Calibrating the Tension Assembly on a Vintage Singer 201k or 222k

If you find that your machine is not producing a perfectly tensioned lockstitch on a double layer of medium-weight cotton fabric and a tension of around 4.5, then you need to calibrate the tension assembly so that it does. 

This process is both simple and quick and requires no tools apart from a fingernail.  It is not necessary to take the whole thing apart, just nudge part of the assembly around a little.  The following photos show the procedure conducted on a Singer 222k although I have also recently made exactly the same adjustment on my main machine, the 201k.

Push back against the numbered ring on the tension assembly and you will find that it is springy.  Push it back hard, away from the front thumb-screw part of the assembly and you will see – look carefully because this part of the assembly is black – that there are a number of holes drilled into the front of the dial plate.  In front of this is a small, bright metal pin which, when slotted into one of these holes, allows the numbered dial to rotate as one with the thumb screw.

Because it is possible to slot this pin into any of the holes in the dial rim the tension can read just about anything so what we need to aim for is to get one full rotation of the dial within the maximum (tightest) and minimum (loosest) setting of the thumb screw.  In other words, when the thumb screw is screwed down tight it should read close to 9 and when it is screwed out as loose as it will go it should read close to 0 but don’t worry if it isn’t exact – as long as you can fully tighten and loosen the screw this is fine.

Just keep nudging the numbered dial back with your thumbnail and moving the pin around one hole at a time until you’re happy. 

Tension Dial, pushed back to show calibration holes.

Thumb screw showing the pin which slots in to the calibration holes.

Use your thumb to nudge the numbered dial around so that the pin engages with the next hole along from the present one.

Dial fully loosened (see how the end of the tension pin is flush with the end of the thumb screw)

Dial fully tightened (see how the end of the tension pin is below the end of the thumb screw)

 All content copyright HA Lewington 2010.

In Praise of Vintage

..and why I hate many modern ones. 

It seems that at least twice a week I see a new reason to be grateful for my vintage machines. 

While I wait for my infant offspring to grow large enough to attend pre-school and allow me some regular sewing time I am feeding my habit by being a regular contributor on a sewing machine forum.  The cries for help are both frequent and worrying – it’s not the questions that alarm me, but the validity of the answers. 

Things which ought never to be a problem somehow are and that makes me so annoyed on behalf of their owners because I see a host of sad sewing machine owners, many of them new to their hobby, ending up so subjugated by their tetchy machines that they spend more time trying to appease them than use them. 

This in turn can prove to be such a disincentive that the sewer is forced out of their interest by the downright tetchiness of their wretched machine.  In their modesty they are much quicker to blame themselves and their own inexperience than their machine – even when we the more experienced sewers see otherwise. 

Even if it is their fault, it’s usually a small and honest mistake which any decent machine would forgive and get on with instead of hurling itself into a hissy fit of thread knots before breaking the needle, pinging the broken piece up into your eye before burying its own down into the depths of the bobbin case which jams it up entirely, lassoes the thread around the hook, pieces of which thread penetrate the most unfathomable crevices and just as a finale, throws the timing out.*

* Ok, maybe my imagination is running a little wild here but not by much.

I often finish a piece of advice with the semi-playful observation that I am now going to go and stroke and kiss my lovely machines (inferring that they are delightfully trouble-free, which is true; they are). 

Sewing machines have just become too complicated for anyone’s good…apart from the manufacturers who use all of this extra fuss to bamboozle us into believing that they are in some way worth their eye-wateringly high price tags.  Now I’m not against paying high prices – the early sewing machines often cost many months and in some cases years’ wages – but unlike their modern equivalents these old ones were made to last and had a beautiful lockstitch – surely the most basic of all sewing requirements – so is it really so unreasonable for me to expect you, the manufacturer to please give me that before you start baffling me with all this faff and gadgetry?

I get really annoyed on new sewers’ behalf that so many of them will never have sewn on a machine with a decent lockstitch and so don’t even know what they’re missing. 

I…want…to…sew.  I’ve enjoyed a very rewarding career in computers, thanks and I don’t need or indeed want to revisit that with my sewing; especially as I don’t have, as I had then, a talented and enthusiastic team of experts giving me back-up.  I don’t want to sit there poking and squinting myopically at a touch-screen, one hand on the manual or, worse still, staring at the machine squatting in sullen unresponsive blankness and wondering whether it’s the screen that’s failed or the electrics… or finding some impenetrable error message displayed which I can’t cancel and which means I have to call the helpline only to waste 30 minutes finding that it needs a trip to the mechanic, waste another 40 minutes arranging this with the mechanic, poking around in the loft trying to find the original packaging, boxing it up and then finding and arranging a courier and then maybe waste another fourteen days waiting for it to come back fixed with a note saying there was a half micron of lint which had settled on a sensor somewhere and now I’m so terrified of getting a repeat that I barely dare use it in case I’m using the wrong thread.  So I need a second machine in case this happens again and that will cost me yet more money still and what guarantee do I have that it’ll be any better than this one…and now I’m utterly paranoid.  Why can’t I just have a machine that lets me sew?

