Singer 15 – Old beats new

I’d been on the lookout for a Singer 15 for a while – I’d not used one and since it’s the biggest selling machine in sewing machine history, I thought I ought to try one out. They’ve been pretty rare in the local ads near me – especially later models with reverse – and the ones that came up on “that” auction site seemed overpriced (I’m not a fan and try to avoid if at all possible).

I ended up buying what looked like a dirty but complete Singer 15k-89 on the disliked auction site, close enough to collect for £25. The 15k-89 is the hand crank version of the 15k-88, with under-bed drop feed, a number dial top tension and reverse. There was only one cruddy picture of the machine I bought and a crude description as a “Singer sewing machine”. It looked like a genuine old Singer, having an embossed Singer Logo on the arm as well as Singer “RAF” style decals.

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After I’d paid for it, but before I picked it up, something caught my eye in the picture – where there should have been a spool pin on the bed for bobbin winding, there was a black knob. That got my suspicions up. Was that a drop feed knob? If so, the machine wasn’t what I thought it was. Then I noticed there was no serial number plaque on the bed, the handwheel looked “fatter” than other pictures of model 15’s I’d seen and the handcrank knob had a visible nut on the back of the crank. Suspicions confirmed – this machine was not a Kilbowie Singer 15, but a newer machine. A bit of background research to what I’d actually bought was required:

The following information was sourced here:

A number of replica sewing machines have been or are currently being manufactured in Asia, badged as SINGER machines. These include the Models 15, 20, and 221. They are currently being sold in North America as “vintage reproduction” machines. These machines are of generally inferior quality to earlier examples.

The Model 15NL has been made in Taiwan since the early 1980s. An identical machine, the Model 15CH, is currently being manufactured in China. Both are based upon the Japanese HA2-2 class machines, which were copies of the Singer Model 15 manufactured from the late 1940s through 1960s. The machines are available as treadles, electric cabinet models, portable handcranks, and portable electric models.

…… compared to original Singer machines, the quality and workmanship is not up to par. Some of the machines tend to rattle and vibrate excessively due to the ill-fitting rotary hook mechanism. The electric versions are difficult to use because the machines are incapable of running slowly (which is due partly to the cheap motors that are used as well as the fact that the balance wheel should have a larger diameter to allow the machine to run slower).

The treadle and handcrank powered models are quite good and are capable of sewing a fine quality straight stitch. Unfortunately, the machines feature garish, crude decals (compared to original examples) and are painted with a comparatively thin layer of black enamel. They are decorated in either the Egyptian “Memphis” scheme or 1930s decoration scheme featuring lightning bolts and an eagle in the centre of the bedplate.

So what I’d bought was a Singer branded, Far East subcontract made machine. At this point I was not best pleased. However, I went and picked the machine up. There was no comeback on the seller as it was indeed as described – a Singer sewing machine. The machine came with instructions, which confirmed it is a 15NL, made in Taiwan. The copyright date in the manual says 1973, but I think the machine itself is later. I suspect, from looking at the style of the plastic base that it is early eighties in date.

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I took the machine apart and the areas of cost cutting immediately became clear. For example there was no slot in the main shaft to ensure the feed timing stayed correct, no adjustment for wear at the bottom of the feed crank and the tension discs were crude, pressed ones. Old tension disks have beautifully machined flats on them. Chromed screws look cheap and some screws have coarse, standard metric threads, although all the threads that attachments fit to are all as original spec.

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I pondered what to do. I didn’t really want to spend time and money on a “dog”. More stripping down revealed the core of the machine to be of a similar quality to my Jones 563 – a re-badged Janome built zig zag “clone”. The machine was virtually like new mechanically, with no signs of damage or having been dropped.  The only sign of wear were marks on the spindle of the shuttle. Once I got the machine freed up I thought it would run nicely, but it didn’t.  It sounded awful – loud and clonky from all over the machine.  Oh dear.  When I started adjusting it though there were obvious issues.  The feed crank was flopping about and there was a load of end play in the main shaft.  Those issues corrected, the noise was limited to the area around the hook.  The problem there was way too much clearance on the spring.  That sorted, it sounded much sweeter.

I was pleased that a 19/120 needle fits straight on no problem, which increases the options for heavy materials. (edit a 22/140 needle also fits, which is seriously chunky!) In the end I decided to convert the machine to electric and do one or two improvements by raiding my fairly small stock of original black Singer spare parts.

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I put on a reconditioned original motor and “Singerlight” for a 201 and was surprised and pleased to see the frame of the machine already cast with a recess for a bracket and a hole was already drilled for the 201 style light bracket. An M4 screw went straight on to hold the lamp bracket, although I used a nut on the inside of the machine as well to make sure. Original 15’s need a special washer style bracket.

