What’s So Special About The Union Special?

Union Special


The Union Special, known to most by that name in the denim community, is the industrial sewing machine 43200G manufactured by Union Special. Originally manufactured in 1939, it was widely acclaimed to the point that it made the cover of The Needle’s Eye February edition of that year.

The release article published in the magazine proclaimed it to be the newest and finest edition of Edge Lock machines designed for hemming overalls, jackets and other similar garments. For the next 50 years the 43200G was ‘the’ go-to American machine and it’s distinct ‘rope look’ on the hem became the American industry standard.

However in the 1960′s Japanese denim manufacturers started aquiring these machine. In 1989, when Union Special stopped manufacturing them, it created a void in the market place for the ‘classic look’. Specialty denim shops in North America began trying to buy them up but the Japanese had effectively beaten them to the punch.

Union Special, The Needle's Eye - February 1939

So – what is it about the Union Special that makes it so special?

The saying: “They don’t make things like they used to” has never been more true. Before textile and garment manufacturers were shut down in droves here in North America and the machines that manufactured those goods were shipped to Asia denim was made here.

Old school American made denim is like nothing else being produced today. Maybe people are just nostalgic for denim that looks like our grandparents used to wear. More likely we are drawn to a certain quality that inexpensive machines with built in obsolescence can’t produce.

So this is where we are now. The limited number of machines that are still in operation need constant care and maintenance since the last machine was manufactured in 1989. When the last of the machines breakdown – we will lose a look that has been the signature of denim from the early part of the last century.

Many thanks to Doug Kanies at Union Special for all his help.

Tyson Breuer

Tyson Breuer is an award winning filmmaker based in Toronto and occasional warlock impersonator.

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  • Contrasted

    I never understood why Union Special can’t produce more of these machines.

  • FLDenim211

    or someone put them in reproduction I am sure that any patents on those things is gone by now. Make a new Union special

  • A Long-Time Reader

    There are many different models of Union Special sewing machines. The 43200G is just one particularly coveted model as it chain-stitches hems. Samurai Jeans has a floor full of different Union Specials that do everything from hemming to sewing waistbands and inseams, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/devan.prithipaul Devan Prithipaul

    …this article never said what was so special about the Union Special? it described it and said how they’re not making it anymore, but i dont see the relationship to denim in this article. i know a little bit about the relationship of the union special to denim but i hoped that this article would have given me more information and insight. im kind of dissapointed in this article. this gave me good history on union special but not its features or how to distinguish it or the brands that use it.

    • http://twitter.com/SelfEdge Self Edge – Kiya

      Look above at Mohsin’s response, there’s more information as to WHY the 43200g is special.

  • Jun

    OMG I can’t believe that some readers think that chain stitching can only be done on union special machine. I think Juki makes far more modern and reliable chain stitching machine than union ever can. Probably why they stopped making them cos they can’t compete. The only reason to be using this machine to do chain stitching is because of nostalgia. That’s all.

    Those who said otherwise probably never touched a needle before.

  • MOHSIN SAJID / ENDRIME

    There are a number of issues raised –

    1st the roping effect is caused by a fault in the machine, and its turner… there are 3 generations of the 43200G, all have this fault… The 1st gen versions were black… like most machines in 1939 onwards…

    Union Special, is now apart of Juki ! – Juki now have modern versions of this machine, like: Union Special 63900 – but these take up a lot of room – but are just as good… and fast ! of course the roping effect is less – ( as its a fault / mistake from the past ) but the machines can be tinkled, so there so roping… Ive been all round Japan, China and Turkey ( denim factories ) most have modern machines… but some of the brands like Kapital, and 45rpm, Big john, and momotaro, still use the 43200G… they are quite easy to get hold now, just in the last months over 15 43200′s have appeared on ebay… not that rare… i found a shop in HK which had 30 of them… all selling for 1800GBP each. The following month, they were all gone, and some ended up on ebay triple the price…

    Kiya ( self edge) found a dead stock mint 43200g 2nd / 3rd gen model, he quite rightly knew most of these machines are temperamental to use… and have been used non stop for 50 odd years – so wanted a brand new one for his store…

    Denim and garment production, there is a different machine used for every process – and Yes Union special / Juki / singer / Reece – ( are are too many ) all invented different machines, when ever a factory / supplier asked for a type of stitch, or sewing method, and its was viable… its a trend thing…

    You hardly see 3/16″ twin need seams anymore, but look back at 1930′s there everywhere…

    The trend like most in the denim world, many companies in the 1980s modernised there machines, most ended up again in China, japan and Pakistan etc.. and the fact most denim was now open end, the trend was fast cheap crap denim.. Having chain stitch hems ( which when broke) unraveled quickly, most garment manufactures, used lock stitched machines instead, and did not reorder chain stitched hemming machines…

    Since the resurgence of purest denim from mid 1990′s onwards- the hunt of the 43200g has been on the top of lists for every denim shop, and tailor shops… the japanese market were 5-10 years ahead, so cleaned up…

    In my work shop in London, i have over 15 pre 1950s machines, all used for different parts of construction. Having a chain stitched hem is must if you want to be considered top of the game… plus for the roping effect.

    I think what this article by Tyson Breuer ( thou is good) is missing some of these points. This is why is why theres luster for Union specials. For me, they were a standard, from the past. Plus they look amazing…

    • http://twitter.com/SelfEdge Self Edge – Kiya

      Mohsin, you should have written this article. :)

    • Kanok Wan

      Hi Mohsin, I like your reply! I am new to raw denim field, nice to meet you guys! As for my understanding, one of the “special” things to a 43200G was trying to have a pair of jeans “as same as” people’s grand parents have. Other than these I have no idea before seeing your reply ! Thank you! Actually I live in Hong Kong, have been search for this machine for more than 1 year locally, however in vain…Could you let me know the name / address of the shop ? Is it in Shum Shui Po ? Appreciate if you could advise. I am getting one for small workshop too. Thanks!

      • MOHSIN SAJID/ ENDRIME

        Hi Kanok Wan – message me on Facebook / Twiiter / instrgram – I will advise where that shop is in SSS