While visiting the Washington, DC area, I was able to visit Think Outside the Store, one of the most unique shops in the entire metropolitan area.
It’s a one of a kind boutique that features ecologically minded wearable art. What makes Think Outside the Store really unique, however, is the fact that the brains behind this store, Sarah Gingold, carries her commitment to the ecology to lengths most other purveyors of ecologically sound clothing and accessories probably do not.
She uses treadle and crank sewing machines almost exclusively to make the items she sells and to teach sewing classes for beginning and intermediate children, teens and adults.
The one and only electric sewing machine in the whole place is a 1958 Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic that Sarah uses primarily to teach students who are challenged by treadle or crank sewing machines.
In my opinion, she made a very good choice. Not only was the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic a ground breaker when it was introduced, it remains one of the most durable, reliable sewing machines out there.
When this machine was introduced to the market, it opened the door for home sewers to experience many sewing advantages for the very first time.
It was the world’s first home sewing machine to offer a front drop in bobbin, a broad range of decorative stitches, and a slant needle.
At A Glance
When you look at it today, the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic looks like any other vintage sewing machine. At the time it was made, however, this machine was the hottest thing on the market.
The slanted presser foot shank assemble was something no one had ever even thought about for home use before, and the many decorative stitch options were up to that point only something home sewers dreamed about having access to.
Before the Slant-O-Matic, slant shank presser feet and front drop in bobbins were available only on a limited number of industrial sewing machines.
The Slant-O-Matic made it possible for all these advantages to be available in every single home sewing room. It literally changed the way home sewers the world over sew.
Although the standard features offered by the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic were pretty much unheard of in homes at the time, many of the innovative features are commonplace in today’s sewing rooms. They include:
- 9 utility and decorative stitch options
- Ability to sew practically anything and everything
- Clearly written, easy to understand owner’s manual
- Adjustable needle position
- Reverse stitch
- Stitch locking
- Adjustable presser foot pressure
Working on the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic
Winding the bobbin on the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic is a piece of cake. Everything is literally at your fingertips. After mounting the thread on the spool pin at the base of the machine head, loop your thread through the guide next to the spool pin and up to the bobbin which is placed on the winder, less than three inches above the thread spool.
You then disengage the needle motion by holding the balance wheel and turning the stop motion dial a quarter turn toward the back. Then merely engage the foot pedal and voila… your bobbin is winding.
Threading the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic is just as easy. Merely go with the easy to follow the on board guides and before you know it, your machine is threaded and you are ready to sew.
Double needles had not yet been introduced for home use when the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic was made, but that didn’t stop the manufacturer.
This machine is not only equipped with the capability to sew with two needles simultaneously, it also offers three different needle positions.
Adjusting the needle position and stitch length and width are as easy as turning a dial and setting a lever at the desired position.
It’s probably because I have been spoiled by being able to select decorative and utility stitches with a mere touch on a LCD screen or by dialing up a desired stitch on a keypad, but for me the stitch selection process on this machine was a little bit of a challenge.
In addition to inserting the disc to achieve the desired stitch, it is also necessary to make a few adjustments to the stitch length and width and even the needle plate in some cases.
However, in light of the fact that I was working on the very first sewing machine that offered the home sewer any decorative stitches at all, I must admit that I was impressed by the variety of stitch options and the genius that it took to create such an innovative machine.
After all, this machine is more than 50 years old. When you think about that bit of trivia, it’s not only amazing to think that all of these firsts were jam packed into one sewing machine, it also forces one to take a second look at what we may call a challenge.
As difficult as it may be, we really have to think about the fact that the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic is the ground breaker that it truly is and then reconsider our criticism about the stitch selection process.
Luckily, the owner’s manual was available. With the manual at hand, I was able to refer to it in order to execute the various stitches available with as little difficulty as possible.
What may be a challenge for the 21st Century home sewer was no doubt a dream come true for the home sewer of the mid 1950s. My complaint about having to take time to change discs and machine settings just proves how spoiled we have become in just a few short years.
With that in mind, and my own inability to get the hang of going through so many steps to achieve different stitches, I must admit that the stitch quality is excellent… better, in fact, than some of the newer machines I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing.
- Natural fibers/cotton-linen-wool
- Fine fabrics/silk-satin-taffeta/velvet
- Synthetic fabrics/blends-rayon-polyester
- Reptile skin
- Extra thick fabrics or multiple layers
The Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic came with an accessories case that contained the following:
- 8 Presser Feet
- Straight stitch
- General purpose
- Special purpose
- Rolled hem
- Multi-slotted binder or bias tape foot
- Seam guide
- 8 Drop in fashion discs to give the user access to various decorative stitch options
- Lint brush
- Screw driver
- Oil dispenser
- Extra bobbins
- Extra needles
- 2 needle plates
- Owner’s instruction manual
In addition, the following optional presser feet were also available at local Singer stores:
- Darning and embroidery – This one is very much like the darning foot that is used in the 21st Century.
- Tucker – I must admit this quite odd looking presser foot is a new one for me. This odd looking attachment has two different gages for measuring the space between tucks as well as the tucks themselves. According to the manual, users can make tucks up to one inch deep with expert accuracy.
- Gathering – While it’s called a gathering foot, it is actually used specifically for shirring. According to the owner’s manual, anyone who uses this specialty foot will be able to expertly and quickly produce “single or multiple rows of shirring.”
- Edge stitcher – The drawing in the owner’s manual is quite different from the edger stitchers in use today, but the results are basically the same. This presser foot is used to join fabric, inserting lace and for sewing French seams (a somewhat obsolete practice these days).
Other optional accessories include a set of 12 additional fashion discs, bringing the total number of available decorative and utility stitch options to a total of 21.
|After each use||Monthly*||Once Each Year**||As Needed|
|Clean race hook and feed dogs|
|Wipe head with soft dry cloth|
|Wipe head with soft damp cloth|
|Service by sewing machine repair professional|
Tying Off The Loose Ends
Even after nearly 55 years, the Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic remains one of the most reliable and dependable sewing machines out there.
While it is true that changing fashion discs and machine settings is cumbersome and even a bit challenging, the mere fact that this is the very first sewing machine that made front drop in bobbins, slant presser foot shank construction and lots of different utility and decorative stitch options makes this a machine worth taking a look at.
The Singer 403a Slant-O-Matic that I reviewed is used in sewing classes at Think Outside the Store in Silver Spring, MD, and not for sale.
My guess is finding one for sale is probably like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. But that doesn’t mean they are impossible to locate. I found one on e-bay.
The asking price was $224.95, a testament to the long standing value of a machine of this vintage. Sewing machines by other manufacturers of the same approximate vintage are usually sold for far less.
An added benefit is that it is a Singer, meaning anyone who purchases a 403a Slant-O-Matic has the resources of Singer tech support at their disposal.
Any authorized Singer dealer or repair professional is fully qualified to service and repair this machine, just as they do for any brand new Singer sewing machine or serger fresh out of the box.
- Needs lots of help – able to sew a straight seam but unfamiliar with most sewing techniques; needs assistance and instruction on basic sewing techniques.
- Competent – can make different clothing items without assistance or guidance, but not good enough to sew intricate projects or to sew without a pattern.
- Expert – can sew anything without instruction or assistance; possesses an expansive knowledge of sewing techniques and terminology.
- Sturdy metal construction
- First US made sewing machine with slant needle for home use
- First semi-automatic sewing machine with front drop in bobbin
- Interchangeable discs for decorative stitch selection – a great innovation at the time – now obsolete