So you've decided to take the plunge and invest in a Slant-o-Matic 401A.
Great choice! The 401's versatility, power, and longevity are beyond compare. If you select your vintage 401 carefully you will enjoy many years of sewing pleasure.
So what should you look for?
Clearly cost is always a factor. Just a few short years ago you could pick up a smart looking 401 for $25, spend $100 or so having it tuned up and you had a great machine at a great price. But these days even thrift stores and garage sales want $100 or more. And eBay sellers may be asking $300 or more for a serviced machine.
So before you spend your hard earned cash on a "Farm Fresh" machine, consider the following:
Cosmetic Condition These machines can take a beating and still sew like champions, but poor cosmetic condition can be a red flag. If there are gouges, scratches, and dings on the outside then there's a good chance the machine hasn't been regularly cleaned, lubricated, or adjusted. This could mean damage or wear to internal machinery.
Dirt and Rust Old sewing machines are often dirty. A layer of dust and grime on the exterior of the machine isn't necessarily a bad thing, but dirt and grime on the inside can cause wear and tear on the machinery. Signs of rust or blistering paint can mean that the machine has gotten wet in the past. If the machine has been wet then the motor and electrical wiring may need repair.
Mechanism Does the handwheel turn freely? Does the needle move up and down? Does the hook rotate around the bobbin? If the handwheel is frozen or binds, then the motor bearing may be frozen.
Power Cord & Foot Control 401, 403, and 404 models have two cords, a power cord and a foot control cord. Check for both. A replacement power cord runs about $12. A replacement foot control can be $50 or more.
Spool Pins Broken or missing spool spindles are easily replaced, but will cost a few dollars. If they've broken off it can be tricky getting the stumps out of the spindle holes.
Needle Plate & Bobbin Cover Plate Check for any missing plates, which may cost up to $20 apiece.
If you are buying a machine from a private party or secondhand store be prepared to spend $100 or more on servicing if you want to get the most out of your machine. 50 years of dirt, grime, and neglect can take their toll. Running a dirty, unserviced machine will cause unnecessary wear and tear.
The following checklist details what to look for when looking at a 401 if you want to minimize servicing & repair costs:
Having difficulty viewing the checklist document? Visit "Cheat Sheets" page for pdf download..
The same considerations apply if you are considering purchasing an un-serviced machine from an online seller.
On the other hand, if you are considering shelling out a few hundred dollars for a "serviced" sewing machine from an online seller, you should consider the following:
Positive feedback Look for a proven track record of quality work and good customer service.
Description of cosmetic & mechanical condition A reputable seller will be upfront about cosmetic flaws and mechanical performance. So review the listing carefully. How does the seller describe the machine? Are there clear, close-up photos? Does the seller mention cosmetic flaws? Are there stitching samples? Video of the machine in action?
Detailed description of servicing Servicing a machine involves a whole lot more than wiping away the dirt and squirting some oil into the little holes. Thoroughly cleaning a machine requires disassembling all moving parts and removing all dirt, grime, and oil residue. The motor wiring, bearings, brushes, armature, & commutator should be inspected, and replaced or rebuilt as needed. All organic parts (bobbin tire, bed cushions) should be replaced. Spool pins & felts should be inspected & replaced as needed. Plates, doors, hinges, knobs, & levers should be cleaned, adjusted, repaired, or replaced. Tolerances need to be adjusted to standard specifications. All moving parts should be lubricated with appropriate oil or grease.
Return policy or Warranty Does the seller stand behind their product? At minimum the seller of a serviced machine should offer return for refund if the machine is dead on arrival. Some sellers may warranty their work for an additional period of time, but keep in mind that even the most conscientous seller cannot guarantee that a 50+ year old machine will run another 50 years.
Shipping insurance Look for full value insurance against shipping damage.
Protective packaging These machines deserve a whole lot more than a flimsy cardboard box and wadded up newspaper. The shipping industry does not handle with care. In fact, when we first started selling machines we were advised to package each machine to survive a kick down a flight of stairs. So that's what we do, and we haven't lost a machine yet! An appliance-grade cardboard box lined with 2-3" of foamboard and filled with peanuts or bubblewrap is the best protection for your vintage investment.
A "farm fresh" 401 may be a great deal, but there can be a lot of hidden costs if you have to replace a lot of missing parts or repair damage from years of neglect or abuse. On the other hand, paying a higher upfront price for a "serviced" machine may be more cost effective, IF you buy from a reputable seller.
Either way, if you choose your 401 carefully and invest either your time or money in quality servicing, you can expect many years of sewing pleasure from your vintage treasure!
