Reviving Elsie, my vintage Singer 201K

posted in: sewing, Tutorial, vintage | 13

Last year I became absolutely fascinated with vintage sewing machines, particularly the heavy duty solid metal singers. I knew we had no room for a treadle, so I wanted a “modern” powered one, and Elsie, my lovely Singer 201K popped up on Gumtree, condition doubtful, for $30. The owner had never tried to use it, had never plugged her in or anything, despite being a sewist herself. Elsie, to her, was purely decorative.

She was absolutely amazed when I pulled out some thread and fabric, threaded her up and off she flew! At $30, what a bargain. Sold!

Meet Elsie

I brought her home, carefully cleaned her up and oiled her, gave her a fresh needle and ordered some new bobbins, as she came with basically no accessories at all, just the one bobbin, a terribly blunt needle, her knee lever and power cord.

All went beautifully on our first night sewing together until I got up to make a cup of tea. DS2, who was sitting at the kitchen table with me, asked why the machine was making so much noise, and there was a distinct smell of burning. She was running on full power, despite not being used. The only way to stop her was to unplug her, and as soon as she was plugged back in, off she went again! Disaster. Calamity. They don’t mention how to fix this in the manual!

The next day, I started poking around in the motor and other parts… I’m not sure of the technical names so please bear with me. We first decided that the problem wasn’t with the motor, because it was obviously running just fine, so troubleshooting mode led us to the unassuming black box to the left of the machine which houses the throttle assembly – how much power is applied and when.

Many screws later, we had this out…. but still no idea what we were looking at.

Elsie Broken

But never fear, this story has a happy ending. Googling the parts that we could see here (the silver things that look like batteries), led us to similar problems in Singer pedal machines. We learnt that these are capacitors, which store the power and mete it out to the machine as the lever is pressed. One or both of them had failed (hence the burning smell), leading to the machine having no control over the power coming through it.

I took this assembly carefully out, and went into the local electronics repair shop for some help. They were sure that they could fix it, however it would need “special parts” and the person to look at it wouldn’t be back in until after Christmas, so come back in January. Of course, life and a puppy got in the way and I made my way back to the shop on Monday. The special person took a look at it, pulled away from his lunch, regretfully told me that the problem was in the big white ceramic part, that there was no way to replace it, and they could wire a pedal onto my power cord for me for the sum of $80 thankyou very much.

Seething, I left, and hit the internet again…. searching for the parts number led me to this site… Vintage Radio Repairs which led me to a parts list. When googling the equivalent part number, I ended up on this site… RS Delivers spending the princely sum of $6.18 for 5 replacement capacitors (they only came in packs of 5)… not to mention that for some reason they gave me free next day delivery. By courier. To my door. What amazing service!

So, here comes all the photographs for the tutorial on how to replace the blown capacitors and bring Elsie back to life again.

Firstly, we want to examine the leads on the capacitors. One end of each one is connected to one contact on the ceramic part, which my reading suggests is called a rheostat. Apparently they are very fragile and on no account should you fiddle around with them.

Edited-1149 Edited-1148

Unscrewing the two top screws, and unclipping the capacitors will allow you to take the whole capacitor circuit gently out.


Then I simply used wire cutters to cut the capacitors out of the circuit, as close to the ends as possible.


As you can see, the replacement capacitors, which are matching in capacitance and voltage, are considerably smaller in size. They are axial, or through hole, so they have a lead at each end. There was no marking as to positive or negative ends, so I just fitted them into the circuit as they were.


Because the plastic covering the leads was old and pliable, I simply securely inserted the leads of the capacitors a couple of centimetres up inside the wire coating. I’m sure this isn’t best practice, but it held well and they were obviously in tight contact with the circuit.


I then wrapped them up carefully in electrical tape, my other big purchase for this experiment, so that there was no possibility of the bare wires contacting anything inside the throttle assembly, and they would stay in place.

Edited-1157 Edited-1156

It took a little bending and consulting the original diagram to make it fold back into place, and again I used some electrical tape to hold the capacitors because they obviously wouldn’t clip back in.

Now to put it all back together in the machine! Follow these steps backwards to remove if you ever need to.

Firstly, we need to attach the power leads back to the machine. This whole assembly sits inside a little bakelite box, hidden on the right of your machine.

Edited-1159 Edited-1160

Those two leads attach to the contacts I had already made with the capacitor circuit. There is also another screw type clip for holding them securely in place.


Next, the box top needs to be attached to cover this mechanism. It is held in place with 2 screws, shown next, top right and bottom left. Leave the gold coloured screw holes, they attach through the bottom of the box.Edited-1163

Next we need to re-attach the actual knee lever part back to the throttle.


The silver peg on the right slots neatly through a corresponding hole on part that sticks out of the box. To achieve this, the whole knee lever part needs to come out of the wooden case. It is held in by two screws at the top.


After you have connected the two, you can loosely put the screws back in. Wait until after the next step to tighten them.


All of this is held tightly in place by 5 screws through the bottom of the case – be very careful to support your machine when tipping it over to get to these. You may need to nudge the throttle or knee lever parts to line them all up correctly. Then go back and tighten the knee lever screws.


