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
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
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
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
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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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