Singer Sewing Machine 401A

Singer 401A Sewing Machine

My new toy: a 50-year-old Singer Sewing machine. I found it on a shelf of a vac-n-sew. (Best name for a Vac-n-Sew is Belmont, New Hampshire’s Vacman and Bobbin.) The vac ‘n’ sew that held this treasure is in Tempe, AZ. Two years ago, when The Cookin’ Man was left back in D.C. selling our house and I was in a small, dark apartment thinking it would be for just a month or so, I found a cheap vacuum. It turned out to be a good, cheap vacuum that lasted for two years. Last week it was overwhelmed by cat hair, so I went back to the vac ‘n’ sew. Found another good, cheap vacuum cleaner and there, on the shelf, was the sewing machine, reconditioned and ready to sew. The price was unbeatable. I’ve been looking for a 401 Singer sewing machine under a $200 for a year with no luck. This workhorse is tested and not all that easy to find!

The Singer 401A was produced around 1960. It’s an all-metal machine, not a bit of plastic on it, and a workhorse capable of years of  studio work. The foot pedal has two bumps on it. The one on the right is solid, the one on the left runs the machine. You put the ball of your foot on both and then rock your foot to the left to make it run. Google helped me find SewClassic, who specializes in old Singers and SewUSA , who has free threading diagrams and bobbin winding instructions.

Footpedal for Singer 401A

It might be important to add I don’t know how to sew. Like all heavy equipment in my studio, I gave the machine a name: Betsy—years ago Betsy McCall was a paper doll line for McCall’s magazine. Each month there was a story and a new set of outfits for Betsy. (That link will take you to printable downloads for the paperdolls, 1960-version. The same year the machine was made.)

What’s a sewing machine doing in a paper studio? Working. I want to put it to work creating raw art. I love the idea of sewing on paper, it’s another attachment method. But I think it may be the solution to the “free sheet v. book” dilemma. When I’m working on raw-art part of raw-art journaling, I like to work on flat, individual sheets. I also like to work on different kinds of paper–crackly, translucent cooking parchment for alcohol markers, Strathmore’s super-smooth, blendable surface for ink and alcohol markers, Arches Wove Text for almost everything else.  On the other hand, I also like to keep the work together by date.

First, sew and fill signatures, then gather them into one book.

My idea is to sew signatures of different papers together, give them a sturdy paper cover and use them as my instant journals. The one that always is in the bag. Another signature can stay in the studio for wetter, messier work. When I have enough signatures made, I bind them all together and voilá! a raw-art journal with different papers and projects, all in one place.

I’ll report back when I learn how to thread and wind bobbins and sew on Betsy, my 50-year-old, all-metal collaborator.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, workshop leader and raw-art-journaler. © QuinnCreative 2010. All rights reserved.

54 thoughts on “Singer Sewing Machine 401A

  1. So glad I found this thread. I bought myself my 401A when I got my first job +/- 42 years ago. It’s still going strong but I haven’t used it for anything but minor sewing & mending in years. I’m now into Paper Crafting and I love colouring picture for my Cards. A friend of mine has taught me how to colour on Fabric and now I want to back & sew the pictures before colouring them, then stipple the background. It took a little bit of help from a friend who does lots of quilting/sewing, but I am now learning how to do “Free Motion” sewing on this Old machine. I just need to figure out which Foot = the modern Quilting foot and I’m set. Still searching Google for a picture of what one looks like. I have a partial Manual, cover & a few pages missing. Hobbies are so much fun and so relaxing, in this stress filled world. Love learning new ones.

  2. I need a book on this sewing machine on how it works, also need to know how to make it go forwards and backwards. Let me know how much the manual book cost. Thank you

  3. thinking of buying a 401a but dont know if the price is right they are selling it to me for 300 dollars us and i would love to have one and willing to spend the cash but i dont want to get ripped off it comes with the table and chair let me know what yah think thanks

  4. I actually own two of these. I learned how to sew on my mother’s. Actually I was the one who learned to use the embroidery cams, and attachments. Then 15 years ago I found the exact machine on a garage sale. I bought the machine and all attachments, a dining room table and four chairs for $15. In February I inherited my Mom’s machine as well.

  5. Hi, my 401A was originally my mother’s, she bought it new and used it till she passed away in 2000. I had always thought that I would be the one to inherit it since I was the seamstress in the family, but no, she left it to my youngest daughter. I made a deal with her though, my girl, I offered to swap my brand new fancy Singer machine for mom’s and, the best part was, I would leave it to her when I passed on. She jumped at the deal; we both know that it will still be around and working like a horse, since I take immaculate care of it. It came with the table and carrying case plus all of the fancy attachments. I have since added some other attachments that I bought off eBay. Another cool thing about it, the buttonhole maker that mom used on her old, old Singer that she had before the 401A, fits this machine and I like it better than the built in one. This machine has quite a history and I imagine that we will continue to add to that for many more happy sewing years. Oh, and by the way, the old Singer mom had, she replaced two motors and rewired it two times (herself); she had had it for over thirty years and we both used it constantly till it finally gave up the ghost and she bought the 401A in 1960. My husband is in the process of turning one of our spare bedrooms into a sewing, craft room for me (all mine) and though there will be a brand new over lock on one counter, my good old reliable 401A will have the best place in the room.

  6. Hi!, snap, my 401G is named Gloria, thought I had lost her when her motor
    packed up. Even if I could get one the old motor was seized inside. May seem a bit like butchery when they have a name but rather than dump her
    found a way to convert her to treadle power.
    Now have the best of all worlds-treadle, versatility and electric light.

    • Of course sewing machines have names. My new one is a Baby Loc and it’s called Louvalier, Lou for short. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out.) I love the treadle power idea. Very clever! Must have taken a lot of engineering.

