Chain Stitch 101 – Interview with Chris M.
Jun 7, 2013

There’s a lot of inconclusive and not very helpful nor informative articles surfacing on the web about chain stitching. We all demand chain stitched hems on our premium jeans but do you really know the reasons why? Why is it when we walk into a denim store that’s credible, we expect to see a Union Special 43200G mounted on hardwood illuminated in a corner of the store like some holy artifact.

I know only a tiny fraction about Union Specials and the chain stitch technique. Certainly not enough to operate one nor write the definitive chain stitch article that would guide us all in understanding this legendary machine. So I needed help from a real expert in the field.

That’s when I came across Chris M. Chris repairs and sells the vintage 43200 in several variants. He does it to fund his denim line out in Vermont, USA. I was extremely pleased he was willing to be a major contributor to this article, without him, none of us could gleam a deeper understanding about our geeky fascination with the textile industry.

The following is an interview conversation between Chris and myself. His replies may be verbose but are so rich with information. He has graciously furnished several pictures to better visualize the inner workings of the machine.

SK = Saintkeat
CM = Chris M.

 

SK: How did Guns & Money start and how is it connected to your sideline business of reselling Union Special 43200 machines?

 

CM: My brother Jesse and I started in October of 2010; the route that we took to get to where we are now was quite circuitous. I was a professional gunsmith for a number of years and owned a company that made custom competition handguns. For a number of reasons I left the world of firearms manufacturing and my brother and I started a re-sale company that dealt heavily in wine, metals, and antiques.

From our re-sale endeavours we began to sell a lot of designer men’s clothing and accessories; partly because we had access to tertiary designer clothing but more importantly because we had always had an interest in men’s wear. One day we had purchased a very expensive leather jacket and thought that the quality was pretty unremarkable and that there was no justification for its price-point except for the label that it had sewn into the lining.

We knew that we could do a better job at making quality garments and decided that we were going to start a men’s street wear company that paid homage to the time honoured tradition on men’s tailoring but fused those elements with our favourite parts of work wear. We started setting up our shop almost immediately; we were horribly underfunded and had to buy a lot of machines that were sourced from closed down manufacturing facilities that moved production from the US to Latin and South America.

The machines that we started out with were pretty much ready for the scrap yard so I took my mechanical prowess that I had acquired through years of gunsmithing and translated it to sewing machines. Initially it was difficult because I had to learn how all kinds of different types of machines worked to be able to fix them. Soon I was able to draw parallels and realized that sewing machines and guns are more alike than I had imaged. I soon had all of our machines functioning. Through my experience fixing our own machines I thought “how could I take these skills and make money with them to help fund our clothing line?”

I searched for about a year before I found my first 43200G (prior to that I had a 43200 F that I had converted to do our hems). Once I found one I started to develop contacts around the world that had access to 43200 machines. I began buying 43200’s, mostly the regarded 43200G and fixing them. I would take parts from broken machines to fix run down machines and I began to sell them.  Once I confirmed that there was a viable market for these machines I began buying and fixing more and more of them. At one point I had a very large collection of 43200 machines, vintage Union Special flat- bed machines and some other rare pieces from antiquity.

Drawing Illustration from the Union Special Manual

I have had the opportunity to own and work on more 43200 machines than I can remember. I have also had the opportunity to speak with people at Union Special about some of the machines that I had found. Three of the rarest machines I have come across were the almost unheard of 43800, which is a double needle 43200F machine, regrettably I sold it to a gentleman in Chicago who now is using it to hem back pockets on his jeans. The other two I still own; my favorite, a like new 43200 G third generation machine from 1987 and the other a 43200 JZ (special addition) third generation machine. The 43200 J looks just like a 43200 G with slightly different feed dogs and foot. If I recall correctly DC4 has a 43200 J with a folder.

 

SK: Is there a reason behind your products being strictly manufactured in the states?

 

CM: It seems like every year that more manufacturing is moved from the United States to elsewhere in the world. One of the things that we wanted to do from the inception is to make our products in the US. Besides the fact that we like American craftsmanship there are a lot of logistical benefits to making things in the United States. Communicating with distributors and suppliers is easier, the quality of the materials in our opinion is superior, and we are supporting other US businesses.

