Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Little Bit of History - Q&A With a Vintage Singer Expert

Today is a Q&A with a gal who is quite the expert on vintage and antique sewing machines, especially Singers.  Jennifer Hill is a Canadian quilter who primarily uses treadle machines.  She is a member on Pattern Review where she frequently shares her knowledge of the history and mechanics of the sewing machine.  She has agreed to answer a few questions for me here and share pictures of some of the fabulous machines in her collection. 

MKB:   Please tell us a little bit about how you became interested in vintage/antique sewing machines, especially Singers.

JH:  My first vintage machine was a Singer 115 treadle, purchased in 1996.  I had always wanted a treadle as I had heard that the mechanism was very efficient energy transfer technology.  It only took me a few hours of treadle sewing to hook me. 
Singer 115 treadle
I have since acquired many old machines of various makes, but I like Singers because, 1) they are so plentiful.  Singer was the market leader in sewing machine manufacture for many years.  I once heard that they made more machines than all the other makers combined.  I'm not sure if that is true but they certainly made a huge variety of models, filling every market niche,  and 2) they are very easy to self-service because so many parts are readily available.  For example, Singer devised a common low shank foot attachment system late in the 19th century which they used on many of their subsequent models so that feet/attachments could be interchangeable.  This system ultimately became an industry standard, so that many compatible modern generic feet/attachments are now available, for functions that were unimaginable back when these machines were new.  (Examples:  zipper feet, walking feet, darning feet, etc.)

MKB:  What kind of sewing do you primarily do?

JH:  I guess I'm primarily a quilter and have been for 30-40 years.  But I also do a fair bit of garment sewing, plus alterations, if they are interesting enough.  I've done home dec as well, but I keep coming back to quilting which I find to be continually challenging and creative.

MKB:  Tell us a little bit about treadle and hand crank sewing for those of us who have never tried it.  Do you prefer it, and why?

JH:  I'm totally hooked on treadle sewing machines.  As mentioned above, I have found these mechanisms to be extremely efficient and responsive, such that I use them for the bulk of my sewing.  Oh yes, did I mention that they are generally CHEAP????  I simply cannot imagine paying the prices of modern high end sewing machines when vintage/antique ones work so well and are so cheap.  I often like to say of my treadles, "What other $20 machines are you likely to find with an auto needle up/down?"  As for handcranks, I don't find them quite so comfortable to use, unless one needs low speed control.  Mind you, I sometimes like to imagine seamstresses of 120 years ago, and how sewing machines, even crankers, were sooooo much faster than the alternative - hand sewing.  The oldest ones in my collection also have some very interesting, obsolete mechanisms and I enjoy tracking the evolution of their engineering.

MKB:  What are the oldest and newest Singer that you have?

JH:  My oldest Singer is my Model 12 (New Family), built in 1888.  This is usually considered to be the model that launched Singer's pre-eminence in the industry.  It was in production (with various "improvements") from 1863 to 1902, and was the first mass marketed home use sewing machine.
Singer New Family, Model 12
My most recent Singer is my 20U "Artisan" zig-zag industrial (circa 1980's)
Singer 20U

MKB:  In your opinion, which model of Singer is their finest and why?

JH:  Whenever someone asks me about the "best" or "finest", I have to ask, "best for what?"  Generally, all the singers from the pre-plastic gear era where of uniform high quality, although in the years post WWII, European makers like Elna, Husqvarna and Bernina offered features that Singer wouldn't for many years to come.  For example, the Elna Supermatic used cams to produce reverse motion stitches (where the cam controlled the fwd/bkwd motion of the feed dogs as well as the needle swing) in the 1950's while Singers couldn't do this until the 1970's Golden Touch-N-Sews.  But speaking from personal experience, who needs such stitches anyways??? Singers were even late to the zz functionality for home machines because as market leaders they were not prepared to respond to consumer demand, rather they expected to dictate to their markets.  

