What You Should Know Before Buying An Industrial Sewing Machine

I’ve been sewing off and on since I was a kid, and I really started to get into it about ten years ago. Even though I technically outgrew my little 3/4 size domestic machine pretty quickly, I kept using it because it always did whatever I asked it to. I even made my first backpack on it before deciding it was time for something bigger. Don’t ask me how I managed to not kill that machine, because I have no idea.

Left: a 3/4 size Janome 11706. Right: a full-size Singer Heavy Duty 4452.

Last year, I got a so-called heavy duty Singer that claims to have 50% more power than a standard domestic machine. This bad boy will make purses and backpacks with ease, I thought. And it does. Well, most of the time.

I found its limits when I tried to make a bag out of thick upholstery material. And honestly, when it comes down to finishing most bags — sewing the thickest and most difficult seams — the machine often lifts up from the table on the end opposite the needle.

What I really need is an industrial sewing machine. Not to replace the Singer at all, but to complement it. I can totally justify this purchase. Let me tell you why.

So, What’s the Difference?

A domestic sewing machine is kind of like the family car in that it can do a variety of things pretty well. It hauls the kids, it’s a good grocery getter, and the gas mileage is decent. You can probably get it in and out of the garage with no problem. Domestic machines, especially modern computerized ones, are all-purpose in this way. They come with anywhere from a handful to hundreds of different stitches, both functional and decorative.

A Juki industrial machine. Image via Juki

An industrial machine is more like a semi. It’s big, it’s heavy, and it has one major purpose: being heavy duty for whatever you need it to do. The comparison ends there, however, because industrial machines run terribly fast from a dead stop, unlike semis.

Domestic machines used to be built into cabinets or hard-sided carrying cases for the most part, but today they are generally more portable. On the other hand, industrial machines are flush-built into sturdy adjustable tables, and they always have been.

The biggest consideration for getting an industrial machine is their size. An industrial will definitely take up more space than the average domestic, and it is much heavier. I’ve seen some machines with tables on casters, and some that are meant to be bolted to the floor of a factory. Either way, I’ll have to do some serious rearranging in my sewing room to make space for an industrial, including leaving myself some room to work.

Under the Hood vs. Under the Table

The motor in a domestic is about the size of my fist, and is located inside the machine. Industrials have a much larger motor that sits outside the machine and is bolted to the underside of the table. These machines are built for constant use, day in and day out. They are set up for a single purpose, which is often (and will be in my case) a single-needle, straight stitch with a walking foot. Others are set up to do a zig-zag stitch for stretchy seams, or a blind hem, or they might have a twin-needle and are set up to stitch the flat felled seams on hundreds of pairs of jeans a day.

Older industrial machines have clutch motors. They are fast, loud, and run continuously when powered on. The video below explains them rather nicely. Newer industrial machines have servo motors that offer much finer control, can sew either slowly or quickly, and are really quiet compared to clutch motors, or even the little fist-sized motors inside of domestics. However, I’ve been warned that they might not last as long as a clutch motor. To that I say meh, because a replacement is only about $100, and it should be easy to switch out old for new.

What Is It Good For?

One can do quite a bit with a domestic machine, especially if it’s an older one. Like most things from 60-70 years ago, they’re just built better. Want to make your own clothes? Unless we’re talking about denim coveralls and leather coats, you’re probably fine with a domestic.

We barely made it through this one on the Singer 4452.

Do you want to work with leather or canvas? Repair boat sails? Reupholster the seats in your Airstream? Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. You need an industrial sewing machine. While you might find a domestic that can go through thin leather or canvas, it will only become a point of frustration when your seams start to stack up. Like many other things in life, you should use the right tool for the job.

Here’s the thing about industrials: they aren’t all for heavy-duty fabrics, although that’s the sort of industrial that I’m after. I want an industrial because of the muscle, and because of the seemingly endless list of materials I could sew with a heavy-duty model. I’ve made a lot of bags from old shower curtains and tablecloths with pretty good success, but I want to do more with upholstery material and leather, both of which are heavier and harder to sew through.