 

Not all of our material is made in the USA, we do use some denim that is milled in Japan, as well as linens and worsted wools from the UK. It is important to us to source the highest quality materials that the world has to offer, we use fabrics made in the USA whenever they are the best.  When we need worsted wools, moleskin, or linen we source from the UK because they make those fabrics the best.  We also use denims from both the USA and Japan, we do not view one as being better than the other, and both have unique qualities and differences.  We want to use the best fabrics available, and we find it a bit silly to limit our fabrics to only those made in the USA, but we still use American hardware and thread in the construction of all of our products, and of course they are hand cut and sewn by us in the USA.

 

SK: Now what is it about the 43200 that inspired your fascination and invoked such a cult following?

 

CM: When we first started out it was almost impossible for us to find a Union Special 43200 of any model. Our first prototype jeans were hemmed on a Union Special 63900, which was the lockstitch cylinder bed replacement for the 43200 G. We had an opportunity to buy a 43200 F shortly after we started developing prototypes. I was confident that I could use the machine to hem our jeans and we hemmed a lot of jeans early on with the 43200 F. It was about a year into our startup until I was able to purchase a 43200 G. I had been searching for what seemed like forever. When I got the machine I was not impressed with its condition, so I began looking for another one. I was able to develop several pivotal contacts around the world that helped me source 43200 G machines. Ultimately I sourced, purchased, and repaired a vast number for 43200 machines of all models.

Union Special 63900.
The 43200G replacement.
From 1988, Union Special ceased production of the 43200G model. 

 

As far as the following amongst denim purists, the 43200 G machine is a quintessential part of production in addition many brands require that if a store is going to perform in-store hemming that it be done on a 43200 machine. So there was a confluence of factors that elevated the machine to its current ‘demigod’ like status. Now every new jean maker and jean store that is to be taken seriously needs to have a 43200 G. This in and of itself is problematic because the machines have been out of production since the late 1980’s and many of them have been discarded or fallen into a state of disrepair. The lack of access to properly functioning machines makes them a very valuable piece.

 

What a lot of new jean companies and stores do not realize is that the 43200 is an industrial sewing machine; industrial machines of any kind whether it be a sewing machine, a beer bottling machine, or a robotic welder were all designed to be used in a production environment where access to engineers and mechanics is a non-issue. The 43200 needs constant maintenance and adjustment to work properly. A lot of people unwittingly cause damage to their machines by not knowing how to use them, adjust them, or maintain them, so many of the 43200 machines are not maintained properly and to an untrained user they seem to be functioning properly and ultimately that can cause a lot of irreparable damage to the machine which typically is only detected once it is too late. Another problem is that most modern mechanics (unless they have been in the business for a long time) do not know how to work on the ‘bulldog’ style machines because it is not used in a production environment any longer, that coupled with the lack of genuine or even reproduction parts makes the 43200 G and all models of the 43200 a machine with a lifespan and eventually there will just not be too many properly running ones around.

 

SK: When you say “production environment”, how do you mean?

 

CM: When I say production I mean in a large factory environment, Union Special, although many small companies use their machines, designs machines for large manufacturers where speed is key. Large companies may make 5,000 or 10,000 garments a day so speed and ease of use is imperative to produce large numbers of garments. The 43200 is not conducive to such high volume sewing.

 

As an example there was a Levi plant that closed down a couple years ago and they auctioned some of their machines off and they had hundreds of each machine, so large factories may run 100 plus hemmers at a time probably 24 hours a day

 

SK: We often think the more time consuming the job is, the higher the quality. Would you say that the quality has gone down with the modern high speed variants?

 

CM: As far as the quality of the sewing in a good modern factory (not sweat shop) the sewing quality is very high. Most of the new machines are computer controlled and pneumatic powered, so it eliminates a lot of operator error. Use the Reece 101 buttonholer as an example, the modern equivalent is controlled by a computer, has a conveyor system on it to move the plackets, and many have laser sights or automated positioning systems so the operator only has to hit one button to make the button hole, it is not like that on the old machines. Juki’s newest model of keyhole buttonhole machine was designed to be 50 percent faster than the previous (computer controlled) model to eliminate operator error and increase sewing speed. New sewing machines are like CNC machines where the operator does not have much bearing on the product.

