The Singer 401A is legendary for its durability and power. Like the old Timex, it can take a lickin' and keep on stitchin.' After all, it has steel gears, doesn't it?
Yes, the 401A is famous for it's Made in the USA steel gears, but did you know that the 401A has ONE gear that is NOT steel?
In fact, the gear in question isn't even metal.
"Say it ain't so, Joe..."
The 401A is often touted as an "all metal" or "all steel" sewing machine, but neither description is strictly accurate.
The 401A machine head is cast aluminum, which is lighter-weight than the earlier cast iron straight-stitch machines. The 401A's casting is heavier than the Featherweight 221 or 301, but it's still aluminum.
Inside the 401A, the needle bar, cam-stack, cam followers, hook, and driving gears are nearly all steel parts.
Nylon handwheel gear - Singer 401A
The exception is the large gear that sits just inside the handwheel and engages the upper machinery to the vertical motor drive shaft. This particular gear is 1/2 inch thick and made of an extremely durable plastic composite.
It may not be steel, but whatever the stuff is, it stands the test of time, because you never hear of this gear stripping, breaking, or cracking. Unlike the plastic and nylon gears that Singer used on later models, this substance just quietly does its job year after year after year.
The material in question is most likely Textolite, which consisted of woven fibers infused with bakelite. If you examine these gears closely you can see the cross-hatch of woven fibers, and the service manual for Singer 201 refers to a similar gear as a "textolite gear." Textolite was a brand-name patentend by GE in 1936 and heavily promoted through the 1950's for everything from laminate counter-tops to tile floors.
So now you know the 401A's dirty little secret. It's not "all steel" and it isn't even "all metal." But it is still unquestionably one of the finest Singer sewing machines ever built.
Happy Sewing! Barbara OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most out of your old sewing gear.
This is a very good question, and one I hear often from 401, 500, and 600 owners.
This simple answer?
It depends on how creative you want or need to be. As shown on the flip-top chart, the 401 has an impressive array of built-in stitch patterns with almost infinite range of length and width variations.
Singer 401 built-in stitch chart
Singer 401A built-in cam-stack.
If you look at the 401's built-in cam stack each cam represents a different stitch pattern. And when you factor in that the 401 can "combine" two cams to create additional stitch patterns, it's pretty awesome what the 401 can do without Special Discs.
But if you want to get the maximum creative use out of your 401, you will definitely want a set of Special Discs.
Special Disc patterns from 500A manual.
The original accessories kit for the 401 included 5 Special Discs (numbered 1-5) for stitches that are not built-in. These 5 discs can be combined with the built in Primary stitches to produce additional patterns, such as scalloped zigzag.
However, Singer produced a total of 24 Special Discs for the Slant-o-Matic and 600-series Touch & Sew family, which means there are 19 additional discs available.
Some of these additional Special Discs are patterns which are not built-in, while others are duplications of stitches built into the 401. However, even duplicates can add to the range of stitches the 401 can produce.
"If it's already built-in, why would I want the Special Disc too?
The answer lies in the distinction between "Primary" patterns and "Combination" patterns.
"Primary" patterns use a single cam in the cam-stack to produce the stitch. This means that the stitch pattern is unchanged regardless of width and length settings. In other words, a scalloped stitch simply gets wider or narrower but still looks the same. In the sample shown here, the width of Special Disc #12 has been set progressively wider.
Special Disc #12 at widths 2, 3, 4, 5 (Primary)
On the other hand, "Combination" patterns use two cams in the stack to produce the stitch pattern. Which means that a change in stitch width affects the movement of both cams, which can greatly affect the overall appearance of the stitch. Note in the sample shown here how the appearance of stitch setting DP changes when the width is set progressively wider. The zigzag blocks get narrower as the offset gets wider.
Built in stitch DP at widths 2, 3, 4 (Combination)
While this does add some variety to the built-in stitches, it also means you are somewhat limited when using built-in stitch patterns if you want the pattern wider or narrower. The 401 and 500 have seven built-in "Primary patterns. They're shown on the top row of the chart (see photo above) inside the flip-up lid.
Which is where Special Discs come in. Special Discs are considered "Primary" patterns, so they look the same regardless of width. Clearly an advantage in some situations.