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I changed the handwheel for a solid one, which is an important step, since the pulley wheel on the spoked handwheel is designed for a treadle and is higher geared. With a belt driven motor fitted on a spoked handwheel, the speed is high, but the torque and control at low speed is reduced. On a machine like a “15”, which is at its best punching through heavy materials at fairly low speed, low gearing is better. The only downside of the solid handwheel is there isn’t enough adjustment on the bobbin winder to get it to lock in place. It’s not the end of the world to hold the winder in place whilst filling a bobbin though.

I replaced the bobbin winder pulley on the bed and the upper tension disks. The take-up spring was a bit mangled, but I managed to straighten it out.  Cleaned up the machine certainly looked smart enough. Would it sew properly though?

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The quality of the straight stitch is excellent and the machine works well on either heavy or light materials.

Where it really shines is as a treadle machine, which of course was what it was designed to do back in the 1880’s.  There is a bit of noise around the hook , but it’s a nice rhythmic sound.

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At high speed as an electric there is vibration, but it’s not excessive. Not having an original “15” it’s hard to compare. It’s similar to my Jones 563.

The 15NL was apparently made in Taiwan from ’82 to ’90. After that a model has been made in China – some sources say as well as Taiwan, others say production switched then. I’ve also read they are made in India. One or two reports suggest the Taiwan models are better than Chinese and Indian ones. Singer 15’s are currently on sale on the Singer India website. At the time of writing, 4000 rupees is the asking price, equating to £46.00 or $63. If you’re out in the sticks in India and just want a durable straight stitcher, a 15 hand crank like this probably makes more sense than a plastic wonder.

Whilst the production run of 130 years plus and counting (with a break of 20 years or so before and after the seventies), is an impressive testament to the brilliance of the original 15 design, it’s a shame the quality of the machines has reduced. It would be interesting to compare a new 15 to a well-used, hundred year old original…..

So, what do I think of this machine? I think it depends how I look at it. Compared to an original 15-88, the reduced quality of the newer machine shows. But viewed as a straight stitch sewing machine for 25 quid, it scores high. Older, better quality 66’s and 15’s are available at that kind of price, but they’re likely to have no reverse, no drop feed and no dial tension. Those features are handy for those who want to use the machine – especially those who don’t sew regularly.

This machine looks a lot like an old 15, sews like one and has the benefits of easy drop feed, a nice to use reverse and dial tension, but it’s still inferior to a 15-88. I’d say it’s worth what I paid for it. It’s a tough old sausage that works – and will go on working a long, long time if looked after. Long term I can’t see me keeping this machine though, as it just ain’t a “proper” black Singer. The phrase “you can’t beat an old Singer” still rings true. If you want the best, the “old” in “old Singer” matters.

1Shot_20180113_115925Oh, and if you’re in the market for a Singer 15, make sure you know what you’re buying!

Update 19th Feb 2018

I’ve been sewing with this machine for a while now and I have to say I am growing to like it a lot.  I’ve done a few more mods to it to overcome the drawbacks of its low grade manufacture.  For treadling I use a “proper” spoked Singer handwheel, which is better balanced.  In electric mode it has a solid black Singer handwheel.

I changed some of the “blingy” chrome screws, such as those holding on the stitch length plate, for old ones I had been given as part of a Tools for Self Reliance cast off bag of screws.  I added a washer over the top of the presser foot spring, which old Singers all have and is essential to get a smooth action as you change the foot pressure.

The biggest improvement though was swapping the hook and race for parts from a Jones 365 – a 1960’s straight stitch only Japanese made machine based on the 15.  Parts were from Helen Howes and they’ve greatly reduced the noise around the hook.  I’m fairly convinced the old hook had a bent central pin, which caused the bobbin case and hook to move all  over the place instead of just oscillating back and forth.  One thing I did notice was that – on the 15NL at least – the position of the shuttle race can be moved slightly by loosening the two mounting screws.  This has the effect of being able to better centre the race over the shuttle driver.  If it’s not central, then the clearance between the shuttle and the driver can be different at one end, increasing noise.  If its really out of adjustment, the shuttle driver can cause friction between shuttle and race – more noise and a lot more wear.

The Singer 15 – even as a lower quality 15NL is simple, tough, strong, reliable, cheap to buy and run, fairly versatile with drop feed and reverse and sews a lovely stitch.  It’s not as smooth as my 201 and the harp space is less, but for now at least, this is the machine left in the sewing table, ready to go….

