Treadling a Singer 201-2 and Stuff

I’ve had another flare up of VSMAD (Vintage Sewing Machine Acquisition Disorder). I thought I had it under control, but apparently not. This disorder cannot be cured, but does occasionally go into remission.

I’ve acquired two new machines in the last month – a Singer 201 for myself, and a hand crank Singer 99K to teach my daughter to sew on. I am quite proud of myself, though, because I also gave away a sewing machine. This was the first time a sewing machine has left my possession. Sergers excluded, the Janome Magnolia 7306 I gave away was the only sewing machine that I owned that was manufactured in this century. It had a couple of stitches that my other machines don’t have, but it still just sat on the shelf since I’d rather sew on vintage machines, so I’m glad it went off to a good home.

My VSMAD flare up was triggered by a perfectly innocent comment in a post by Peter Lappin. In this post, he said he made buttonholes with his Singer buttonholer – the one that uses templates. I thought “Wait, what? Did Singer make buttonholers that DON’T take templates?” I’d only heard about the kind of buttonholer with templates, and I’m always complaining that I don’t have exactly the right size template even though I have every size template made for my buttonholer. I was pretty excited to learn that they made buttonholers that can be adjusted to make any size buttonhole. Peter made a video demonstrating this adjustable old-style buttonholer on his Singer 201 sewing machine. This buttonholer lets you adjust just about everything by turning various wing nuts and screws.

I bought one of these buttonholers quite inexpensively on ebay. No one seems to want them for some reason. I think they are great. If you are looking for one, search for Singer part #121795. They do take a bit of fiddling with to get everything set right, so I’ll probably use the template buttonholer if it has the size I want. I’ll be happy to have the adjustable buttonholer when I need another size, though.

Buttonholer 121795

After seeing how the Singer 201 sewing machine in Peter’s buttonholer video could drop the feed dogs, I of course had to research that model of sewing machine. I quickly realized why I had always ignored this model – in the US, almost every Singer 201 you will find is a 201-2, which is the gear driven “potted” motor version. I’d always just thought of the 201 as “that industrial looking model that I can’t put on a treadle base” and ignored it. But after reading more about this sewing machine, I found out that it came in other versions besides the potted motor – 201-1 (treadle), 201-3 (belt driven motor), and 201-4 (hand crank).

I’d been trying to replace my treadle Singer 252 with a treadle Singer 328k, since I know the plastic gear deep inside the 252 is likely to break at some point in the next few years, but I don’t enjoy sewing on the 328k. I recently got a different handwheel for it, though, so I can treadle it at twice the speed as before. I added an update to the end of my previous post about the 328k showing the modification I had to make to get the other handwheel to work.

When I read about how absolutely wonderful the Singer 201 is to sew on, I had to have one, of course, since the 328k just isn’t making me happy as my main sewing machine. And of course the 201 would have to go on a treadle base, since I’m kind of crazy about sewing on treadle sewing machines. The belt driven 201-3’s can be found on ebay, but they are typically “refurbished”, ship from Canada or the UK, and cost several hundred dollars. I started wondering if I could convert a potted motor version to be treadled and save some money.

I found this flikr page detailing the steps needed to convert a 201-2 to be treadled, belt driven, or hand cranked. Yes, it can be done! There is also a tutorial on Quilting Board that demonstrates converting a Singer 15-91 potted motor to treadle, which is a very similar process. You’ll need a spoked handwheel (aka balance wheel), and if you want a bobbin winder on the converted 201, you’ll need a belt guard from another machine (see next paragraph). To install a belt guard and bobbin winder, you’ll have to drill and tap a couple of screw holes, but other than that, the conversion just involves using a screwdriver.

I bought a belt guard and bobbin winder from a 201-3 from the UK on ebay. If you can’t find a belt guard from a 201-3, I think it would also work to get a Singer 15-90 or 15-88 belt guard and replace its bobbin winder with the bobbin winder from the 201-2 potted motor assembly. The model 15’s use class 15 bobbins, which have a larger hole than the class 66 bobbins the 201’s use, so you won’t be able to use the model 15 bobbin winder.