Another advantage of using a Special Disc is that two-needle stitching only works with "Primary" patterns, because the left-hand stitch selector has to be set on "A." So if you like the look of a "combination" stitch but want that stitch in double-needle, you'll need to use a Special Disc.
Built-in Primary patterns can also be combined with certain Special Discs to produce additional stitch patterns.
The final advantage of Special Discs is that they are just plain easy to use. Pick a pattern, pop it in, and away you go. No messing with dials or charts.
So, DO you need a complete set of Special Discs for your 401, 500, or 600 sewing machine?
Bottom line, it's up to you. The choice is yours.
Happy Sewing! Barbara OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most our of your old sewing gear.
Looking for a straight-stitch sewing machine? Direct drive motor? Steel gears?
There are a number of phenomenal vintage Singer sewing machines that will fill the bill; 15-91, 15-125, 201-1, 404, and 604 to name a few.
BUT, if you also want a lightweight portable, then the Singer 301 Slant Needle is the machine for you. Especially if you love the Singer 221 Featherweight but want a full-size machine for larger projects. In fact, the 301 is affectionately nicknamed "The Featherweight's Big Sister."
While it shares a number of features with the 221 Featherweight, the 301 is mechanically very different from the Featherweight.
The 301 is the first of Singer's legendary steel-gear direct-drive slant-needle family. Cast in lightweight aluminum, it's the only slant needle that doesn't have a rotary hook placed in front of the presser foot. Instead, the 301 uses the same bobbin as the 221 Featherweight, which mounts beneath the platform to the left of the needle.
Singer 301 "Trapezoid" carry case
The 301 has a flip-up sewing platform extension similar to the 221 Featherweight, and it was designed to be a portable sewing machine. It has a built-in carry handle and was packaged in a distinctive trapezoid-shaped carrying case.
Singer offered the 301 in two versions. The "long bed" version had a longer flip-up table, similar in length to the smaller Featherweight. The "short-bed" version had a shorter flip-up table conforming to the standard dimensions of the 201, 401, & 500. The long-bed was designed to be strictly portable, while the short-bed could be used as a portable or cabinet machine when paired with a special bracket.
Cabinet cradle for Singer 301
Because it was intended to be portable, the 301 does not have hinge mounts. Which presented a bit of a problem if you want to mount the machine in a conventional cabinet.
Singer solved this problem by producing a funky cradle that clips onto the base of the 301. The cradle has standard hinge mounts enabling the machine to be mounted into a Singer cabinet.
Singer also produced a portable table for the 301, similar to the card-table for the 221 Featherweight. But these tables are extremely rare, so happy hunting!
Long Bed 301 in "Trapezoid" case
The 301 head weighs a mere 16 pounds, but the overall weight with foot control and motor is closer to 22 pounds. Significantly lighter than the 15-91, which is a cast-iron behemoth or even the 401 which is cast aluminum with a lot of internal steel components.
When it comes to power, the 301 has the gear-driven chops to handle heavy fabrics but is gentle enough for fine dressmaking and quilting too. It's a domestic machine with a .72 amp motor so it isn't meant for day-in, day-out heavy duty sewing but it will do the job beautifully on an occasional basis.
The 301 also features a convenient drop-feed knob for darning or free motion work. Buttonhole and zigzagger attachments are avaiable for additional creative design flexibility.
So if you love the Featherweight but want a larger machine without belts, the 301 is the one for you! Lightweight enough to carry to quilting classes but with heavy duty power for hemming jeans or tackling light upholstery jobs too.
Got steel? The 301 Slant Needle sure does!
HappySewing! Barbara OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most out of your old sewing gear.
Special thanks to readers David, Lisalu, and Ann for sharing experiences and research that led me to make significant revisions to this article in the interests of accuracy and clarity.
Pretty confusing, right? So which disc is which and which machine do they work in? Let's take a closer look.
Note: I've only listed model numbers that are known to work with the disc shown. Discs may also work in other models but have not been tested.
Singer Fashion Disc
Fashion Disc Small, flat disc fits vertical needle machines such as 306 and 328.
Singer Special Disc (Type 1)
Fashion Disc / Special Disc (Type 1) Top-hat style disc with slim center ring with 2 adjacent holes. Fits 401, 403, 411, 431, 500, 503, 600, 603, 626, 648
Singer Special Disc (Type 2)
Fashion Disc / Special Disc (Type 2) Later top-hat style single-layer disc with wide center ring surrounded by 4 holes. Fits 690, 700, 758.
