Writer and master craftsman Alex Askaroff has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.
The Singer 201 sewing machine
Fit for a Princess
Don't you love the beauty spot. Where have they all gone?
I have recently been working with the television production crew for the next BBC series of The Great British Sewing Bee and we wanted to pick an iconic sewing machine to film. Well in the history of sewing machines there was one model that leapt out, the Singer 201.
Someone once said to me that 'nothing lasts like quality' and the Singer 201, built by families that had worked for generations at the same factories, proved the case with the Singer model 201.
A little history
Cheap always sells but quality lasts...
After the Great War, mass production from technologies learnt during wartime, and the supply of electricity into houses led to massive advances in sewing machine technology. The pinnacle of this technology by the 1930's can be seen in the stunning performance of Singer's latest offering, the formidable model 201, which was produced in Britain at Kilbowie, Clydebank.
This British masterpiece of engineering was expensive but opened up a whole new era of opportunities amongst the working classes of Britain. The 1930's were hard, the world was suffering from a massive depression sparked by the Wall Street crash in America. The ripples were felt around the globe and millions of men found themselves out of work.
In Britain unemployment and poverty manifested itself in uprisings like the Jarrow March in October of 1936 (Google it, its fascinating). However new opportunities were also opening up. For the first time a truly professional machine was now available to the masses. There was almost a Singer shop in every town and city in the country and in the shop windows was the new Singer model 201. Although expensive, with the help of hire purchase, first introduced on mass by Singer and his partner Edward Clark in the 1850's, women found that they could buy the Singer 201, pay for it over a period of years and earn a living from the machine at the same time.
The Singer 201 was a work horse, it could be used hard and almost continuously. Whether making curtains or costumes, the woman of the household could earn a living with the machine, helping with the household bills and upkeep. For normal domestic use the Singer 201 would have been supplied as a hand machine or treadle but for the professional it could have a motor attached to it and could run at over 1,100 stitches per minute.
The Singer 201 earned a reputation for reliability and stitch quality that was second to none and many households dressed their children and fed their families from money earned on this fabulous model.
One of the greatest sewing machine factories on the planet which produced many of the Singer 201 machines.
The Singer 201 machine
Here is a clip by Alex Askaroff about hire purchase and the fabulous Singer 201
The Singer model 201 first hit the streets just before the Great depression of 1929 but sales really took off for the Singer 201 just before World War II and boy what a machine it was, quite possibly the finest straight stitch domestic sewing machine in the world at the time (arguably it still is). However by 1939 Singer was busy with the war effort and so all but essential sewing machines took a back burner.
Singer during World War Two
During WW2 Singers, like most manufacturing companies, helped with the war effort and turned most of their machinery over to production of items like bullets and hand grenades. Singers received their first order for 100,000 Mills No36 hand grenades in July of 1940 and marked their Mills bombs with the SMC company logo. In America and Canada the Singer factories helped with automatic pistols, propellers, bomb sights, carbines, B-29 machine gun control systems and much more.
Sewing machines during this period, and after the end of hostilities, became scarce and sought after, some customers waiting for over a year for their new sewing machine.
Post War Singer Sewing Machines
Britain, like most of war-torn Europe was trying to rebuild after the devastation of World War Two, however materials were in scarce supply and huge demand. The British Board of Trade implemented strict regulations to allow material to be used in manufacturing. Singer would have to achieve a 50% export rate to allow it to meet its material allowances. If it fell below that, steel and other materials would have been diverted to other more profitable companies.
Princess Elizabeth and the Singer 201K
In 1947 the Singer Company proudly presented HRH Princess Elizabeth their finest sewing machine, the Singer 201. If you watch the Pathe newsreel of the presents for the Royal Wedding you will see the British 201 Singer proudly on display next to the jewels and gifts that the couple were showered with from royalty around the globe.
It was a brilliant piece of marketing from Singers and for a long time people were asking for the same machine that Queen Elizabeth used. If it was fit for a queen it was certainly good enough for them!
