Toy Tests

You won't find too many pages on this site covering machines from the 1950s, but I felt that some of you may be amused, or indeed interested, to read about the results of a UK consumer report on toy machines from that period.
Criteria for assessment included safety, usability, reliability & instruction.
Seven models were tested and placed into two groups. The Grain, Singer 20 and Essex Miniature, being the most expensive and noted as being capable of serious sewing, formed the first group. The second group consisted of the Little Betty Senior W3, Vulcan Minor, Super Comet and Vulcan Senior. It seems to have been initially conceded that these models were less robust and only suitable for simple tasks.
Having pointed out the fact that all the machines form a chain stitch only, attention is drawn to the "propeller" action of the hook, linked by a gear system to the drive wheel in the first group. We are told that these machines also offer stitch length adjustment, and three stitches per one handwheel turn. All of the above features are noted as absent from the second group.
Parameters such as the width of material which could pass through the middle of the machine, and hence the maximum possible distance sewable from the edge of the material, were measured. Even the size of circle that the hand travels turning the wheel was noted. The reasoning for this was that within limits, the larger the circle, the more comfortable the machine would be to use.
Some of the tests were carried out in an engineering laboratory. Others - to decide on convenience, clarity of instruction etc., conducted by a group of 11-year olds, and an advanced adult needlework class.

The Super Comet was the winner here. Criticisms of open gearing and vulnerability of fingers to the needle above and/or below the stitch plates on certain models were made. The Little Betty was noted for its needle-clamping screw which protruded in such a way that it tended to bruise the hand guiding the cloth, and that the machine had sharp edges to boot.

The lack of a table clamp with the Grain was considered only a minor disadvantage. The Little Betty and Vulcan Minor were difficult to work because they were so small. The Singer's platform area was thought too small and the Super Comet generally too flimsy.

Range of Materials.
Both Grain and Singer satisfactorily sewed double thickness of all thirteen (yes - thirteen!) different materials tested, ranging from nylon taffeta to cotton needlecord. The Essex and Vulcan Minor dealt with all except Celanese and brushed nylon, dropped stitches being noted. A similar fate befell the Vulcan Senior with cotton seersucker, cotton sailcloth, and needlecord across the ribs. I'll spare you the details of a growing list of materials that the other machines failed with!

Results of Endurance Test.
Let's hope this one was done in the lab!
No less than 72 hours running the hand wheel at approximately 265 rpm. Needless to say, the Essex, Grain and Singer tested the best, with no fewer than 3,000,000 stitches each being calculated. Machines were oiled at intervals if the makers' instructions indicated this. It would appear that only the more expensive models called for this, so what comes next won't surprise too many, I guess.
However, I'm sure you would never have predicted specific failings, such as the Super Comet's sewing ability on gingham going from bad to worse, and that after 15 hours it would have a severely worn winding wheel bearing. Similarly, by 23.5 hours, the Little Betty would fail because the pin securing the winding wheel would break away from its mounting.
Three cheers for the two Vulcans at this point - some wear, but like the more expensive threesome, they lasted the course!

Finishing of Machines.
Poor, was the overall impression. Screws were too tight, or too loose. Oil needed to be applied (after partial dismantling) to all the machines before they could be used.
The extension table for the Grain needed considerable force to fit on. (and I'd thought that that was just the ravages of time!) A Singer and a Little Betty could not be made to work at all without returning them to the manufacturers. Two further Singers were covered with oil mixed with a powder used to spray the underside of the base.
The Vulcans, it pointed out, were stiff and hard to gain access to oil.

No great indictments here, although lack of a maintenance schedule was a recurrent failing. The Little Bettys' owners were also left in the dark when it came to suitable needle replacements. The Grain leaflet's instruction for "finishing off" was not perfect, as it left too little thread.

All the machines were considered reasonably safe, although the Little Betty got another thumbs down here. All the machines in the first group were deemed robust, the two Vulcans being best in the second group.

Value for Money.
With performance as good as the Singer, and better than the Essex, the Grain came out top dog by virtue of lower cost. Of the second group, the Vulcan Minor took podium position with the reservation that it might be worth investing a little more for the Senior model if the Minor was felt to be too small.

Final Advice.
This was addressed to "Mothers and Aunts". We are told that most machines are provided with a 3-inch square of material to practice on. This is considered insufficient, and, for a fair test, at least an 18-inch length of double cotton material should be used, this presumeably being taken to the shop with you. If you cannot sew this length without problems, you are advised - don't buy.
If the machine is stiff to turn, the sales assistant should oil it until it works smoothly.
Finally we are reminded that the range of adjustment, particularly on the cheaper group, is limited, even if tackled by a technically-minded adult.

August 2000.

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