Advantages

  • Durability. Industrial machines are built to run all the time for many years. Who wouldn’t want that?
  • Speed. Whether clutch or servo motor, these machines are fast. Some go as high as 5,000 RPM.
  • Permanence. There’s no putting the machine away when you’re not using it. This is heavy equipment!
  • Automatic features. Some industrials will cut the threads for you (yes, please!).
  • Quiet, if it has a servo motor.
  • Upgrade-able. Love the machine, but hate the table? Should be a one-for-one swap. Same with the motor — it might even use the same mounting holes as the original.

Disadvantages

  • Limited feature set. But this is what I want. I have my Singer domestics to do the fancy stitches.
  • Heavy, hard to move, with a larger footprint. It’ll be rough rearranging my room, but it’s worth it.
  • Noisy, if it has a clutch motor. I would love the chance to upgrade to a servo motor and hear the difference.
  • Threading. Setting up the threads will be different from a domestic, and perhaps less straightforward.
  • Energy-efficiency. Clutch motors are less energy-efficient than servo motors because they run all the time.

Old Machines: Maintenance and Upgrades

A Mitsubishi DU-105 industrial sewing machine.
A Mitsubishi DU-105 industrial sewing machine. Image via Leather Worker

If you’re like me (and I think you might be), you’re attracted to older machines the same way you might be drawn to, say, a 60s car rather than a 90s car for your first project. You figure, I’ll pay less than I would for a new one, it’s almost guaranteed to be more rugged, and I won’t freak out about every little scratch and ding like I would if I bought a new one.

On the other hand, a new one is new. It will come with all of its intended accessories and possibly a warranty of some kind. Its modernity will mean a better resale value if you decide that what you really want is a post-bed industrial machine so you can try your hand at making shoes.

If you can find an old mid-century industrial machine, you’re more than likely going to get your money’s worth. After cleaning, oiling, and greasing it, you’ll probably want to upgrade a few things like the built-in light, the foot pedal’s connection to the motor, and even the motor itself. And your machine might need something small but important, like a new belt.

No Soul In a New Machine?

I’m not saying that. But don’t be shy about seeking out an older machine on Craiglist or something similar if you’re not afraid of a little bit of upfront work. By older, I mean 1950s or 1960s. If you do want a new industrial, they’re not hard to find. You can get a new Juki from the Bezos Barn for under a grand, or a Sailrite from their site for about twice that much. There’s probably a sewing machine dealer in your town where you could go and try them out. And even if you can’t do that, there are plenty of bag makers and leather workers out there who have made videos about their machines and why they got them, so watch a couple of those before you decide what’s best for you. That’s what I’m doing.

 

Banner Image: “Sewing Machine on Table” by dejankrsmanovic, CC BY 2.0

Thumbnail: “Industrial sewing machine” by David Hilowitz, CC BY 2.0

46 thoughts on “What You Should Know Before Buying An Industrial Sewing Machine

  1. Great article. I’ve got an Elnita (Taiwanese) and a Morse Super Fotomatic (Japan).
    The Elnita is a copy of the swiss Elna, and is a bit weak. But the Morse is a tank.

    My question: Are the industrial sewing machines able to stitch a new sole onto boots, or is that done with a different tool?

      1. If I were to get an industrial sewing machine…
        (Who am I kidding, I would take the cheapest one I could get my grubby hooks on),
        I would like one with an open arm.

    1. Usually Cobbler’s machines are quite different. If you do an online search, they look wildly different.

      I used to have a Pfaff 563. The throat wasn’t wide enough to get a shoe through. But it would go through multiple layers of leather, like it was nothing.

      The thing had a freaking crankcase! It needed compressed air to lift the presser foot. It was bonkers.

    2. I bought a Union industrial, hsd it professionally cleand, yu can take the head out of the table if yu need to put it in the shop. Now i hv it home snd Im afraid to plug it in and use it. Its a vintage Union Special. Lol. The prople i bought it from have moved. Should hv had her demonstrate it first.

  2. Thanks for an article that in my experience is spot on, even if it may not be of interest for many readers. I have yet to pull the trigger for one, but when I’ll do it will be a second hand one and I’ll use it for sewing leather.

  3. Cool article. When growing up in the 70’s one of my best friends parents owned a small clothing factory (made woman’s clothing)… heck, we had two other businesses in town that make clothing as well.