Now by the late 1940's there was one benefit to be had for Singers. From the end of hostilities, surplus of aluminum used throughout the aircraft and other military industries was just ideal for Singers, who traditionally worked in cast iron, (except for their model 221).
Singers (through their contacts) managed to obtain large enough amounts of aluminium and other raw materials to allow the Singer 201 to be made in aluminum for the first time. The factory retooled and formed new castings and by the early 1950's they were producing the first Singer 201k sewing machines in aluminium.
Legends tells that more than one Singer today may be made of recycled Spitfires. Lancasters and Hurricanes. Initially the 201 came in black, like its pre-war cast iron counterpart, but soon switched to a more modern 1950's brown.
The full rotary hook and high-carbon super-hard corkscrew meshing gears, all set in a lighter alloy body, gave the machine a smoothness that other sewing machine manufacturers could only dream about. But all this came at a cost. It became Singers most expensive domestic sewing machine at the time.
Buying a Singer 201 by Alex Askaroff Youtube
The Singer 201 was bought mainly by professional machinists who would sew for a living. The Singer 201 was pretty much bullet proof and could take a direct hit from a nuclear missile and still sew.
Today there is still no domestic sewing machine made that will stitch better than the Singer 201sewing machine that is in good working order.
Prices of the Singer 201
When the Singer 201 first came out its basic price in a wooden box was £13.17s (the Singer 128k was £9.17s 6d, the Singer 66 £11.10s). The differences do not sound much today but they were huge back then.
The price for the 201 was for their hand model but for £5.17s you could upgrade to electric.
This price stayed pretty stable from the 1930's right up to the early 1940's when the same Singer 201 would cost between £13.7s and £15.8s. Add to this basic price the cabinet of your choice and motor.
By the 1950's an electric Singer 201, in its basic wood case was supplied at £20.10s.
Whereas pre-war you would stipulate 'electric wanted' and pay the extra, by the 1950's you would have to ask for a hand or treadle machine as the majority were now supplied as electric.
Don't forget the price could almost double if you wanted one of Singer fine cabinets supplied with it. The Singer factory in Kilbowie had over 2,000 trained cabinet makers.
Now there was massive inflation in the 1950's and by 1961 the Singer 201 had rocketed up to over £66. This was disastrous for Singers, when some new far-eastern competitors were supplying machines at a little over a tenner.
Of course there were cash discounts and other incentives and sales. There was also Singers hire purchase where the machine worked out more expensive with small payments over long periods.
Singer 201 during WWII
The Singer 201 has gone down in history as possibly Singer's finest model. Although technology has moved on, quality has not. The Singer 201came with a few letters such as the 201k (the K that sometimes follows the number denotes that it was made in in Kilbowie, Scotland) or the Singer 201P which was assembled in Australia using parts from Kilbowie. The Singer 201D was from Wittenberge in Germany.
There were also subclasses such as Singer 201k1 or 2 or 22 etc which were pretty much identical. The big change was the switch to an aluminium body for lightness. The Singer 201 sewing machines were made up until the early 1960's.
The Singer 201 simply represents the very best that Singer's could make and was built to last a lifetime. Even today many professional sewers seek out this elusive model as no new machine can come close to this beauty for reliability and stitch quality.
Legend has it that Rolls Royce used modified Singer 201 sewing machines to sew its premium super-soft hide to panels for some of their finer car upholstery and dashboards as the Singer 201 made a small neat hole compared to the larger machines. I doubt if it is true but you can see how a machine of this quality can start rumours like this.
I certainly know of a bookbinders that switched to the Singer 201 sewing machines from industrials at their factory. I used to service the machines for the bookbinders and remember clearly the rows of Singer 201's, sewing away so quietly compared to the normal factory din.
All the early Singers were cast iron but around the early 1950's Singer also produced an Aluminium version to reduce weight, firstly in black then later in brown.
