Singer Featherweights: Tiny But Mighty

With the holidays in sight, you may enjoy this story, a version of which originally appeared on Etsy’s blog in December, 2012. Perhaps a Featherweight is on your Christmas list…

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Last year, my husband hinted broadly about giving me jewelry for Christmas. I’m a late-bloomer when it comes to appreciating fine stones and metals—decades ago I deemed an engagement ring an unnecessary expense and my wedding ring was the narrowest sliver of gold. Though I’ve come to appreciate a little bling—indeed, I now sport a sparkly “engagement” ring that I joke took me 30 years to get—I told my husband last year that while the object of my Christmas desire was indeed metallic, what I really wanted was a Singer Featherweight sewing machine.

I’m not alone in my fascination with these robust, 11-pound wonders. Around 2.5 million were manufactured from 1933 to 1964 in Elizabethport, New Jersey, Clydebank, Scotland, and St. John’s, Canada. Their sturdiness means they’re often passed from one sewing generation to the next. Compared with today’s high-end, computerized machines that include truly thrilling and time-saving features like automatic thread cutters, high-speed sewing, and 200-plus stitches, Featherweights are almost laughable—they basically go forward and back with a straight stitch—but that simplicity is part of their charm. It’s also part of why they’re still in existence.featherweight_portable_ad

“There are just a few things that go wrong with them and if there’s a problem, cleaning is often all it takes to get them running right,” says Roger Hicks, who teaches Featherweight maintenance classes at fabric shops near his Iowa City, Iowa, home. He notes that his students, mostly women who are used to calling in expert repairpersons and don’t think of themselves as mechanically inclined, are pleasantly surprised to learn they can maintain their Featherweights themselves. “There are a few little tricks I teach, but mostly it doesn’t take anything to clean ‘em up and it costs maybe a whole buck,” he says. “You just need some Singer lube, cotton balls, and Q-tips.”

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Roger got interested in Featherweights (also known by their model number 221) when his wife Colleen got one 16 years ago. The worn but still-running 1930s model was purchased from a man whose deceased wife had been a dressmaker and sewn on it for years. Colleen named it Helena, after its former owner. Today Colleen has nine Featherweights, including one made in the same year she was born; a white machine and a tan machine (these were manufactured near the end of the Featherweight’s run); and a coveted free-arm machine, the Singer 222. While she considers herself a sewing machine collector—Colleen’s Featherweights fill a lighted display case in her living room—her machines are more than decorative: she is an avid quilter and regularly takes a Featherweight or two to workshops and sewing retreats.

“They’re so reliable, and if you’re piecing quilts, you don’t need fancy stitches,” says Colleen, who notes that the machines’ hard-sided, black storage cases provide plenty of protection and can be easily tucked into a carimg_6862Indeed, today’s Featherweight owners appreciate many of the same qualities as the (mostly) women who purchased the machines when they were new: decorative accents like the gleaming gold decals and swirly art deco or striated face plates, and the fact that despite its diminutive size, a Featherweight is a real workhorse. Although the machines are limited to straight stitching, attachments make it possible to create buttonholes, ruffles, and hems. They’re light in weight, and the sewing platform’s fold-down extension enables those without a dedicated sewing room to easily set up on a kitchen table and then store their machine in a closet.

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There’s more than versatility that attracts sewists to Featherweights, however: their quiet motor makes stitching on one an almost meditative experience.

“That has to do with the quality of the materials they used and how tightly they fit together,” says Steve Pauling, aka The Bobbin Doctor, who repairs antique and vintage sewing machines in Minneapolis, Minnesota and notes that the early Featherweights are the quietest of the bunch. “The motors were top-quality and they used good bearings, armatures, and windings. Today’s machines are DC-powered, which means they’ve got strong power at high speeds but they’re not manufactured with heavy goods like the old machines. Mass and heaviness can dampen sounds—if it’s heavier, it’s smoother and quieter.”portable_featherweight1Steve says his appreciation for Featherweights is firmly embedded in their utility.

“Tools are important for every artisan, as is knowing how to resolve a problem if something is wrong,” he says. “I’m a sewer and do tailoring and it gives me such satisfaction to understand how my tools work and to be totally in sync with them. People are rediscovering the intrinsic value of wonderful old machines and getting out grandma’s to sew on.”

So that sparkly engagement ring? Yes, someday it will be passed along to one of my daughters. But so will the Singer Featherweight my husband gave me last Christmas.

How about you…do you own a Featherweight? What is it about them that you enjoy?

