Sailrite Ultrafeed History

THE ULTRAFEED JOURNEY

Creating the Best Portable, Heavy-Duty Sewing Machine in the World

Sailrite owner and vice-president Matt Grant has played a key role in the development of the Ultrafeed Sewing Machines since the very beginning.

In fact, the Ultrafeed was originally Matt’s idea and is the result of years of hard work and dedication. As the creator of the original Ultrafeed Sewing Machines, Matt knows these machines better than anyone (he even holds a patent on the design!). He is convinced that the Ultrafeed is the best portable, heavy-duty sewing machine in the world.


“The Ultrafeed is the best portable, heavy-duty sewing machine in the world. These are strong words for anyone to say, but I feel strongly enough that this is true of Sailrite’s Ultrafeed line I will risk my reputation,” Matt said. To prove his assertion, Matt is sharing the history of the Ultrafeed, so you, too, can see how it has evolved into the powerhouse machine it is today.

THE FIRST MACHINE

The Sailrite Sailmaker

Sailrite Sailmaker - modified Brother TZB651
Matt’s dad, Jim Grant, founded Sailrite in 1969. Back then, the young business sold supplies and instructions for sewing sails and canvas and even a few different sewing machine models here and there.

As Jim grew more familiar with sewing machines he realized that there weren’t good choices for affordable, amateur sailmaking sewing machines on the market, Matt said.


Sailmaking, as you might expect, requires a heavy-duty sewing machine. An amateur sailmaker’s sewing machine would need to have the capability to sew in a zigzag stitch and to handle heavy materials, plus it would need to feed fabric easily, have at least a 5 mm stitch length and be portable.


“The Read’s Sailmaker, imported from England, came close [to a sailmaker machine] but still left room for improvement,” Matt said.


“It had a short, 4 mm stitch length, it wasn’t powerful enough and it did not feed heavy fabric much better than most home sewing machines.”


“The Read’s Sailmaker, imported from England, came close[to a sailmaker machine] but still left room for improvement,”Matt said.

Jim decided that the best route to get an appropriate machine to sell to his sailmaking customers was to modify an existing sewing machine and “beef it up,” as Matt put it. He found a 3/4 arm length industrial sewing machine that was sold to tailors, the Brother TZB651, and increased its power by adding a larger diameter balance wheel with an idler pulley and a two-belt drive system. The result was the Sailrite Sailmaker Sewing Machine.


“This beefed up Brother became the best known and most respected portable zigzag sewing machine for sail and canvas workers,” Matt said. “It had a 5 mm stitch length and since the feed dog design width was 12 mm instead of the standard 5 mm home setup, it fed material better than the Read’s.


“The Sailrite Sailmaker and the Read’s machine competed against one another for many years. Then in 1987 Practical Sailor magazine did a product comparison that favored Sailrite’s machine. After that it was not long before the Read’s machines disappeared,” Matt explained.

Read's Sewing MachineSailrite Sailmaker Sewing Machine

SEEKING AFFORDABILITY

The Sailrite Yachtsman

Sailrite Yachtsman Sewing Machine
While in college in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, Matt was working at the family business and found himself in the role of tuning and shipping most all of the sewing machine orders.

“[During this time] what I learned was that sewing machines can be fickle to tune consistently to get equal performance from one unit to the next,” Matt said. “It took me years to hone my skills to the point that I could tune and properly add Jim’s modifications with great consistency.”


Sailrite was buying their sewing machines directly from Brother International but they had no control over improvements and manufacturing.


It was also around this time that Matt was starting to recognize that the $1,999 price tag on the Sailmaker was too expensive for many boaters wanting to repair and make their own canvas items and sails. He wondered how many sailors would be interested in sewing if the price of the machine were lower.


“I wrote a college paper on the subject and convinced myself that I could come up with a less expensive model to supplement the Sailrite Sailmaker model,” Matt shared. “I had theorized that a price point of $499 would increase the market by 500 units annually.”


In spite of the trade-offs the Yachtsman was a huge hit and the company accomplished Matt’soriginal goal of selling 500 machines in a year.

Fully sold on the idea of a more affordable sewing machine, Matt set out to bring this vision to life. He decided to start with the same approach his dad had used successfully years earlier—to build up an existing sewing machine. He took the power improvements from the Sailmaker, and added them to a new machine. The result was the Yachtsman Sewing Machine, which was, in many ways, an improved and more affordable version of the Read’s Sewing Machine. It was based on the “Model T” of home sewing machine castings and although the price was lower, a few of the desirable Sailrite Sailmaker features were lost.


“The machine had a short, 4 mm stitch and it did not feed very well,” Matt explained. “But we did take the power modifications from the Sailmaker and utilized our tuning experience to optimize performance. It also had the required zigzag stitch.”


