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!
Ennayl on January 29, 2023
The names Pfaff, Singer, and Viking Husqvarna, are still used on Sewing machine’s all of these names were bought out in name only. Those names are all now owned by SVP Conglomerate. The machine’s are made in various factories in Asia. They are essentially unrepairable.
Norman on December 14, 2022
Unfortunately the Pfaff story is similar, so I post it here even though this is about Singer. 38 years ago my wife acquired her first sewing machine and we purchased a pfaff 1471 and soon after acquired a Pfaff overlocker - both fantastic machines, but unfortunately stolen in a robbery. So 27 years ago we replaced them with a Pfaff 7570 and Pfaff 787 Hobbylock. The sewing machine was good, the overlocker not so good and frustrating at time. The just this year after two hiccoughs the sewing machine quit. The control panel is incommunicado with the microprocessor board. Fortunately I avoided the massive price for a replacement, only partially aware of the sordid history of Pfaff, Husqvarna and Singer. We have bought a second hand, 4 year old, reasonably priced Pfaff Creative series. Sad to say that my ear confirms this story, I remember the pure, quiet sound of the 80s models. The 90s sewing machine was not as smooth, but still good. The overlocker was and still is clunky. The latest model is quite noisy. Thanks for your article!
RALPH on November 23, 2022
INTERESTING ARTICLE...HAD NO IDEA! BUT HAVE SEVERAL SINGER MACHINES, USED FREQUENTLY
Chuck B on October 22, 2022
Having just overhauled a 1972 — 76 Singer Fashion Mate 252 “portable,” my new interest in these machines got me researching Singer. What a well-researched and written article! The machine I serviced as a volunteer for a Seattle charity thrift store was made in France. Even the foot pedal was made in France. Both had very little signs of use. The heft of the cast iron chassis and the seemingly overbuilt mechanical movement parts impressed me greatly. The smoothness and quiet hum of full-speed sewing was also impressive. My frame of reference is an older Brother (too much plastic and light-duty mechanicals and ill-fitting panels) and my wife’s 20-year old Ena (good). The 50-year old Singer 252 struck me as a refined yet simple design with thoughtful attention to every moving part. I am assuming it is a lifetime machine if serviced properly, except for the motor, with fortunately is external. If it were mine, I’d consider bolting on a modern dc motor with a PWM speed control. But I digress.
Dave on October 12, 2022
I would like to add something I am not finding in your piece. Ever hear of a company named "Happy Japan Sewing Machine Company"? There is TWO "Singer" machines that are getting a TON of praise. The Quantum Stylist 9960 and the 8060. Both machines are identical with the exception of graphic and colour on each machine. These machines are the best thing Singer NEVER built. I learned today that Happy Japan was granted license to build Singer branded machines for the Japanese market. This model, the 9960 is now out of manufacture, has been for some time now. Yet, there are a lot of them that were not sold, clearly. My own machine came with literature that was stale dated from 2013. The only relevant piece of information on the addendums they added to the machine was the toll-free number. The rest were basically dead links. OK, one other little scrap of negative Singer info. Their warranty repair depots. When I was looking up all of the redundant information online, I was unhappy to find that in Canada, where I live, that all of the warranty repair centers, with the exception of one Ontario city (that I could find, there could be more cities elsewhere in Canada) have ALL been moved hundreds of miles/KM from major cities. So, if your machine were to need service under the warranty program, you would need to drive all that way, drop of the machine, then drive all the way back, and repeat the journey to retrieve said machine. Brother pulls that same stunt...fyi. It's to discourage getting your machine repaired under warranty due to the poor build quality and lackluster engineering of these modern machines; most of which are failure prone due to far too much plastic in the wrong places. I have been reading a lot of this same complaint in the U.S as well, although I have no concrete facts to base a firm statement of this upon. Now, onto the reason I decided to write this. My Singer that is not a Singer is an EXCELLENT machine. It is one of the finest things I've ever had the pleasure to work on. It's simple to learn to operate, is fully electronic, well-engineered with great redundant failsafe's onboard to protect its electronics, has a brilliant use of sturdy stepper motors to assist the solid mechanicals built into this machine. Where plastic is used on this honey is well thought out and executed. It's specifically made so that any of the gears that are done with plastic are not under load, meaning they are not designed to jam or break if too much stress is put upon the machine. In fact, the machine will simply blow a fuse to protect all of the works if it's being pushed too hard. Trust and believe, it's no wimp in the stress department. I speak from first-hand experience. I have had a few Singer machines, and I agree with much of what you right. My Elegance from 1988, a ceramic bodied machine with an air/electronic pedal system worked and worked well...except for the auto tensioner. It was my constant nemesis, and eventually drove me to stop using it. A Singer Prelude, a cheap 89.00$ machine from WalMart I needed to buy to get work done when I was strapped suffered from the same malaise as the Elegance (the '88 machine cost me $500 Canuck bucks then, ridiculous price at that time I now realize