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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.
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.
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 plastic composite. It may be a substance called Textolite, which was a woven fiber infused with bakelite. (Textolite was brand-name patented by GE in 1936 and heavily promoted through the 1950's for everything from laminate countertops to tile floors.) I haven't been able to verify the name of the substance from Singer materials, but you can see the cross-hatch of woven fibers when you examine these gears closely. (Updated 8/5/15: The Singer 201 service manual refers to this gear as a "textolite gear.")
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.
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.
OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most out of your old sewing gear.
Updated 12/13/14: Thank you to members of the Vintage Sewing Machine Facebook group for prompting further research into Textolite, which led to revisions of this article!