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54 comments on “Singer Featherweights: Tiny But Mighty

  1. Barbara says:

    I love my Featherweight. I love the sound when it makes its perfectly-formed stitches. Mine is a 222K (free arm), so I can lower the feed dogs. Free-motion quilting on it (so far I’ve quilted up to a 40″ square quilt) is an absolute dream!

  2. Lynne says:

    I love that it’s quiet enough that I can watch TV with my husband in the living room and still get my piecing/quilting done. Then, before I go to bed, I tuck it away for the night.

  3. Suzette says:

    I have my Grandmother’s Featherweight with all the original attachments. It was an anniversary gift from my Grandfather in 1952. My mom, my daughter and I all learned to sew on it. My grandmother was never a quilter but she did a lot of garment sewing on it and I remember her sitting at the table by the window where the light was good. While it doesn’t have all the fancy stitches and whatnot, it is a much less temperamental machine than my Princess Bernina.

  4. Little Quiltsong says:

    Loved hearing the history of these Featherweight Sewing machines. I don’t have one of these, but will have to keep my eyes open to one in future. I still have my mom’s old Singer sewing machine, that I first learned on, with the pedal power, and keep joking that when the power goes out, I can still keep sewing by kerosene light :)! To me it is a precious memory of days gone by!

  5. Maria Zook says:

    I learned to sew on my mother’s Featherweight and made lots of Barbie clothes. She still owns it and uses it for her mending, because it is so lightweight and easy for her to handle. As the only daughter, I love knowing it will be mine someday.

  6. skgordon20 says:

    Mine was made in 1949 and her name is Beverly (named after my mom who was married that year). I love them both, although both are a bit obstinate at times. For my everyday sewing, I use a more modern machine but I still love the old featherweight which seems in perfect condition.

  7. Gale says:

    I am a lucky girl, I got mine on ebay for just $150 and it sews beautifully. I have named her after my mom “Olive” and when I am not sewing with her, she decorates a shelf in my sewing room.

  8. Phyllis Brown says:

    I have my mom’s Featherweight that she purchased in 1940. I learned to sew on it as did my sisters. It works like a charm but what I love most about it is the connection to my mom. She is gone but her Feather weight is with me and reminds me of her whenever i use it as I remember, as a child, watching her use it. The case is bedraggled as was used a lot and moved a lot but the machine is still in excellent condition.I have no idea what year it is as I think Mom bought it used.

  9. piecrust says:

    My featherweight was born in 1937 and she runs beautifully. Sorry to say she isn’t used as much as I would like.

    • Linda L Cordonnier says:

      Do you know which model of FW that you have? Any suggestions of which one is more portable as I have an issue with carrying any weight?

      • Nancy says:

        All Featherweights are either 221 or the freearm 222. Both have nearly identical weights (11 lbs) and come in the same box.

  10. mabear29 says:

    I just got mine in October for my birthday. I love it. I can sit in the living room and sew my quilts while my husband watches TV. He has gotten interested in reading about them and cleaning them. Mine was made in 1939 and sews like a dream. We recently just purchased a second one as a Christmas gift for my 90 year old mother-in-law who is in an assisted living facility. She’ll have room for this little baby.

  11. Kathy says:

    My husband got me a1948 featherweight this year for my birthday. It is something I’ve wanted for a while but didn’t expect him to buy it for me. I really enjoyed sprucing her up and the sound of her stitching was music to my heart. The case she came in had some damage so I found a lovely soft carrier for her at a flea market for $6. I have 3 other machines so I really don’t use her but I do cherish her and the memories she brings to my life.

  12. Brenna says:

    I just bought one at an auction less than a month ago! Haven’t really had a chance to use it yet, took it into the shop to get it tuned up. Can’t wait to give it a try!

  13. I own a featherweight and also attended one of “Bobbin Doctor’s” presentation on repairing them. Our guild, The Minneapolis Modern Quilt Guild, had the Bobbin. Doctor as a presenter at one of our meetings. Excellent!

  14. Brenda says:

    You’re right about the quiet sound the FW makes and that’s the reason I leave my faster and louder Juki home when I go to retreats and sewing days.

  15. Barbara Esposito says:

    Thank you to all who posted and for this lovely history. Love hearing all of your stories about your “girls”. Thought I was the only one who named my machines! Have coveted a featherweight for quite a while now – my fear is one will not be enough…

  16. Mandy Laseter says:

    I now have 2 Featherweight machines. Sewing on these gives me such a sense of peace. It is indescribable. Just to think how many projects have been sewn on her. I have such a respect for its longevity. They are my prized possessions.

  17. Pris Phillips says:

    My featherweight’s name is Frannie! She was “born” in 1950. I was looking for a 1956 – the year I was born, but she was in great condition and a fair price, so she became mine!! I have two other machines – an elderly Viking named Victoria, and a new Janome Skyline named Sylvia Jayne Janome! I use the Viking most often, as she’s the one I’m most familiar with. But recently I took a day long class and learned how to take apart my Frannie, replaced a couple parts, and gave her fresh oil and lube. The class was so helpful and my Frannie Featherweight now purrs like a kitten! I recently used her at a friend’s house to finish piecing my son’s queen sz quilt for Christmas! I later used her to attach the binding to that same queen sized quilt. She sewed through all those thick layers like a dream!! I will be bringing her to quilt groups and retreats more often now! She’s so easy to bring along – even on an airplane!! Love my Featherweight!!

  18. Pris Phillips says:

    Here is a wonderful website with tutorial videos on how to clean your machine, replace parts, etc. I also bought a 1/4″ foot for my Featherweight from these folks when I took their hands-on class recently. Wanted to share this wonderful website with you:

    https://singer-featherweight.com/blogs/schoolhouse/tagged/video

  19. Jan says:

    I have a 1951 Featherweight 221. I use it for piecing quilts & take it to retreats three times a year. I love the ease of carrying & the consistent stitches it gives me. The statement about cleaning taking care of most problems is exactly my experience! Mine was refurbished by & purchased from a talented lady who knows just about everything there is to know about these little, but mighty workhorses!

  20. Patricia Noller says:

    When I went to work in June of 1956 the first thing I bought my the singer sewing machine. I had grown up sewing on my Mom’s and I wanted to get one of my own. I made payments of $10 a month for a year. I still have it and it sews beautifully after all these years.

  21. Trina says:

    I do not own a Featherweight yet, although I have bid on a few, but I do have a 301 that I use for piecing my quilts. It belonged to my grandmother who taught me to sew. I love how sturdy it is with its metal parts and how easy it is to maintain. It hammers down a mean straight stitch.

  22. Betty Colgate says:

    I got my Featherweight in 1947 as a going to college gift from my mom. I used this at Michigan State for all of my sewing classes etc. This machine was used in Panama, Switzerland and all over the world. Even though I now own a Brother Dream Machine, I still use my Singer for making quilts. The tension is terrific and so easy to make the 1/4 inch seams. I purchased a reproduction table that is made for the Featherweight machine. It is the size of a card table and the machine fits down in and I have a great flat sewing area. I would not part with my Featherweight.

  23. Linzee McCray says:

    I’m absolutely loving these Featherweight stories. Thanks so much for sharing them, and keep ’em coming!

  24. Deb Enders says:

    I have a 1936 Featherweight, which I named “Rose” — the name came from the top names shown on the Social Security website for that year, as I wanted her named in one of the popular names that year — plus its one of my favorite flowers. The whole family now refers to her fondly as “Rose” and she goes with me on all my trips to visit our family. I’ve made curtains (42 running feet!) for a playroom, hemmed draperies, shown our grandchildren how to sew (they’ve both sewn on her and made things), and pieced many blocks for the annual quilt I donate to our Christmas party at work (I work at a large dental office). We have a White Elephant gift exchange, and there’s always intense interest when someone thinks they’ve got the right package that would hold the quilt, and then the following people who steal it away till we hit the third person to keep it. Absolutely adore this machine and if my daughter continues to show interest in sewing, I’m going to be looking for another Featherweight for her in the future…. Deb E

  25. quiltingtn says:

    I have a 1938 Featherweight 221and she has such a beautiful stitch. My husband bought her for me last year. I had been looking for an affordable one for 10-12 years. I own 3 other vintage machines, but my FW is my favorite. Great for piecing quilts.

  26. charlotte m. says:

    My featherweight has no name, but if she did it would be Ruby, after my Grandma Ruby who was her first owner. She lived with us when I was a child and she and my mother used it all the time to make clothes for the girls in the family and curtains whenever a room was redecorated. I learned to sew on her when I was 10. I don’t remember now how I came to be the owner, but I think my mother must have given her to me when my Grandma Ruby became ill with dementia and could no longer sew. I made clothes for two of my sisters and myself as a teenage on this machine. I have since taught my daughters to sew on it as well, and although they don’t sew much at all anymore, I am saving this beauty for my granddaughter who is only 10 months old. She will be the fifth generation to use this 1948 machine and I couldn’t be happier to pass it on down some day. I still have the case and all the attachments that came with it.

