Whether you are an antique enthusiast or a home sewer, you are undoubtedly familiar with the sterling reputation of vintage Singer sewing machines. Singer has made hundreds of different models over the years, though, so you may not have heard of every model! For example, many sewing experts consider the Singer 401A sewing machine to be one of the most durable and useful vintage sewing machines ever made.
The Singer Manufacturing Company sold Singer 401A sewing machines during the 1950s. The slant-needle machines were considered high-tech for their time. Today, sewing experts value the 401A models for their metal construction and durability.
In this article, you will learn everything you need to know about the history of Singer sewing machines, the value of vintage Singer models, and how to use and care for a vintage machine!
The 401A model emerged as part of Singer Manufacturing Company’s response to the surge of internationally manufactured sewing machines that hit the market following WWII.
Singer machines have a long history as the best and most popular machines for home sewing. Over the years, Singer often blazed the trail as the first to implement many new features, such as a foot treadle and an electric motor. However, the company struggled in the post-war boom for several reasons.
First, Singer embroiled itself in a legal battle over a copyright issue. Some of the post-war companies in Japan essentially duplicated a Singer model and mass-produced it more cheaply. Secondly, Singer, like White and other American companies, had trouble competing with the flood of cheaper overseas products.
For those interested in vintage machines, the 401A is often lauded as the last really “vintage” Singer machine, as it was the last all-metal machine Singer sold. This mid-century, American-made machine is considered remarkably solid and durable.
The “A” in the model number indicates a place called Anderson, where Singer manufactured this model.
Singer Manufacturing Company manufactured and sold the 401A models from 1956-1961. The company often pushed innovative new designs. The 401A had to carry the weight of international competition as well as Singer’s well-earned reputation.
As one of its best slant-needle machines, Singer marketed the 401A extensively. You can still find vintage ads from this era that make charming, grandiose claims. Some of the ads trumpet the 401A as the best sewing machine ever made, the first of its kind, and a necessary feature for your home!
In 1960, Singer sold the 401A for $59.50. While that might seem like a steal, sixty dollars in the 1960s would be the equivalent of about $530 today! You could think of this as buying a nice domestic Brother or Bernina machine today.
Of course, Singer faced competition from a deluge of overseas machines at the time. Several early Japanese companies eventually became known for very high-quality sewing machines (think of Janome and Brother).
At the time, though, many Japanese companies made their way by undercutting the low end of the market because they were cheaper than the American-made models. This meant Singer was forced to stake out a position as the purveyor of top-line sewing machines for home use.
On mid-century Singer models, you can find the serial number located either above or just below the stitch length control panel on the right side of the machine. You can easily use the serial number on your machine to find out what year it was made.
The Singer Manufacturing Company sold its very first model way back in the 1850s. The pre-1900s serial numbers do not include any letters, just numbers. (Also, for anyone who cares about the world of antiques, any machines that are more than a hundred years old get classified as antique. Machines that are less than a hundred years old but not new enough to be considered modern are classified as vintage).
Models made in the 1900s have a serial number with a two-letter prefix, such as AN.
You should also be able to find a small plate on the front of your machine with the model number stamped into it. Armed with both the serial number and the model number, you can either Google to quickly find out what year your machine was made or go to the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society to match your serial number in their extensive database.
Today, you can often find vintage 401A models for sale at a price range of $100-$150, depending on the machine’s condition and its wooden cabinet table. Keep in mind that the price and resale value are not the only factors you want to consider, though.
If you plan to use the vintage Singer, you should also inspect the machine to make sure it runs well. You can check for cleanliness and any scratches or dings to determine if its previous owner took care of it.
People do love this model for its durability. However, if it wasn’t taken care of properly, it could have all kinds of ancient grease and gross stuff clogging it up inside.
The condition often impacts the price as well. A polished, uncracked, or stained wooden cabinet could increase the value of the unit. Likewise, a machine in running order may cost more than something that has sat in your grandma’s attic for fifty years.
Singer sold many of these models, so you can often find one for sale at estate sales, yard sales, and sometimes even thrift stores. If you want to track one down more easily, you are almost guaranteed to find a handful at any given time posted on eBay.
You have probably realized by now that vintage Singer machines, including the 401A, are excellent machines! This model was Singer’s most successful slant-needle machine. They called it the Slant-O-Matic, which is quite cute!
What does slant-needle mean? It means that the needle reaches down toward the presser foot at an angle instead of in a straight, vertical line. People like the angled needle because it moves the presser foot closer to you as you sew, making it easier to see your work.
These machines are also famed for their steel gears and direct-drive motors. These features make the vintage Singers real powerhouses. ( Fun fact for you: technically, there is one non-metal gear famously placed inside these machines, made of a no-longer-existing type of bakelite plastic that lasts forever!).
Singer made the bodies of these machines out of aluminum instead of the heavier cast-iron of older, antique models. These units still weigh quite a lot, though, especially when attached to their pretty blonde-wood cabinets!
Lots of sewing enthusiasts still use these models today. Singer marketed their machines as perfect for every home sewer. Originally, sewers used these machines to sew home decor like curtains and bedding and craft clothes for their families.