    It was also interesting on a person level; was back in the early 2000’s we were experimenting with e-textiles. I worked with a group out of Virginia Tech as well as several private companies. So far the only thing we make that related is a RIP Belt for sleep studies, and a local firm actually uses industrial sewing machines to finish the subassembly before we overmold the ends.

  4. I have had the opportunity to get 3 industrial swing machines over the years for free. If you want one, keep an ear to the ground, they are not impossible to come by and IMHO it seems to be getting easier. Fewer and fewer people sew anymore and fewer and fewer people have space for an industrial machine. I have been looking at one of the inexpensive manual leather machines like this: https://www.ebay.com/itm/265021766663?hash=item3db4873c07:g:5LoAAOSwLcxhhIfT as I like working with leather and this looks like it can be made small for storage.

    1. Thanks for posting the link. That looks like a very useful machine for occasional use. Wouldn’t be hard to put a motor on it for regular use. The long narrow lower arm makes it possible to sew things other machines can’t reach.

  5. The one lesson learned from me is to make sure your machine has a reverse. It didn’t seem like a problem at the time, and it was a cheap machine, but I would easily go back and pay the difference for a machine with reverse.

  6. My brother worked for A5 Adventures for a long time, sewing backpacks and climbing equipment. They used big, powerful industrial machines to get through all the layers of Cordura and nylon webbing. He tells the story about one of the guys in the shop getting distracted while trying out a new machine, which quickly put three stitches through his hand — not a finger, not the web between his thumb and forefinger — through his hand. Happened so fast he didn’t even feel it, but everyone in the shop heard “BAM BAM BAM” and then “Oh, shit! Gotta go to the hospital.”

    So, yeah, like any other power tool, treat a sewing machine with respect. Especially the industrial machines. And cool article, Kristina!

    1. Ooooof. Having put a 110/18 size needle through the corner of my index finger once or twice, oof. I took my foot off the pedal real fast, but still. Damn zipper feet are good for getting close, and because of this, you really have to watch it. I had just enough time to pull my finger away from the work before it got anything on it.

  7. I have one of the Singer heavy duty machines. It has proven adequate for my use which is sewing sunbrella type material and leathercloth. Pretty good for the price. Funnily enough I bought a 600 watt brushless sewing machine motor with speed controller yesterday for around $100. I bought it to experiment with for use with small machine tools such as my lathe. The motors sem to be available in wattage ranging from 400 to 1000 and I can see a lot of places where they may be useful to replace fractional horsepower induction motors. Line voltage brushless motors usually seem to be more expensive than that.

  8. Wife had an industrial merrow machine – sews the edging for embroidered patches.
    Only sewing machine I have encountered with an oil sight glass and oil pan. Never thought I’d have to change and check the oil on a sewing machine.

  9. My wife inherited her granny’s old Singer, and mechanically, it’s a beast. And in a big city, there are still stores that can provide parts and repairs, so that thing will outlive us too. We have used it on some boat-related projects in Sunbrella, and I repaired one of my winter jackets with it.

    We’ve also borrowed an old Sailrite machine from friends. This sort of machine has the desk footprint of a portable, but the strength and power of many industrial machines.

  10. Another advantage of industrial machines is that most can handle much heavier thread than domestics, which is useful for projects like sturdy bags and automobile upholstery. I got a WWII-vintage Singer for free, and after cleaning out a mouse nest and replacing a timing belt it’s run fine. It’s been surprisingly easy to find parts and supplies, and even a service manual. Beware that unlike domestics which mostly use the same needle and only a few different bobbins, there are many sizes of needles and bobbins for industrials, so get the manual and be sure to get the correct ones.

    You might want to look at a Singer 20U, it does zigzag and reverses.

  11. There are some middle grounds between domestic and industrial. I recently had the same problem: my domestic machine was not up to the task of sewing seems in a pair of heavy denim pants. I almost bought a Sailrite LSZ-1: a walking foot machine that can do straight and zig-zag. Not as big as an industrial machine with the table and all but it should be strong enough to do denim and leather.

    I ended up getting a Chinese handcranked “Shoe mending machine” for less than €100. That worked well enough for the purpose but the Sailrite is still somewhere on the wishlist…

  12. You didn’t mention the vital importance of the “walking foot”. That’s where the presser foot moves back and forth together with the feed dogs below the fabric so there’s little to no drag on the top of the layers of what’s being sewn. Some walking foot machines also lift the foot as it moves with the needle down then moves when pressed down. That further reduces drag from the foot.

