Leon Jolson made his way into the sewing machine half of fame through impressive and sometimes illegal methods. He created a distribution empire that used Walmart to make affordable sewing machines accessible. Check out this guide to Nelco sewing machine models, history, and value to find out more!
Leon Jolson used the brand name “Nelco” to sell a popular line of economy sewing machines made in Japan. He based the brand name and the sewing machine design on the prominent sewing machine companies Elna and Necchi. Nelco sewing machines were sold from the 1950s into the 1990s.
In this article, you will learn how Leon Jolson built his controversial company. You will discover what price and value Nelco sewing machines hold today. Finally, you will get tips for how to use a vintage Nelco sewing machine!
History of Nelco Sewing Machines
Leon Jolson created and sold Nelco sewing machines from the 1950s till the 1990s. He used innovative, if sometimes illegal, business methods to make quality sewing machines available to the mass American public at a low cost. He made such as impact in the sewing world that he was posthumously added to the Vacuum and Sewing Machine Hall of Fame!
To understand Nelco sewing machines, you have to start with the story of Leon Jolson. Born in Poland in 1912, he soon joined the family sewing business. By the age of 25, he had gained a position as a salesperson for the Italian sewing machine manufacturer Necchi.
He quickly became the top seller, leading the sales in all of Eastern Europe for this prestigious sewing machine manufacturer! He seems to have earned a place of importance with Necchi and worked with designers to help develop new features for upcoming sewing machine models.
Then in September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland. After enduring several years of confinement in the Jewish ghettoes of Warsaw, Jolson was tragically captured and forced into a concentration camp. He briefly escaped and returned to his wife in Warsaw.
When the Nazis once again captured Jolson, he and his wife jumped off a moving prison train and hid with a sympathetic farmer until the end of the war.
No one knows why Jolson did not return to Necchi after the traumatic war years. Possibly anti-Jewish sentiment lingerie in the Italian-owned company, or maybe Jolson wanted a safer home for his family after the terror of the Nazi occupation. At any rate, what you can find out is that Leon Jolson moved his family to New York City in 1947.
Though he arrived with no contacts and no money, Jolson rapidly assessed the lay of the land in NYC’s garment district. He realized that many tailors and professional seamstresses needed someone to supply machine parts for their heavily used industrial sewing machines. Jolson inserted himself as the middleman and earned significant commissions by connecting parts sellers with buyers.
After several years, Jolson reconnected with Necchi. He explained the American market to the famous Italian company and pointed out that most machines available to the American public lacked the sophisticated features of Necchi sewing machines.
Necchi did not respond with enthusiasm. Again, no one knows why–after all, Jolson had served as one of the company’s top men before the war! Perhaps the company felt understandable shame for failing to protect its employees.
But after what he had survived up to that point in his life, Jolson did not give up in the face of this refusal. Instead, he traveled to Italy and met with Vittorio Necchi himself. Necchi agreed to send a trail batch of sewing machines overseas to see how well they sold.
In no time at all, Jolson lined up more than 10,000 American sales! As you can imagine, this successfully convinced the Necchi company of the value of the American market. Jolson built on his Necchi success to convince another European sewing machine manufacturer, Elna, to let him launch its American sales as well.
In fact, between the Necchi and Elna sales, Jolson’s American importing and sales operation raked in more than twenty-five million dollars a year in the early 1950s!
To this point, Leon Jolson seems like an inspirational figure, surviving great hardship to make good as an American entrepreneur. But here is where things get a bit more sticky.
In the mid-1950s, Jolson launched his own line of sewing machines under a brand he called “Nelco.” He had the machines manufactured at a couple of different plants in Japan, taking advantage of the massive post-war sewing machine industry there.
At the time, many European and American companies saw the Japanese sewing machine industry as a brash upstart that lacked quality Jolson disagreed. He saw the much cheaper production as a way to make sewing machines more accessible to people who would not afford pricey European brands.
Nelco machines had a decorative European aesthetic and some of the sophisticated features of Necchi and Elna machines. But Jolson, who had thoroughly mastered the American market, focused on making them available to the mass public. He sold Nelco machines through companies like JC Penny and Walmart to make the machines readily accessible to everyone.