The first Singer 201 cast iron machines weighed a ton and were known in the trade as Back-Breakers! The alloy 201's were lighter and lost a bit of the ooompf (how do you spell that!) on the heavier work!
I remember a joke going around when I was a kid about how difficult it was to get new sewing machines in the 1950's. A woman walks into a Singer shop in post war Britain. "I would like to buy a new Singer." The Singer man just shrugs, "Wouldn't we all madam, wouldn't we all."
In reality times were so hard and material so scarce that they would be put on a waiting list and be notified when one was ready. Some people would wait months for a new machine. A little bit different to today eh!
Now when I say expensive let me explain...
You can see from the receipt that Mrs Jeffrey paid 13 pounds 17 shillings and tuppence for her brand new Singer 201 in 1940. Her weekly wage as a domestic at that time was just over 10 shillings. The average normal wage was a little over one pound. She had paid the equivalent of 27 weeks wages for her Singer 201K. WOW.
Half a years wages for a Singer 201 sewing machine!
Now in today's money what would that be? Work out what half your years wages are and you have what the Singer 201 cost in 1940. Basically they cost the same as a decent car today! Now you know why the Singer 201K machines sew better than their modern plastic counterparts. I once met a man who paid £50 for his Singer when new. He only remembered the price because he paid £500 for his house!
The Singer 201 ran for nearly three decades before its production costs made it unviable and production at Kilbowie and elsewhere ceased. It was the end of an era and the end of possibly the best straight stitch Singer ever made.
Sew with a Singer 201K today in good working order and you will see what I mean, puuuurfection.
The Singer 201sewing machine
The 201 was popular the world over and the French loved it as much as us although (I can't see the front) this model might possibly be the French made Singer 191B.
The Final Singer 201 was a browny-beige and by 1963 it was no more. The finest sewing machine in the world became just too expensive to make.
Japanese cheap imports were flooding the market and this old beauty was put to bed. By 1963 you could buy over 100 sewing machines cheaper than the 201 and the 201 only did a straight stitch!
Today the Singer 201K go for silly low-prices on Ebay because no one realises how well they were made or how much they used to cost.
If you enjoy your sewing and don't need all the fancy stitches grab a Singer 201K while you still can. It is a machine that will make you smile with each stitch.
The Singer 201k Sewing Machine, simple perfection.
Which Report 1961
Best Buy, the Singer 201
In 1961 Which Magazine tested over 40 sewing machines that were on the market at the time. The tests were amazingly in-depth and, as the magazine stated, the machines were expected to take substantial work over a lifetime.
You cannot imagine anyone making anything today that was built to last a lifetime! Where did it all go wrong? For example each electrical foot controller was tested over 75,000 times to review its capability.
The Singer 201, won the Which Magazine overall best machine, remembering that Which was an unbiased and independent magazine never weakening to flattery.
After extensive testing and abuse, including dropping the machines, the magazine stated that... The Singer 201 and Necchi Supernova cannot be seriously faulted.
They were the best but also the dearest machines. The Singer 201 cost £66. 1s. 3d. (the Universal Sew Maid cost £11. 19s.).
The average wage in 1961was well under £20 per week in the UK so as a minimum the 201 relates to around one months wages. That relates to the sewing machine costing over £1,000 at today's value and that is after the machine became relatively cheaper to its original 1930's price.
No wonder it was such a beauty! The 201 was costing over six times the price of some of the other sewing machines! It was closely followed in price by the fabulous lightweight Singer 222k at £65. 15s. 6d.
Production of the Singer 201 finished by early 1960 but there was still stock being sold at various Singer outlets as late as 1963 as the last of the old stock disappeared.
Singer 201 threading diagram: note the way the thread goes through the needle! Right-to-left folks and the flat side of the needle to the outside/left of the machine.
By any standards, a well set Singer 201, is simply
unbeatable for stitch quality.