  7. Hello, how is your machine working out for you? I am in Sydney, Australia and found a Singer 401A today, with its own cabinet, in an Opportunity Shop. For the bargain price of $70au (about the same as US Dollars). I can’t wait to try it out. I need to track down the manual. I am also a papercrafter, though I had never thought to sew on paper. I was thinking curtains!

  8. I would love to have a copy of your 401a manual. you can email it to me at the above email address. if not possible please let me know. thank you so much.

  9. Thank you so much for the sewusa link. I have been guessing as to how to wind the bobbin of my Singer 401A for literally years!

    You made my day!


  10. I have the manual, a throat plate, several cams, several presser feet, and the accessary box to the Singer Sewing machine 401. I would be glad to send all of it to you for the postage plus $5. Let me know before Friday, Oct 1, 2010 as I am having a yard sale on that day and it might be gone.

  11. We have gotten a viking sewing machine, its a model 911, anyone know anything about this machine, ( eg: age, where I can get a manual)

  12. How long can you use a sewing machine without having to make some major repairs. I’ve seen some very old antique sewing machines from the early 1900’s sold on eBay, and the sellers insist they still work. I just wonder what kind of maintenance was required to get them to continue to work.

  13. You can take a sheet of paper, put a thick needle in the sewing machine (no thread), remember that nasty teacher from sewing class, put your foot firmly on the footpedal, press and let your anger and frustration lead you…

    sign the paper with “I CAN SEW !”

    • I’m OK with not being able to sew. I can’t cut out fabric right. I have some problem cutting evenly, even on paper. But I am having a great deal of fun doing things that those sewing teachers never thought possible and I don’t have to call sewing. And that, my dear, is a dream come true!

  14. Yay Quinn,

    Good for you. The old ‘all metal’ machines are very sturdy. I’d be happy to help you with the threading and winding if we can find a time when we’re both free so you don’t have to figure it all out by yourself. You can also try doing some searches on You Tube, I have found sewing tutorials there.

    And yes, your stitch length for paper needs to be long so the pieces don’t just come apart. Sewing on paper is fun.

    • I found some help on the internet, and I’m guessing that the machine won’t explode if I take it easy and figure it out as I go–but i will gladly accept your offer of help. I’ve taken you up on those offers before and wound up learning about 10 times as much as I thought I could!

  15. A friend of mine is gifting a sewing machine to me but I’m in the same dilemma, I don’t know how to sew. I will either take a class at JoAnn’s or there are some upcoming classes that the city of Tempe is offering in April. I met a wonderful woman, Penney, at Ricë’s book signing and she told me she would teach me how to sew but she lives in Surprise. If we figure out a central meeting place then maybe you can join us. It would have to be on a Saturday as she works during the week. I’ll let you know if we come up with something.

    • I’ve failed two sewing classes and have a feeling I’m missing the sewing gene. Each class had the scene where the teacher gathers all the other people around my machine and says, “Now, let’s see what happens in the worst case. This is a mistake not even I can fix.” I think I’ve learned my lesson! I want the machine for journal making. I just need to figure out how to work it.

  16. I learned to sew on an ancient black Singer (yep, with the gold decorative paint job) that my Grandmother used. She was a professional seamstress, and while she could sew anything, she earned a living sewing draperies for the “big houses” and occasionally stage curtains for the auditoriums and theaters. I helped her with her deliveries – always loved the mansions. My hometown had a huge concentration of old money considering it was a Midwest town, magnificent late 1800s homes.

    I used to earn time to use her sewing machine. Rake the yard or clean the kitchen after a meal = 15 minutes of sewing machine time. I loved that machine. It had a knee press, so easy to nudge. I’ve had trouble regulating machines with a foot pedal all my life.

  17. I too bought an older all-metal sewing machine, thinking it would be better than my mostly-plastic 80s-era model. It was plenty heavy but the bobbin turned out to be a major pain to wind, the thread control was a huge hassle, and it sewed no better than my plastic machine (which works quite well and is much easier to use). Older isn’t always better!

    However, I will freely admit to lusting after my mother’s ancient portable Singer, the old black metal style with the beautiful gold detailing. I learned to sew on that machine, and it really is built like a tank (an elegant-looking tank).

    Fortunately I didn’t spend too much on the older sewing machine I bought, and I was able to repurpose it. It now lives permanently folded down inside its stand, which makes a very sturdy, heavy taboret for my palette when I paint. It’s just the right size to hold my palette paper, and the weight of the sewing machine holds it steady even under my most vigorous color mixing.

  18. The old machines are better than anything made now.I have a collection of old Viking’s – all 30+ years old. I just put a deposit on another one. Congratulations on your newest creative tool. Have fun with it and call if you run into a problem.

  19. Oh I have my mom’s the sewing machine, also a Singer and at least 40 years old. It still works perfect! It’s a very heavy portable machine in a case, all metal, with extra appliances. This sewing machine is so solid, it will work for another 40 years without problems.

    You use it to sew paper? Well why not 😉

      • It’s also a Singer, a European model from end of the 1960s.

        When you sew the paper then don’t let the stitches be too tiny I would say.

      • The Singer 401A has been the MOST reliable of all the Singer machines. I still use the one my mother used and I am over 50 so I know that it is to. It has always run like a charm and never had to be repaired. My father had given my mother a “new” machine one year and she told him to take it back, she loved the one she had (401A). If you ever want to get rid of it let me know. My girls borrow mine and I think my oldest would like her own, reliable machine. Thanks, Ginny

        • Thanks, Ginny. I found it in a repair shop. It doesn’t have a case, but a kind woman in the MidWest sold me a collection of zipper and ruffle feet. I’m glad you know it’s reliable. i may well move to a different machine–and when I do, I’ll let you know!

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