Singer sewing machines: ageing starlet (or outright scam?)
“They used to be great. Now they're a con.” – Me.
The Singer sewing machine brand is the most famous in the world, but today it's a shadow of its former self.
Discover how history turned this market leader into a has-been.
Why should you read this article?
Because it shows why it's essential to choose the brand of your sewing machine carefully (and why it won't be a Singer).
Today there are many – very very very many, to be precise – brands of sewing machines. In general, when we're looking to buy one, we tend to focus first on a model and then on a brand.
We usually have a preference for one or other model according to our needs and our budget: mechanical or electronic, beginner or expert, children's model or standard, etc. Then we compare the different brands offering a model with the features we want, as if they were comparable. Unfortunately, that usually means we're comparing apples and pears.
That's why we're going to tell you Singer's story. It shows what is sometimes hidden behind a big name, and why the choice of brand should be a primary consideration, not an afterthought.
Singer is also an excellent case study because, while other brands have their own special story that make them interesting, Singer sums up the history of the entire sewing machine industry.
Are you ready? Let's step into our time machine and take a look back.
1851: Singer hits the market with the best domestic sewing machine
I promise I won't tell you the whole story of the development of the sewing machine up to Singer. (Even if it is a fascinating story.)
The story of the sewing machine is a story of technological revolutions, new marketing practices, women's emancipation, globalization and much more.
But for now, it suffices to remember that the patent of the first sewing machine was filed by the French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1830 (actually, you don't really need to remember that).
It wasn't until 21 years later, in 1851 (for those who are as strong in math as I am), and after a succession of patents filed by many inventors who each in turn brought their own improvements, that Isaac Merrit Singer filed his patent. He founded the Singer company that same year and then started marketing its patented machines. And he hit the jackpot.
Singer revolutionized sewing at home, in particular, and women's domestic work, in general. His machines sold by the millions, he made his fortune and Singer became a well-known brand worldwide. Moreover, Singer became one of the first American multinationals.
Its market dominance was such that by the early 1860s, 80% of the sewing machines sold worldwide were Singer machines. And for well over a century, until the late 1990s, Singer was the second most famous brand in the world behind Coca-Cola. Even today, although other brands have pushed Singer much lower down the list in market terms, it remains by far the most famous brand of sewing machines.
At its launch (in the early 1850s, for those who are still with me), Singer was the incarnation of the modern world. Its machines were the be-all and end-all, the must-have for every household. And boy were they built to last – Singer's excellent reputation was indeed well founded!. Soon the iconic machines could be found everywhere in the world.
The suspense is killing you, isn't it? You know something big is going to happen!
After the war: Singer suffers from globalized competition
Obviously, the rest of the world wasn't going to let Mr Singer fill his pockets alone indefinitely.
New players entered the market en masse and by the end of the second world was, almost 100 years after the creation of Singer, the company found itself facing intense competition.
First on the scene were the European companies: Pfaff (German) and Elna (Swiss), followed by the Asians (Japanese in particular), such as Janome and Brother. All their machines were similar. As a result, Singer lost its competitive edge compared to, on the one hand, the excellent quality of European competitors and, on the other, the ultra-democratic prices of Asians.
And so the fall began.
In the 1960s, businesses also began to play the ‘global economy' game, relocating to reduce production costs and become more competitive. Singer followed suit and closed most of its Western sites to open in Asia.
Singer scrambles for a solution
From 1954, Singer attempted to renew the brand's popularity with the introduction of lighter and more esthetic models, but with little success. Its market share in the US sank; falling to just 30% by the end of the 1950s.
In parallel with relocation, Singer began an in-depth restructuring and modernization drive (automated processes, improved products...), and tried to diversify by acquiring three other companies and producing a wide range of electronic products and appliances.
At first, the strategy appeared to be paying off as Singer's overall turnover nearly doubled between 1958 and 1963. But the growth wasn't from sewing machines, which by 1970 represented only 35% of Singer's turnover (compared to 90% in 1958). Moreover, the apparent success is short-lived.
The changes introduced by Singer in the decade from 1950-60 triggered a period of great confusion in the company. Despite all efforts to expand and increase turnover, it was both failing to find its place on the modern market, and it was massively in debt.
In a nutshell, even thought the company has grown, the brand is still well known and has a strong reputation, and it has a fairly stable market position, by 1970 the mastodon was standing on shaky ground.
It's worth noting that even though Singer's turnover no longer comes exclusively (or even mainly) from sewing machines, it is still their most profitable division. The impact of losses is therefore all the greater.
The Seventies: Peace, Love & the End of the Domestic Sewing Machine
As competition rages between brands of sewing machines, society is changing. In the 1970s, women all but stopped sewing at home and ready-to-wear took off.
The market for sewing machines was collapsing, and Singer and all other manufacturers were facing serious difficulties. In 1974, Singer recorded a net loss of more than $ 10 million. Something had to change.
In 1975, a CEO was appointed. Almost immediately he decided to stem the blood flow by selling all the poorly-performing divisions. In a few months, the book value of the company was halved.
Singer was left with just two – very different – income streams.
- On the one hand, its legacy sewing machines business.
- On the other hand, the manufacture of high-tech electronic components, such as components for air-conditioning systems, thermostats, and dishwashers, but also... NASA's missile and rocket guidance systems!
Both businesses are profitable, but they are so different that it's clearly ridiculous to group them under the same banner.