Finally cover it all back up with the metal plate, held in place by the single screw underneath the power plug.

Plug her in, and you are back in business!!

Edited-1167 Edited-1168 Edited-1169

Although the wooden case needs some refinishing, she is still beautiful to me. I hope this tutorial may be of some use to someone, as I could find very little information on how to fix this problem when it happened. Meanwhile I am so proud of my self reliance and the fact that this beautifully crafted, solid piece of engineering, recommended as one of THE best sewing machines ever made, has a new life for another 60 years or so.Happy Crafting - Cassie.

Please be aware that there may be affiliate links in this content. Your support allows me to keep creating for you!

13 Responses

  1. Sarah

    I’m so pleased to find this!! The exact same thing happened to me this afternoon!!

    I am new to vintage sewing machines and have recently got a Singer 201-2K, knee lever operated electric machine.

    This afternoon I have been happily piecing a baby quilt on it. All was going well until I paused to do some seam pressing at my ironing board.

    I noticed the machine was “buzzing” as though someone was very gently pressing on the knee lever (but not enough to get the needle to go up and down).

    Then the needle did move!! I turned the machine on and off but it still buzzed. I tried again and it stopped for a moment before restarting.

    Then all of a sudden there was an odd smell and a hiss/sizzle from the motor and a drop of liquid came out of the bottom!! At that point I disconnected the power!!

    Can you tell me what the exact capacitors I need are called as I am in the UK so will have to find some over here….

    Kind regards,

    Sarah :0)

    • Cassandra

      Hi Sarah!

      Thanks for your feedback, I knew that there would be someone else with this same trouble one day that I could help!! I just re-read through my tutorial, and I can’t believe I didn’t include that information! *blushes*. This is the exact part I ordered….

      Vishay 47nF ±10% 160, 250V ac, V dc Through Hole Polyester Film Capacitor

      Those numbers should mean something to someone at a hobbyist electronics store. As long as they are equivalent, and not larger in size than the capacitors that you are replacing, you should be good to go!

      Please, let us know how you get on with it, and if I can be of any other help!


  2. luis

    this is a 15-91 not a 201-2K

    the 201-2 has the light in the front and a white on off switch on the right for the light.

    • Cassandra

      Hi Luis. Thanks for your interest in my post. I did a lot of research before identifying my machine, and I actually believe it to be a 201-3. I know for a fact that it is not a 15-91 as the tension assembly is not on the face of the machine. The 15-91 has the tension knob sticking out to the left of the nose, not facing the sewist as mine is. There are also several other little details that Singer changed in between models, they are detailed in several places online. My favourite is the following site, which allows you to see all the important features that differentiate between the models.

  3. Rose W

    Hi Cassandra, just came home with the same 201K, (not a 15 at all) I am recording this info thanks, hopefully won’t need for a while, but good to know

  4. Mark

    Hi, I have a 99k 1951 model. I have the same rheostat. But mine does not have the capacitors like yours. I’m in the process of rebuilding it and I’ve no idea if the electrics actually work yet. The wiring was in pretty bad condition and looked like it had melted. Not sure if from age or heat. The two main wires were completely void of insulation.

    The white part has the same number on it but it appears that it never had anything else attached to it. There no clips for the capacitors or even a hole for a bolt to hold the clip. Any ideas?

    • Cassandra

      Hi Mark, I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of ideas. The capacitor is in order to control the transfer of speed from the pedal or knee lever to the machine motor. Without it my machine was running at full speed. If your machine has a pedal, my understanding is that the capacitor is inside the pedal. If you are still stuck, email me through a couple of photos to cassandra AT cassandramadge DOT com and I can see if any of it looks familiar. It would seem that likely that the wiring, being 60 years old, would have perished due to the fact that the materials used then were much less durable to heat and atmosphere. Sorry I couldn’t be more help, but I hope you get it working. I love the 99K.

  5. Sue Harding

    Hi Cassandra,
    I just wanted to say a very big thank you for working out this fix and then for being so generous to publish it.
    My son in law has just fixed my new (to me) 201 using your instructions.
    I had looked so long to find my Patience and very was excited to get her, but she had the exact same problem you described Elsie had.
    You are wonderful and I am so grafeful.
    Kind regards

  6. Andrew

    Hi Cassandra
    I have just purchased the same machine for £10 and I’m in the process servicing my leaver box and motor
    my one does not have the capacitors so I’m keen to find out if that’s normal. There is how ever a small box on the motor and I will try and establish if this substitutes the capacitor, if anyone has something to add (I will be happy)
    If I find out anything that will help I will add



  7. Steve

    Hi Cassandra, I have the same problem with my mothers old Singer so your article is very helpful. Can I ask, have you a record of the size of the capacitor you installed. I am in the UK so I may be able to buy two capacitors from a local electrical shop.
    Best wishes and thank you.

  8. Savannah

    I have discovered the same machine among the things that belonged to my husband’s late Aunt, and it also has the exact same problem! Thank you SO much for this information. I’ll get to work on it today 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *