“The first time I came across a featherweight was when my wife was buying a Pfaff sewing machine. Sharon, my wife, started quilting shortly before and her first teacher sewed quilts by hand, so consequently, she learned this way of quilt-making. Sharon wanted to work faster though, which brought her to buy a sewing machine. While we were at the store, I spotted what I thought was a toy machine on one of the shelves and pointed out to the owner that it was cute and fun. This threw him into a long tangent about how the machine wasn’t a toy, the Singer Featherweight history is one of a beautifully crafted and definitely trustworthy machine.”
That was how Dave McCallum, owner of Featherweight RX, described how he was introduced to featherweights when I interviewed him in September. His introduction was a little comical – mine was more accidental. I was interviewing Stasia for my series, Portrait of a Seamstress, when she mentioned that her mom uses her trusty featherweight day-in-and-day out despite the fact that she has a newer and more sophisticated machine. “My mother has an 80-year-old Singer Featherweight machine that’s in mint condition and has gold appliqué. She has a newer, fancier machine with tons of stitches and bobbins, which she uses for her bigger projects, but she always goes back to her Singer because she says that they don’t make machines the way they used to.” I had never heard about these machines before, and because I have a mind that’s constantly on the prowl, I looked into them more.
Once I started digging, I was amazed at what I found and kept finding. The heritage, the history, and the stories around these machines runs deep. In ever chapter of Featherweight 221, The Perfect Portable And Its Stiches Across History, Nancy Johnson-Srebro, the author, quotes letters from people around the world who received their machine as a Christmas gift or when they went to college. And their letters don’t vaguely describe their memory either, the people who wrote to Nancy vividly remember when they first got their hands on a featherweight. And the stories haven’t stopped – there are seamstresses today who own and regularly use a featherweight.
The Singer Featherweight Sewing Machine, also called Model 221, was first introduced at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. Themed the “Century of Progress,” the fair celebrated the 100 year anniversary of Chicago’s incorporation as a village. At the fair, the featherweight was considered a revolutionary machine, but this was not the first time a portable machine like it was made. A couple years earlier, The Standard Sewing Machine Company came out with the Sewhandy. Weighing 18 lbs and with a built-in motor, sewing light, and a fully enclosed lower drive, it was capable of not “walking” on a table or a shelf, which was a huge plus. At the time, treadle machines were becoming obsolete and electric machines had just come onto the market. Despite the advancement, machines were still heavy and more or less permanent – the machine head was installed into a cabinet. Mobility was a huge selling point for The Standard Sewing Machine Company and their advertisements stated, “Your Sewhandy and card table are all you need to do your sewing in the sunny room at any hour of the day.”
But the Sewhandy had its faults. Without a reverse stitch, the Sewhandy wasn’t capable of locking a seam at the beginning and the end, which is necessary for clothes to last multiple wearings and washings. Funny enough, the manufacturers of the Sewhandy didn’t think the reverse stitch would sell well, which is why it wasn’t offered. Another negative of the Sewhandy was that the machine was made with cast iron, which is more expensive and heavier than the featherweight’s aluminum body.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, The Standard Sewing Machine Company was sold to Ossan Manufacturing Company, and a couple of years later, in 1931, Ossan was sold to yep, you guessed it, Singer. This gave Singer the perfect opportunity to study and improve upon the Sewhandy’s faults. The biggest upgrade was of course, adding a reverse stitch, which allowed sewers to make clothing that lasted. Singer engineers also greatly improved on the size of the machine by adding a folding bed extension. They were able to add the extra sewing surface without increasing the weight significantly by using aluminum instead of cast iron for the machine. The folding bed extension increased the sewing surface to the left of the needle and was a hot feature for sewers who had to piece large sections of fabric together (quilters). Available in black (often incorrectly called japanning, not Japan), tan/beige, and white/pale celery (there’s a lot of controversy over the colors made), featherweights were a lot easier to oil than the Sewhandy, and this made maintenance a breeze and hassle-free.
Considering the time they were introduced, it’s an interesting paradox that the featherweight became a hit. Think about it – it was the beginning of The Great Depression and introducing a new product during a time when most of America was standing in food lines and struggling for money was risky. But even in a pitiful economy, buyers are willing to pay if the product is right. Light, sturdy, and easy to maintain, featherweights were dropped onto the market at just the right time and like the little train that could, they kept going and built up a solid reputation until their production ended in America in the early 1960s.
“Featherweights were built in an era when things were designed to last and so the owner could maintain it with little effort. Most modern machines won’t last more than a decade, but featherweights go and go and continue to go. They have a nasty habit of not wearing out,” said Dave.
Dave, you’re absolutely right, but I have to add to your statement. Singer once advertised that the featherweight has “probably been put under more Christmas trees than any other portable electric in the world.” Physically speaking, featherweights last, and go, and do not break, but mentally and emotionally, featherweights stand the test of time. The memories that are ingrained in people, when they got it, the wedding dresses that were made, the quilts that were sewn, are what keeps these machines alive and kicking as much as their needle.
Speaking of Christmas, there is one more Christmas tree to add Singer’s list – mine! When interviewing Dave, he mentioned that he had a fully restored 1956 Featherweight that was in perfect working condition and for sale. A beauty is how his wife described it. I’ve been good all year, but I wasn’t going to wait for Santa to snatch this offer – I bought it! It was shipped to my house in Florida so that on December 25th, I will open it with my family.
A special thank you to Dave for his help with this post and my new machine. He has a great website as well as book and DVD that is all about maintaining, restoring, and repairing featherweights. Please check it out!