Singer Featherweight Portables
by Carolyn M Ybarra
SLEEK AND shiny with a simple, elegant, and compact design, the Singer 221 - nicknamed "Featherweight" - is the semi-precious jewel of the world.
For those who collect toy machines, it's too big, weighing in at 11 lbs 1 oz. (5.0 kg). For those who collect antiques, it's too new, having been manufactured in the United States between 1933 and 1964 (with the white-colored 221K version made in Britain from 1963-68). For modern seamstresses, it's too basic, sewing only a straight stitch without even a reverse setting on early models.
Even during the years of its manufacture it was sometimes ignored by the sewing public, as looking too much like a toy, and being too expensive for depression-era and wartime pocketbooks.
For modern-day quilters, the Singer Featherweight, like the baby bear's bed in Goldilocks, is "just right".
Quilt tops are pieced together from small scraps of fabric using quarter-inch seam allowances. Quilters, therefore, value a machine that can sew a straight lock stitch without the slight zig-zag that characterizes the straight stitch on most modern machines.
The featherweight, although constructed of aluminum and thus very lightweight, runs smoothly and quietly due to its well-balanced rotary-hook mechanism. This lightweight machine that comes with its own handy case (resembling and roughly the size of an old-fashioned cosmetics case or record case) is also valued for its portability, by those who attend classes and conferences with fellow quilters around the world.
Finally, its sleekness, elegance, and mechanical simplicity appeals to the design sense of women and men who appreciate the beauty of color, line, and texture in their quilts. Now collectors are starting to take notice, too.
While many existing machines were well-loved and thus well-used, Featherweights are by no means rare. Machines in good condition can still be found at bargain prices in garage sales and auction houses. Advertisements in quilters' magazines bring higher prices.
The highest-priced machines are in good condition with little wear on the gold leaf, complete with case, attachments, and original manual.
The predominant finish on the 221 is a shiny black. The 221K was black or a shiny white and has a shorter bed. A smaller number of machines in other colors exist, including a light tan color produced in Great Britain and a matte black produced in the United States.
The rumored mint-green Featherweight is apparently an alternate description of the white machine, which can have a slightly greenish cast.
Rumors of a red and/or blue Singer 221, reputedly distributors' premiums, have not been verified. It may be that these stories are based on the existence of colored versions of the Singer toy model 20.3
The Singer 221 has a fold-up bed which allows the owner to change the bobbin easily, and also makes the machine compact enough to set down into the carrying case.
The combination free-arm model 222K is a rarer find in the United States than it is in England. These were apparently produced in the Kilbowie factory in Scotland, between roughly 1954 and 1961.
The 222K has a removable-bed extension, for use when sewing pant legs and shirt sleeves, and weighs in about 2 lbs more than the model 221.
Cases are black, with leather handles on the older models and plastic on the newer. Cases for the white machine are white with a green stripe.
Older cases have an accessory tray that stacks on top of the machine, which is set down in the case.
The newer cases have a built-in side shelf for accessories and bobbins, and a place for the foot pedal on the inside of the case cover.
In addition to the cases, Featherweights were sometimes sold with specially-designed folding convertible card tables, with a removable section for the machine.
These tables are somewhat rarer than the machines, possibly because of their convertible design.
Officially called the Singer Three-Way Table, these were advertised as multi-purpose for use in sewing, card playing, and informal dining.
Four Featherweight-design variations include chrome flywheels and face-plate scrollwork on the earlier versions, versus black flywheels and a striated face-plate pattern on the later versions.
The gold leaf on the machine varies slightly in pattern over the years as well.
The early tension adjustment and throat plate are un-numbered, while the later tension adjustment is numbered and black rather than chrome. The later throat plate has seam allowance markings.
Dating of the model 221 is quite easy using the serial number stamped on the underside of the machine.
The Singer manufacturing seal on the front of the machine varied in design over time. The most- interesting designs were seals from machines marketed during various expositions.
The 221 was introduced at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, and a commemorative medallion exists on machines marketed at that event. There is a 1936 seal for the Texas Centennial Exposition, and a 1939 seal for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.
It is possible that special seals may also exist for the 1939 World's Fair in New York or for any of the expositions that took place in the 1960s while the 221 was still being manufactured.
Many 1951-52 machines carry a Singer Centennial seal, marking the 100th anniversary of the Singer Manufacturing Co. Most Featherweights have one of a few standard designs of an oval gold seal reading "Singer Manufacturing Company."
We quilters have an interest in keeping the special qualities of this "princess of portables" a secret to be shared only with those who love and appreciate the beauty and utility of a good mechanical design.
It was inevitable that antique-sewing-machine collectors would eventually discover the Singer 221, and we hope that, like us, you will cherish these machines and keep them from collecting dust in attics and basements. Happy hunting!
DATE-of-manufacture information has been
provided by the Singer Sewing Company of Edison, New Jersey, USA, from serial numbers taken from 272 machines in a 1996 survey by Krisi Santilla of the Featherweight Fanatics.
Serial numbers are stamped on the underside of the machine, and consist of two letters, followed by six digits (e.g. AD111111).
Using the letters only, you can determine place of manufacture and approximate date of manufacture.
I have indicated when Santilla notes new features being introduced.
AE 1935-37 numbered tension knob
AG 1941-47 black balance wheel
AH 1947-48 striated face plate
AJ 1948-50 case with side shelf
AL 1952-55 seam allowance gauge; gold-leaf pattern change
EH 1951-53 gold-leaf pattern change
EK 1954 seam-allowance gauge
There is evidence that EY and FA machines were made in Britain, probably until 1969, and that the JE was produced in Canada up until the early 1960s.
Editor's Note The K in model numbers - eg 222K - refers to any British Singer models made at Kilbowie, Glasgow.
1. Singer and Featherweight are registered trade marks of the Singer Manufacturing Company and/or the Singer Sewing Company of Edison, NJ.
2. Dating throughout this article is courtesy of an unpublished 1996 survey of 272 machines compiled by Krisi Santilla from information provided by members of the online Featherweight Fanatics group, operated by Sue Traudt. Manufacture dates for machines surveyed were provided by the Singer company. Nancy Johnson-Srebro, in her book Featherweight 221 The Perfect Portable (1992, Silver Star Publishing, Tunkhannock, PA), notes that the white machines were sold (but not manufactured) in the United States between 1968 and 1970.
3. Personal communication, Krisi Santilla, February, 1996.
4. Johnson-Srebro, 1992, p. 26.