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Now available in our online store: Featherweight 221, The Perfect Portable, 3rd edition. The ultimate Featherweight book, at a discount!
What is a Featherweight?
The Singer Featherweight portable sewing machine is a model made by that company between 1933 and 1964. The machine (model 221), adapted from an earlier portable, the Standard SewHandy (which company was bought out by Singer) weighs about 11 pounds and has been found to be an ideal machine for quilters and other sewers to take to classes or "on location." Very quiet and sturdily made with all-metal parts (mostly aluminum), the Featherweight sews only straight stitches but it sews them very well. Even the oldest machines, if they've been cared for, still sew wonderfully.
The Featherweight came in a standard black model made in the U.S. Those made before World War II (and apparently a few after the war) had an attractive "Egyptian Scrollwork" pattern on the faceplate, while most of those made after the war had a simple, striated pattern of vertical stripes. They were further decorated with gold decals and the Singer name, but nowhere do they say "Featherweight" on them.
In Great Britain a white Featherweight was sold, which was made in Scotland. Some "mint green" machines are also rumored to have been made, but opinions vary over whether this was really a green machine or merely a white one with a green tinge to the paint. Larry Oliver, a Featherweight collector on Compuserve, wrote to me: "I have seen a tan machine and a mint green machine (definitely NOT white). They were Great Britain models. The rarest variant I have seen belonged to an old fellow who owned a Singer store in a small town for 50+ years. He had a government contract model made during WW2. The finish was mil-spec black crinkle non- glare. These were used, according to him, by our armed services. He lost the case but said it was the same case as the commercial model without the leather covering. It was Army green with the appropriate military issue numbers stenciled on the box. I have not doubt his story was true, but I've never been able to confirm it. The machine 'looked' right though and did not appear to be a re-paint job." A black machine was also sold in Great Britain. Darla Trenner has done some research on these unusual Featherweights, and has posted her findings at her "Crinkle and Blackside Machines" website at http://home.cfl.rr.com/featherweight/
Both American and British models are characterized by a fold-up extension of the bed, or platform, to add more sewing surface on the left side of the needle. The fold-up aspect allows the machine to be tucked into an almost cubical wooden case, along with its attachments.
One variant is a model made for a short period in which the bed is detachable to allow "free-arm" sewing of cuffs and darning.
The Featherweight is an excellent machine for piecing, but it is not recommended that machine quilting be done on it due to the possibility of burning out the motor. Having said that, many quilters on the internet report that they successfully machine quilt using their Featherweights. Since the feed dogs cannot be lowered, it is necessary to cover them up with plastic or cardboard in order to machine quilt. Some Singer attachments, such as the buttonholer, come with a feed dog cover that can also be used for machine quilting.
Featherweights come with six basic attachments: the foot hemmer, the adjustable hemmer, the multiple-slotted binder (which the manual says will apply unfolded as well as commercial folded binding), the edge-stitcher, the gatherer (for gathering and shirring), and the ruffler. The best instructions on how to use these attachments are in the Singer manual.
Featherweight users also report that they have successfully used the "Little Foot" on their machines, as well as some brands of walking feet. The Featherweight is a low-shank machine.
A list of some Singer attachments and their part numbers is at the end of this file.
How Do I Get a Featherweight?
Featherweights, in spite of their cult status, are not rare. A great many of them were made and are still available through used sewing machine dealers, from individuals, at garage and estate sales, by mail order, and through sellers on online services and the internet. Since the machines are not labeled "Featherweight" they are often advertised for sale as "old Singer" or "antique Singer" machines and some detective work is necessary to sort the Featherweights from the other antique machines being sold. The light weight and the fold-up platform are two indicators. Very diligent shopping should turn up one or more Featherweights in your local area, and they've been known to travel in packs, and reappear miraculously out of grandma's closet or attic! :)
How Much Should A Featherweight Cost?