To convert a potted motor sewing machine to treadle or hand crank you need a Singer nine spoke handwheel. A spoked wheel from a Singer model 15, 66, 99, 127, or 128 should work. I’ve read about the poor quality of the reproduction spoked handwheels, so I wouldn’t suggest getting one of those. I guess you could use a solid handwheel for treadling if you happen to have one, but these typically have a larger diameter at the belt groove, which will make it sew slowly.

For converting to belt driven motor, you would want the solid handwheel from one of the above mentioned models with the larger diameter at the belt groove so you won’t strain the motor. Occasionally you will run across a solid handwheel that has the same small diameter at the belt groove as the spoked wheels, so watch out for that.

I haven’t gotten around to installing the bobbin winder yet, since I’ll have to buy some tools to drill and tap the holes. The sewing machine works perfectly fine without it, though, and I just wind bobbins on another machine for now. You know, since I don’t exactly have a shortage of sewing machines . . .
12/2/2015 I did install it! Installing the belt guard/bobbin winder.

I wanted to use the stop motion knob that came on the 201 instead of the one that came with the spoked balance wheel I bought, since the knob from the 201 was much prettier. I tried using the 201-2 stop motion knob with the washer from a model 128, but they didn’t fit together right. I then tried the washer from the 201-2, and it seemed to work fine, but I later realized that metal was being scraped off the washer, so I switched to using the rusty old washer and knob that came with the handwheel.

Here are a few pictures of the process. I wonder if that pin I found in the electrical connector had anything to do with the melted wiring?

I removed the light, since I didn’t trust the wiring and I don’t like the front mounted lights anyway. I wrapped a gold ribbon bandage over the holes. In case you were wondering, no, I don’t stick pins in it. I sew with a bright lamp nearby, and without the light cover in the way to cast a shadow, there is enough light on the needle area. The blue tape on the stitch length adjuster has the stitch lengths marked in millimeters. I’m trying to think of a more attractive option to mark the stitch lengths, but the blue tape works for now. The sewing machine is on a temporary cobbled together table top, which sits on a treadle base I just found on Craigslist for $25. Eventually I’ll find or make a better table top.

Singer 201-2 on treadle

A couple of things I learned while cleaning up this machine:

Don’t put gear lubricant on the gears of a Singer 201! They want oil. In a very un-me-like fashion, I started cleaning and oiling without reading the manual first, and since I saw some old grease in the lower right gear cover, I proceeded to put gear lubricant on all of the gears. I noticed a significant increase in the amount of force necessary to turn the handwheel. Then I read the manual, and it says to OIL the gears, so I had to clean off all of the goop and put sewing machine oil on the gears. The sewing machine turned much more easily after I cleaned off the lubricant and oiled the gears.

Here is a very good guide for removing and replacing the 201’s bobbin case. It is much easier to understand than the directions in the manual.

The Singer 201 is often called the best quality home sewing machine Singer ever made and sewing on it is compared to driving a luxury car. After sewing on my 201, I absolutely agree. Everything is sturdy, machined perfectly, and the gear drive makes it sew very smoothly. It does great with both thick and thin fabric, and it is an absolute joy to sew with.

Usually after buying a vintage machine, I feel the need to get a parts machine to go with it. However, the 201 is so well built and sturdy I don’t think I’ll need a parts machine. I look at it, and think “What could possibly break?” Maybe the check spring on the tension assembly might need replacing in a few decades, but I already have parts machines that have the same spring. If I happen to run across a 201-1 or 201-3 at a good price, I’m not sure I’d be able to resist buying it, though.

I had a conversation with my husband that went something like

DH:  So, now that you have the best sewing machine ever made, can you stop buying sewing machines?
ME:  Of course not.

Although, maybe I should TRY to stop. I’m running out of places to stash sewing machines.

