Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Singer 401 versus 403 (and 404)

This was something I used to wonder about - the differences between Singer 401, 403, and 404
Slant-o-Matics.  In the past year, I have acquired each of these machines and can now explain it to anyone else who is wondering.

I already covered the 404 in another post:  it is a basic, but excellent straight stitcher.  It is easy to use, practically indestructible, and fool proof.  There is nothing fancy here, just great stitching.

Singer 404 (straight stitch)

Here I will explain the difference between the 401 and 403

Singer 403 "Semi-Automatic" 

Singer 401 "Automatic"

The difference basically comes down to this.  The 403 is "semi-automatic" because it zigzags only with a cam in place (it is shown here with the "0" cam that makes the zz stitch.)  Other decorative stitches can be made by popping this cam out and substituting one of the other 22 top hat cams that are available.  This is pretty simple, and straightforward - choose your stitch pattern and pop it in.  You choose your stitch width and needle position as usual.
Singer 403 takes one cam at a time

Then you have the 401.  It is considered "automatic" because the zigzag stitch is built-in via a camstack.  This also includes a number of other fashion stitches which you arrive at by a somewhat complicated system of turning two lettered dials to get your stitch pattern.  To add to the confusion,  it also takes top hat cams to make different "combination" stitches.  (I explain that in a little more detail here.)

Singer 401 with camstack, plus takes extra cam for "combination" stitches

In all other respects, these machines are identical.  They both have dual spool pins and dual upper tension for twin needle stitching, three needle positions, the elevated throat plate system, bobbin winder on the side, and a flip top for cam placement.

Now the 401 is known as the TOL (top of the line) machine for this series.  Supposedly because you had built-in stitches, this was the better machine.   


If you mostly just straight stitch and zigzag - and only occasionally use any kind of decorative stitch  - then I think the 403 is actually better because it is easier to use.  With the 401 you have to dial in the combination AK3 to straight-stitch, and to zigzag you have to dial in BL + stitch width.  With the 403 you just move your stitch width lever to "S" to straight stitch, and to whatever stitch width you want for zigzag.  Easier!  And honestly, by the time you figure out which combination of dials gives you a certain decorative stitch on the 401, you could have just popped a cam into the 403 and been on your way.

While the 401 is considered by many to be the gold standard among Slant-o-Matics, just know that the stitch quality and speed are identical to the 403.  (The camstack is literally the only difference between the two.)

I love to make little videos of my machines stitching so here is a side-by-side comparison. (The 403 sounds a tad louder because it is sitting on a table while the 401 is installed in a cabinet which absorbs some of the sound.)

Singer 403

Singer 401

The stitch quality is also exactly the same, the two are indistinguishable (403 = blue/401 = red)

(NOTE:  the difference between the 500 and 503 Rocketeers is basically the same as the 401 and 403 - one has a built-in camstack and the other requires a cam to zigzag .)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

I'll Never Do This Again!

Generally I like almost all kinds of sewing - some better than others, of course.  My favorite things to make are accessories, costumes, baby clothing, and doll clothes.  These types of projects are fun, and not too demanding.  You can use a lot of creativity, but serious fitting skills aren't required.

Simplicity 1033
For example, I recently made this costume for a Day of the Dead event from Simplicity 1033.  It was fun, and I did sugar skull make-up and I even found skull-patterned fishnet stockings to wear with it.  (And no, I won't post a photo of me wearing it!)

Then I was asked to donate a square to a local project that is assembling a quilt for some kind of folklore event.  I said, "Sure, I've never quilted before, but one block sounds simple enough."  I had several basic patterns to choose from and this star looked pretty simple.  

(If you look back here, you can see where I originally used this fabric in another volunteer project.)

I guess it was a simple enough pattern, but I soon found out how excruciatingly exacting quilting can be.  It's not that other kinds of sewing aren't exact, but with quilting you are putting lots of little pieces together like a puzzle, using 1/4" seam allowances, and there is no room for error.  In this case the finished size was to be a 12-1/2" square block which took me three tries to get it right!  I drew the pattern myself, just looking at a picture, and figured it out as I went along. I ended up with two messy 12-1/4" squares I couldn't use.  Somehow it shrunk up in the sewing.  

