Raye loved playing dress-up so much that she went on to study costume and makeup for her BA, then got an MFA in surface design.
Singer's Portable Electric Sewing Machine
One of the most popular vintage sewing machines is the Singer Featherweight. This was the nickname given to a series of portable electric sewing machines that was manufactured in the mid-20th century. The nickname "featherweight" was not actually used on any of these sewing machines.
Compared to present-day, state-of-the-art machines, these still seem rather hefty, but contrasted with the monsters that preceded them, their portability at the time was extreme refreshing. The Featherweight series came in a variety of colors over the years including white, black, cream, tan and pale green. There were two basic machine variations, one of which was a flat-bed and the other was a "freearm" that allowed for easier sewing of hems and cuffs.
Although there are lots of modern sewing machines that are a lot more versatile than these classics, the sturdy work-horse nature of these simple machines is part of their great appeal to the sewing fans who love and collect them. Quilters are especially fond of them, and they can be a great gift for a teenage fashion designer too. For those who might be looking for a machine that has less parts to break or which is less complex just as a benefit for maintenance, these sewing machines are very attractive options. Those with limited space like the smaller size. If cared for regularly and properly, a Singer Featherweight can have many decades of functional, sewing life.
All the Bits and Pieces
My Featherweight machine is something I inherited from my paternal grandmother. According to some research I did online, this particular sewing machine was manufactured in a Singer factory in Elizabethport, NJ. The serial number shows it was part of a production run that started on January 12, 1950 and which ultimately included 40,000 machines. It's style number 221-1, a flatbed machine that's black with gold trim and highlights. It's funny how it was so modern for its age and yet sort of looks like a toy now.
It can sew a straight stitch and will run forwards or back, but that's it. No zig-zag stitch, no buttonholes, nothing but a straight line. You can set the stitch length to vary from 6 to 30 to the inch, but that's it.
Parts and Accessories
Although the Featherweight only does a straight stitch, it does come with a variety of specialty hemming and decorative attachments. There are several interchangeable feet available, to facilitate hemming, sewing ruffles and trim. Unlike modern sewing machines, there is almost no plastic involved in this one, making it extremely sturdy. The drive belt is rubber and the power foot is plastic, but otherwise I think the entire machine (and the bobbins!) are all metal. This is probably one of the factors that has contributed to the continued popularity of these machines.
The parts most likely to wear out are the drive belt and the power cord. For the drive belt, making sure it does not get damaged and keeping it lubricated as appropriate for rubber can ensure a long life. The power cord should be carefully coiled during storage and during use, take care not to unnecessarily bend or stress the cording. Most often when a power cord fails or is damaged, it is either right where it goes into the machine or down in the foot box.
A Guide to Featherweight Models
Care For Your Featherweight
Cleaning and Care of Your Singer 221
- Featherweight Facts
A great synopsis of the Featherweight's history and information about the machines.
- Singer Featherweight Sewing Machines
Selected used machines for sale including Freearms. Also provides manuals, hints and tips, dating and cleaning of machines.
- How To Clean a Singer Featherweight
Here is a great PDF document that can guide you through cleaning your Singer 221.
Featherweight Fans... Sound Off!
Sadie Sady on March 09, 2019:
I'm looking for a how to care for your White FW 221 machine. Also, I'd like to get a new white housing for my motor. It needs some cosmetic help and I thought I would just swap out the housing.
Irene Beeler on June 13, 2017:
My Featherweight, which I inherited from my mother, is used almost exclusively in my sewing unless I need zigzag. The buttonholer is excellent as is the pleather and some other attachments. The best machine!!
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on January 22, 2016:
Pauline, when it comes to wiring, you need to find an electrician who specialize in the old Featherweights.
Pauline Mellen on January 12, 2016:
I just inherited the 1951 Featherweight I learned to sew on that was my mother's. My sister had it for the last 21 years. I have cleaned and polished it all myself thanks to Google. It is absolutely beautiful.I can't wait to use it.
However I'm a little leary about the wiring inside the machine. Can this be replaced?
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on February 09, 2015:
My machine got loaned out a few times for just such a purpose...
Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on February 08, 2015:
They can be especially useful for people who attend quilting classes, mainly because they are so light to cart around.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on February 08, 2015:
Sally, I have known a couple of other women who felt like you do about these sturdy little workhorses. Quilters seem to collect them.
Sally Gulbrandsen from Norfolk on February 06, 2015:
I currently have two of these gorgeous little sewing machines. I can't resist buying them when I find one at a bargain price. I have bought and sold a few for a profit in the past but somehow I find them so very difficult to part with.
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on June 13, 2014:
This machine has held up in perfect working order while machines twenty years or more younger have failed. They really are amazing workhorses.
Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on June 13, 2014:
Loved seeing the pictures of your vintage Singer sewing machine. My sister and I learned to sew on my Mom's Zig-zag machine. We even had a replica toy sized black Singer sewing machine that really worked. Wish I still had that!
Raye (author) from Seattle, WA on June 12, 2013:
I've heard that they can get pricey. Mine can't be resold for very much because it's got my grandmother's Social Security number etched into it. Back before people stole them for fraud, people used to put them on things as a way of being able to ID their possessions.
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on June 11, 2013:
Up, Useful, and Interesting.
My sister was looking for one of these a few years ago to take to gatherings with other quilters, but the demand for them had pushed the price on Ebay and such way above her budget.
Glassfish on December 05, 2011:
Great hub! I love any information on Featherweight machines. I got mine at an estate auction in RI several years ago...I was so happy to get it for $150. In PA they were going for $350-400. I take it to my children's homes whenever I visit...they always need something mended. Thanks again for your very informative hub.
kam k on October 08, 2010:
Your hub reminded me of mom's heavy Singer heavyweight machine. It was so much fun watching her sew fabric and take over home projects. Thanks for the nice hub.
Jasmine on May 26, 2010:
I love Singer machines! I used to tailor leather jackets and miss the job sometimes! Nice to have come across this hub!
Cherri Brown-Jett from Richmond on May 12, 2010:
I have 2 featherweights that I use covered up for tables on my patio. They were my great-granfather's. I haven't used them to sew on in 18 years. Nobody even knows they are sewing machines. Maybe one of these days I can get back to sewing. I sure do miss it! Nice hub.
U Neek on April 22, 2010:
I am happy to say that my mom still has my grandmother's featherweight and I hope to inherit it some day!
trose on April 21, 2010:
I am a quilter and the majority of machines people bring to sew with are Featherweights. They are light and very portable. Quilters all own more expensive and modern sewing machines, but leave those at home because they are not as easy to travel with.
Every time I go to quilting, it's a sea of Featherweights. Most of them rave about their machine being a good "find" on ebay. They are definitely still popular today.
ladyjane1 from Texas on April 21, 2010:
Great hub and it takes me back to the Singer that my mom had it was so heavy but very decorative. It would look like a dinosaur now compared with today's sewing machines. Its nice to think about vintage items like this. Great share.
lightning john from Florida on April 21, 2010:
Great machines they are! You never heard about extended warranties back then. We didn't need them. Things were built right, and if your company produced junk, well then you went out of bussiness. That's the way it should be!
lightning john from Florida on April 21, 2010:
Very nice! I wish I had one. Probably made from good ol Pittsburgh steel. Back when things were made right.
My older sister has our grandmothers machine that ran from a foot pedal that you actually pushed up and down to turn the transmission.
jstankevicz from Cave Creek on April 21, 2010:
Mw wife has a couple of Featherwights, a classic black that she still uses from time to time in quilting and a bright red one that works well but is more of a show piece. They are collector items. You are fortunate to have a featherweight from family. Enjoyed your article.
Darlene Sabella from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ... on April 21, 2010:
I do remember this sawing machine, this is a great hub, and thanks for sharing a huge part of our history, sawing was important in every family back when. We would save up our money for a pattern and some fabric, great flash back. Thinks for sharing...
Hello, hello, from London, UK on April 21, 2010:
Thank you for a great hub. I have a Singer machine for years. In those days it was a portable one, although not too heavy but not featherweight.