Posted in Treadle Sewing Machines, Vintage Sewing Machines
17 comments on “Treadling a Singer 201-2 and Stuff
  1. Wow! It’s beautiful that these machines are still around. I am quite impressed with your ability to work with them.


  2. […] month I adapted a gear driven Singer 201-2 so I could use it on a treadle base, but I just now finished the project by installing the belt […]


  3. Barbara Showell says:

    Wow!I have my 201 perched slightly precariously atop another model treadle cabinet because I love how it looks.I love the sound that vintage potted motor makes, so I’d only convert a 201 if I found one with a shot motor. I have been quietly craving a treadle. I have 6 vintage machines in my bedroom, 4 working and one nearly finished. Just ordered a serger but I’m never going back to new machines. Loved this post, you have a new follower.


  4. Leila says:

    Treadle sewing machines are great. I’m happy to trade a slower top speed for perfect speed control, and my electric sewing machines rarely get any use.


  5. Troy says:

    In fairness I should point out that some time after Singer coined the phrase, “The best sewing machine we’ve ever made.” They went on to make the excellent 401 machine which is not only gear driven, but zig-zag as well. They also called this, “The best machine we have ever made!”
    If you ever get the chance to aquire a 401 you’ll find it most impressive!


    • Leila says:

      I actually do have a 401. It’s a great machine, but I prefer sewing on treadle machines, so I rarely use it. Other than being electric, the main reason I don’t use the 401 often is that it doesn’t have the option for a 3-step zig-zag, only a 4-step zig-zag. I frequently use the 3-step zig-zag stitch to hem knits and to apply elastic, and the stitches are just too tiny with the 4-step stitch.


    • Oak says:

      I prefer the 403A. Still has lots of stitches with cams. I really only use the zigzag, anyway. It is less complicated and easier to maintain AND doesn’t have that big ugly knob. And the 404 is a beautiful straight stitch… but don’t let the secret out!


  6. Troy says:

    I have just picked up another Singer machine, this time a hand cranked 99k with reverse feed. It was in good condition and cleaned up easily but it had the problem of constantly breaking thread. Despite trying everything I could think of to solve this, nothing seemed to work and in desperation I turned to the web. Right away I was lucky to find the best advice I have yet found, and quickly solved my thread problem.

    Please let me share this very useful link regarding refurbishing sewing machines:

    It’s a manual created in sections by a charity that sends sewing machines (and other tools) to Africa. They have done an excellent job of putting the manual together and it’s content is first class.

    My thread problem turned out to be just a terrible needle and was an easy fix, well, I never claimed to be very bright!


  7. You wouldn’t want to unload that motor, would you? I was just gifted a 201-2 that is quite lovely but the motor is gone.


  8. Leila says:

    The wiring is completely fried, so I don’t know if the motor works. Even if the motor works, it would need to be completely re-wired. If you are still interested, send me a message from my contact page.


  9. […] drop-leaf dressmaker’s stand. Last fall I had given up on ever finding a treadle 201 and instead converted a 201-2 to be used on a treadle base. So I certainly didn’t need the sewing machine, and I was expecting […]


  10. Joe Dietz says:

    Thanks for the great post! I am going to do this! I have a beautiful working 201-2 and the treadle table for a Model 66. I am not going to mess with that 201 machine. I may get rid of the less than stunning cabinet (or attempt to refinish it), but I want to keep the potted and “Rolls Royce” of sewing machines intact. And, I would like to find a working 66 Red Eye head for my collection that I could drop in that table on a whim, but what I really want to do is find and convert an alternate 201 so that I have both a treadle and a potted beauty. Even though 15-91s are readily available, 201-2s are also, and can be gotten for $20-30 with a or less with a little patience. I would consider a Model 15 treadle, and one may be available to me, but since my 66, 403, and 404, all use class 66 bobbins, I want the consistency of not having a 15. Although i have made an allowance for my 301A and its odd/man out bobbin.
    I have a couple of questions/thoughts before I begin my search and look for my next project. I can get a 15-88? 89? for pittance which I can use in my treadle table or use for parts. It isn’t in the best of shape. Or, I can get a beat up Model 66. Can the bobbin/winder on the 15 be modified to use with the 201? I have a spare 201 bobbin winder from someone else’s parts machine. Or would I have to find one from a 201-3 or 4? Or, can I use a 66 treadle guard/bobbin winder from another “parts” machine and easily mount it on with drilling/tapping? I’ve seen on another site that there were holes drilled for the guard on older 201s (pre 1938?), but the the newer ones would need to be drilled and tapped for 10-32 by 1/2 screws. Does that hold true for the 15-91s as well? Will the 66 holes for the guards line up? Thanks!