In spite of the trade-offs the Yachtsman was a huge hit and the company accomplished Matt’s original goal of selling 500 machines in a year.


But it wasn’t long before an old problem appeared again. In refitting other companies’ sewing machines, Matt still had little control over the original manufacturing process and he was tweaking every machine that came in to better suit customers’ needs.


“I had to create ad hoc solutions like a special feed dog made with sharp teeth instead of a knurled surface, and increasing the power by adding to the weight and diameter of our Monster Balance Wheel,” Matt said.


During this period, Sailrite also experimented with other, larger, industrial sewing machines like the Sailrite Long Arm and the SR200. While these sewing machines were more affordable than their Japanese competitors, like the Brother TZB652 and the Singer 20U, they were designed for tailoring and clothing manufacturing, not sailmaking and canvas work, Matt explained, and were too heavy to be easily portable. These machines offered better performance than the Yachtsman, but were significantly more expensive, with price tags over $1000.


“We reached the conclusion that we needed control of the manufacturing process to create machines to serve our niche,” he said.

A NEW APPROACH

The Sailrite/Thompson Mini Walker

Then a sewing machine being manufactured in Texas called the Thompson Mini-Walker started popping up.

Matt had been familiar with this company and their straight-stitch only, portable, walking foot sewing machine. Sailrite customers were asking for comparisons of the Thompson Mini-Walker to the Yachtsman. The machines were designed to do different things and each was better at its suited task; the Yachtsman sewed straight and zigzag stitches for sailmaking but the Mini-Walker was better suited to sewing canvas and upholstery, which were its main markets.


When sewing canvas, the ability to sew in a long stitch length is important because this reduces needle puckering of the fabric. The Mini-Walker could sew a 6 mm straight stitch, 2 mm longer than the Yachtsman.


Sailrite was offering more and more support and materials for canvas sewers and so Matt saw opportunity in a potential partnership with Datho, the makers of the Mini-Walker.


Datho agreed and Matt set to work adding his own custom improvements to the machine. He added the Monster Balance Wheel and changed out the motor for improved power and starting selling the Sailrite/Thompson Mini-Walker.

Thompson Mini-Walker Sewing Machine

CREATING A SAILRITE ORIGINAL

The Ultrafeed Sewing Machine

While the Sailrite/Thompson Mini-Walker was popular with canvas and upholstery customers, Matt knew that he really needed a similar machine that included the zigzag stitch capability to really suit all of his customers.

Working closely with his colleague, Duane Crisp, Matt set out to solve this problem. “I started calling people and investigating all aspects of walking foot sewing machine designs,” Matt recounted. “The only zigzag machine with a walking foot at the time was a Consew 146RB full sized industrial machine.”


“We learned all that we could about that [Consew 146RB] machine and took what we knew about it and theMini-Walker to create design plans for a zigzag prototype all our own,” he said.

The Consew 146RB, which is still in production today, is a full rotary hook sewing machine. It can be temperamental to work with and is plagued with needle plate breakages. Like the Sailrite Sailmaker, the Consew also only produces a 5 mm stitch length. Additionally the Consew machine was too expensive and too heavy for Sailrite’s customer needs. All of these reasons combined led Matt to the decision that he needed to create a custom sewing machine option.


“We learned all that we could about that machine and took what we knew about it and the Mini-Walker to create design plans for a zigzag prototype all our own,” he said.


Matt and Duane worked tirelessly building their machine prototype. They had aluminum parts made that would only last a few hours in testing before bending or breaking just to test their designs.



“This would be the first machine that was truly designed as a portable, heavy-duty sewing machine forsewing sails, canvas and upholstery.”

“It was an arduous process,” Matt admitted.


But in the end they came up with a design that they knew was ingenious and unique. So much so that Matt and Duane decided to patent their design.


“We decided to patent our invention knowing that the machine fit a market segment that was not contested by anyone other than Sailrite and Thompson,” Matt explained.


“This would be the first machine that was truly designed as a portable, heavy-duty sewing machine for sewing sails, canvas and upholstery.”


And so, on May 5, 2000, Matt officially applied for a patent on his sewing machine design. It was granted, patent #6499415.


One of the key selling points of this new machine was the grip and pulling power of the feed dog mechanism. Since the machine would be known for its fabric feeding, it was named the Ultrafeed. This was the very first version of the Sailrite Ultrafeed that we sell today.

MANUFACTURING THE ULTRAFEED

With the design in place and the patent application in, Matt now set out to find a manufacturer for the Ultrafeed. This time, finally, he was going to get control over the whole process.

