Posts Tagged ‘Singer’

The Singer 401(a)

I feel guilty. Kind of. Because of this:

Browsing Goodwill recently, I bought the above sewing machine for $20…They typically show up for ten times that price on eBay. I feel like I absconded with a treasure. At any rate, this Singer 401a (1956 vintage, made in South Carolina) is mine, and after a tune-up, it will be ready for another 50 years of use. The machine is in remarkably good condition, with a clean looking cam stack:

The underside even looked clean and lint-free, which is rare for a 1956 machine. It had been maintained well.

As tempting as it was, I wasn’t going to sew a single stitch without getting the machine looked over. See, the 401a is a special machine…The proverbial Bentley of sewing machines. That machine originally sold for hundreds of (1950s) dollars, or thousands of 2011 dollars. Price-wise, that puts the 401a on par with industrial machines from Juki or Brother. I daresay on par quality-wise as well, though without the power of the bifurcated head-motor arrangement, which allows for a multiple-horsepower motor.

Singer Sewing quality went significantly downhill in the 1970s, as they started building machines largely of plastic. In the 1980s, they started outsourcing. Singer didn’t design good machines and contract manufacturers didn’t maintain quality. With Singer, older is (much) better. New machines are disappointing and lack the rigidity or power to work well with many fabrics. Another legend destroyed for short-term profit.

I again digress. The 401a was one of the last slant needle aluminum-bodied Singer models, and has a very large metal cam stack enabling a variety of stitches. The slant-needle machines were special in that they allow much more visibility when sewing than a vertical needle machine. It is also a direct drive machine with no belts, and gorgeously cut beveled helical involute gears. Those expensive gears are why the machine purrs, instead of grinds. Take a look:

The timing, adjustment, greasing and oiling of this machine is something that I will leave to a professional, so I know it is well-tuned when I do minor maintenance myself in the future. In Portland, Rooster Roc Sewco (3427 NE 72nd Ave) came highly recommended, and when I visited last year, the owner was nice enough to chat with me about some industrial machines when I was contemplating tooling up for some freelance work. When I get this machine back, I will post pictures of the first project I use it on, probably a set of gaiters (patterns to be drafted in February).

As a last piece of trivia, the Singer 400 class (401, 402, 403) sewing machines use a double-contact bayonet base lightbulb in a short T7 formfactor. The recommended bulb is typically known as a 15T7DC. As incandescent bulbs are being phased out, stocking up might not be a bad idea. Just don’t pay over $5/bulb.