Singer went from sleek black iron to... this... in under twenty years. The seams don't even fit together! To be fair, the owner of this particular machine seems happy with it. Photo by Shawn Wall.

Why not other models?

What follows is an awful lot of personal opinion. You may well disagree and should feel free to write me a nasty letter if so. --Monty

There were an awful lot of sewing machines out there that weren't Singers. The sewing machine market was still innovative and competetive in the late 1800s and early 1900s before Singer became a runaway behemoth that buried the competition. After WWII, every recovering post-war economy pumped out cheap sewing machines by the millions. However, for most of the history of the sewing machine, at least sewing machines as we recognize them today, Singer utterly dwarfed all other comers combined. If the first consideration in a vintage machine is that it has to be practical, Singer is the way to go. There's an endless supply of highest-quality machines to be had for cheap, and that also means parts are easy to come by.

There were also many Singers that fall outside the golden age that I talk about here. The simple reason that I don't discuss later Singer machines is that I don't like them. Even before Singer started using plastic everywhere, Singer's primary concern from the 1950s on was "how do we make it cheaper?"

Prior to WWII, Singer sewing machines were timeless pieces of domestic machinery, essential to the daily function of a household. Singers were designed and manufactured at great expense to last indefinitely. After the advent of the ready-made garment industry in the 1920s, the home sewing market declined. In the 1950s it completely collapsed. Few people, especially those wealthy enough to afford a Singer, made their own clothing anymore. Not many people still needed or wanted a sewing machine.

In addition, that flood of cheap and innovative imports from Japan and Europe put Singer under unaccustomed pressure to compete for the market that remained. Machines no longer needed to survive hours of sewing on a daily basis, and these fancier but cheaper machines were 'good enough'. To be fair, many imports from this era were excellent (although many more were not). Regardless, the trend was clear: The remaining consumers wanted more features, and they wanted to pay less for them.

In summary, the 1950s are when the wheels fell off the Singer juggernaut, and it showed in the machines.

Singer responded to competetive pressure in a shrinking market by cutting costs and introducing a vast array of less expensive machines. In a few years, it eliminated all the expensive-to-manufacture classic machines, some of which had been in continuous production for 80 years. Singer rushed new feature-laden models to showrooms. Design errors and flaws crept in.

The drive to compete on basis of price was ultimately a doomed mission. Iron, brass and steel gave way to cheaper aluminum. Aluminum gave way to cheaper plastic. Even the frames and precision mechanics were made of plastic, as little plastic as possible, to save on materiel costs. Singer's reputation for bulletproof machines evaporated. I die a little inside every time I hear a marketing brochure refer to Singer as 'the most respected name in sewing machines.' That hasn't been true for a very long time.

Lastly, I'm not immune to vanity where precision machinery is concerned. The classic black Singer had been above the ruthless whims of fashion for nearly a century. From the mid 1950s on, Singer regularly reclothed machines in the fashion cliche of the moment at the same time they cheapened the innards. There's no romance left in a machine that looks and feels like a 1963 sheet-metal filing cabinet (was 'filing cabinet beige' considered sexy in the 60's? I'm too young to know). The rocketship themed lines of the 500 series might have been gee-whiz at the time, but today they look dated and silly, a caricature from a brief, spent era. Singer's styling from the 1970s is too horrible to speak of but by then Singers were no longer worth buying.

The last and longest surviving American sewing machine manufacturer, Singer was broken up and its floundering remains sold off in 1987.

All that heartbreak aside, Singer made several great machines just after its glory years. Despite some flaws, the 319W is probably my favorite Singer. Anyone looking for a first Singer who can look past (or learn to love) the styling should probably consider one of the 301, 401, 403, 404 or 500 Slant-O-Matic models, all reputed to be excellent (I own a 401, it's a fantastic machine). Be aware that unlike the machines on this site, the Slant-O-Matics require slant accessories. Low shank accessories will not fit.

Today there's no reason to be looking for the 'make it cheapest' era Singers when there are so many of the older high-end machines available for a pittance.