Update December 2018

Someone Emailed me with a query about a Singer 15 with a drop feed knob on it that they weren’t sure about.  Kilbowie made models, 110k, 111k and 112k exist that have a drop feed knob, and so look very similar tot the Taiwan/Chinese models.  They were made up to 1960 and have the original Singer quality though,  so are desirable models in my book if you come across one.  You need to check the serial number, which is found only under the machine, on these models, to confirm whether it’s a good ‘un or not.

The Ismacs database of Singer machines is what you need:

http://ismacs.net/singer_sewing_machine_company/serial-numbers/singer-sewing-machine-serial-number-database.html

Manual for these late “Ks”  :http://needlebar.org/main/15chart/110/index.html

9 comments

  1. Another difference between this machine and a Singer 15-88 is the design of the shuttle. The 15-88,89, 90,91 etc. have a redesigned shuttle that has the hook facing the opposite way and threads from right to left. That design greatly reduces needle strikes on the shuttle. This machine has the old design of shuttle that threads left to right – good for cheap spares, not such good sewing performance.

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  2. This is interesting about the shuttle. By far the most non-Singer machines based on this design (both side-facing and forward-facing) use the old shuttle, i.e., like the one you have here. I myself have been using such machines for the last 40-odd years and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times the needle hit the shuttle, and it was my fault on every occasion (pulling on the cloth). I am not sure how the reversed shuttle is better since there does not seem to be a problem with the original one? And if the new one is indeed better, why has no one adopted it? Not even Bernina?

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  3. Elena,
    I thought I’d bought one of the “odd” machines! I found out about the alternative shuttle design on the Vintage Singers Yahoo Group. It does seem odd that Singer themselves didn’t persist with what’s presented on the group by Bill Holman as a superior design. I suspect cost cutting pressures were the reason for changing back.

    There are millions of machines out there with the old shuttle design, so if there was much wrong with it I think it would have been changed earlier….

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    • I think that Bill Holman, not being a sewing man himself, would benefit from a little less self-assurance when it comes to sewing rather than repair. I think that Singer went back to the old design simply because – exactly as you say – there was nothing wrong with it. The alternative design is only found in three versions: 89, 90 and 91, as far as I can make out.

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  4. Hi Dan
    Great blog. I’ve really been enjoying reading through it.

    I’ve recently taken ownership of a 15K112 that I am checking over. I’ve got to the stage where the machine is sewing well but a little noisy. There seams to be some play in the arm shaft detectable at the hand wheel. Is this the same as the main shaft you refer to in your post here? If so do you have any tips on how you adjusted out the play to make the machine run more quietly you would be willing to share?

    Kind regards
    Gavin

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    • Gavin,
      Apologies, I’ve only just noticed your query. The 15k112 looks like a nice machine. Yes I think the arm shaft and main shaft are one and the same. End play in that shaft can be a source of noise, but a tiny amount of play is essential for thermal expansion. I used the Singer 15-91 adjusters manual for adjusting my “15” – the main mechanicals are all pretty similar. I got my manual here: https://www.manualslib.com/manual/1027731/Singer-15-91.html
      I think if you follow the guidance in there you won’t go far wrong. Good quality screwdrivers of the right size are the most important factor I reckon. You’ve probably sorted it by now anyway!
      Regards
      Dan H

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      • Just finished going through my NL-K model that like all others was bought thinking it was an Old Singer, it was not sewing and really clunky….like all others. It was found that the needle bar was to high and that the castings were rough some smoothing with a scotchbrite pad on the handwheel shaft and wheel and the bobbin holder made quick work of the extra noise. I also added a washer to the shaft that drops the feed dogs as it rattled at the knob. Fiddled with the tension adjuster Not near as nice as the old ones but OK.
        After 6 hours of timing and setting everything and cleaning oiling and polishing shafts etc. it’s just as quiet as my original 15-91. Had to change some of the settings in the footpedal to get it to sew slower and it has plenty of power and control now.
        It’s really a nice machine…but like a cubic zerconia it’s not “real” and suffers image issues because of it. Truthfully it’s a fine machine for sewing not for bragging or fondling on cold winter nights.
        A bit rough as it comes but cheap and good when feddled out it’ll last you your lifetime and more without a problem and sparkles like the “Cubic Zerconia” of Singers that it is.

        Hate it’s not real love that it’s cheap and good in the end……like all others!

        PS
        Perhaps these will go down in history as excellent buys?
        Kirk D

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  5. Kirk,
    Thanks for your “diamond” comments – I was ignorant about cubic zerconia until today – every day a school day…. I laughed at your comment about fondling machines on long winter nights – I absolutely agree these machines are for knocking out miles of great straight stitch, not romanticising over. The only problem is getting them “sorted”. You obviously have the skills, but in this day and age tht seems to be increasingly rare.

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