Singer Flexi-Stitch Disc
Flexi-Stitch Disc Double-layer disc with top-hat center ring surrounded by 4 holes. Fits 690, 700, 758. (Often packaged with single-layer type-2 special disc.)
Singer Flexi-Stitch Disc
Flexi-Stitch Disc Double-layer disc with top-hat style center ring with one adjacent hole. Fits 740/760. (May be packaged with single-layer type 1 special disc.)
Singer Futura Disc
Flat reversible disc has a pattern on each side. Fits Futura models.
So we can see at a glance that the small flat disc and the larger white discs WON'T work in a 401 or 500 machine.
(The white discs are double-layer discs designed to work in machines with two cam-followers. This allows patterns which move the fabric forwards and backwards to produce complex designs such as Greek Key, Flowers, or Ducks. While Elna and Necchi were producing double- and triple-layer discs as early as the 1950's, Singer didn't catch up until they introduced the 700-series Touch & Sew models in the late 1960's.)
So the white discs are out, but you may still be confused by the two styles of black top-hat discs (I personally call them Type 1 and Type 2, but it's not an official name). So let's compare them side by side:
Except for the thicker center ring and number of holes, they look pretty identical, don't they?
Which means either one should work, right?
Wrong. A closer examination reveals that the later disc is also slightly shorter.
This difference in height combined with the fatter center ring means that this disc doesn't snap firmly into place on the 401/403, 500/503, and 600/603 models.
The issue can be clearly seen when comparing both discs side by side in the machine:
As you can see, the overhanging lip on the later disc hangs up on the post, preventing the disc from seating firmly. The disc sits crooked and eventually wobbles loose, resulting in an erratic stitch.
The simple solution is to make sure you purchase the correct disc in the first place. But what if you can't find the correct disc?
There is a creative solution. A dremel tool with a sanding tip can be used to grind down the overhanging lip which will allow the disc to snap into place. Be careful to remove as little plastic as possible so as not to compromise the structural integrity of the disc.
So there you have it. Now you know what to look for to select the right disc for your 401 or 500 Slant-o-Matic. And if you accidentally wind up with the wrong disc, there's still a way to make it work!
That's what I call a win-win.
Happy Sewing! Barbara
OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most out of your old sewing gear.
What do you think when someone says "Singer Touch & Sew"?
Great machine? Plastic garbage?
What do you think when someone says "Singer Auto Reel"?
Great machine? Plastic garbage? Never heard of it?
Sorry, trick question. "Auto Reel" is what Singer called their new 600 Slant-o-Matic before someone thought up the name "Touch & Sew."
In fact the only difference between the earliest 600 Touch & Sew and the 600 Auto Reel is a new nameplate and a couple of rivets.
Time for a side-by-side comparison!
Singer 600 Auto Reel Serial Number AN663953
Singer 600 Auto Reel
Auto Reel nameplate
Singer 600 Touch & Sew Serial Number AN689066
Singer 600 Touch & Sew
Touch & Sew nameplate riveted over top of Auto Reel name.
Whatever name you call it, the Singer 600 is a vintage Singer slant needle worthy of attention. It's not a very attractive machine with its square styling and gray plastic face-plate. But it's graced with steel gears just like the classic Slant-o-Matics. The horizontal spool pin feeds smoothly and the wind-in-place bobbin is an improvement over the top-mounted Rocketeer bobbin winder.
It doesn't have as many built-in stitch settings as the 401 or 500, but it has the stitch patterns that matter and it sews a fine quality stitch.
Singer refined the bobbin winding mechanism when they introduced the 600E. The bobbin-winder button is located on the front right corner of the 600, but it's tucked inside the bobbin compartment on the later 600E.
So next time you see or hear "Singer Auto Reel" you'll know it's worth taking a look!
Happy Sewing! Barbara OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most out of your old sewing gear.
OldSewinGear is the collaborative effort of retired repairman Gary and daughter Barbara. We love old sewing gear and enjoy sharing what we've learned in our vintage sewing machine adventures. We are located in Roseburg, Oregon.