In short order, Nelco machines cornered 25% of the entire sewing machine market in the United States!
Here’s the thing, though: Jolson had pretty blatantly created a knockoff of Necchi models. Even the name Nelco evokes the brand names Necchi and Elna. You can see how Jolson may have felt some claim on Necchi’s design features since he helped develop them, but he still used proprietary technology to make these knock-off Nelco models.
Plus, he straight-up referred to many Nelco models as Necchi and Elna items. Marketing materials often mentioned that Jolson was or had been a Necchi employee. In short, he made it look like Nelco machines were actually Necchi machines!
Understandably, both Necchi and Elna sued Jolson. Lawsuits dragged on from the 1960s well into the 1980s. Though Jolson won and lost various claims, he did continue to sell Nelco models at least into the 1990s.
Are Nelco Sewing Machines Still Sold Today?
No new Nelco sewing machines are sold today, as the company no longer exists. That said, a good variety of older and vintage Nelco models still sell on eBay and Etsy.
Jolson passed away in 2009. Later in his life, he focused a great deal of his wealth on supporting Holocaust survivors and immigrants to the United States.
But what happened to his company? As a Nelco manufacturing plant never existed, it seems likely that the company died with Mr. Jolson. He never sold the rights to the Nelco brand to anyone else, and probably the threat of all the lawsuits prevented a company such as Walmart from wanting to take on the challenge.
The bottom line is that Leon Jolson dramatically impacted sewing machine development in the United States, but his legacy remains a bit mysterious to this day!
Nelco Sewing Machine Models
Though Nelco sewing machines were sold by the thousands during the 20th century, it’s very difficult to find any information about them today! No company records exist, and you often have to seek out the information provided by online sellers to learn the price point or functionality of a particular model.
Another good way to find out more about a particular Nelco model is to visit online sewing forums or chat groups. Sometimes another sewer has the same model as you and will share tips and tricks about how best to use it!
|Nelco Model or Serial Number||Year Manufactured|
|Model A-4-2||Mid 1950s|
|Lyra J-A38||1962-late 1960s|
|DeLuxe 2311||Late 1960s|
|DeLuxe SZ 217||Late 1960s-1970s|
|Golden Stitch SZA 525||Late 1960s|
|Golden Stitch 6915||1970s|
|Ultra 5102FJ||Later 1970s|
|Nelco Prima Vera||Unknown|
|Nelco Supernova Julia||Unknown|
If you want to know more about your Nelco machine, look for the model and serial numbers. The model number describes the general line of machines it came from, while the serial number is a unique identifier.
You can usually find the model number inscribed on a small metal plate. This plate often hides near the power cable on the side of the machine, or you may find it with the serial number stamped into the bottom of the machine. As another point of interest, serial numbers beginning with the letters “JC” indicate that the Nelco model was made by Toyota in Japan. The letters “JA” just mean that the model was made somewhere in Japan.
Vintage Nelco Sewing Machine
Vintage Nelco models such as the model A-4-2 and the Deluxe Zig Zag models remain popular sellers in the sewing machine world today. Unfortunately, you will not find a comprehensive list of all Nelco models anywhere. It seems likely that this company information disappeared along with the mysterious shut-down of the business.
You can find basic info about some popular vintage Nelco models here, though!
For example, Model A-4-2 symbolizes early Nelco sewing machines. Made in the mid-1950s, this model features a sleek tan and chrome body. It sews straight stitch but has a zigzag attachment often sold with it.
Like many Nelco models, it has adjustable feed dogs like fancy European sewing machines. It also has reverse stitching capability and uses a basic class 15 bobbin.
The Lyra J-A38 has a powerful interior motor capable of sewing through heavy material like canvas. Made in the 1960s, this model has a slightly boxier metal and chrome finish.
You can sometimes find this heavy-duty model for sale with its original cabinet, which includes knee controls!
Lyra R-1000 and R-2000
Though these vintage 1960s models often sell for under $50 today, at the time, they offered a perfect marriage of sleek European-style cases with cheap, solid Japanese construction. They have a typical 60s metallic case with pretty chrome accents and decorations. The R-2000 sometimes comes in a lovely metallic pink with chrome accents!