for an almost fully mechanical machine). The 9960 is the polar opposite of a headache. These machines should have come with a year's supply of Tylenol...LOL. The 9960 is predominantly metal. It's also built as a solid general-purpose machine and comes with a LOT of options and goodies included. It's also priced below what you'd pay for a Janome mechanical like the HD3000 (which comes with nothing by comparison). While Singer never advertised this machine as being heavy duty, it is capable of taking a pretty heavy load and making it work. It also has a larger flatbed to work on, and even comes equipped with a custom extension table that put those cheaper Singer Heavy Duty machines and their included tables to shame. This machine was manufactured until about 2016 I was told, but I cannot verify this information, but is currently no longer being manufactured. In saying that, Singer must have built a ton of them, because they are still being marketed and sold. I know many people that have been using them for a decade or more, and these machines are still going strong with zero troubles. The few people that have complained about them got a Monday morning special I'm betting. This company has a rock-solid reputation for engineering and build quality. They specialize in industrial and embroidery machines, but also design and manufacture domestic electronic machines which are given a lot of praise from everything I've read on them. The 9960/8060 both have older tech with regards to the monochrome display and rudimentary graphics. It is not a machine that retains any settings once the power is turned off. And you cannot purchase or add any programming for it, like you could with most computerized machines these days. Yet, this machine can do a LOT more than most machines are capable of at its current price point. While it will never usurp the need for a dedicated quilter or embroidery machine to those that use purpose-built equipment, for the general sewist, this machine is more than they will ever need. And its stitch quality. This is the reason WHY this machine is so well reviewed. It simply has the most beautifully balanced stitch I've ever worked with. The stepper motors ensure that the built-in auto tension with each stitch is uniform and properly executed each and every time. The machines mechanicals feel the load being used while sewing, and constantly deliver enough tension and power to keep this machine functioning with near perfect results. It comes with all the goodies you get with a high-end electronic machine, a TON of presser feet (the most I've ever seen offered with any machine), has a number of YouTube channels dedicated to instruction as well as tutorials that help to maximize the potential of the accessories that come with this machine. It's definitely a heavier sewing machine as well. It comes with a nicely made (for modern times) hard cover with a door covered compartment to hold patterns and whatever fits in the slots behind said door. It also has a very well laid out control panel below the simple to operate menu screen, and a quick panel where the most regularly used functions live, for simple access. It also sews without a pedal for those that prefer a button to control the sew, automatic thread cutter, tack stitch, simple reverse with a tack stitch if wanted, needle down button, speed control and a computer that will not allow you to sew if everything is not set up correctly (forgetting to lower the presser foot, for example). It also tells you what foot goes with what stitch as you select, has all of the settings automatically configured into each programmable stitch; programmable as in you can customize most of the stitches on this machine to suit your preferences. It also is one of the few newer machines that can give you all three needle positions. Left, right and center. You just need to know how to set the right position (simply done), and you are off to the races. It comes with a Huskvarna Viking nylon shank so that you can use the added bonus presser feet that come with this machine. It also uses almost all low shank presser feet and can share most of its own presser feet with pretty much any low shank machine out there. In short, Singer hit one out of the park with this machine. With its price point in Canada being in the 600$ range (in the U.S around 400$), when compared to most machines in that pricing, it's a really good value. And without all the Singer headache to go with it. No, I don't work for Singer (or any other sewing machine company). I just know from everything I've researched (and from owing this machine) that not everything in their product line needs to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. As jaded as they've become, this one example (well, two) serves as an example as to how good even a now substandard company can put out there if they are smart enough to go to the experts (or have them come to you, in this case) and let them do their stuff while keeping your mitts off the design and build. Just my two cents.
Robbie on October 5, 2022
Thanks for this really great article. I had a Pinnock (Japanese) machine which came to me when my mother died suddenly in the early seventies. It was a shocker! My father splashed out hugely (at the time) and bought me my first Swiss made Elna. What a dream it was. I had it for 45 years, graduating to a Bernina more recently. Singer had already lost its great reputation however I believe the old treadle machine, if maintained, will still work well with straight stitching to this day!
Kirstie on August 23, 2022
Excellent, informative article! So honestly, what brand do you recommend for a disillusioned Husqvarna owner? Janome? My See & Vac shop just told me new Singers are junk. (They’re an authorized Janome dealer). I’m so confused!
