Sewing machines were more than just toys
While growing up, you may have spent time watching your mother or grandmother sew on an old treadle sewing machine.
It was a sturdy and efficient machine. It never did zigzag stitching, but by adding rickrack — a flat, narrow braid woven in a zigzag used for trimming clothing or curtains — to embellish clothing, aprons and linens, this worked well enough.
A small-scale machine that imitated the treadle machine — or so it was advertised — later came onto the scene. Today, all of these vintage toy sewing machines are educational playthings and are mostly sought after and treasured by seamstresses or baby boomers to use as display pieces.
"I started collecting in the early 1980s, when looking for a treadle (machine) for my daughter to learn on," says Cindy Peters, owner of Stitches in Time in Lake City. "The toys were just kind of an accident. I can tell you that the first toy machines I bought were probably in 2000 at the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society convention in London."
Just like Grandma's
Similar to Grandma’s old cast-iron sewing machine, toy sewing machines first were made by German manufacturers, such as Bremer and Bruckmann.
Glenda Thomas, author of two volumes of "Toy and Miniature Sewing Machines: Identification and Value Guide," is an excellent source of information on the Bremer and Bruckmann machines.
Included in the books is information about the Colibri model, which is richly decorated and protected by a tin dome. It was made in the 1880s. Also included is information about the Liliput, a rare machine that came with a tin box that was opened from the side. It was advertised in 1884 as "the best toy sewing machine of the new times."
"My pride and joy and most valuable is a 1880s Bremer and Bruchmann toy machine from Berlin," Peters says. "Bremer is one of my family names, so it was a gotta-have (item). I looked it up in Glenda Thomas' books, and she estimated its value at $450 to $550. I got mine for $480, so I was right in the ballpark."
After these cast-iron toy sewing machines were tin, aluminum and plastic machines that were electric or battery-powered. They often were available in pastel colors with floral prints and nursery rhyme transfers as decoration.
Toy companies and sewing machine manufacturers produced these miniature models. Those manufacturers were Pfaff, Necchi, Elna and Singer, each offering high-quality performance machines that were a small match to their full-sized sewing machines.
The little machines came with a C-clamp to anchor the machine to a table top. Most of the toy machines available today rarely have the original C-clamp.
On the market
Toy sewing machines made a single-thread stitch with a rotating hook, sliding hook or a spring pincer that grabbed the thread. None of the machines had a bobbin, and the stitches had a tendency to unravel.
Tension devices were crude and were adjusted by loosening or tightening the screw and spring that held the spool of thread in place.
Today, most of these vintage toy machines have bent, rusted or missing parts, but they can be made to work. They can be found at flea markets, garage and estate sales, thrift and antique shops and online.
The most reliable source for finding toy sewing machines, however, is at shows and shops that specialize in them.
Prices for toy sewing machines can vary from $80 to $250 or more for early cast-iron or stenciled models. Original instruction booklets and boxes with the models add to the value of the machines.
Price value also varies depending on the machine's condition and where the machine was found.