Golden Stitch Series
The Golden Stitch models sold around the 1960s. They offered simple automatic zigzag settings but had few knobs and settings to mess with. They typically came in trademark cream and gold, with gold accents.
The Deluxe models that featured automatic zigzag stitching quickly became the most famous Nelco models. These machines sold from the 1960s into the 1970s, though it’s hard to find exact dates for individual models!
A couple of the Deluxe models include the 2311 and the SZ 217.
Later models from the 1970s tend to have boxy, creamy exteriors with lots of stitching options to choose from. Ome feature be extensions to make quilting easier, too!
Nelco Primavera and Supernova
Nelco got into quite a bit of trouble by marketing the Primavera and Supernova models, which straight-up copied the names of popular Elna and Necchi models at the time. Today, few (if any) of these models exist, though you may occasionally find one for sale on Etsy!
Lawsuits filed in the 1960s suggest that these models were sold in the 1960s and 70s, but no records truly verify this.
Nelco Sewing Machine in Cabinet
Finding a Nelco sewing machine in a cabinet has pros and cons. First, it may mean you get a model with very cool knee controls! Today, usually only high-end machines like Berninas come with this feature.
The downside is that Nelco cabinets do not have a lot of monetary value on their own and will not necessarily make your machine more valuable for resale. However, if you can find a cabinet in good condition, it gives you a perfect workspace to house your heavy Nelco machine as you use it!
If you do purchase a Nelco with a cabinet, look for a cabinet with a smooth, shiny wooden surface. Avoid a cabinet with scratches and chips or rusty knee controls.
Are Nelco Sewing Machines Good?
By and large, vintage Nelco sewing machines have a reputation as solid, user-friendly machines. Many Neclo models look quite a lot like the sleek, sophisticated Necchi models they mimicked, though Nelcos typically have fewer functions. Most Nelco machines contain excellent Japanese manufacturing and solid metal parts, as well.
Many all-metal sewing machines make quite a racket as they sew, but Nelcos in good condition actually sew very quietly.
Users point out that vintage models made before 1970 often weigh a ton due to the solid metal inside! Of course, this holds true for most mid-century sewing machines, and it also indicates a nice heavy-duty ability to sew through most kinds of material.
Depending on the model, a few Nelcos suffer from constant tension issues as well.
Later Nelco models circa 1970 ad 1980 probably have aluminum or plastic frames and may contain some plastic parts, though, so you will want to use discretion when shopping for these models.
Today’s sewers seem to disagree quite a bit over the quality of midcentury Japanese sewing machines. Some sewers love them and use them for multiple decades without issue. Others claim that these “knock-off” models lack the elegance and complicated functionality of European brands.
Nelco Sewing Machine Value
Despite the huge impact Nelco sewing machines had on the American market, they have fallen into obscurity and often cost less than $100 today! You can find some used Nelco models selling for as much as $400, but more commonly, they sell for well below $100. In fact, a quick search on eBay may turn up Nelco models selling for as little as $15!
Several possible reasons for this lack of monetary value spring to mind. First, Nelco never became a hot collector’s item like many Singer or Bernina models. In the world of antique and vintage items, the market determines the cost of any item.
Second, Leon Jolson did not make Nelco models himself and instead had them manufactured overseas in Japan. Collectors often view mid-century Japanese sewing machines as generic and mass-produced rather than as something unique or special.
All that aside, Nelco sewing machines continue to hold their value as usable tools, even if they do not have a great resale value!
Nelco Sewing Machine for Sale
You can find Nelco sewing machines for sale on eBay, Etsy, or Amazon. Hundreds of thousands of these vintage machines were sold to the American public during the 20th century. This means that you will probably have good luck finding models for sale at yard sales, thrift stores, or estate sales today!
If you’re in the market for a Nelco machine, make sure you follow the basic guidelines for purchasing any used sewing machine.
If possible, visit the machine in person and plug it in. Make sure it turns on and runs! If you live far away from the seller, ask them to send you a video demonstrating how well the machine sews through thick fabric.
If you prefer to purchase off of a website like eBay, read the product description carefully. Sellers have to follow lots of rules and usually take care to state whether or not machines still run.