Janneke on August 17, 2022
I have bought a few Singers over the years and they all had weird issues that were not fixable. I would never recommend a modern Singer to anyone and will never buy one again myself.
Marie on April 24, 2022
Have singer heavy duty overlocker. Find it excellent!!
Margie on September 4, 2021
I have been curious as to what happened to Singer as a company. Thanks for posting this.
Margie on September 4, 2021
Oh, I also love the Singer Quantum 9960. It has a lot of features much more expensive machines have, plus a zillion stitches and modifiers. If the 9960 had the integrated even feed feature, I think it would be a nearly perfect sewing machine. I say “nearly” because modern machines with their wide feed dogs to accommodate decorative stitches and zig zag stitching have lost the excellent maneuverability that vintage straight stitchers have with their narrow feed dogs.
Margie on September 4, 2021
I have vintage machines which I love, and new ones, too. The newest Singer Featherweight C240, I also love. Too bad it has since been discontinued. I really like the C240. It has the integrated even feed like the Pfaffs. I read it is equivalent to a Pfaff Passport 2.0. Since I am ‘allergic’ to getting involved with sewing machine dealers, I was happy to be able to buy it online. IMO every sewing machine made should have this feature.
Michael on August 22, 2021
Thank you for this very great article. Thats true, and so many former brands lost its importance, over the last decades. By the way: I had collecting one Singer and one Pfaff sewing-machine, by my ancestors. I love them. xx Michael
Helena Westby on April 10, 2021
I've got two machines, both are Singer, and I love them dearly!
The first machine I bought was from another brand. It was new, light weight, jumping all over and making more noise than a major piece of farm equipment! I was NOT pleased...
Then I got my first Singer. She's from 1967, I've had her for 30 years by now and I'm totally happy with her! The second one for me is driven by hand. She looks very much alike the one on your top picture, and has an engraving saying "Patented 1886" - And, YES, she's still working beautifully!
Nancy on February 26, 2020
I recently tried to by needles for my singer serger, It took me calling 6 companys which were supposedly singers go to for singer supply's, 5 of these had no idea what I was needing and the six finally helped so I bought 5 packs of ten so hopefully I won't ever run out.
Yvonne booth on February 14, 2020
I've had a couple of the new machines ( I call them plastic ). It was a waste of money. Give me a old singer any day. They never throw tantrums and will sew anything
Tom Kemblowski on January 30, 2020
My Singer 31-15 is still being used and it's from the 1920's love,love them so much I own two, one electrified, one tredle wouldn't get ride of them for nothing- post note: for over 20 years service and thousands of zipper installs you can keep your "New" Junk! Die hard Singer Fan-Tom Kemblowski
Umluq on January 22, 2020
Hiw about the g105 brand,...does it tend to produce bird nests or is ir just my threading techniques lol
Anonymous on January 17, 2020
Love my featherweight!!!
Anonymous on March 15, 2020
So do I.
Anonymous on January 16, 2020
Singer has gone way down hill for me. They NEVER should have changed the bobbin from the top of the machine (which was much easier) to the underside of the machine because it really is too much trouble - too many things to move to change the bobbin out.
Karin on December 14, 2019
My sewing-machine-dealer, who also repairs himself has a big sign in his window, that he refuses to accept any Singer-machines for repair. When asked, he explained, they are so horribly made, it‘s just not worth time and effort...
Michelle Sutton on December 10, 2019
Yes! I agree fully with the last comment! I own 4 singer models made in 1960 to 1963. Three are models 603 E and one is a model 600. All work in excellent condition and what is even better is that all the working parts are metal. One can easily repair a simple bobbin mishap of tension or if needle type is incorrectly placed. One does not have to pay $129.00 to JoAnns for a repair job on a Pfaff or higher end electronic machine. The 600 series are a tough beast and sew through some of the toughest layers of fabric with ease! You can also monogram and embroider by only lifting the throat plate and using correct needle. Yes go with Singer but after 1963 - stay clear! Many sewers are going back to the 600 models and earlier Singer Brands as newer sewing machines have plastic gears. Good luck!
Alycia on February 14, 2020
Joanns does not repair sewing machines. Viking Sewing Gallery is located inside Joanns, but they are separate companies. So, you would take your machine to Viking Sewing Gallery for repair. I have a Viking, but I don't know if you can take other machines to the Viking Sewing Gallery. I have 2 vintage Singers and love them.
Marion C. Hanks on November 27, 2019
not a lot of the machine produced after 1963 are worth a third of what they cost..that's whymy wife and I stay with machines made before...like the 201s,101s 301,401s,403s,500s,503.the work well and have lasted a long time...