Repeat this as a mantra and believe it:

I don’t need sensors to tell me when my bobbin thread is running low: I have eyes and I have common sense.

I don’t need automatic thread cutting: I have scissors.

If I must trade seven scruffily stitched alphabets for a decent lockstitch then so be it: I know which one I’ll use more.

I will cope without automatic threading, the decorative crocodiles and the bicycles.

I need a good, fully adjustable stitch, tension which is easy to adjust and calibrate and to use any old thread I like, top or bottom, whether it matches or not.

I can sit down at my Singers, thread them up and go.  I can set the stitch length exactly as I need it, tighten the thumb screw to the left of it and happily throw the lever up into reverse and then push it back down again, assured that it will stop in exactly the same place as it was previously set.  Now that’s cleverness I can use. 

And did I mention I have the attachments to do buttonholes and blind stitch too? 

I’m now going to go and hug my machines again.

Facelift for a Featherweight

It’s not exactly that I don’t like the striated, deco-style face plates but I’d be lying if I said I preferred them so as she is in every other respect perfect, I recently weakened and purchased a scroll-faced one for my little 222k Featherweight so she could match her big sisters, the 201ks.

Like all things to do with vintage Singers, it was extremely simple to change it: simply undo a thumbscrew and lift off.

Singer 222k old faceplate

Singer 222k new faceplate

Copyright HA Lewington 2010

Singer 222k Featherweight

This machine is perfect where space is at a premium. 9 ½ inches long (15” with the extension flap down) it can be picked up and moved with one hand, weighing only 11lb. It is made, I believe, from cast aluminium (or similar, light alloy). It packs away snugly into a very compact 14 x 10 x 8 inch case, making it very easy to transport and the hard case, leather-bound, is smart and offers excellent protection against knocks and bumps.

Because it is a low-shank, side-clamping machine it uses standard Singer feet. The 222k has a shorter distance between the face plate and the needle bed than say, a 201k (2” compared to 2 ½ “). It also features the twin thumb screw holes in the bed which allow it to use industrial attachments.

Unlike its elder sister the 221, the 222k can drop its feed dogs, allowing for free-form embroidery. The other main difference is that the 222k has a free-arm facility. The free arm circumference is an extremely dainty 7” (that of my Bernina 830 Record measures 9”) making it perfect for setting the relatively small cuffs in childrenswear.

Stitches are restricted to straight stitch only, plus reverse, but are of a quality and evenness which is scarcely seen in modern machines. Stitch length may be anything between 6 and 30 stitches per inch, with increments marked at 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30.

The bobbin is mounted vertically across the end of the machine. It is very slim, so holds less thread than a standard one.

There are two levers on the front of a 222k; one to switch between “sew” and “darn” (to drop the feed dogs) and the other to alter the stitch length with increments as previously noted. The free arm is obtained by loosening the thumb screw at the base of the pillar and gently easing the flat bed section to the left.

The standard foot pedal is the Singer button type, which is not particularly easy to control so we have, on mine, rewired the plug to a new, clam-shell foot pedal. We also replaced the main flex and checked the wiring in the motor (well ok, I say “we” – my husband did it).

The 222k uses standard, domestic needles. The harp is 5” long by 4” high. For comparison, my 201k is 8” x 5 ½ “and my Bernina 7 ¼ “x 4 ½ “). In use, the machine is both smooth and quiet. It has an extremely good lamp, mounted at the front of the machine that takes an easily sourced, low-wattage bulb.

I wouldn’t recommend the 222k for heavy, frequent use but as a machine for domestic dressmaking, general repairs and light upholstery such as piecing together patchwork then I can’t think of another machine which is so small and gives such pleasure in use. Mine dates from 1957 and I have owned it for a couple of months now.

Dimensions: 15L x 7D x 10H inches (9 ½ “L when using as free arm). Weight: 11lb (5kg).

The 222k in freearm mode, shown next to a 201k for size comparison.

Like its stable mate the 201k, the 222k gives a wonderful straight stitch, evenly tensioned and consistently formed.