  13. I have a TACSEW GC6-7. It is NOT a GC6-7-D nor is it a GC6-6. The GC6-7-D has the stitch length adjustment knob at the right side of the part that connects to the base. The GC6-7 has the stitch length adjustment knob at the left side of that part. Thus the innards must be quite different. I’ve seen photos of supposedly GC6-6 machines with the stitch knob in the left position, and some in the right position.

    But according to the interwebs my model must not exist because I can only find information on models GC6-7-D or GC6-6, with TACSEW as the brand or some other name on what’s obviously a clone/copy or perhaps came out of the same iron foundry/factory as TACSEW.

    Asian industrial sewing machines are like Asian machine tools. 50 different brands all buying raw castings or fully finished machinery from a few foundries and finishing factories, all having cloned from one original manufacturer, which may or may not sell under their own name as well as putting any name and paint color on that some other company specifies.

    Finding information and parts for machines built before the WWW era can become quite difficult, especially with machinery brands that got a bit creative with differences from the usual nearly exact clones of the original. An Asian clone of a Bridgeport mill that’s exact enough that generic copy Bridgeport (or genuine Bridgeport) parts will fit is easy to repair and maintain. One where the company decided they had a better idea, for two or three years then went under because shops couldn’t just grab any old Bridgeport-ish parts and install them – is a royal PITA because one must either luck out and find the oddball parts, or adapt real or copy Bridgeport parts.

    So I’ve not bought additional accessories for my sewing machine because without acknowledgement that this specific model exists and a guarantee the parts are made for (or compatible with) a TACSEW GC6-7, I’d chance buying something that wouldn’t work.

  14. Thanks,this puts wanting an industrial sewing machine off my list.
    I do sew,after a fashion,which my friend upon seeing one of my
    first atempts,dissmissed as “franken sewing”
    I have a whole kit for hand sewing just about anything,or perhaps
    joining is more acurate as I do incorporate leather and metal bits
    in tool belts and other more industrial uses for fabrics and gasket
    material.Leather is great for making seals in a wide variety of things and the primary skills needed are paternmaking and cuttiing material acurately.
    I have also made t-shirt/epoxy composite parts for the diesel
    engine in my tractor that work and last.(injection pump coupler)
    As to sewing realy heavy stuff like boot soles,pre drilling with cordless is one way,and the other are very large sewing needles with razor sharp spear points,4inch long,by 5/16 at the widest
    of the spear and around 1/16 in the remaining dimension.
    The best part of these is that you can only stab yourself one at a time.

  15. I have worked with these industrial machines. They are all about power and duty cycle. They usually have none of the gadget features of consumer machines. They do one thing and do it forever and very quickly. They always have external motors because that is what fails and it is super fast to swap one out and get the machine back into service.

    There is a better option for you for much less cost and space. There are sail making machines for heavy canvas and leather. Look up Sailrite for an example. This is kind of positioned in between the industrial and consumer machines. They are used a lot in the marine and upholstery world. They are more portable but higher powered than a consumer machine and are equipped with walking feet.

    1. I have a Juli 1541 and Sailrite Fabricator. Both are good machines and take turns being the cheaper one, but I have to say I use the Fabricator more because I do a lot of bulky sewing (last job was a pontoon boat cover ot of Top Gun for instance) and the throat is bigger. Not that it matters, because it’s a sewing machine, but I also really dig the visual look of it. I absolutely loathe the table frame it came with though and have since replaced it with a stand that has rolling casters built in. Machines have to be able to move within reason in my shop. I also have one of their *not industrial* Ultrafeeds that lives in my repair trailer.

  16. I service and repair sewing machines for a living, but the only industrial machines I’ve worked on are long-arm quilting machines. But my ex-wife has a Brother industrial machine, and it is HEAVY! So be prepared to put it in one place and leave it there. Also, be aware that many of these machines have oil pans that aren’t totally sealed, so you can spill oil if you tilt the machine too much while moving it.