Today, home sewers often love vintage Singers for heavy-duty work, such as sewing on canvas, jean, and quilting layers.
Of course, this vintage model is not computerized and does not provide the extensive stitching patterns you will find on modern machines today. Some sewers still prefer it for garment sewing, though, so long as you can use a straight or zigzag stitch for much of your sewing.
Whether or not the Singer 401A is right for you depends on some factors. You will want to consider cost, space, and functionality before you make a purchase.
Home sewers today report that they often find these units for sale at a relatively affordable price range of $100-$150. That said, you may end up paying a preliminary repair fee if your vintage machine requires an overhaul and a deep cleaning before you can use it.
While much-loved and sometimes considered the most usable of the vintage Singers, this model is not the most collectible Singer. Some of the featherweights commonly sell for $500 at antique stores!
So, you have the money and you found a nice-looking model for sale. You should still pause and consider your home workspace before buying the machine. Do you have room for a large, heavy wooden table-cabinet in your sewing area?
If the answer is yes, what kind of sewing do you do regularly? If you mostly sew clothes for yourself or slipcovers for your furniture, this machine will give you everything you need.
On the other hand, if you sew period costumes to sell on Etsy, you probably want a serger for that professional, finished look to the seams.
The bottom line is that you want to go into this purchase with your eyes open, knowing exactly what to expect of your vintage machine. This way, you can avoid any future disappointments and embrace the wonderful elements of these powerful old machines.
Any time you ask for advice about a vintage sewing machine, the first thing most experts recommend is to find the user’s manual. This booklet will show you how to clean and maintain your machine, how to set up and operate it and give you a detailed overview of its capabilities.
This can present a challenge to some vintage machine owners because you don’t always get handed a nice pamphlet when you buy something used! However, Singer enthusiasts are in luck because the company continues to provide free, downloadable versions of their manuals on their website.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. These booklets are not exactly light reading. In fact, the manual for the 401A model clocks in at 116 pages!
Reading an instruction manual may not strike you as super fun. It’s certainly not a light beach read! However, you should definitely at least skim through the manual before you do anything at all with your machine.
The manual covers everything. It details what needle you need, how to load the bobbin, and how to insert the special disks necessary for some fancier stitching patterns.
Plus, Singer’s vintage manuals include really clear pen-and-ink illustrations. These give you a great visual to accompany the written instructions.
Vintage sewing machine users occasionally face the challenge of finding replacement parts for an older machine. You can’t usually pop into Hobby Lobby or Joann Fabrics to buy needles or bobbins for a vintage model.
Vintage Singer fans have a leg up on some vintage sewing machine users, though. Singer is such a big brand with such a long history that you can usually find what you need readily available.
The Singer website allows you to shop by the model number of your machine. This way, you can select exactly the right part without any doubt or confusion!
If you feel confident about your skills and know enough to track down exactly the part you need, you can also find vintage sewing parts for sale on eBay and Etsy, among other places.
The cost depends on the kind of part you need. Singer sells a pack of four standard needles for this model at a reasonable price of $3.99. However, if you need a new bobbin case or motor, you’re looking at anywhere from fifty dollars to a hundred and fifty dollars!
You can easily learn to perform simple maintenance on your vintage machine.
First, give it a good cleaning regularly. If you just bought your machine, you may want to consider taking it to a sewing machine technician for a thorough once-over.
On the other hand, you may prefer to get to know your machine up close and personal. If you’re willing to put in the time, you can learn how to take apart the innards of the gears and motor to clean them, too.
At home, though, you can use a small lint brush to clear away any fabric lint accumulated around the bobbin or in the thread path. You can also refer to the manual to see which areas require regular oiling.
If you see a greasy greenish build-up anywhere in the machine, you may need to clean away old oil.
Second, take extra care when working with the electrical components. If the plug looks funky, please don’t plug it in! You can buy a replacement cord cheaply.
On a similar note, always unplug the machine while you clean it!
Another simple way to keep your baby running for a long time is to make sure you understand the tension settings. You can teach yourself by reading the manual or find relevant Youtube videos if you need more visual instruction.
Finally, when in doubt, rethread the machine! Often even experienced sewers run into a snag when a thread slips a fraction of a millimeter off course inside the machine. Stop sewing, untangle thread as necessary from under the presser foot, and rethread the thread path and bobbin.
The main difference between the 401 and the 401A is their manufacturing location. Singer built the 401A models in the States at Anderson, South Carolina. The 401 (sometimes called the 401G) was manufactured overseas in Germany.
The two machines do have a few functional differences as well. The 401 has an external bobbin winder on top of the machine and a special thread control feature.
Neither machine necessarily works better than the other. Sewers often recommend them interchangeably for home sewing or quilting purposes.
Do you feel like you’re surfacing out of a deep dive into the world of vintage Singer sewing machines? Hopefully, you’re now an expert on the history, care, and use of these amazing old machines. You should at least have a better idea of the value and usefulness of the 401A model!
Have you ever used a vintage Singer model? What kind of sewing did you use it for? Would you recommend it to other home sewers? Leave a comment below to let us know!