6/24/2013

Vintage Machinery: History of Union Special


The Union Special 43200G is famous in the denim world for its iconic chain stitch that creates roping at the hem, but Union Special didn't begin with denim, or even apparel at all. In 1879 an inventor named Jasper Corey became interested in bag manufacturing. Corey had more than ten years behind his belt working with sewing machines, and after speaking with the leading production facilities in his area he boldly pronounced that he would make a new machine to increase the speed and efficiency of bag making. With lofty goals in mind Corey moved to Chicago and drew up the plans while living behind the storefront of a sewing machine repair shop owned by Lorenz Munther. Munther and Corey, with similar mechanical backgrounds, quickly became close friends and agreed to build Corey's new machine together. The two enlisted the help of expert mechanic Russell Woodward to construct the machine, and in the spring of 1880 the three presented their prototype to a bag factory in Chicago for testing. The machine was a definite improvement, and the factory was so enthusiastic that they ordered twelve more.
An incredibly favorable review of the machine was published in the trade paper of the time, Sewing Machine Advance. With all the good press, orders began coming in for the machine and the three were presented with a new problem: production. None of them had the money to finance manufacture of the machines, and simply building the machines themselves was too slow. As the issues mounted Corey withdrew himself from the group and moved to California to study medicine. In desperation Munther and Woodward turned to friends for financial assistance, and managed to attract the attention of William Stanley North. North, already a successful businessman, convinced the two to incorporate and was elected the first president of the newly formed Union Bag Company in 1881. To convince skeptics of the new machine's efficiency the company opened its own bag factory as an example, and quickly the entire industry switched to Union Bag Company's sewing machines. Tent and sail manufacturers began to take notice of this new machine with a double locking stitch, and put orders in for customized machines for their factories. With the company's increasing success and reputation the apparel industry also became interested. A large knit goods firm in Amsterdam ordered one machine as a test, but for the first time Union Bag Company's machine wasn't up to standards. The stitch was good, but not elastic enough, and the machine was far too slow. Upon hearing this Muther and Woodward began development of a specialized machine for the apparel industry. Through two prototypes the pair developed the rotary take-up for the looper thread, which prevented the stitch from skipping at high speeds while still allowing high elasticity. This "Safe Elastic Stitch" machine soon became standard equipment for the entire knit goods industry.
As Union Bag Company began to make headway into many industries they held a vision of building machines that were designed for a single operation, that would perform that operation very effectively at high speeds. Manufacturers were resistant to the idea of buying a machine that could only do one thing, thinking that garments should be sewn on a single machine whenever possible. However, this specialization became an asset in the newly industrializing America where the widespread use of the production line would prove to be much more efficient than previous methods. This specialization of both the machine and the worker set record production values, and led to the name of the new machines: Union Special. In 1885 the company changed their name to Union Special Sewing Machine Company. Through the next couple years the company continued to expand their facilities in Chicago to meet rising demand. In 1893 the World's Fair was held in Chicago and the Union Special machines were put on display for the world to see. Their machines received more awards than their established competitors did, and the company gained reputation in the world market. By 1901 they had opened their first oversea factory in Germany. In 1939 the machine we all know and love, the 43200G, was first manufactured. By this time denim already had a large market in the United States, but this locking chain stitch machine greatly increased the speed of sewing and strength of the hem. The machine was featured on the front page of the Needle's Eye, the most popular sewing trade paper of the time.
Through the rest of the century Union Special continued to do what they did best: create sewing machines specialized for specific manufacturing purposes. In 1948 they moved their own manufacturing back to the United States, to Huntley, IL, where they are still located today. Through the 50's and 60's they expanded their facilities to accommodate production. Even today Union Special retains their reputation as a leader in industrial sewing machines. 
In 1989 Union Special stopped servicing the 43200G, meaning that it became impossible to find original replacement parts. By that time the old machines were already becoming rare in America, as Japanese denim manufacturers had begun buying up every one they could find. With the revival of vintage-made denim in both the United States and Japan the 43200G became a high demand item, but few were still in working condition. Today they are incredibly rare, and very pricy if you manage to find a working one. When compared to modern day machines the 43200G may be slower and more labor intensive, but it creates vintage characteristics that simply cannot be replicated. The push and pull style of sewing creates directional pressure in the fabric and is the reason behind the beautiful roping effect. Blue Owl is happy to offer a chain stitch hemming service on our second generation 43200G.