Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Nussey & Pilling Talk

Issue 37

Re-printed below is the talk on Leeds-based manufacturer Nussey & Pilling that Graham Forsdyke gave at the Thaxted meeting. A more-detailed report will be published in the near future as more information comes to light

THOSE OF YOU who have brought along Nussey & Pilling machines - and that includes MS - have really been conned ... just a little.

I had hoped to get away with making some sarcastic remarks about the fun machines created by Les Coley and Geoff Dickens plus the necessarily-long discussion on the convention to hold this meeting together.

However, so many people rang to ask "what's the theme at Thaxted", that I had to think of something and Nussey & Pilling seemed a natural choice as we'd featured one of these machines on the cover of the current ISMACS News.

What this preamble really means is that I haven't had the time to devote to the research that the subject warrants. I've not even made a trip to Leeds to do some digging, so what follows is going to be rather lacking in depth. All I can promise is to come back to the subject at a later date with more pertinent information.

I'll probably also waffle on, as is my wont, and drift just ever so slightly from the subject to make this talk last a little longer and, therefore, appear more authoritative.

You see, I've already spent a couple of minutes on the subject without saying anything at all.

To the facts.

As a starter I didn't even know the Christian names of our two worthy manufacturers and rather than take the advice of a Sunday Express news editor that I worked for a few hundred years ago to "make up something that sounded likely - chances are it will be right".

I did do a little digging here and there and discovered that Nussey was christened Arthur. That would have justified the Sunday Express man's methods, but Pilling would have caught him out for he rejoiced in the name Altham.

Arthur and Altham ran their sewing-machine company from Park Works in Park Lane, Leeds which, as well as being near the park, was also close to the town hall and both Park Works and the municipal offices were listed in the guide books of the time as "well worth a visit".

Production began in the late 1860s with the inevitable Wheeler & Wilson copy. But by the early 1870s an industrial model, the Tudor, and the machine which collectors cherish today, the Little Stranger, had been added.

Nussey & Pilling advertising was pushing the Little Stranger by 1872 and the company boasted that handbooks were printed in every written language in the world.

I think it more likely that if the firm did get an order from Mongolia it would rush out a booklet with the aid of a local translator.

Unlike most companies of the time, Nussey & Pilling appointed no agents, but stated that purchasers of its machines would be "accommodated at the factory and be given a tour of the works before departing with the new model". One concession was made by having a London office in the building of  S W Silver & Co at Bishopsgate Within.

In 1871 the Little Stranger was being advertised as the cheapest and best local-stitch machine - weren't they all? It sold at 3 3s.

When Nussey & Pilling started their company in the late 1860s it was one of a small band of British manufacturers who sought to break the near monopoly enjoyed by American imports. Some English manufactures simply cloned the American models; others produced their own machines. Nussey & Pilling sought the best of both worlds by doing both.

The company claimed to go about it much in the way as was pioneered by Willcox & Gibbs in America.

Rather than have a group of workers each putting a machine together from hand-finished individual parts, Willcox & Gibbs utilised what was to become known as the American system of carefully producing precision tooling that would make perfectly-matched and interchangeable parts

Before a single machine was produced Nussey & Pilling spent thousands in installing highly-accurate jig boring, milling, turning and grinding machines.

All the finished parts were tested on limit gauges before going to the stores where they could be drawn out as needed.

Nussey & Pilling announced that there were 123 checks made on parts for the Little Stranger, 132 for the Wheeler & Wilson copy and 145 for the industrial Tudor.

The factory was divided into separate areas, each under a supervisor responsible for one facet of the production and build-up procedure.  No product association here. Each machine was handled by over 100 operatives and very few would have ever seen the finished articles that left the factory.

Highlight of the tour of the premises would have been the Japanning room with its four giant ovens each set to a different degree of heat to aid the paint-hardening process.

Visitors would see bare metal given its first black coating and then baked at a relatively-low temperature. Then it was allowed to partially cool and the gold-leaf and mother-of-pearl applied to the surface.

Back to the oven for further hardening and then another coat of black was applied, completely covering the decoration previously applied. The next oven hardened this sufficiently for the cutting-down process when the surface was  scoured away by hand using cloths and pumice powder until the gold and mother-of-pearl appeared flat and level with the surface.

The fourth oven was used to bake on the final, transparent, protective-varnish coat.

Then all that was necessary were a couple of hours hand polishing to remove any blemishes and bring up the shine.

In 1871 Nussey & Pilling was offering the Little Stranger, the result of all this work, in no less than 11 forms.

Actually there were but two varieties but a variety of treadles and finishes allowed the larger permutation.

The basic three-guinea model came with a bronzed finished (I've never seen an example of this). It also had a tucking guide, oil can, four needles, four reels of cotton, instructions and a turnscrew. I wonder why the word turnscrew disappeared. It's actually more accurate than screwdriver because you certainly drive a screw in but I couldn't talk of driving one out. But I digress - as I promised you I would.

For an extra guinea you could have the same machine finished as what the manufacturer described "a work of art". This consisted of the burnished gold leaf and the mother of pearl inlay.

Bottom-of-the-range treadle was a basic monopod but with a fancy table and hexagonal lid. Examples exist in the Bernard Williams and MS collections.