The team decided that having “roughly assembled” machines produced overseas and then fine tuned at Sailrite made the most sense. New to importing goods, Matt worked with an import expert to help with communication and translation for foreign shops. They found a manufacturer in Taiwan and the first order was placed. By the time the first shipment of sewing machines came in, Duane had left Sailrite leaving Matt to carefully tune and finish each machine himself.


“The process was slow and I soon found that to produce a quality product I would be spending day and night at work,” Matt said. “For a few years I remember dreading Christmas, as I basically lived at work in order to ship machines to arrive on time.”


The Ultrafeed Sewing Machines were booming in popularity and Matt was taking notes and making tweaks to the machines all the time.


“For the first time I could log and track issues for correction at the factory,” Matt remembered. “The changes eventually got made and the machine really became a marvel.”

Sailrite Ultrafeed LS-1 V.1 Body
“For the first time I could log and track issues for correction at the factory,” Matt remembered.“The changes eventually got made and the machine really became a marvel.”

Unfortunately, amid all his successes, Matt found out some discouraging news. From the very beginning, the factory in Taiwan that was manufacturing the roughly assembled components of the Ultrafeed machines (and who also made the Thompson Mini-Walker) had been selling the Ultrafeed sewing machine design on the side to other buyers. Those look-alike companies were even trying to continually copy Matt’s improvements.


“The machine looked like it was going to be so successful that look-alike units hit the market before our patent had completely issued,” Matt explained. “It took a few years for us to figure this out, but the damage was done.”


The patent had expired on the Thompson Mini-Walker, but Matt’s patent on the Ultrafeed was fresh so he decided to take legal action to protect his intellectual property. Sailrite sued and received settlement agreements against several of the major infringers at the time. Over time, many of the remaining look-alike machines failed without intervention, although there are still a few on the market today. In the end, Matt was happy to have won the battle, but the fight had taken a toll on him.


“The machine looked like it was going to be so successful that look-alike units hit the market beforeour patent had completely issued,” Matt explained.

“I felt like the business changed in the process,” he shared. “My focus became more about protecting the Ultrafeed and not about improving it.”


The legal debacle didn’t keep Matt down for long. A few years later he was back concentrating on ways to make the Ultrafeed better.


“We came to grips with the fact that a quality product with great sales potential is going to get copied,” he said. “Sailrite would just have to consistently provide a better product with the best support.”

A CUT ABOVE THE REST

With the Ultrafeed as its flagship sewing machine, Sailrite started seeing large growth as a business. The Ultrafeed was selling so well that the still well respected Sailrite Sailmaker machine was discontinued.

The Ultrafeed had become both a better and more popular option as it was lighter, more affordable, and performed better than the Sailmaker. With Ultrafeed Sewing Machines selling at a quick pace, Matt needed help building and tuning all the machines. He hired and trained a dedicated sewing machine staff to fine-tune every Ultrafeed at the Sailrite Headquarters in Indiana. Today we have four, full-time employees tuningsewing machines.


“Tuning became a Sailrite hallmark and a competitive advantage,” Matt said.


But just because he had found a great sewing machine solution for Sailrite’s customers did not mean that Matt was done innovating. He quickly set to work making the Ultrafeed the best it could be. This effort led Matt to create a variety of custom parts. For these unique additions Sailrite decided to keep the manufacturing in the United States.


“Our decision was partially predicated on keeping our ideas from being copied, but it was equally because we cared about jobs in America,” Matt said.

Sailrite's sewing machine production department
“Tuning became a Sailrite hallmark and a competitive advantage,” Matt said.

Custom parts that are exclusive to the Ultrafeed include: the Posi-Pin Clutching System (patent #7438009), the Monster II Balance Wheel, the PowerPlus Balance Wheel, custom carrying cases, a scarfed hook design, an oscillating shaft, grounded foot controls, extended stitch length control plate, and special presser foot designs.


As the Ultrafeed continued to gain in popularity it developed fans who started sharing their ideas to improve the machine. Some of these ideas lead to changes Sailrite made and others lead to customers becoming suppliers. For example, the Integrated Thread stand was designed and continues to be manufactured by a Sailrite customer.

BIG CHANGES BRING BIG IMPROVEMENTS

After several years, Matt started noticing quality issues with the machines that were coming out of their Taiwanese factory, so he took a trip to see the facility for himself.

When he got there, Matt was surprised to see the lack of consistency in the manufacturing process. The shop had rows of milling machines and drill presses with jigs to shape and bore holes for shafts prior to assembly. Little care was being taken in ensuring the holes were spaced correctly so the parts could properly align.