If you bring home a vintage Nelco, you will probably need to give it some TLC before you can expect it to purr back to life. All-metal sewing machines need careful oiling and cleaning, as things can gum up and freeze when left unused for a long timespan!
Nelco Sewing Machine Parts
You can easily find Nelco sewing machine parts today even though the company no longer exists. Try eBay or Etsy, call your local vintage sewing machine repair shop, or even visit specialized online sewing part stores such as this one.
For example, a quick search on eBay will turn up a huge range of Nelco parts such as needle plates, thread tension assembly, race cover assembly with screws, and even cam assembly for models that use cams for fancy stitches!
The trouble with installing replacement parts yourself is that it is not so easy to find Nelco manuals or advice for how to make repairs.
Nelco Sewing Machine Manual PDF
Finding a Nelco sewing machine manual or PDF for downloading may get complicated. You can’t reach out to Nelco’s customer service since the company no longer exists! On top of that, the relative obscurity of Nelco machines means there is less popular demand for the manuals than you would find for a brand like Singer.
So, how do you go about finding a manual? Sometimes sewing enthusiasts will post digital manuals online through sewing-themed chats and forums. You can always join a forum and ask for help!
You can also sometimes find old manuals on eBay or Etsy. Plus, you can find some Nelco manuals for sale for around $10 on sites like this one.
Many Nelco models have simple, usable functions that look a lot like many other generic mid-century Japanese sewing machines. This makes learning how to use them a bit easier, at least!
That said, you always want to have the manual that applies to your specific model to learn what to oil, how to thread, and how to set up your machine.
How Do You Use a Nelco Sewing Machine?
You can use a vintage Nelco sewing machine for most basic garment making or quilting tasks. The great thing about these heavy-duty machines is that they can sew through pretty much anything!
One great way to get tips for using your Nelco machine is to search Youtube. Just make sure you plug in the model of your specific sewing machine!
You should always refer to your sewing machine manual to learn how to thread the machine. That said, most Nelco models feature a simple thread path.
- Turn off your machine for safety reasons.
- Turn the handwheel toward you, raising the needle. As you do this, you will notice the thread take-up lever rise out of the sewing machine arm.
- Insert a spool of thread onto the spool pin. Many Nelco models have vertical spool pins rather than the horizontal pins you see on modern machines. Make sure you have the felt circle installed beneath the spool to keep the thread in place!
- Next, follow the thread guides. Your manual will provide a numbered sequence for this, but you can also easily follow the metal loops and hooks, making sure to snug the thread into the tension discs as you wrap it down toward the needle.
- Thread the needle from left to right.
What is the Most Reliable Brand of Sewing Machine?
Most of these sewing machine companies have existed since the 1800s and have earned a lot of respect in the sewing community for providing consistently high-quality machines over the years.
Nelco sadly does not make this list, as it featured knock-off models rather than originals. That said, Nelco machines do have a good reputation for consistent, durable operation!
Nelco Sewing Machine Review
Made in Japan and sold under a contested American brand name, Nelco sewing machines have a bit of a sketchy past! They do not have a high dollar value and there is not a strong collector’s market for them, either.
Despite that, these machines represent an important part of American sewing machine history. They brought quality sewing machines to the general public at an affordable price. Today, sewers consider them solid workhorses.
Is a Nelco model the best sewing machine for you? This depends on many factors. If you like to do fancy embroidery stitches or computer-programmed quilting, you need to look at a brand that sells modern sewing machines today.
If you like vintage sewing machines, though, Nelco targets quite a few of the best features of vintage machines! Nelco models come in a variety of very cool, sleek metal-and-chrome designs. They contain solid metal parts and consistently excellent Japanese manufacturing. With proper care and cleaning, they will run reliably for many decades to come!
Leon Jolson used his experience working for the Necchi sewing machine company to launch a line of sewing machines under the Nelco brand name. Though Jolson faced multiple lawsuits for using Necchi and Elna sewing machine designs, he achieved such great success that Nelco sewing machines made up a quarter of all sewing machine sales in the United States at one point in time!
Today, vintage Nelco sewing machines have a decent reputation for durability and consistency. They sell very cheaply but contain solid metal parts and operate smoothly and quietly.
Have you ever seen a vintage Nelco model? What did you like about it? Leave a comment below to let us know!