Singer 201 threading diagrams
Buying a Singer 201 by Alex Askaroff Youtube
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Both Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires
I moved into my new house and found a 201k in the basement in its box. I googled and found your site and so I used it and it is so so amazing ! I work in the leather trade and I can sew soft leather with it and all other materials. Simply amazing I am truly blest!
I have just watched a program on Ch 4 on bombing in Britain during the war, and I thought that I saw a 201 in the rebuilt and simulated house of that time, so I Googled Singer 201.
As a young man in the 70s I wanted to buy a sewing machine, partly because I was a quasi hippy, and partly for its general utility, and was advised by a market trader in The Cut, Waterloo, to buy a Singer 201, he saying it was the best they ever made, and that rumour had it that Rolls Royce used the 201 to sew leather to quarter inch ply wood on the dashboards of their cars.
I bought my Singer from a shop in Bromley where I lived, for about £50, and being an engineer tuned and adjusted it. It has been a great machine, a real workhorse, and saved much money by allowing repairs.
As an engineer. I am heartbroken by the paucity of invention, and reducing standards of much consumer engineering, and this is one lovely example I will never get rid of, being firmly embedded in my 'grotto' of iconic designs. I have wondered if the brown aluminium ones had any advantages though.
Best Wishes, Russell B.
I went on the internet trying to find a manual for our old treadle
but, with no joy. Out of the blue, my Mother produced the very tatty
manual, and also the attachments, for the Model No. 201K. This drove
me to the internet again to find out more, and I found your very
informative webpage. What a wonderful surprise, little did we know the
machine Dad bought in 1947 was one of the
Alex my Singer 201 has enormous sentimental value. Mamma once made a suit for my father for a bet Ė not quite Savile Row but wearable, she took an old suit to pieces and worked from that. As children and young adults all our clothes were custom built. I would see fabric, in Liberty, Dickens & Jones, or Berwick Street or Peckham Rye markets, come home, describe what I wanted, my father would sketch it and Mamma would tell me how much fabric to buy and make it.
I went online with 201K just now just to value the machine Ė there
was nothing for sale on E-Bay to compare. I now value it far more,
having read your illuminating website. Thank you.
I just found your wonderful web site. I really enjoyed it.
I just came across your article and I loved the information it includes. There were many points I did not know about until now.
My first 201 was by accident, I had ordered a Singer machine on Ebay about 5 years ago with the seller not knowing what is was he was selling and low and behold it was a 201, I was in love with the elegant quality that Singer instilled in their machines so many years ago.
I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your article and all the research you did.
Have a great day and take care.
Cameron D USA
Thanks for a great resource!
I have just used the Singer 201 to make 2 pairs of curtains for my daughter and it is indeed a fantastic machine. I am almost reluctant to admit that it sews a better stitch and sounds better than the Bernina! Now I don't know which one to refer to as my Rolls Royce!
Thank you for your very helpful website.
Thank you very much for the great site and wonderful info on all things sewing. As a result of your helpful information I just purchased a used Singer 201k from 1941 (Ebay) and it is wonderful. I use it to sew cotton duck and burlap heavy tote bags and the stitches are beautiful.
Thanks again for the sewing education and the passion for these old great machines.
Goose, Creek, USA
Iíve just read the article on your site Ė so interesting. I inherited my motherís 201K which she purchased in 1954, and still use it.
My friend is a dressmaker, and even she says that she canít believe how straight and perfect the stitching is. I have since bought a modern Singer, all electronic and bells and whistles, but it canít compare for quality of stitching.
Thank you for a fascinating read.
Lorna in Scotland
I am 72, and live in northern Australia. I have inherited a Singer 201K from a friend who passed away. This is the same as the machine I learned to sew on, in Canada in the 1950's! I was delighted to be able to read your details about this wonderful machine on the internet, thank you so much for all that information about it! It makes me appreciate the wonderful machine so much better.
Thanks for the added appreciation you have given us!
By any standards, a well set Singer 201, is simply
unbeatable for stitch quality.
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