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.
The price of machines is a hot topic on vintage sewing machine forums. Members frequently lament how much they have to pay today compared to a few years ago. For collectors, bargain hunters, and resellers alike, the increase in popularity of vintage sewing machines and the resulting increase in price can be a source of aggravation.
This is mainly due to what I call "eBay-itis."
The Average Joe wants to sell Grandma's sewing machine and he's thinking of asking $50. But first he checks eBay and sees that one "just like it" sold for $500. Therefore, Average Joe concludes his must be worth $500 too. So he posts it on Craigslist for a "bargain" price of $300.
Because of this phenomenon, vintage sewing machines that sold for $25 a few years ago are now upwards of $150, even at garage sales!
But are they really worth that much more?
Not necessarily. There are several factors that should be considered when setting the asking price for a machine and I'll discuss those in detail in a future article.
For now, we'll discuss the difference between "as-is" and "retail value. "As-is" value is what the machine is worth when it's pulled out of Grandma's attic without any servicing or testing.
On the other hand, "retail" value is what the same machine is worth after it has been serviced, tested, and presented in the marketplace.
Retail selling price is a reflection of the time and effort that has gone into preparing the machine for sale. This includes servicing, adjusting, repairing, and testing to ensure the machine is "ready to sew, right out of the box."
Which means when OldSewinGear sells a machine for top dollar, we aren't just selling the machine. We are also selling peace of mind. The buyer knows they won't have to turn around and pay a repair shop to service a dirty or broken machine. Therein lies the difference between "as-is" and "retail" values.
For the collector or sewer who doesn't mind (or even enjoys) doing their own cleaning, adjusting, and repairing, the prices we ask for our machines may seem ridiculous. So they're not likely to buy a machine from us. Our customer is more likely the person who wants the joy of owning a vintage sewing machine but doesn't want to do their own servicing. They just want to open the box and get on with their project. So we've already done the work for them.
Unfortunately, the top dollar selling price for a fully serviced machine in excellent condition, with a complete set of accessories is what Average Joe sees when he goes looking for the value of Grandma's sewing machine.
Which brings us back to "eBay-itis." What's the cure? The cure is for buyers and sellers alike to educate themselves about the condition, completeness, and service history of the machines in question.
A future article will discuss specific aspects of appraising the potential selling value of a vintage sewing machine.
Happy Sewing! Barbara OldSewinGear...dedicated to helping you get the most out of your old sewing gear.
So the sliding cover to the bobbin compartment on your 401A has popped off and you can't get it to stay on. So you take a closer look and discover that the spring that holds it in place has broken.
Singer 401A bobbin cover plate
On closer inspection you can see the screw that holds the spring in place. There's just one problem...you can't get to it... The head of the screw is blocked by the hook and bobbin case. So how do you get to it?
The solution is simple...if you know where to look. The first step is to tilt the machine back and look under the lip of the sewing platform directly below the bobbin compartment.
Slide plate spring with attaching screw.
Beneath the lip you'll see what looks like the end of a screw with a slot in it. It looks like the tip of a screw because that's what it is. In fact, it's the end of the screw that holds the spring in place. You can't access the head of the screw down inside the bobbin compartment, but you can unscrew it from the opposite end on the outside of the machine.
Attaching screw for bobbin cover plate.
Using a standard screwdriver, turn the screw clockwise to loosen. (This is opposite of the usual "Lefty loosey, righty tighty" principle because you're working on the tip of the screw, not the head of the screw.)
Once the screw is loose, remove the spring by sliding to the right, tilting slightly, and lifting out.
Remove spring by sliding to right and tilting slightly.
Replace the broken spring and reverse the steps to tighten the screw. Once the spring is fixed in place, reattach the sliding plate. Position the plate behind the spring and use a small screwdriver to lift the wings of the spring into the grooves of the slide plate. Slide plate towards you to snap into place.
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.
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.