Moreover, by the late 1970s, the sewing machine is increasingly considered a relic of the past. Even if it's still a profitable business, everyone agrees that it's doomed to disappear (often, what everyone agrees is a lot of nonsense).
So what had to happen, happened: in the hope of avoiding the downfall of the whole group, the managers of Singer decided to divest the company of its sewing machine business.
Late 80s: The Singer sewing machine takes off for new adventures
In order to distance the sale of sewing machines from its other business, in 1986 Singer created a subsidiary (SSMC Inc.) in the form of a legal entity independent of the parent company.
At the same time, a major clean-up was undertaken, with the company ridding itself of its remaining 1600 stores around the world, making thousands of workers redundant in the process.
The parent company Singer rapidly became a large group in the aerospace and defense industry, but remained in great difficulty because of its debt and disastrous management. Finally when the CEO died suddenly and unexpectedly, the company went up for sale. The buyer immediately dismantled it to sell it for spare parts. In 1988, however, he was indicted for fraudulent practices. These at first sight had nothing to do with Singer, but the brand was not spared from the fall-out. In the end, the CEO was found guilty on nine counts and Singer had to pay more than $ 50 million.
Generally, when a parent company creates a separate entity for a business or a department that appears to have no future, it's done in order to get rid of the unit thereafter. And that's what Singer did too.
In 1989, the Singer Sewing Machine Division (SSMC Inc.) was acquired by Semi-Tech Microsystems, a Chinese-Canadian company.
This is where the story really starts to rot.
Semi-Tech Microsystems had no prior knowledge or interest in sewing machines, and the least we can say is that its management was very obscure.
For example, it appears that its CEO, for a time, was a certain Stanley Ho, owner of 19 casinos in Macao and strongly suspected of dealings with the Triads (Chinese mafia).
1990s and buyouts galore: Singer loses his identity forever
In 1993 (a few years after the acquisition of SSMC Inc, which we'll continue to call Singer since the machines are still marketed under this name), Semi-Tech Microsystems purchased the German sewing machine manufacturer Pfaff, which was also in financial difficulties. It then combined the Research & Development activities of the two brands to create synergies.
Despite these vicissitudes (division, resale, merger), in the mid-1990s Singer was still a recognized and respected brand. And it used this brand equity as a guarantee of quality when it diversified again.
This time Singer was selling cassette players, televisions and even vacuum cleaners. It was successful in developing countries, especially in Mexico, but it wasn't enough and the company still recorded a loss of more than $ 200 million in 1997.
In the same year, to push further cooperation (and reduce costs), Singer bought Pfaff to merge their marketing, sales and distribution activities. Production remained unchanged however: Singer sewing machines were made in Japan and Pfaff in Germany.
But the situation wasn't improving.
In 1999, Pfaff, exhausted, was forced to file for bankruptcy. Singer couldn't help because of their own financial difficulties. Semi-Tech Microsystems decided to retain Singer and sell Pfaff to Viking Sewing Machines Group, which was already producing the Husqvarna brand.
Although Viking Sewing Machines Group is a company specializing in sewing machines, don't be under any illusions. By the time it acquired Pfaff in 1999, it had already lost most of its substance and was wholly owned by a private investment fund, Kohlbertg & Co.
Shortly after, Semi-Tech Microsystems plunged even deeper into turmoil when its founder, the Chinese James Ting – previously known as one of the most talented businessmen in Hong Kong – was indicted and sentenced for fraudulent practices. Singer was placed in receivership.
Kohlbertg & Co sniffed out a bargain and took over. Once again, Singer and Pfaff were together in the same company and, together with Husqvarna, formed the world's largest conglomerate in the sewing machine industry.
Kohlbertg & Co mounted a complex financial and legal arrangement based on a separate legal entity (called SVP Worldwide) headquartered in Bermuda, licenses registered in Luxembourg and profits declared in Singapore.
Nowadays, what's left of Singer?
Well, not much.
Even though Singer (like Pfaff and Husqvarna) is still very active in the sewing machine market, the brand is nothing more than an pretty meaningless label.
- Singer's previously unique and revolutionary machine is now almost identical to all sewing machines.
- Its Research & Development, marketing, distribution and overall management activities are largely merged with those of Pfaff and Husqvarna.
- Even the production has left Japan for the majority of Singer sewing machines. The three brands have outsourced production to Chinese, Brazilian and Vietnamese subcontractors.
It's true that there are exceptions, with some rare high-end models being ordered from the Japanese company Janome and produced in its factories. However, it's very difficult to know which machines have Janome quality and which ones don't.
In short: don't be fooled by a big brand name.
Apart from those few high-end models just mentioned, we believe that Singer, Pfaff and Husqvarna sewing machines are pretty much all equal and no better quality than any other sewing machine mass-produced in developing countries.
The only difference is the price (higher).
The financial holding companies that own the brands know that, in people's minds, a Singer or a Pfaff label is a guarantee of quality. They are still able to capitalize on the long-lost prestige of these big brand names.
They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But we hope that after reading this article, you'll have gained a lot of knowledge, about the evolution of the Singer company. And that this will now help you to choose and buy a sewing machine wisely, without letting large financial groups take advantage of you.
What's your experience?
Have you found that the Singer brand lives up to its reputation and is worth the higher price tag? Let us know! We'll be happy to share your experience with other readers!