  27. Wendy T says:

    I don’t have a Featherweight, but I do own a Singer 201-2 manufactured in 1950. A friend got it from her MIL and she was going to donate it to Goodwill, when I happened to spot it in the donation pile in her garage. With the help of another friend, we brought it back to my house. It’s in top notch condition, just a wee bit of wear but otherwise the motor hums and the decals are intact. I’ve named her Doris after Doris Day. I have all the feet and recently found the buttonhole attachment on Etsy. The 201-2 is reputedly the Cadillac of sewing machines in the vintage Singer line, though it’s not portable like the Featherweight. Having the 201-2 has lessened by desire for a Featherweight, but if one jumped onto my lap like my beloved Doris did, I wouldn’t say no!

  28. Anne Horwell says:

    My Christmas present last year was a beautiful 222k Red S, and I am besotted! She sews and quilts beautifully and the tiny free arm is so useful for little things. I also have a white one. Although I do use my modern machines, a few hours with one of these is always a special time!

  29. Robin says:

    My first featherweight, a black one, was a free gift from a lady I was purchasing my used longarm from. She said I have this old machine in the barn, if you are interested, I will give it to you. Can you believe? I was definitely interested! I think I was more excited about that than the longarm. LOL! then a couple years ago a good friend found me a white one which is from 1964, my birth year and I love it as well. They both sew like a dream!

  30. Sarah says:

    I have owned 3 FW’s. The first was a Centennial model (1951) that had been used hard and was in rough shape, but she still purred like a charm. I sold her to a guild member who would donate it to a group going to Central America on a mission trip. The second I inherited when my MIL died, mainly because I bought it for her in Paducah when she forgot her checkbook. I sold it to a friend who did not have one because I had already bought another one. They have all sewed beautifully and I don’t intend on getting rid of my current one as I have had it for years now. I use it occasionally but not as often as I should. Love all my machines for various reasons, including my people powered machines.

  31. Fran says:

    I bought my first 221 at auction a few months ago and tuned her up myself. She runs great. Next one i got at auction was a Spartan. I understand she was made in the UK. She weights a bit more than the 221 and is awaiting her tune up. Along with the second 221 I got just a few weeks ago.

  32. pat says:

    I just got one….it makes me so happy, and Bernina is jealous.

  33. Diana W says:

    I own several of these great machines. 3 black and one white one. I sew on all of them . I love each one equally. I really want a tan one for my collection but have not found it yet. I will persevere and find one eventually. Love these babies!

  34. Sandra B says:

    My Featherweight was bought new in the late ’40’s by my mom….it is the machine I learned to sew on, and I still use it….I am mostly a hand piecer, but when I do use a machine, I always go to this one because the stitches are perfect! Love it!! Mine is black, with that same case shown in a couple of pictures in this post…It also has a card table with a piece that pops out and the FW sits down in it, putting the sewing surface at the same level as the top of the table…. I don’t use the table much, but would not part with it…. This machine sews rings around my Pfaff…

  35. amq97 says:

    Marvelous straight stitchers!! Love them, use them, and sell them too. My friend is ready to part with her white Featherweight for Christmas money!! Allison in Plano, TX allon0711@yahoo.com

  36. Joyce Mulloy says:

    At the time I have three of them, two blacks and one white. I absolutely love them. One stays in my car for classes, retreats and just in case a friend wants to sew. I have had about 20 or 30 go through my hands. I would buy them at garage sales and I kept a list of girls in my guild, when I would find one I would call the next one on my list, tell her much it was going for and if she wanted it, I would get it and take it to her.
    One that I purchased, the young girl said it was her Mothers. She asked for a sewing machine for Christmas and her Dad bought this toy. But that was ok because my Mom showed him, she made all of our clothes on it.
    I have other machines but I only use them only if I have to zig zag. I was watching a class on TV when the teacher was bragging about her new Bernina, she said the stitch was so beautiful, almost as good as the Featherweight. I had to laugh. As you can see I love my Featherweights.

  37. I have 8 featherweight’s they are all special to. Especially my pearl pink we just paint our self. I love small on the go I quilt all the time in my shop so they great for on the go. Ladies who I have sold featherweight’s to love the fact that they don’t weight much. I recently have been experiencing with my embroidery darning foot using it for free motion quilting very fun!!!