I have seen Featherweights priced as low as $40 and as high as $600. I recently saw a rare "free-arm" version of the FW for sale on America Online for $1750! Prices at either end of this range are rare and most times you see them priced between $300 and $500, depending on condition. You will probably pay more to a dealer than you will at an estate sale, so it is worth combing the weekly Advertiser or classifieds and doing some driving if you want a bargain.
Pricing criteria vary from location to location but are based on the running condition of the machine and its appearance, as well as its rarity. For run-of-the-mill Featherweights, one dealer in Atlanta says he prices his mainly based on how good they look, i.e. the condition of the gold leaf decals and the paint job. Older machines will not necessarily sell for more than newer ones.
You should be able to try out the machine to see how well it sews, and you should make sure it's complete. One of the most frequently missing items is the bobbin case. Ideally your Featherweight will come with its original carrying case in good condition (broken latches and missing handles are sometimes a problem) and all of its attachments. Lack of these is reason to discount the price.
How Do I Date A Featherweight?
Determining the approximate date of manufacture of a Featherweight is easy if the serial number is still intact. The number, which is on the bottom of the machine, will be preceded by a two-letter code, beginning with A (for U.S.-made model 221 machines). Use the chart below to decode it.
The following machines were manufactured in Scotland, at the Kilbowie Plant, and thus are of the 221K (for Kilbowie) series.
White Featherweights which were distributed in the U.S. were made between 1968 and 1970. These were the last gasp of the Featherweight as a new machine. They may have a variety of serial numbers.
While the above tables provide approximate dates, it is known that some machines were made in years other than those indicated here. For instance my AJ series machine was actually made on November 18, 1949. Other Featherweight owners have told me of similar discrepancies in the dating of machines, including machines with scrollwork faceplates made as late as 1947 or 1948. (It is also worthy of note that changing faceplates is fairly simple, and some earlier face- plates may have been put on later machines by dealers or previous owners.)
If you wish to find out the exact date your Singer was made, and the place, you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Singer's Consumer Affairs 800 number: 1-800-474-4637 and provide them the serial number. Be aware that their records are not always accurate and some people have been informed by Singer that their Featherweight was not a FW at all, but some other model machine. So take what they tell you with a grain of salt.
Singer, through their dealers, can also make available some manuals, parts, and other information about these old machines. (My experience in trying to find a complete manual was that Singer referred me to their local dealer. The dealer closest to me here in Atlanta charged me $10 for a xerox copy of the manual. An original manual would have been $30.) The Singer 800 number is a general consumer number and can be busy, so be patient. If you are overseas beyond the reach of their 800 number, e-mail them at the address above.
Other Featherweight Information
The Featherweight is the only sewing machine I know that has had an entire book devoted to it (besides its own manual). Nancy Johnson-Srebro in 1992 published a slim volume entitled Featherweight 221: The Perfect Portable. Much of the information in this fact sheet is based on her research. The book also contains a reproduction of parts of the original manual for the machine, which is helpful if yours comes without one. (It does not contain the part of the manual about the attachments, however.) I have found the book especially useful for its troubleshooting advice on common operating problems of Featherweights. Without it I'd probably still have a FW jammed up because of a speck of thread caught behind the bobbin case.
Recently Nancy and her husband have published a new version of the book, greatly expanded with more history and lore about the Featherweight. The book is available in the Schoolhouse Enterprises Store, here at Planet Patchwork, at a discount!
Information on the Featherweight and other antique machines is also available at the following sites on the World Wide Web:
Sue Traudt of the World Wide Quilting Page has also started an internet maillist for Featherweight aficianados. You can subcribe to the Featherweight Fanatic list by sending your name and e-mail address to FWFanatics@ttsw.com. The list is available in digest form only and archives are available on a web page.
Featherweight Attachments and Parts
Compiled by Terry Sampson, Kristina Santilla, and the FWFanatics. Copyright 1995, all rights reserved.
(c) Copyright 1995, 1997 by Robert G. Holland. All rights reserved.
Featherweight Attachments and Parts List (c) Copyright 1995 by Terry Sampson and Kristina Santilla. Used by permission.
(c) Copyright 1995-2012 by The Virtual Quilt Company. All rights reserved.
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