Dropped Stitch

Singer will sew no more

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Mahatma Gandhi called the Singer sewing machine "one of the few useful things ever invented." Admiral Richard Byrd carted six Singers with him to the Antarctic. During the late 19th century, Russia's Czar Alexander III ordered workers to use the machines to make 250,000 tents for the Imperial Army. Founded in 1851, Singer was one of the first U.S. multinational corporations. And, of course, its red "S" trademark became a familiar sight in households all across America.

But now Singer is abandoning the product that embodies its past glory. The company, based in Stamford, Conn., announced last week that it plans to spin off its sewing operations to a separate firm owned by Singer shareholders. The new company will continue to manufacture the machines and keep their brand name, but Singer itself is leaving the sewing business behind. Said Joseph Flavin, the firm's chairman: "It was an emotional decision. You just don't walk away from a 135-year-old tradition without being touched."

The move is part of Singer's long-term strategy to streamline the company and concentrate resources on its 18-year-old aerospace division, which manufactures flight simulators, electronic-warfare equipment and navigation and guidance systems for missiles and aircraft. The aerospace group contributed 53% of Singer's revenues last year and 52% of its operating profits. Sewing operations kicked in only 24% of revenues and 23% of profits.

The new high-tech Singer grew out of humble beginnings. The Singer sewing machine was the creation of Isaac Merritt Singer, who was born in Oswego, N.Y., in 1811. The eighth son of a German immigrant, Singer had worked as a traveling actor, ditchdigger, cabinetmaker and peripatetic inventor. At the age of 38, he borrowed $40 and began tinkering with what would become the first sewing machine that could be easily used by a homemaker. Introduced in 1850, it was an immediate success. Said Singer: "I don't care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I'm after." He eventually pocketed about $13 million, some of which supported the 24 children that Singer fathered by two , wives and at least three mistresses. He died in England at the age of 64, while constructing a half-a-million-dollar mansion that he referred to facetiously as his "wigwam."

If Singer were still alive, he would hardly recognize his brainchild. The company's best-selling machine today is a version of the Stylist (price: $500), which threads in six seconds. Singer's top-of-the-line model, the Ultra Unlimited (price: $1550), looks more like an aircraft flight-control panel than Isaac Singer's original invention. It uses computer software to make multitudes of different stitches and embroidery.

Such improvements, though, have not been enough to revive a beleaguered business. The market started to unravel in the mid-1970s, when sales began declining from a peak of 3 million units a year. Reasons: Singer serves a dwindling number of people who can still find time to sew, and it faces persistent competition from Asian manufacturers. Between 1979 and 1982, Singer's North American and European sewing operations suffered a deficit of $179 million. The company belatedly closed manufacturing plants and company- owned retail stores. Last year, the sewing division sold about 2 million machines and earned a profit of $30 million.

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