more distinctive than the ones sold after 1890. Many of these early machines had a hand crank on the right side of the machine. A few, such as the 1857 Grey model, had the crank positioned on the right front side of the machine. Most of the earliest machines were devoid of decoration because the creators concentrated on functionality. Therefore, pre-1870 machines that have decoration, such as fancy ironwork or artwork, are generally more valuable.
Many sewing machines of the mid-1860s to the late 1870s were tabletop models that sit upon a paw-foot style platform. Several manufacturers used this design, which had four splayed, paw-shaped feet. Some of these machines were adaptable to accommodate a treadle.
Typically, when people think of an antique sewing machine, they picture the treadle style. A seamstress propels a treadle machine by foot-power, leaving her hands free to manipulate the fabric. With the introduction of treadle machines, hand crank sewing machines became less popular. Some collectors value hand crank antique sewing machines more than treadle machines, though many factors determine a machine's worth.
One innovation that changed the sewing machine industry was the walking pressure foot, called the New England style. Several manufacturers sold this style in many different variations. Most of these machines have fancy openwork bodies or decorative painting. The condition of the paint and decorations is critical for determining an antique sewing machine's value.
Treadle machines usually have desk-like wooden cabinetry. The sides are frequently made of openwork wrought iron, and the wooden top normally has drawers under it. Another treadle sewing machine style is the pedestal style, which is similar to a pedestal style table. Usually, the pedestal is ornate, such as ironwork depicting grape vines and leaves.
The earlier machines were capable of two types of stitches. The simple chain stitch required only one spool of thread. The advanced, second stitch was a two-thread interlock stitch. Another difference in the antique sewing machines is the orientation of the needle. The original machines generally had horizontally mounted needles, but Singer later introduced the vertically aligned needle.
The Singer, one of the largest manufacturers, introduced many innovations, including the treadle. Dealers use collector price guides to date and price the various collectible sewing machines. These books are good resources for novice collectors to identify a machine's manufacturer and the machine's age.
Other collectible sewing machines include the portable machines that clamped to a table and the scissor-style sewing machines. Scissor-style machines generally were awkward but easy to transport. Typically, Victorian children enjoyed playing with toy sewing machines, and they tend to be very collectible antique sewing machines.