  38. INGRID says:

    i got my FW 221 last year. It is a dream to sew with. She is called Victoria, as that is where she was purchased from. My DH and I took a class to learn to care for her. My sister laughed at me as she told me when she was in school that was the machine she learnt to sew on. I have also a Bernina, Janome, an Elna (which is 39 years old), also my mother’s old singer in a cabinet, which I spent many many hours on sewing into the early mornings. You can zig-zag with the FW as there is an attachment, referred to as a Penguin, as that is what it looks like when used.

    • Nancy says:

      Just some info: The Penguin is a walking foot and not a zigzag foot (I have one). But there are also vintage zigzag attachments for the featherweight.

  39. Monka says:

    I have a FW 221 that I purchased on Craiglist in CA about 2 weeks before my sister came to visit me here in Colorado. It wasn’t classified as a FW, just a sewing machine and after chatting a bit, I found out that it was her mothers and she wanted it to go to someone who would use her rather than turn around and sell it for a profit. I paid $100 and when she took it to my sister, she had the table with her too. I also have a few other classic Singers and they’re all fabulous.

  40. LaNan says:

    I have my moms featherweight and another one. I call it my happy machine. Enjoy using it.

  41. Nancy J Goff says:

    I learned to sew on my mother’s Featherweight, which she tells me was given to her as a wedding gift from my paternal grandmother. I now have a 1937 featherweight and I love it! Although i have 5 other “vintage” singers, and a couple of contemporary machines, it is my go-to machine for all straight stitching. I enjoy cleaning and oiling it almost as much as sewing on it.

  42. Doreen says:

    My 1954 college graduation gift from my parents was a Featherweight—I was getting married in a few months. Over the years I made drapes, bedspreads, pajamas for my four boys and wild bell-bottoms for them in the ’60’s, much to their chagrin. I made formals and all my clothes. I took it with me when I moved to the Caribbean in the ’70’s. She went along in our travel trailer in the ’90’s. Although I have a fancier machine these days, she is still around in her own red & white Igloo cooler (the kind used for carrying transplant organs) which is a perfect fit. (The termites in the tropics ate the FW case.) I think I should get her out—–I have a lot of HST’s to sew!

  43. Laura Casey says:

    My featherweight is the same age as I am….. born in 1948 in Elizabeth, NJ…..her name is Betty, she runs like a top…..nothing better for a class where a machine is needed….it hums like a 57′ Chevy. I also have another that a friend gave back to me, once she got too old to go to classes…it’s cute too.

  44. tina says:

    My 221 was purchased on eBay about ten years ago. She came with her original handwritten sale slip that shows that she was originally sold to a lady named Patricia Johnson in Covesville, Virginia on June 18, 1954. Of course, her name is Patricia and she is just beautiful and a great little workhorse. I am gifting her to my sister this Christmas (we’ve got to keep her in the family 🙂 because my husband has just bought me a 222 (!!!) on eBay and she should be arriving in the next couple of weeks. My sister has always wanted a FW but doesn’t have the extra cash so I know this will be a special Christmas for her (I can already hear the screams!!!).

  45. Kathleen says:

    I have a featherweight. I’ve only experimented with it once so far. Bought it at a flea market. But the case, which isn’t in bad shape visually, has a smell that I just cannot get rid of. I have tried every trick in the “book” that I have found online and the smell will not go away. That’s the only thing that disappoints me!

  46. Brenda E. says:

    My story about Jeanie, my 53 FW. A couple of years ago I was remembering my mom had a FW when I was little and how I REALLY wanted one. Well mom said “you want mine?” I asked her why I did not know she still had it. The story is she gave it to my aunt to use in the 70’s and then she returned it much later and then mom just put it away. We went into the basement and she had it beside the furnace in a corner-I was worried about how it was stored-but it just needed a little tlc. It has lost some of its decals and there are places that are not shiny or are repaired but it is mine. By the way my grandfather bought the machine as a repo from a shop in 1958-the bill of sale is still with it.

  47. arden says:

    I have had many FW’s, beginning with a Centennial that my mom bought for my grandma. Then my aunt put an ad in a small town newspaper asking for one and she found a delicious late 30’s one for $20! I paid the lady more for it later. Both of those were sold and I am now sewing on one my grandmother’s sister had which had originally been hers! It’s a 1947 which is the year I was born. They are treasures and so quiet with a beautiful stitch. Treasures!

  48. Pat C says:

    My father-in-law gave me the Featherweight that once belonged to my husband’s mother. I’ve named it Betty Jean in her honor. I certainly treasure it. It was made in 1952, the year after I was born.

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