Invented by the American Elias Howe in 1846, the lock-stitch sewing machine rapidly became a staple of most homes throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Whether manufactured by the inventor's own Howe Machine Company or by other names such as Singer, these machines were often handsome examples of period craftsmanship, with gilt cast-iron bodies and inlaid wooden bases. While many small sewing-related items such as pin cushions, thimbles and thread winders are highly sought after, sewing machines themselves -- perhaps because of their size and weight -- have little traction with collectors.
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Inspect your machine to see if it is in good working order. A machine that operates smoothly is more likely to have some resale value. If the mechanism is jammed or if essential parts are missing, then sadly, your machine will have scrap metal value only.
Ask yourself whether your machine has any decorative features. The wooden bases of machines for well-to-do homes were often inlaid with designs in marquetry -- pictorial vignettes formed from small pieces of cut veneer -- and mother of pearl. With many antique sewing machines on the market, an attractive feature such as this is a must if your machine is to have any value.
Check your machine for a maker's name. The Singer Sewing Machine Company is perhaps the most famous, but collectors are more likely to be intrigued by one of the less widely seen brands such as Florance and Shaw & Clark.
Take the information you have garnered, go to the library and consult a selection of antiques price guides. Any general price guide will have a section on sewing paraphernalia, and this in turn is likely to include at least one sewing machine. Look for a machine by the same manufacturer, or one close to yours in condition and decorative features. Printed next to the item will be a broad estimate of value based on collated auction results.
Go online for more detailed results. Type "sewing machine" plus the brand into your computer's search engine. This should bring up a list of stores, online auction lots and the catalogues of traditional auction houses. Again, search among these for the machine closest to yours. Use the tracking tools of online auction sites to follow particular lots through to their conclusion. A final hammer price -- whether from an online auction or the catalogue of a traditional auction house -- is the best guide to the value of your antique sewing machine.
Tips and warnings
- An antique sewing machine isn't ideal for selling online because of the problems involved in shipping such a heavy and cumbersome item. Instead, try selling it in a yard sale, where its solid Victorian craftsmanship can appeal to the casual browser.
- If an online antiques store has a sewing machine identical to yours for sale for £130, a reasonable value for yours would be one-half or even one-third of that, unless you're prepared to advertise your machine for months before making a sale.
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