    Industrial machines use round-top needles, so it’s easy to insert them in the wrong orientation and/or insert them with enough of a twist that it can affect stitch quality and may even cause skipped stitches. Once you have the needle in place with the approximately-correct orientation, insert the point of a used needle into the eye of the new needle and rotate until the used needle is parallel with the feed direction – then lock down the needle clamp screw. This makes needle alignment a bit easier.

    Being a hacker, you’ll likely want to learn how to adjust your machine as well. The first critical parameter is needle-to-hook timing, which is the distance the needle rises from BDC before the tip of the hook is directly behind it. The second is feed timing, which dictates that the tops of the feed teeth must be below the top surface of the throat plate becore the needle enters the fabric and must not rise above that level before the needle has exited the fabric. The third adjustment is the needle height – on domestic machines that is measured at BDC, and I imagine the same is true of industrial machines. The fourth adjustment is the distance between the hook and the needle; too close and the hook can catch the needle – that can be a fairly spectacular failure mode in a machine with that much power and speed. Too far away and you can experience skipped stitches, especially in thicker fabric stack-ups. Another important adjustment is the height of the feed teeth. Note that feed teeth are also a wear point; when they get dull the machine may not feed fabric as easily as it should, and the stitch length may be shorter than expected.

    When sewing, learn the signs and sounds of a dull needle and replace it – don’t skimp on needle quality and don’t use a needle beyond the point where it shows signs of dullness.

    As far as possible, let the machine do the feeding. I’ve repaired many machines owned by “tuggers and pullers” – they’re easy to tell by the needle craters in the throat plate. And if you often feel the need to pull the fabric, check the height and texture of the feed teeth. Also, experiment with presser foot pressure – increasing or decreasing it depending on the thickness and texture of what you’re sewing can make a big difference.

    Best of luck with your new machine beast!

    1. Just a question . You mentioned that the direction of the eye of the needle goes parallel to the direction to the feed but my 31-15 industrial 1923 has always gone perpendicular to the feed as in parallel to the table like home machines . It has allways worked well that way. And i had bought it from a singer dealer used So i wasnt sure if i read that correctly.

      By chance are you in NJ.?
      I used to go over to 3rd gen. sager in elizabeth nj for parts when i first set it up but he past on.

  17. Great article! I learned how to use my wife’s thread injector back when I was backpacking more. ’70s/’80s Singers hit a sweet-spot where features were selling points but before obsolescence was seemingly pre-planned. It’s heavier than most modern consumer models but still has just about every stitch I could need. The only modern feature that my middle-aged eyes declare missing is automatic needle threading.

    I very briefly considered getting something heavier because who doesn’t need more toys? Then I realized that the heaviest fabric I was stitching was 1.6oz/yd^2 (hammock), and most were lighter still, 0.7-0.9 oz/yd^2 for my quilts that needed the lightest of needles and tension.

  18. I’m glad to see Sailrite getting into this mix. I have a friend that actually got away with flying with one as carry-on luggage back to his boat repair shop in Guatemala, where it’s mending sails and upholstery as you read this, so you can “put them away” reasonably well though they weigh quite a bit. These were built to a specific market (boats) so can be had with 12V/110V conversion box and even hand-crank operation making them suitable for all sorts of off-the-grid use, and they’ve since branched out into other things like leatherwork etc. Obviously it’s on my “Someday” list.

    The bad news: You’re unlikely find one secondhand unless you wrangle your way into someone’s will, which I think is the ultimate compliment for tool makers.

    Personally I have an old Kenmore 1211 that was being discarded as a “textile studies” program (part of the last gasps of “Home Economics” before it became the equally undefined “Family Studies”) was being closed out. It had survived decades at the hands of undergraduates and only required a bit of lubrication and adjustment. All metal and will sew four layers of moderate sailcloth or upholstery vinyl without breathing too hard and six if your profane vocabulary is suitable.

  19. Great info.

    I have an old 31-15 industrial workhorse machine made in 1923.
    I use the knee lift to overcast the end if the stitch as it doesn’t have a reverse.
    Old machines are great because for the most part everything is rebuildable on them.
    This is my go to machine as it is set up all the time. But I added wheels to the cast iron table legs to move it around. I did this by adding a 2×4 accrossed each end leg and drilled and mounted post machinery type wheels into the 2×4 although I have a couple desirable home machines this one gets used since it is ready to use.

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