Taiwanese made LS-1 casting left of the improved LS-1 frame

“The [manufacturing] process, though it worked, was highly inefficient and product consistency was suspect,” Matt explained. “Now I understood why some units just did not perform like others and why our reject machine pile had started to grow.”


Matt had growing concerns now not only about his supplier but also about the machine casting. It was showing signs of age, and Matt was concerned that it wasn’t as strong as it could be. Then in 2007 the Sailrite team invented the Posi-Pin Clutching System and it became clear that the existing casting and internal parts were not strong enough to support all the added power.


“With the introduction of the Posi-Pin, a positive clutch rather than the older, slip prone compression knob, the weak parts in the machine became obvious,” Matt recounted.


Matt tried to get the Taiwanese factory to work with him to re-tool their shop and make the necessary changes to his machine, but they were not willing to work with Matt on making radical improvements.

“The [manufacturing] process, though it worked, was highlyinefficient and product consistency was suspect,”Matt explained.

Hitting this dead end, in addition to the fact that his manufacturing partner was still selling look-alike machines, convinced Matt that it was time to look elsewhere for the basic manufacturing of the Ultrafeed.


So Matt packed up an Ultrafeed and headed to China in search of a new manufacturer. He doesn’t speak Chinese and had no real travel plans, just a general idea of how to start his search and a list of goals.


He was looking for a manufacturing partner that he could trust, who wouldn’t sell his machines in back door deals to other companies and one with whom he could work closely to make improvements.


Matt’s high standards required a shop with a good reputation, that wouldn’t cut corners and would produce only quality, industrial parts.


He wanted a shop that made industrial sewing machines so every piece of the Ultrafeed would be built to work hard and last long. This included needing a shop with automated vertical and horizontal milling machines. This technology ensures consistency in placement and size of the casting borings by drilling them in succession with the machine in only 1 jig. This, Matt attests, is key to good performance and durability from the machine.


Matt’s high standards required a shop with a goodreputation, that wouldn’t cut corners and would produceonly quality, industrial parts.

He also hoped to find one factory that could produce everything from the casting to the all-metal internal parts. In the end, Matt managed to find a manufacturing partner that met all of his goals in only three days.


“To this day I really can’t explain how I managed to make the contacts that I did, but the trip turned out to be one of the most productive three days of my business life,” Matt said. “We dropped our old manufacturer and never looked back.”


The changes implemented with this new, higher quality manufacturer created the Ultrafeed Version 2 Sewing Machine, which are the machines Sailrite sells today.


“Today when we hear of a look-alike machine we know it is either from our old manufacturer or, even worse, a machine cloning agent working to sell on price alone,” Matt shared.


“In both cases, these are completely inferior. I know this because I have either worked with the manufacturer or sewn on example machines. I buy anything out there that claims to serve our market just to see if there is anything novel. Nothing yet!”

LS-1 casting V.1 to V.2 comparison
“Today when we hear of a look-alike machine we know it is either from our old manufacturer or, even worse,a machine cloning agent working to sell on price alone,” Matt shared.

The strength and quality of the Ultrafeed has lent itself to being used not just for sailmaking and canvas sewing but also for sewing crafts, heavy denim, soft leather and more.

THE ULTRAFEED DIFFERENCE

Quality, Performance & Support

Three generations at Sailrite -- 
Top to bottom; Jim, Zach and Matt Grant
When you look back on the story of Sailrite sewing machines and the creation of the Ultrafeed, the aspects that make this machine unique start to jump out.

The Ultrafeed is the result of a drive by Jim and then followed by Matt to give Sailrite’s unique customers a sewing machine that would meet all their needs.


There is nothing else like the Ultrafeed because it was developed for a dedicated focus: to meet the needs of sailmaking and canvas sewing.

The Ultrafeed’s story is also one of quality. When parts aren’t being made up to our high standards, new, better parts are procured.


Our dedication to producing a machine of the highest quality and performance is what led us to hand-tune every sewing machine before it ships out.


Above all, what this story shows is how much we love this product. The Ultrafeed is, and has always been, a labor of love.


It is a product that we stand behind and will fight for. Sailrite so believes in this product that we provide unparalleled customer service to help you love your Ultrafeed as much as we love ours.

Sailrite technician Matt B. tuning an Ultrafeed LSZ-1
The Ultrafeed’s story is also one of quality. When parts aren’t being made up to ourhigh standards, new, better parts are procured.

Matt summed up his story this way, “I live and breathe sewing machines,” he said. “It is my knowledge of the Ultrafeed’s history, and those before it, that allows me to claim ‘best in the world’ without hesitation. My father recognized the need for something special to handle sewing canvas, sails and upholstery in a portable configuration. I helped to carry on with what he started, and my team at Sailrite today is now continuing that tradition.”