Recently I was reviewing eBay listings for Singer 15-91's and a seller was offering a "Centennial" 15-91. But the picture didn't look right. So I took a closer look and sure enough the machine in question was NOT a "Centennial" model.
How did I know? You'll find out in a moment. But first, a brief history lesson.
Isaac Singer began manufacturing sewing machines in 1851. Over the next hundred years Singer Manufacturing Comany (aka Simanco) grew into a gigantic company with factories in half a dozen countries.
Singer celebrated 100 years of sewing machine manufacturing in 1951. To commemorate this milestone they issued a special edition of their standard models. There was nothing mechanically different about the special edition. They weren't a different shape or a different color. But they had one very important distinguishing characteristic:
To commemorate 100 years of manufacturing, Singer struck a special edition trademark badge which graces the special edition models. The Centennial badge has a distinctive blue band around the edge and the words "A Century of Sewing Service 1851-1951"
Many of the machines of this limited edition were produced by the thousands or hundreds of thousands in previous and subsquent years, but only a limited number were issued with the blue badge. Which makes this special edition stand out as unique, and therefore more valuable in the eyes of collectors.
Which is why some sellers will tout a machine as a Centennial model to make their machine stand out in a crowd. While certainly misleading, some will argue that it is not technically fraudulent because the machine in question was manufactured in 1951, the year Singer celebrated their centennial anniversary.
The issue is with serial numbers and manufacture dates.
The serial numbers of the blue-badged machines reveal that many of these machines were manufactured prior to 1951 and were labeled with the special edition badge for sale during 1951. For example, the blue badge pictured above belongs to a machine with a serial number allocated in 1949.
Which means that many machines with serial numbers or manufacture dates from 1951 do not carry a Centennial badge. But some sellers contend that if a machine was manufactured in 1951 then that makes it a Centennial model.
I do not agree. The term "Centennial" should be reserved for those machines marked by Singer as belonging to the commemorative special edition. That is what "special edition" means.
So next time you see "Centennial" in the headline, look for the distinctive blue band on the badge. Then take a moment to reflect on the heritage and legacy of these remarkable sewing machines.
October 1957...Russia launches Sputnik, and the whole world goes into orbit...
America went crazy for "Space Age" style and Singer's response was the redesigned Slant-o-Matic, fondly called "The Rocketeer."
With sleek, futuristic lines, cool knobs, and rocket-motif levers, the 500-series was one small step for Singer, one giant leap for...well, you get the picture!
Launched in 1961, the 500 series introduced features not included on the early 400 series Slant-o-Matics. These included top-mounted enclosed bobbin winder and an additional "thread control" lever. A previous post, "Which is better? Singer 401 vs. 500 Rocketeer" discusses the differences in a side-by-side comparison of the two models.
The new Slant-o-Matic came in two models, 500 and 503. So how do they stack up against each other?
Both machines are heavy duty powerhouses with the ability to sew straight-stitch, zig-zag, & decorative stitches. When properly adjusted and equipped with correct needle and thread, both machines will sew leather, denim, canvas, or vinyl.
As with the 401 and 403, the fundamental difference between the 500 and 503 is in HOW the machine sews zig-zag and decorative stitches. The 500 has decorative stitches built-in. The 503 requires Special Discs to produce any stitch other than straight stitch.
Let's take a look side by side with 500 on the left, 503 on the right:
Slant needle Rotary hook Steel Gears Drop-in Class 66 bobbin .72 Amp direct drive motor Double-thread capacity tensioner Double capacity needle clamp Thread control regulator Special Disc compartment Removable top-mount spool spindle 2 fold-flat spring-loaded spindles --- 25+ stitch patterns built-in
Slant-o-Matic 503A Special
Slant needle Rotary hook Steel Gears Drop-in Class 66 bobbin .72 Amp direct drive motor Double-thread capacity tensioner Double capacity needle clamp Thread control regulator Special Disc compartment Removable top-mount spool spindle 2 fold-flat spring-loaded spindles --- No built-in stitch patterns
Almost immediately you notice that the 500 has a large knob in the front and the 503 does not:
The large knob on the 500 is the selector for built-in stitches. A look inside reveals the cam-stack that produces these stitches on the 500 and the absence of the cam-stack on the 503:
Since the 503 does not have any built-in cams, it relies entirely on Special Discs to produce zigzag and decorative stitches. Once a Special Disc is inserted, the 503 is capable of producing beautiful decorative stitches using single or double needles.