Well who knew that the 1/4" seam in quilting really means a scant 1/4" seam?  Naturally, any quilter knows that, but I didn't.  (I do now!)  I also decided to stitch those diagonal seams from center to point/center to point.  That took more time, but it kept the bias from stretching and kept the points from getting chewed up at the beginning of the seam.  It seemed to square up better when I did it that way.

Anyway, the third time was a charm and I finally got the exact measurement on the finished square and can't imagine EVER making enough of those to make a quilt.  One was enough.

PS...yes, one of the star points is cut off-grain, but I'm NOT going to do this again!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Singer 401 - My First Impressions

The Sewing Gods have smiled on me once again.  (I don't have this kind of good fortune in every area of my life - I've been looking for a job for a year now - so this is like the consolation prize.)

While I haven't been actively searching for new machines or cabinets for a while now, I always hoped for a 401 Slant-O-Matic to complete my collection.  I love my 503 Rocketeer with the two dozen cams for different stitches.  I love my 301 for fast, perfect straight stitching.  I loved my 404 for the same reason (I gifted it to my mom.)  Somewhere in there, I've always wanted to try a 401, which was supposed to be Singer's TOL machine of it's day.

My husband happened upon this machine at an Estate Sale. A beauty of a 401 (it was clean and well maintained) in the cabinet, with the stool, original manual, and complete set of attachments for $50 - What a deal!

Singer 401a

Among my stable of Slant-O-Matics, there are similarities and overlaps which can get confusing so I've made a chart to contrast and compare:

I got the new machine all set up, and ready to go.  I noticed right away that it is a little louder than my other machines, but could be because it has a lot more mechanisms, like the cam stack, inside.  It has a somewhat complicated system for choosing stitch patterns which requires referring to a chart inside the lid.  (It is annoying that the thread spools are on top of this lid so need to be secured before flipping up the lid to see the chart.)

The double letters for each stitch pattern refer to the two knobs: one labeled A-J, and the other K-S. You turn one knob to the first letter and the other knob to the second letter to get the pattern.  Different letter combinations also change your needle position, but only on "primary" patterns. However, if you're straight stitching, then the stitch-width lever changes your needle position.  On "combination" patterns, you apparently can't adjust width or needle position. If this seems a little convoluted, it is!  To me, popping in a top-hat cam for the stitch I want - on my 503 - is just as easy AND you can easily adjust width/needle position on any stitch.  I'm not convinced this is a better system.

I'm also not convinced I will choose this machine for general sewing since it doesn't straight stitch as fast and smoothly as the 301 and 404 straight stitchers.  I need to play with it a little to find out what advantages it offers over the other Slant-O-Matics.  It's supposed to be the Holy Grail of Slant-O-Matics so let's see what it can do...

Sunday, June 25, 2017

A Train Case for Train Trip

In August, I am off on a new adventure which is a cross country train trip on Amtrak.  This will be a round trip from Atlanta to Washington DC to Chicago to Denver.   That is three nights going and three nights coming back - six nights on a train!  We got the Roomette, which is a small compartment with two large seats during the day, and an upper and lower berth at night.

Can't wait!

So in this month's issue of Sew News  (June/July 2017) I saw a Sew-Along for train cases, and of course what could be more perfect for my trip?  

I was a little disappointed that in addition to buying the magazine, I also had to pay $9 for the pattern online. Then I spent another $21 on fabric, zipper, interfacings, fleece batting, and Fuse-N-Shape. Therefore this HOMEMADE bag cost me $30.  So I'm not saying its a bargain because I could have bought a nice case for much less than that.

Oh well...

Here is where the pattern is available:  Crimson and Clover Train Case Pattern

And here is my finished (medium size) case

And yes, I failed to think it through when cutting it out and cut the print SIDEWAYS.  (I was intent on making sure I cut the top piece and handle just-so, so that I could highlight the "Paris"on the print, and never paid attention to the rest of it.)

Although I've made lots of bags of different types, I wouldn't say this was the easiest one I ever put together.  By the last few steps, you are sewing together so many layers that you can barely fit it under your presser foot.  Fortunately I have my heavy-duty mechanical Singers to do the job, but I imagine some lower end new machines couldn't hope to sew those thick seams.

