Singer knee lever sewing machines

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Typical!  We’ve had a knee-lever Singer 99K lurking in a corner of Elsie’s sewing room for ages, and today we sold it.  And no sooner had I closed the front door behind the proud purchaser than I realised I hadn’t taken any pictures of it set up ready to sew or of the inner workings!  So here’s a brief explanation of the knee-lever controller, minus some snaps which really would have been a big help.  But I’m sure we’ll manage somehow.

OK, check out that page from the 1930 US Singer catalogue, which shows a knee-lever 99K all plugged into that cute wall light fitting and rarin’ to go.  Now take a squint at this picture, which is of the 99 we sold today, sitting quietly on our kitchen table with its awesome 1960’s plastic tablecloth which stops sewing machine oil soaking into the wood  …

Picture of Singer 99K sewing machine

Notice how it looks much like any other early 99K – until you spot that hole to the right of the base.  That’s the magic hole into which you insert the Knee Lever, which is the black metal queerthing hanging in the back of the case …

Picture of Singer sewing machine case with knee lever

The down-pointy end of that is the one which plugs into the hole in the front of the case, and t’other end is the go-faster bit.

OK so far?  How it’s used is simplicty itself.  Place the machine on your table close to the front edge of it, plug the usual old Singer plug into the socket under the balance wheel, then insert the knee-lever into that hole on the front.  It only goes in one way and there’s a bit of a knack to it, but once you realise exactly how it fits, you’re laughing.  You then switch the power on at the wall socket (‘cos nowadays we don’t run sewing machines off a light fitting) and prepare to do some serious sewing.

It’s at this point that you wonder why on earth the lever doesn’t hang more or less straight down, as you might expect it to.  It actually hangs at about 7 o’clock, and that seems all wrong – until you realise that Singer in their wisdom wanted you to sit more to the left than you perhaps normally would, so you move your chair accordingly.  Et voilà, the lever falls conveniently against your right knee (or lower thigh, depending) and off you go.  A gentle right-wards pressure speeds the motor up nice and progressively, and when you return your leg to its resting position, the motor slows and stops.

How it works is simple.  Inside the compartment on the right of the base, under a slightly different black steel lid to the usual one in that this one has a screw holding it shut, is the mechanism of the speed controller.  It’s pretty much the same as is in the usual floor pedal.  When you insert the knee-lever into the magic hole, it connects via an ingenious linkage to the actual speed controller thingy, which doesn’t care in the slightest whether its innards are moved by a lever or by a button on a box on the floor.

So now you know how it all works, you’re wondering why.  As in, what’s the point?  Well, for a start, if you’re not blessed with two feet which work pretty much normally, and especially if you’re in a wheelchair, the knee-lever is brilliant.  You don’t have a foot pedal kicking about on the floor with a wire running from it up to the machine, and there’s only one wire coming out the plug under the balance wheel.  And after that, I’m struggling …

I have no idea when Singer dropped the knee-lever variant, but it was certainly after 1951 because the 99 in that snap is a Centenary model.  Nor am I sure for which models it was available, but I do know that I’ve seen a knee-lever 66, a 99 and a 201.

Elsie’s not a big fan of knee-levers, and as far as I’m concerned they’re just an interesting variation on the normal.  From my point of view, though, they have two drawbacks. One is that they’re a pig to re-wire because of the way the wiring’s crowded in on the machine (and in view of their age, most of them need re-wiring).  The other’s that although the actual conversion to foot pedal control is straightforward enough, you’re left with that hole in the front of the base and you need a new lid for the side compartment.

I think that’s it.  If it isn’t, do leave me a comment!

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12 responses

  1. Hi, 33 years ago when I moved into my new home the previous owner just left everything she didn’t want around the house. I found my knee operated singer in the garage, dusted it off a bit and have been using it as a back up every time one of my other machines take exception to me using it. I was making curtains this week and the Janome refused to work properly even with the threat of being thrown out the window. So it was into the study, dust away an inch or so of dust and within an hour the curtains were finished off and I whipped up a table clothe just for the hell of it. It is so easy to use, my muscle memory took no time at all to remember how to control it. I just have to get my old pedal operated one working after it started sewing be itself one day. The smell of burning bakerlite indicated that something had burnt out in the pedal. It was a great machine too with a few more mod cons. Susan

  2. Bob, it’s actually counter-productive to square up the ends of the brushes – if you do that, they then have to wear themselves back into a good fit against the commutator.

