Thus far I've reviewed some of the more popular portable Kenmore and Elna vintage machines . But what about Singers? The Singer Company of yore stood a behemoth in the sewing machine world, having sold more machines than all the other major sewing machine companies combined! Today, it is well known that vintage Singer machines were over-built--many lasting well beyond the years of their original owners. It was upon this standard of quality that vintage machines are often measured against.
On the topic of portables, there are two Singers that stand tall above all others, the famous 1/2 size Singer 221 Featherweight (including it's various incarnations) and it's full size cousin the Singer 301a. Today I'll discuss the later.
The Singer 301a is an aluminum bodied full sized machine. Equipped with a built in handle and weighing in at only 16 lbs, the 301a is one of the most ruggedly built portable machines available. It is also one of the first machines to use Singer's proprietary slant shank foot system which paved the way for the newer "Slant-O-Matics" including the famous 401 series, 500 series (also known as "Rocketeers") and later Touch and Sew models. The slant shank system was often marketed as providing better visibility over the ubiquitous domestic low shank system. In practice, I find that this makes little difference.
I learned an interesting bit of trivia from Ray White. Apparently, the slant shank system was originally designed to target educators and schools. Purchase orders would then be drafted requiring the "Slant Shank System" thereby securing Singer's marketshare. Pretty clever.
Not to worry though, while not as common as low or high shank attachments, slant shank attachments are still easy to find. Those of you familiar with Featherweights may notice that the 301 uses the exact same bobbin case and bobbins.
The 301a features a high speed side loading rotary hook. This speed demon is completely gear driven and is capable of achieving a top speed north of 1600 stitches per minute when fully warmed up! Of the dozen or so 301s I've worked on, this one is by far the fastest I've recorded hovering around 1620 stitches per minute. In practice, they tend to run closer to 1350-1450 spm. Not too shabby, eh?
The motor itself isn't particularly beefy, weighing in at about half an amp, so why such a high top speed? All the machines I have covered thus far, have been feature rich, with the ability to zigzag or form decorative stitches. The 301a on the other hand is a straight stitch only bare bones machine. I've taken the top off below and as you can see, it is as simple as can be.
There are no cams, no rockers, no additional pulleys, just a basic gear driven horizontal shaft which drives the needle bar in the head. This ultra streamlined design coupled with a rotary hook system provides minimal resistance which yields higher top speeds. More on hook types in a future article.
Here's a view from below. The machine is super accessible, remove one thumbscrew at the bottom panel to gain access to the feeding mechanism and the motor.
Not all 301a motors are made equal though. Earlier models have a grease tube as shown above. Newer ones do not.
So how does she stitch? Absolutely beautifully and consistently! You really can't compare the stitch quality of a dedicated straight stitcher with a generalist zigzag machine even with a straight stitch plate installed. There is no contest. While the needle plate does play a big role by preventing thin fabrics from getting jammed under the needle, it is the narrow feed dog configuration which really helps the way the machine feeds and handles curves.
A lot of pre-1950s machines don't feature reverse and while that may not bother a couture seamstress who would actively avoid using reverse--instead securing her threads by shortening stitch length to avoid thread buildup--I'm much too lazy to do that! Thankfully, the 301a is indeed reverse capable. There is also a feed dog drop by means of thumbscrew under the bed extension.
The upper tension adjusts by a standard external tension screw and the bobbin winder also sits externally. Flip it up to engage the bobbin tire against the hand wheel to wind, and flip it down to get it out of the way. Another nice feature is that the sewing light sits shielded within the harp making it much harder to burn your hands while sewing. The spool pins are also springs, making them much less prone to breakage.
The 301a comes in a variety of flavors. There are long and short bed versions. The short bed version can be installed into a standard Singer cabinet with the addition of a cradle mount. Below you can see a pile of 301s waiting to be serviced. They come in 3 different colors: Black with gold decals, tan, and a two tone light beige and oyster combo (not shown below).
99% of all sewing is straight stitch only and the Singer 301a performs this task exceedingly well. Keep in mind, zig zag domestic machines weren't even available until the 40s or early 50s. Up until that point, all home sewing was done using straight stitches aided by a variety of attachments. Displayed below are a handful of Slant Shank attachments. Starting from top left: adjustable hemmer, adjustable zipper foot, ruffler, hemmer, edge stitcher, slotted binder with guides, and a quilting foot with guide.
But perhaps the most interesting attachment is the buttonholer. The buttonholes made by these vintage machines with buttonhole attachments are far more consistent and, in my opinion, prettier than those made by modern machines today. I know quite a few people who leave a dedicated machine to do buttonholes exclusively!
I just sold my last slant shank buttonholer so I don't have one to show right now. Instead I've pictured a low shank version which functions exactly the same. I'll do an comparison on various buttonholers in the near future.
The 301s sometimes come packed in a luggage. To me it feels a little like overkill given that the machine has a nice carrying handle already. Better to make a soft cover instead and cut down on the weight!
- Solid aluminum body
- Straight Stitch only
- High speed rotary hook
- Reverse capable
- Feed dog drop
- Adjustable presser foot pressure
- Lightweight at 16 lbs
- Accepts slant shank feet
As you can probably tell, the Singer 301a is one of my favorite portable sewing machines. The Kenmores and Elnas may well be more versatile given all of their features, but 99% of the time, this vintage Singer sits supreme.