I thought it was cool to find this pattern for a train case right before embarking on a real train trip.  Yeah, I could have bought a similar cosmetic case for $10 less, but then I wouldn't have had the fun of messing up my sewing room to make this!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Video: Rural Family in the 1950s Buys Mom a Singer Sewing Machine

You never know where a vintage Singer sewing machine might show up!  In this video, a family living in rural Georgia makes their living by cutting wood.  The two sons work with their father every day cutting trees and they decide that if they get a power saw they can cut three times faster.  The whole family decides to sacrifice and save the $350 to buy the saw.

On a trip into town one day, the family drives by a house where a neighbor is on the front porch sewing with her Singer sewing machine that was the "envy of all the womenfolk."


Later, in town, the mother looks longingly at a Singer in a store window that costs $95.


As the story continues, the family works hard all summer and saves every cent to buy the saw.  When they finally get it, they are able to make three times as much money and can now paint their house and buy other luxuries.  The film ends with dad and the sons presenting mom with her coveted Singer, and they had "never seen her happier."


She is shown excitedly setting up her machine, opening the box of attachments, and reading the instruction book.


This video wasn't about Singer sewing machines, it was a film about a rural family working together and sacrificing for the things they wanted.  But at the end, it was so cool to see the mom finally get the machine she'd had her heart set on.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

How to Make a Cover for your Featherweight Case

Finally, here is my pattern for making a cover for your Featherweight case.  (I showed another one I made HERE.)  This does not enclose the case at the bottom, but just covers it to protect it from dust, scratches, and scuffs.
This fits the newer style case from about the 1950s.  The older ones, with the tray insert, have slightly different dimensions, so substitute your own measurements if necessary

These are the basic materials - a yard each of a main and contrast/lining fabric plus fusible fleece.  I don't show the piping here, but add that in as well as any other trims (rick rack, appliqué, or whatever) you want.

From the lining/contrast fabric:

Front/Back:  cut 2 @ 15-3/4" x 13-1/8"

Sides: cut 2 @ 9-1/4" x 13-1/8"

Top:  cut 1 @ 15-3/4" x 9-1/4"

From the main fabric and the fusible fleece:

Front/Back:  cut 2 @ 15-3/4" x 11-5/8"

Sides: cut 2 @ 9-1/4" x 11-5/8"

Top:  cut 1 @ 15-3/4" x 9-1/4"

Trim away 1/2" seam allowance before fusing the fleece in order to reduce bulk in the seams.  (NOTE: There is no seam allowance at the bottom of the Front, Back, and Sides.)

Now cut out a 6-1/2" x 1" rectangle from the center of each Top piece as shown:

On each piece, mark the corners with small dots at the seam allowance as shown.  NOTE: Seam allowance is 1/2"

Mark dots on corners at seam allowance (1/2" x 1/2")

To Sew

With Main fabric, sew Front and Back to Sides, stopping exactly on dots, and back stitch to reinforce. Press seams open.

Using the top cut from Contrast fabric, pin to the Sides, matching dots.  Begin and end seam exactly on the dots, and backstitch to reinforce.  These should meet at a perfect right angle, as shown below.

After Top is sewn at both Sides, pin it along Front/Back edges, folding back the seam allowance from the previous seams and matching dots.  Begin and end these seams exactly on the dots, reinforcing with backstitching as before.
Fold back previous seam allowance 

Here is how your corners will look when finished

You can slip this on over the case to help you shape it and lightly press the seams open (Careful, don't scorch your case!)  Trim corners, if you want, to make a neater finish.

Sew Lining in the same way with remaining pieces, then press under 1/4" on bottom edge.

Now, put the Main cover back on the case right side up and the Lining over it right side down (right sides together, in other words).  Match the openings and pin as shown

Sew around this opening about 1/4" from opening edge.  I used the wide toe of my presser foot as the guide.  (You have to turn it inside out to get in there to sew)  Reinforce at the corners as you turn.

Slash right up to the stitching at the corners and trim

Pull the lining through the opening, then you can put this back on the case to press it. (Again, not too hot, you don't want to damage the leather of your case!)  After pressing, topstitch around opening.


With cover on the case pull Lining down tautly all around.  It will extend 1-1/4" beyond the bottom (with 1/4" previously pressed under.)  Turn this back up over the cover and pin into place all around, matching corners first.

Insert piping between the layers and sew the reverse hem with a zipper foot.