 

SK: Tell us briefly how the 43200 works.

 

CM: The 43200 is a single needle, two-thread, single looper chainstitch machine. It is often referred to as a ‘bulldog’ style machine; the ‘bulldog’ style machines work differently than many modern chainstitch machines. The looper, feed dogs, and rocker arms are moved by a central drive shaft located in the top portion of the machine, the drive shaft is linked to the other rocker arms by push-rods. These push rods need to be perfectly adjusted for all of the mechanics to work properly. I often compare the workings of a sewing machine to that of a mechanical watch, there are a tremendous number of parts that all have to be properly adjusted and timed for the machine to accomplish a relatively simple task. In a mechanical watch there are countless small parts that work together to move the hands of the watch to denote time. In a 43200 all the parts need to work in unison to make the feed dogs move, the needle goes up and down, and the looper moves.

When the needle descends it goes through the denim, through a hole in the foot, through a hole in the needle plate, and then starts to interact with the looper. The looper looks like a hook and has holes in it where the second thread runs through, when the needle and the looper interact the looper passes its thread through the loop of thread that the needle had created when it was plunged through the denim, this is what produces the ‘chain’ and that is done for every stitch.

Chain Stitch Illustration (source: Wikipedia)

SK: Are there any differences between the 3 generations of the 43200?

 

CM: There are only slight differences between the generations, from an operator’s standpoint they are essentially the same.  

 

First Gen (Black Head)

Second Gen (Brown Head)

Third Gen

 

SK: Which machines would big brands like Big John, Samurai, The Flat Head be likely to use for their bottom hems? Juki or a modern Union Special flat bed? I know Union Special has been bought over by Juki, however, they still make machines under the Union Special name.

 

CM: Larger companies that have very high volumes of garments that need to be hemmed with a chain stitch can use a number of different machines to accomplish the hemming procedure. There are several new machines that are setup for high-speed chainstitch bottom hemming of jeans; a couple are made by Kansai Special and Global. What some companies do is take a Union Special cylinder bed single needle chainstitch machine and do some work to it to fit it with either an edge guide or folder, that is less common than taking a multi-needle Union Special cylinder bed cover stitch machine and outfitting it for hemming. Many places take the above mentioned Union Special and remove a needle and a looper, put a pneumatic folder, pneumatic chain-cutter, and Racing puller on the machine.  There are currently a lot of options for chainstitch bottom hemming other than a 43200G.

Union Special 51300

Many companies that cannot source 43200G machines will run 43200D or 43200F machines with the work plate removed and an edge-guide installed. As I stated before we hemmed a lot of pants on our 43200 F before we sourced our first G.

 

SK: I personally find the 43200 better, oddly enough because of the fault that creates the roping effect. Which to you is superior?

 

CM: The 43200 G creates a roping effect not by virtue of anything special that is going on with the mechanics of the machine but the folder. The reason a chain stitch hem on a 43200G is roped is two-fold. The main reason is what is called feed differential; when the folder is put on the machine it affects the way that the material is metered through the machine. Many modern machines have walking feet, needle feed, or differential feed dogs to ensure that the top layers and bottom layers being sewn move through the machine at the same rate.

Like many chain-stitch machines, the 43200G is a plain feed machine, which means it has a static presser foot and one set of feed dogs on the bottom. A hem consists of (mostly) three layers. When sewing, the feed dogs move the bottom layer and the top layer is pushed under the presser foot, leaving the top layer essential uncontrolled. What this results in is a feeding inconsistency, the top and bottom do not move at the same rate, but since they are sewn together a pucker forms.

Folder

Without a folder this can be alleviated, but with a folder attached the top layer cannot move anywhere to flatten out the pucker, since it is wedged between the foot and the folder, which results in the roped hem. Technically this is considered a sewing defect, which is why new machines do not produce as noticeable a pucker on the hem, and why jeans made in large factories do not exhibit roped hems.