This stand was also available with the same gold and mother-of-pearl finish as the machine which pushed the price up to 7 guineas.

The Wheeler & Wilson machines came in for the same artistic finish. Basic price in 1871 was 6 10s, rising to 8 10s for a plain machine in a half cabinet.

A decorated model with a built-in chess board on the treadle top was 8 18s 6d. Top of the range was a roll-top desk version in burr walnut at 11 0s 6d.

Finding when Nussey & Pilling set up in business isn't easy. Leeds library has local trade directories for 1867 and 1880. There's no listing in the 1867 volume, but the company appears in the 1870 edition. By 1870 the company was well established with a full line of products, so it's likely that we are looking at 1868 as a commencing date.

Nussey & Pilling appears in the directories for 1872 - a year that Peter Herbert  will know well as that of the notorious Licensing Act which forbade pubs in the provinces to sell beer after 10pm. Those in London could remain open, as befit their status, until midnight.

In the 1875 edition the trade directory shows that by then, at least, the company had its own foundry in Holbeck, just half a mile from the main factory.

A year later, in 1876, the information remained the same. Les and Irene Coley will, of course, revere that year as the one in which Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. I personally bring it to mind as it was the year in which they started digging a channel tunnel.

The last listing is for 1877, which Marvin Tabic will know as the year of the great American rail strike - the first major union walk out in the country's history. I told you I was going to wander.

This entry for 1877 shows a change of name. Pilling is gone and only Nussey remains. A machine in the MS collection, labelled the Improved Little Stranger, carries only Nussey's name.

No entries appear for 1878 the year, as our Treasurer knows, that Gilbert and Sulivan wrote HMS Pinafore.

Given this information I think we can reasonably suppose that the company had a life span of just little less than a decade.

The Improved model was offered in 1876 at 4 4s. By this time a Singer clone was added to the range but it is not  clear whether this was manufactured by the company or simply imported from Germany and re-badged.

It was in that year that the London office was moved to that of shipping and export agent C E Wilson who had premises in Falcon Square.

At least two examples of the early, yet-to-be-improved, versions exist. Strangely both are called the Little Wonder and the version in the MS collection has the insignia Salter and Co, Makers, on the base.

However, the machine is clearly of Nussey & Pilling manufacture, and it is a reasonable conjecture that the earlier versions were sold off in bulk when the new model appeared.

The Improved Little Stranger did have benefits over its predecessor. Main difference was a more controllable stitch-length adjuster, adjustment by means of a screw replacing the earlier crude lever.

A pierced drive wheel added to the machine's visual appeal and a cast-iron plate covered the previously-open face of the needle head.

Just to complicate things for the historian, there exists in the MS collection the Byron, featured on the front page of ISMACS News 36.

It's a combination of the early and later machines having the screw adjuster, covered needle head, but retaining the solid, webbed, wheel of the mark 1.

This much-decorated machine carries the name of Hereford dealer Chas C Gooch with no mention of Nussey & Pilling.

But why the Byron? I guess the reference must be to the poet, but he was born in 1788 and died in 1824, so there's no anniversary involved. And if it is the poet, why leave off the Lord prefix?

The name is a mystery. I can understand  Britannia's Thomas Hood named after the man who wrote the Song of the Shirt and the Singer clone named the Nelson is obvious. But why Byron?

As far as patents go, 1871 was the only active year for the company.

In April the pair patented a needle bar and shuttle linkage for the Tudor machine - a free-arm Thomas look-alike - a method of shuttle construction and a device to attach the needle to the needle bar which avoided direct contact between the screw and the needle shank.

In July there was an attempt to improve the Wheeler & Wilson bobbin but, after a primary patent application, the idea was dropped until November. Then, in partnership with a Cyrus Henry Hall also from Leeds, the patent was applied for again, together with a work-holding device; this time it was granted.

On examining the machines closely before this meeting I made a strange discovery. Despite all the talk of American systems and precision jig tooling that the company boasted about in the brochure that I quoted from earlier, the machines are obviously hand fitted.

On the later, improved, model for example each of the major working parts caries the stamp G08, clearly indicating that all such parts so designated would eventually go together on the same machine.

Either was the machines are constructed to very high standards and most of those that survive are in very reasonable condition.

The invitation to members to bring Nussey and Pilling machines along to the Thazted meeting added three to the trio displayed by MS.

And these threee machines confised the situation a little with a general mixture of driving wheel forms and until more machines surface it will be impossible to accurately put any of them in cronological order.

But with very keen members in the Yorkshire area, all keen to add local machines to their collections, it may not be long before the number of Nussey and Pilling machine grows apace.

On discussing the machines on display with Martin Gregory, we agreed that the mechanism which moves the shuttle in an elipse must owe much to the Taylor design of the same period and it is possible that the patent which belonged to taylor and which was aimed  primarily at reducing the moise from a reciprocating shuttle could have been used by the Nussey and Pilling company under licence.

Any member visiting York should make a point of viewing the superbe, gold-leaf-covered Little Stranger that is on display in the Castle museum.

This is clearly what was the firm's top-of-the range-model and is in excellent condition.