When Singer introduced the 500 Slant-o-Matic Rocketeer, it featured a new threading step that Singer called a "thread control."
So what is it? What does it do?
Singer 500A "Thread Control"
"The automatic thread control, located above the tension, ensures a smooth flow of thread from spool to needle. This device eliminates spool weight and drag by pulling off a measured amount of thread before it passes through the tension discs."
So there you have it straight from the horse's mouth! Thread control is clearly the greatest invention since sliced bread!
So this thread control was a giant leap forward in sewing machine technology, right?
Ummm...not so much, because there's no noticeable difference in stitch quality when comparing the 401A and 500A. Singer apparently came to the same conclusion, because "thread control" disappeared after the early 1960's. It does appear on the German-built 401 and 411 models but then Singer went on to produce the "Touch & Sew" series with a horizontal spool spindle which eliminated spool drag completely.
Alternative threading for Singer 500A
Thread control was so underwhelming that Singer went so far as to distribute an alternate threading guide for the 500 that bypasses the thread control. This threading chart was included in the "Knit Kit" that Singer produced for sewing double-knit fabrics.
I've experimented with both threading methods and I prefer to bypass the thread control because it's faster. And the stitches look just as good without it.
So there you have it...thread control. No, it didn't revolutionize sewing machine technology, but it's still a cool feature that sets the Rocketeer apart.
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!
We've all heard the old saying: "If it looks like a duck..."
Well, if a sewing machine looks like a 401, threads like a 500, chain-stitches like a 600 and treadles like a 328...it's a 411!
Which makes the 411 more of a Platypus than a duck.
So let's get the 4-1-1 on the 411...
The 411 features a number of unique characteristics, beginning with its manufacture history. The 411G shown above was a puzzle, because the "G" in the model number indicates Germany, but the serial number points to Canada. After some research it appears that the head was cast (and stamped with serial number) in Canada then the machine was assembled in West Germany.
At a glance the 411 resembles the 401A but on closer examination there are a number of significant differences. Let's compare the two machines: (411 appears on the lefthand side of each comparison.)
The two machines look similar but the 401A is "squarer" in styling. Stylistically the 411 more closely resembles the 403.
The 411 and 403 share a prominent pointed ridge on top and distinctively shaped light cover. However the 411 has a couple of mechanical features that mimic the 500 Rocketeer.
Note the additional thread tension regulator just above the tension knob. This was a new feature when the 500 was introduced and was also used on the 411.
The 411 and 500 also share a top-mounted bobbin-winder.
Another unique feature is that while it looks like a Slant-o-Matic, the 411 can chainstitch like a Touch & Sew!
The final twist is that the 411 can also be used as a treadle machine, making it one of the very rare zig-zag treadle models. This feature is also found on the vertical needle 328 Style-o-Matic.
Note the channel for the treadle belt in the base just directly below the handwheel.
The 411 is truly a fascinating member of Singer's Slant Needle family. It does not feel as well built as the 401. The casting feels lighter and the paint job and trims appear to be lesser quality. But the unique versatility of this machine make it a strong contender for the title of "Best All-Around Slant Needle!"
Many vintage sewing machine ads tout the wonders of a "powerful 1.0 amp motor," which sounds impressive.
But the Singer 401 has only a a .72 amp motor. Does that mean it's less powerful than the 1.0 amp machine?
What is an amp? How many do I need? Does it even matter?
An amp (short for ampere) is a measurement of electrical current. The amperage of an electric motor is the amount of electrical current required to run the motor. If a motor draws more current it usually produces more power.
"MORE POWER!" - Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor
Is "more power" always a good thing? Not necessarily. If you ever watched the sitcom "Home Improvement" you've seen what happens when an oversized motor is attached to a home appliance. (Remember the dishwasher?) Not good.
Those episodes were exaggerated for comic effect, but the principle holds true. An electric motor needs to be the right size and right power for the task at hand. Under-amped or over-amped are equally undesirable.
Let's compare the .72 amp motor from a 401 with a 1.0 amp motor from a belt-driven Class 15 "Singer Clone":
.72 amp Singer 401 motor
1.0 amp Class 15 "Clone" motor
The .72 amp motor has a long motor shaft because the motor sits inside the machine and the gear at the end of the motor shaft directly engages the needle-bar and hook mechanism inside the machine. There are no belts.
The 1.0 amp motor has a short shaft with a pulley that connects to the machine via a belt on the handwheel. The handwheel turns the needle-bar and hook mechanism inside the machine. A belt-driven sewing machine typically needs a more powerful motor because power is lost in the transfer from motor to mechanism (via the belt). A higher amp motor compensates for this loss of power. (Note: additional power will be lost if the belt is too tight or loose.)
So when you are shopping for a vintage machine, it's not just the size of the motor that counts, it's the design of the machine that determines how much power is needed to drive the mechanism.
Which means that a .72 amp motor packs the appropriate punch for the Slant-o-Matic family, but a 1.0 amp motor provides the added "oomph" that a belt-driven machine needs.
Whichever machine you choose, make sure the size of the motor is appropriate. It's possible to attach a bigger motor to belt-driven machines, but "more power" can place undue stress on the machinery, which may shorten the machine's life. You need enough power, but not too much power.
The late 1950's and early 1960's were times of change on every level around the world and throughout society.
The 401A Slant-o-Matic was Singer's flagship sewing machine during these momentous years and its production spanned a critical shift in brand image from "Old Fashioned" to "Modern."
The changing face of Singer is captured in the evolution of the badges and markings on the 401A. A comparison of 4 individual machines reveals the progression. First up is #NA775005:
I'm partial to the "early" 401. It's prettier than its younger siblings. Note the stenciling on the Special Disc lid. It's two-tone brown and gold. The stenciling on the back is also two-tone. And the badge is a lovely bright gold embossed shield with the Singer "S" superimposed over crossed needles and a shuttle bobbin. The model number has its own plate mounted below the badge. All of these details give the early 401's a more "embroidered" look.
Before long, Singer began to streamline the decorative elements, as seen on 401A # NA810187:
The Singer badge and model number plate are unchanged, but the stencilled letters on the lid and back side of the machine have been changed to a simpler, monotone brown.
Singer's "Red S" logo was launched around 1960. It was sleeker, more modern. With the new logo came additional changes for the 401. The trend was toward a cleaner, less fussy design aesthetic, which is reflected in the next machine we'll look at, #NB519064
The model number still appears on its own plate just below the badge, but the lid stencil has vanished and the rear stencil is monotone brown. The mechanics of the machine are un-changed, but the overall appearance is getting plainer.
But the trend toward plainer was not yet complete. The late-run 401's are even less embellished, as seen on #NC009804:
The model number has moved to the stitch-length plate, further reducing production costs. Same machine, but cheaper to produce. Increased market competition from Japan and Europe was pushing Singer to simplify and economize.
The times were changing, and Singer was changing with the times.
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.