On the other hand, the 500 has the capability of combining built-in stitches with Special Discs to create additional decorative patterns. (For more information on built-in stitches vs. Special Discs, see the article "Do I need Special Discs for my 401 or 500?")
So which Rocketeer is right for you? That depends on your sewing needs. If you want simplicity with the option to occasionally sew decorative stitches, the 503 will suit you perfectly. It is very easy to operate and typically a little quieter than the 500 since it has fewer moving metal parts.
But if you want maximum creative flexibility and don't mind learning how to use the knobs and charts, then the 500 is the better choice.
Whichever model you choose, you'll be 'over the moon' once you own a Rocketeer!
On a lighter note, my family reserves the term "Rocketeer" for the 500. Our nickname for the 503 is "Purtineer." Almost a full-fledged Rocketeer, but not quite!
Singer sure didn't make it easy to identify black & gold models. Model numbers are often missing or incomplete. And if you do find a model number, you won't find the common name of that model anywhere on the machine itself.
For example, we're all familiar with the Singer Featherweight, but it there's no "Featherweight" label anywhere on the machine itself. You might see a small "221" or "222" model number plate, but that is all. This can make identifying a black and gold Singer tricky.
An exeption to this rule, however is the Singer 192. At first glance you may not even realize it is a Singer, because of the big "Spartan" label across the front.
A second look, however reveals the Singer name inside the harp of the machine at the base of the column and a model number "192K" on the stitch-length lever.
Further examination reveals a class 66 drop-in bobbin and a belt-drive Simanco motor. It's a 3/4 size machine, smaller than the 15-91 but larger and heavier than the 221 Featherweight.
So why the name "Spartan?"
According to Merriam-Webster, "spartan" is defined as "marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort."
This is what Singer had in mind when they introduced the Spartan. It was a stripped-down, budget version of the 99K.
Side-by-side the machines are strikingly similar. Spartan is on the left, 99K is on the right.
Almost identical in shape and size, but unlike its more expensive sister, the Spartan is devoid of gold-leaf decoration and the Singer badge. It is also missing the task light and auto-stop mechanism for the bobbin winder. It came with a bakelite box base but there was no provision for a cover or carry case. Truly "spartan" in its details.
But the Spartan holds its own in the Singer family when it comes to heavy duty sewing. If properly adjusted it will sew tough projects as well as the 99K or Featherweight.
And it's pretty darn cute, too!
So next time you see a little black and gold machine with big block letters spelling "Spartan," stop and take a look!
Looking to save some money by recovering your boat seat, car seat, sofa seat or whatever?
Wondering how to make the neat corded edge that gives the seat structure and maybe add some contrasting color pizazz?
Professional results can be achieved with a little practice and the help of the zipper foot that's probably lurking in your sewing machine's accessory box!
It looks something like this:
Did you find it? If you did...great! If you didn't...don't despair, they are easily obtained at your local fabric store, sewing machine shop or online.
In addition to your upholstery fabric or vinyl, you'll need cording. Cording is available in a wide range of sizes and may be simple cotton twist (shown) or reinforced with wire.
Select the size and stiffness that will give you the finished look you want. For example, boat seats may have a small piped edge in a contrasting color but an overstuffed sofa cushion may have a big fat corded edge.
Next, cut long strips of fabric along the bias.
The bias is the diagonal line of fabric and it has more stretch, which will allow the cording to conform to the shape of the project.
Cut strips wide enough to wrap around cording with at least 5/8" seam allowance on both sides.
Multiple strips can be joined end-to-end to produce the length needed for your project.
Joining strips along an angled seam will reduce bulk at seam lines.
Place zipper foot on machine. Align the zipper foot so the needle fits into the notch on the left side of the zipper foot. Make sure the needle does not actually touch the zipper foot.
Wrap fabric strip around cording and place under zipper foot, aligning the foot tightly against the side of the cording.
Stitch the length of the strip, keeping the zipper foot snugly against the cording.
Place the right sides of project fabric together and insert the corded strip in between, aligning the raw edges of the corded strip with the raw edges of the project fabric. This makes a "sandwich" with the cording in the middle. Pin layers of fabric together if practical. Note that pinning vinyl may not be desirable as it will leave pin holes.
Place project fabric under zipper foot with cording sandwiched in between. Align presser foot tightly against the cording.
Keep zipper foot snugly against the cording as you sew the body of your project, taking special care when turning corners. Clipping the seam allowance will allow more "give" at corners.
Slow down & take your time.
With a little practice you will be able to produce sharp looking corded edges for your projects. The same technique applies to piped edges on garments, too!
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.