Copyright HA Lewington 2010

Singer 201k, electric

Reputed to be the best machine Singer ever made, I find it hard to argue. I own three; all electric, although I suspect that one of these has been adapted to electric from being (I suspect) hand-crank. This third one also features a knee-lifter bar which the others do not. They date from 1949, 1952 and 1954 and were acquired between four months ago and last weekend.

A real workhorse, the 201k is all cast metal, a standard low-shank, side clamping machine which uses standard machine needles, bobbins and Singer feet. It has an unusually long harp, measuring 8” long by 5 ½ “high which makes it particularly sought after by quilt makers. It is a straight-stitch only machine, plus reverse. The stitch length is changed by a sliding lever on the front of the machine, with increments marked at 6, 7, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20 and 30 stitches per inch. If the lever is pulled above the centre line (which is marked) the machine sews in reverse.

The 201k also features a varnished wood extension flap which neatly clips onto, and folds down from the wooden base in which the machines are housed. The machine tilts out of this base to reveal the thumbscrew which, by two possible positions, controls dropping or raising the feed dogs.

The stitch quality is exceptional; perfectly formed, even and straight. If you do a lot of top stitching, then you should be settling for nothing less than this.

Usually a fair few accessories, feet and attachments are included in the sale of these machines but spares and replacements are extremely easy to source and also very cheap. Twin screw holes in the bed also allow it to use industrial attachments such as hemmers, bias binders etc. The quality of the original, Singer attachments is exceptional and they are well worth seeking out in preference to their modern counterparts. Indeed some do not, to my knowledge, have a modern counterpart; the tuck marker being one example. The ruffler, in particular, is very smooth and not at all clattery (as I believe the modern ones sometimes are) and there are three different types of bias binder foot. There are also buttonholers and zig zag attachments available although I have read mixed reviews on their efficiency and would suggest that they (like the monogrammer attachments, for which the pattern cams are difficult to obtain) are for purists only as most of us would have a second, more modern machine with zig zag and buttonholes included.

The addition of a new, clam-shell foot pedal is an improvement as it is easier to regulate the speed than with the original, button activated one.

The Singer 201k was also manufactured as a hand-crank and a treadle. A conversion in either direction is easy, a conversion to hand crank being especially easy if the machine already possesses the larger, spoked fly wheel although hand conversion kits are hard to source in the UK they may be obtained from a US seller on e-bay. It is my intention to eventually convert one of my three into a hand-crank. There are also two distinct styles of casting. The older one is the typical, antique Singer style, black with gold decals and a large, spoked fly wheel. The newer models were much more streamlined in shape, with a smaller fly wheel and no decals. They were available in black or a pinkish tan. The end plates may differ too, being embossed either in scrollwork (which is my favourite) or else with art deco-style vertical stripes. The newer models vary only in the casting; both offer the same functionality and smooth, even stitches. It has an extremely good lamp, mounted at the rear of the machine that takes an easily sourced, low-wattage bulb and provides very good illumination at exactly the right position.

When not in use, the 201k packs away into a 21 ½ x 14 ½ x 9 ½ “ suitcase, formed of bent ply and covered in mock-crocodile ‘leather‘ with metal reinforced corners. It is certainly designed to withstand knocks although with the machine inside it you may need to engage the help of a strong man to carry it out to the car!

The 201k remains my favourite, all round sewing machine although it is very heavy indeed and therefore not easily portable. It astonishes me that they can be obtained for so little money. When I next make curtains or loose covers, of all the machines I own, this will be the one I choose for the task. It is smooth and quiet to use and like my 222k, a joy to run.

Dimensions: 20L x 8 ½D x 12H inches. Weight: about 26lb (12kg).

A 1954 cast alloy 201k and a scroll-fronted 1949 cast iron 201k, both electric.

The 201k gives a beautiful, well tensioned and accurate straight stitch.

Copyright HA Lewington 2010

Bernina 830 Record (circa 1980s)

I chose my vintage Bernina 830 Record because it offered exceptionally good value for money. It dates from around the late 1970s/early 1980s and I have had it about four months. Bought to replace my faithful, metal-bodied, 25-year-old Brother Compal Ace whose circuit board had become corrupted I had a clear view of my needs and wants but despite trying quite a few modern machines I was not satisfied with the quality of either the machine or the stitch. Even the Bernina 220 did not offer, in my opinion, the stitch quality I expected from that name so I decided to follow the vintage route and buy a Bernina whose stitch I could trust to be exceptional.