The roping effect is even more pronounced when jeans are washed or soaked because the chain shrinks which can cause a tightening or torquing of the hem.

I have seen some aftermarket presser feet that are relieved in an attempt to increase the roping on the hem, as now the roping is considered a hallmark of nicely crafted jeans.

 

SK: I know that different brands have different hem widths. For example:

1955 era – A 0.85cm width was most common

1966 era – 0.95cm

Lee jeans stick to the 1.1cm hem width.

Why do brands do that? Is there a technical reason to it or is it just aesthetics?

 

CM: I cannot really speak as to why jeans from the past exhibited them hem widths that they did. In the past, jeans were workwear and as such were mass produced, each manufacturer could have a specific hem size due to conservation of fabric in their markers (the large template layout of garment pieces in the cutting process), purely for aesthetic reasons, or it may be something as simple as that was the size hem the folders on their original machines produced.

 

Jeans can be produced with whatever size hem the designers would like within reason (as long as it is sewn through a folder).  A lot of hems now are the same size simply due to standardization. In the patternmaking process seam allowances and seam sizes are usually operation specific, but the most common seam allowance is 3/8” or 1cm depending on where in the world the garment is manufactured.  Most hems will be 3/8” (1cm) in size, measured from the bottom of the hem to the stitching line.  Another possible dictator of hem width is the weight of the material being sewn.  Heavier fabrics require wider seam allowances and as such would technically require a slightly wider hem because their turn of cloth is greater (the amount of fabric taken up when a fabric is folded over itself in a seam), which coincidentally will make the hem smaller than a lighter weight material if it sewn using the same seam allowances.

 

SK: What are some common misconceptions about the 43200G?

 

CM: I think that one of the biggest misconceptions about the 43200 is that it is superior as a hemmer. The 43200 as a jeans bottom hemmer from a production stand point is a terrible machine. They are mechanically complicated, they were really only designed to hem standard weight denim like 13.4-14.5 ounce denim, they need constant maintenance and upkeep, and they are complicated and slow to use.

Another problematic area is how the presser foot tension assembly and lifting lever were designed, it was a poor design and they are always problem areas for old machines.

That is why the replacement offered by Union Special was a high speed cylinder bed lockstitch machine. That being said the 43200 G and all models are very cool machines that have soul and are from time past. In my opinion they are poorly designed and it is only logical that they be replaced by more user friendly, mechanically simpler, and more productive machines, but I will only use a 43200 G to hem any of our pants because they are cool despite all the aforementioned problems. They are just like a nice mechanical watch or a muscle car; mechanical watches sometimes cost as much as houses and a very inexpensive digital watch keeps better time, but it is not as cool. A muscle car is old, not ergonomic or fuel efficient, most don’t have air-conditioning or power steering, and they need constant maintenance and up keep but they are cool, just like the 43200G.

 

 

 

 

SK: Of your collection, which would be your most prized?

 

CM:  My favorite machine, which all our pants are hemmed on, is a like new Union Special 43200 G third generation machine. It is from 1987 and when we purchased it did not look like it had ever been used. It took me three years to find it but I did and it will never be for sale. I built a custom table for it out of Bubinga, an African hardwood, and it sits next to our 43200 F. In the very near future I will be setting up a machine that is probably rarer than the new G, a like new 43200 JZ (custom) machine that we will be hemming our back pockets on.

Union Special 43200DZ

Union Special 43200JZ

 

SK: One last thing, I noticed you have a reverse chain stitch option. What on earth is that about? Will it not be less durable if the chain is on the outside?

 

CM: It looks awesome. In our experience there is no difference in durability with the chain exposed. I have a pair of jeans that I work in for the past 2ish years and have been washed more times than I can count and the chains are fine. When I say work I mean crawl under machines, work on my car, etc. I am pretty tough on clothes and we have never had an issue with it.

Reverse Chain Stitch Worn and New

Plus whenever we wear pants with the reverse chainstitch hem people ask about it even at the store as it is very noticeable and most people have never seen anything like it.

 

Hall of Fade would like to thank Chris for his outstanding contribution to this article. 

 

- Saintkeat

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