Anyway, I personally like the straight stitch models.  The 201 (1934-1957) has often been considered the "best" of it's era, as it's horizontal rotary hook is so fast, smooth and silent.  It is excellent for most household/dressmaker uses.  But this hook configuration isn't ideal for using heavy thread, free motion work or sewing heavy fabrics.  Vertical oscillating hooks (Class 15's) are more forgiving under such conditions and are fine all-around performers, even if they are a bit noisier and have slower max speeds.  These full-sized models are fine for at home sewing, but even in "portable" cases are awkward (HEAVY) to transport.  Lightweight portables (I call them "one handers") like the 221/222 Featherweights or the full-sized AL 301s are better choices if one will be traveling.  However these machines, unless contained in tables or cabinets, are light enough to be easily displaced when sewing bulky items such as overcoats or large quilts.
Singer AL 301
Unlike modern machines, even Singer's bottom end machines were always fine performers.  Vibrating shuttle (long bobbin) models were in production from the 1880's until the 1950's because there were reliable and cheap - if noisy.  These were very popular as treadles and hand cranks, and later by electric motors.  However, operating one of these with a motor defines the "vibrating" in vibrating shuttle - they tend to walk across the table at higher speeds.
Singer 27 treadle with vibrating shuttle
If one cannot have one of every model, one must carefully analyze one's sewing needs to choose the most appropriate or "finest" models for one's needs.  But there is nothing wrong with having one of each model!

MKB:   Of all the Singer models, it seems that the Class 15 is the most enduring prototype.  Can you walk us through the evolution of the various 15 models in the past 100 years and tell us a little bit about the "15 Clones"?

JH:  Class 15's go back much further than 100 years.  Singer introduced it's first round bobbin, vertical oscillating hook model, the Improved Family, in 1875, and variants were in production until the 1960's.  The primary changes over the years involved improvements to the bobbin/hook systems, stitch length selection (including reverse), internal gear drive motors vs belt drive external motors, and updated body styles.  However, older featured models often remained in concurrent production with more modern ones, as production was tailored to various geographic and socio-economic markets.
Singer 15-96 hand crank machine
The term "15 Clones" usually  refers to machines of similar mechanisms, made by other manufacturers, especially Asians ones, Post WWII.  After the defeat of Japan in 1946, the occupying power realized that a successful transition from military to civilian society required an expanding manufacturing economy.  To assist in this effort, the engineering plans for Singer's Class 15 machines were GIVEN to the Japanese industry.  (It is not clear what Singer thought of this arrangement, since they had suffered greatly from a corporate standpoint during the War.   Factories in Allied countries had been requisitioned for production of wartime necessities, and those in the Eastern Bloc were nationalized without compensation.  Also, their very competent and visionary president, Sir Douglas Alexander, died suddenly in 1949 leaving a leadership vacuum at the top.)  
Class 15 "Clone"machine - quite a beauty.  (From Craigslist)

As the 15 was an old design by this time, it is unlikely any components were covered by existing patents, even if Singer had wished to contest the action.  Many Japanese manufacturers produced versions, which were almost all identical and destined for export to North America and Europe, at prices that severely undercut those of established makers in the target markets.  These units seldom had any maker's marks on them to identify them as Japanese as imports from that country were considered in those days to be inferior to Western goods.  Instead they were usually decalled - or badged - with Western sounding names at the request of the various distributors or retailers who imported them.  Despite their original imagine, they have mostly proved to be of high quality and kick started the Japanese and Asian sewing machine industry, which has now pretty much obliterated that industry in the West.
Another 15 Clone - they often came in bright colors, but otherwise duplicated the familiar Singer 15
(From Craigslist)

MKB:  What is your "dream Singer", the one you still hope to add to your collection?

JH:  This one is easy and has been on my wish list for years - a Singer 72W industrial hemstitcher machine.  Of course in an industrial treadle base!  I'm not sure what I really need a hemstitcher for, but this one looks complicated enough to provide many hours of entertaining puzzle value. 
Singer 72W Hemstitcher

THANK YOU, Jennifer for all the great information!  If anyone has any questions, I can pass them on the Jennifer so she can give us the answers.  Or you can find her on Pattern Review (username: Jennifer Hill) to read lots more information that she shares on the message boards there.

UPDATE:  September 29, 2013.  Sadly, I have just heard that Jennifer Hill passed away this week.  Although I never met her in person, like many members of Pattern Review I always enjoyed her contributions to the forum.  She seemed to know everything there is to know about antique and vintage sewing machines!  I considered it a privilege that she gave me all the information for this blog post and I enjoyed corresponding with her about it.  We have lost a font of knowledge in the PR community which I know pales in comparison with the loss to her family.  


  1. Hi, Just thought you'd like to know that the Singer 15-96 hand crank you have listed is really a model 15-98. The 15-96 was a treadle.

  2. Thank you for the information!

  3. I have just purchased a 15-96, I think, and was wondering in what year it may have been produced. It's stunning and looks to have been used very little.