I was not disappointed. For £200 less than a new 220 and half the price of a new 1008, I got exactly what I expected: an enormously satisfying attention to detail with the build quality – smooth lever action in attaching the flatbed, a ball bearing snap-fastening for the bobbin cover and absolutely no sign of a plastic presser foot lever. There is a metal knee-lift lever too, which slots into a hole below the bottom of the pillar. The machine is mainly metal bodied; the cover for the motor (which is mounted at the back of the pillar) is plastic, as is the end plate, the fly wheel, the knobs and the section at the back holding the spool pins but in all the parts which are functional rather than decorative, this machine is cast metal which gives both longevity and stability when sewing. This machine won’t judder off the table when you’re sewing a fast seam.

Extremely intuitive to thread and to use, the controls are simple and self-explanatory. Stitch length (0-4mm) is controlled by sliding a lever on the pillar and then twisting the lever knob to secure it in position. Above this are twin dials; one for selecting the zigzag width (0-4mm) and the other for choosing the appropriate stage on the five-step button hole. There are five different needle positions (chosen via an inner knob on the zigzag dial). Tension is self-adjusting but may be manually overridden using a wheel on the top of the machine. The feed dogs are dropped by simply switching a dial at the base of the pillar. The harp measures 4 ½ “ high by 7 ¼ “ long.

As well as the usual straight zigzag and buttonhole, the 830 offers 5 utility stitches, named “overlock”, “stretch”, “universal”, “running” and “blind”. Universal and running are both a variation on a zigzag. In addition to these, there are 15 decorative satin stitches which may be worked in a continuous row or else as single motifs. There is a small window in the machine body which displays the point in the stitch cycle so one can get ready to stop when the cycle (and thus the motif) is complete. The switch between straight and decorative stitch is made by pushing a lever on the top of the machine next to which is a second lever which switches between the different pattern cams by pushing the lever to the right to release it, sliding it up or down before releasing it to spring into position alongside the appropriate pattern icon.

The stitch quality is exceptional; neat, well-formed and perfectly straight. The machine takes standard, domestic needles and as it is a zigzag machine is also capable of heirloom-style stitching using twin and also wing needles.

There is a small hole in the needle bed through which may be drawn up a cord (or gimp) for corded pintucks, and also the twin screw holes to the right of the needle which allow industrial hemmers, folders and binder attachments to be used. These give a much better finish than the foot versions and are easier to control.

On the subject of feet, the authentic ones are indeed expensive but are very good quality and it is usual for these machines to be sold with a good few feet along with it: 7 is usual; 9 a real bonus. In any case, it is possible to re-use existing feet you may possess simply by purchasing a shank adapter for about £7. This will allow you to use both screw-on and snap-on feet. I believe that both high and low shank versions are available. Care should be taken when buying new Bernina feet to be certain that those purchased are compatible with the vintage Berninas. The newer models take a different foot but a good stockist such as Bambers will always be happy to advise and offer support.

This is the machine I use for fine finishing on my baby and toddler wear garments as the stitch quality is fantastic.

Dimensions: 388L x 182W x 315H mm. Weight 20lb (9.15kg). 1200 spm. 85W motor.

 

The straight stitches on the Bernina 830 are consistently even-tensioned, well-formed and (most important of all) straight.

The range of stitches for the Bernina 830 is just right for the serious sewist.

The satin stitches are extremely nicely formed.

Copyright HA Lewington 2010

Bernina Bernette 334D 4-thread Overlocker

A rare(ish) example of a Bernette still showing Bernina quality. This is a vintage overlocker purchased by me earlier this year. It is a 4-thread overlocker, with the switch to roll hem being achieved simply by pushing a small lever. It has excellent stitch quality as would be expected from a sub-model of Bernina and because of the colour coding, is very easy to thread. The colours are marked on the tension dials and threading instructions are also clearly marked, in the various permutations (3 thread 6mm or 4mm; 4 thread) behind the looper cover it is hard to go wrong. The accessories are also housed behind the looper cover.

The faceplate, fly wheel and knobs are plastic; the main body is all cast metal, which gives excellent stability in use.

The 334D takes normal sewing needles, which is useful.

It has differential feed, adjustable foot pressure and cutting width is adjusted by a knob to the right and beneath the edge of the cloth plate.

Stitch length and differential feed are adjusted by knobs on the right hand side of the machine and subject to the usual tweaks and trial runs I have achieved extremely good results on both heavyweight and light, dress-weight cottons. All in all it is an extremely amiable machine; a pleasure to use.

Stitch length is between 0.8 and 4mm. Seam width is between 3 and 7mm on 3-thread and 5 and 7mm on 4 thread overlock. It sews at up to 1500 spm. Dimensions are 300W x 325D x 300H mm. It weighs 16lb (7.5kg).

 

Bernina Bernette 334D

Colour photo showing the colour coded thread paths and diagrams which make this such an easy machine to thread up.

Copyright HA Lewington 2010