That's it!  If you make this, I'd love for you to send me a photo.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Book Review - "Sew Retro" by Judi Ketteler

REVIEW:  Sew Retro: 25 Vintage-Inspired Projects for the Modern Girl & a Stylish History of the Sewing Revolution by Judi Ketteler.  Minneapolis, MN: Voyageur, 2010  $24.99

Today, I'm going to go in a little different direction than usual and do a book review.  Anyone who has read a few posts on this blog knows that I am a history nut who loves to sew - thus my obsession with "vintage" sewing machines, patterns, and fabrics.

Imagine my delight when I stumbled across a book that combines these all into one beautiful, high quality volume.  Sew Retro, by Judi Ketteler, traces the history of domestic sewing in the United States since the nineteenth century and the advent of the home sewing machine.  For the fun factor, it includes easy, vintage-style patterns to make with today's retro prints or your own stash of vintage fabric.

I snagged this photo from Judi's blog (which is also where you can go to buy this book if you're interested) because it is a nicer picture than one I'd take myself.  The book is larger than it seems in the picture, ring-bound with glossy pages and beautiful photos and illustrations.

This is an example of some of the charming illustrations taken from vintage periodicals

While Sew Retro has plenty of eye candy - or "sewing porn" - with the many pictures of vintage sewing machines and  fabric swatches, it is also a little slice of women's history.  It explores the ways home sewing evolved as a response to women's changing roles in society and vice versa.  Judi begins the narrative in the 1800s with the "Cult of True Womanhood" and explains how femininity was defined in the ladylike pursuit of needlework. She continues throughout the twentieth century as women sewed for thrift and economy (during the Depression and World War II), and then later for relaxation and creativity as they became "liberated" and no longer had to sew to keep their family in clothing. We see how the industry kept pace with these changes, and offered women a chance to express themselves through fashion in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Each chapter in the historical progression is accompanied by a pattern that represents the time period. This is truly an interactive history book in the sense that you can make these simple items that give you a feel for the women who would have made something similar years ago.

Here is one of the patterns from the Victorian Era when women kept their treasured sewing tools in dainty needle cases they made themselves.

And if all this wasn't enough, Judi introduces us to some of today's designers who produce retro fabrics and patterns, and/or upcycle second-hand textiles in interesting ways.

There is no end to the delights for a vintage sewing lover - an added value is the inclusion of a full sized pattern sheet for some of the projects in the book.

Judi has done a great job of giving us a history of domestic sewing and American womanhood with a fresh twist.  If you like to collect vintage fabric like I do - or just appreciate vintage-inspired modern prints - then you'll certainly enjoy making some of the cute patterns in this book that are fun, updated versions of clothing and accessories that American women made in the past.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Volunteer Sewing, or Stitching Meets History

I am in a long, dry spell of unemployment.  Having decided late in life to start a new career path, I went back to school to get a degree in History (yes, I know, not exactly a blazing path to success) and now find myself virtually unemployable.  The diploma looks nice hanging on the wall, but I have found out the hard way that youth pretty much trumps experience in the job market.  All my 20-something classmates have found jobs while I languish in the ranks of the unemployed.

In the meantime, I am doing volunteer work in my field. I sit on a local Historic Preservation Commission and I work part-time at a history museum. (This is exactly what I wanted to do when I went for the degree, only I hoped to be PAID for it!)

One of my jobs at the museum is deciphering 19th century letters like this and transcribing them:
(If this doesn't look like fun, then I can't explain it.  Either you love this kind of thing or you don't.)  ;)

When they found out I could sew, I was quickly given a project.  This, of course, is a costume, not an authentic reproduction dress.  (It has a zipper up the back and everything.)  But this was the pattern they asked me to make.

Here is this is the dress on the girl I made it for - not yet hemmed.  She wasn't available for fittings, so the waist turned out a tad too big, even though the size matched her measurements.  She said not to worry, since she will be wearing an apron with it (which I will undoubtedly make as well!)

I thought the dress looked awfully plain (they didn't want any of the trims included with the pattern) so I picked up my crochet hook and made a collar.  It looks great with the dress, I think, and the museum staff was duly impressed.

Then they asked me to make some vintage-style aprons.  JoAnn actually has a line of print fabrics reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s.

I loved this print, especially!

Anyway, this sort of thing keeps me busy until I can find paying gigs...