    • Leila says:

      The bobbin winder and belt guard on a 66 are shaped differently and attach differently, so a 66 will not be useful for parts for either a 201 or a 15.

      The bobbin winder from a 201-2 can be put on the belt guard from a model 15-88. The only issue is the decals will not match (see example here).

      So if you get an older 201-2, plus a 15-88 parts machine, you should be able to swap some parts around and get your 201 to treadle without doing any machining.

      I believe all of the 15-91’s have holes for a belt guard, unlike later 201-2’s (but don’t quote me on that).

      If you are try to decide between using a 15 or 201, here are the main differences I notice when sewing on 15-88 vs. a 201-3 treadle:
      A 15-88 is a little bit easier to treadle than a 201 (all of the gears in a 201 add a little more resistance). However, it’s not enough harder to treadle that it bothers me. It might be an issue for a weak person who sews constantly, though. On the plus side, you can sew faster on a 201. The 15-88 vibrates quite a bit at top treadling speed. In terms of pure sewing pleasure, my 201 treadle wins over the 15-88 every time.

      The main thing that bugs me when sewing on a Singer 15 (or any other machine with a vertically mounted bobbin) is that you have to hold the thread tails firmly every time you start sewing or you get a thread snarl on the underside. Sometimes I get a thread snarl anyway. You can avoid this by sewing onto a scrap of fabric every time you end a seam, then sewing off of the scrap onto the next seam, but that doesn’t work if you need to start sewing away from the fabric edge. Since it sounds like you are used to drop-in bobbins, this may annoy you, too.

      I’ve heard that a Singer 15 is better for free motion quilting, but I haven’t done much of that, so I can’t attest to it myself.

      Both machines do pretty well with thick thread, as long as you use the same thread in the bobbin as on top, use the appropriate size needle, and turn up the upper thread tension quite a bit. They are pretty much equal in stitching ability and can sew through the same thickness of fabric.

      Good luck with your project!


      • Joe says:

        Thank you for the info. I will use $10 worn but silky smooth 66-1 1910 Redeye in Treddle that is available to me unless I temporarily find something like a 15-88 to put in there until I can find a usable or convertible 201. It has the rear feet attachment, no reverse and the dogs don’t drop, but I can use it.

        I could kick myself as there was a 201G (a rarity) for sale for $30. It had extra spool pin and looked to be in great shape. The seller was over an hour away and made it difficult for me to pick it up so I said forget it. It would have been perfect for making a treddle. If I remember the bobbin winder might have been on top. Eventually a suitable 201 will show up, or a 15 parts machine and a 201-2.


  11. Chris Hutchinson says:

    What are the various drive belt pulley diameters across the Singer 201 models?


    • Leila says:

      The 201-1 (treadle) and 201-4 (hand crank) have a standard Singer 9-spoke balance wheel, which has a diameter of 2.36 inches at the belt groove. I don’t have a 201-3 (external belt driven motor), which has a solid balance wheel, but it is probably the same as the wheel I have on a model 66, which has a diameter of 3.3 inches at the belt groove. The 201-2 is gear driven, so there is no drive belt.


  12. Lorenzo says:

    Waw thank you because I gresed the gears and it was soooo hard to turn!!! Now I know why xD


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