  3. Hi. I have just refurbished a 99k knee lever machiine and used it to make a small patchwork quilt. I have a treadle 66, a handcrank 128, an electric 15 and now the electric 99. Rewiring is simple and with a bit of care and patience it is possible to do a good job. I always take the motors apart too to service them. .Give the motor commutator a gentle wipe around with the finest of abrasive papers and square up the ends of the carbon brushes on the same paper before putting them back in.It should run fine. I threw away the box capacitor that was screwed to the motor and replaced the ancient one in the controller box with a modern on from Maplin @ £0.45. (soldering on of two small wires required) . I wasn’t sure about the knee lever at first but love it now. The machine is very easy to control right down to a slow plod and adding a single stitch. Its also very comfortable as you don’t have any tension in your calf muscles through hovering your toe over a foot controller. Regards and have fun. Bob.

  4. Hello. What is the site that you can download a manual fo a 99k-13 singer?. Thanks Mike.

  5. Hiya,this happened to a machine I found at the local dump a couple of days ago (what a nice find!!)
    My boyfriend took off the obvious panels,gave it a wee defluff and then the needle stopped going up and down. Now,excuse the lack of real names,but if you take off the panel at the end of the machine (the needle end) and spray copious volumes of WD40 over all moving (or stuck!) parts, skoosh under the wheel into that nook,and skoosh in the wee hole on top of the machine and work it!! We fiddled with the wheel until the parts started turning without too much pain,and then ran it using the knee press.
    Simples!! Good luck!!

  6. MAke sure that the chromed knob on the handwheel is turned as far clockwise as it will go.

  7. Hi. I did, but I don’t think it mentioned that anywhere. I read it through several times. I’ll have another read and see what it says. Maybe I made a mistake somewhere…How do I check for clutching/de-clutching?

  8. If the motor’s running and the handwheel is turning but the needlebar isn’t, check that the machine isn’t de-clutched.

    You did download a copy of the instruction book and read it … didn’t you? 😉

  9. Hi Sid,

    Your blog has been an invaluable service to me, ever since I rediscovered my gran’s vintage Singer 99k in the basement and brought it back into the light of day once more.

    I have a question regarding lever-operated Singers…I hope you can help me.

    Using an old guide that I found online, and a various posts on your blog, I have opened the case, I have taken off the faceplate and defluffed (what a cute term!) most of the machine. I have threaded the bobbin + upper threading. I’ve plugged the machine in, cranked it up and…

    Nada. Zilch. Zip.

    Pressing the knee-lever sends the flywheel spinning and the belt-drive humming away, but…the needle assembly is dead in the water. It ain’t moving a shaven inch. And the belt is in good condition, without need for replacement. But the needle-assembly won’t move at all.

    Why? Is this a sign of faulty/damaged wiring that would need to be replaced? Or is it an issue of oiling? Knee-operated Singer 99s didn’t come with any other knicknacks, did they? I’ve examined the machine carefully, and I don’t see any other plugs or sockets where anything else goes in.

    Disassembling, cleaning, wiping, polishing, defluffing and dusting I can do. But getting into the wiring and electronics is giving me willies. If it’s something that serious, I’d rather take it to the sewing-machine shop down the street aways, and let them have a peek at it. Sight unseen…what’s wrong with it? It’s 61 years old, if that affects your decision any. It was my gran’s regular machine for years (she was a professional tailor).

  10. Hello Stephen

    30 years on bikes eh? Hmmm … I can top that by 6 😉 Anyhow, if you’re talking about the box of tricks which is held on with the two screws through it and has the three wires coming out of it, just bin it. It’s totally obsolete unless you or your neighbour’s still listening to AM radio, in which case I might be able to find you a usable one.

    Sid

  11. Lo Sid…
    I’m glad I happened upon your blog, I’m currently restoring a knee operated 99k-13 & you may be able to help. In return I will send you all of the photo’s I take of said restoration to you for your own review if you wish. This machine belonged to my Aunt Betty & although not specifically left to myself, no one else wanted it & it was destined for the skip, I took one look at it & decided in a nano second it would be almost criminal to skip something of such workmanship & beauty so here it is. You are 100% correct, they are a right pig to rewire but it’s the only way forward as the old insulation has almost degraded back to it’s liquid state & you can actually squeeze it out of the outer insulation. I made a drawing of the wiring & took photo’s before I removed anything & my only problem I have is with the capacitor/resistor that screws to the motor case being a sealed unit & therefore I cannot replace the wiring. Do you know of anywhere I might try to obtain a replacement?, hoping you can help it would be massively appreciated…….

    Ps: Retired welder, had motorcycles for 30yrs, proficiant home mechanic & have a fondness for mechanical stuff in general, live in Shropshire……..