If you have any interest at all in vintage sewing machines you've most likely have heard of Singer's famous Featherweight. Don't let this diminutive half sized cutie fool you, this is one the most robust and capable portable machines on the market today. First introduced in the early 1930s, the Featherweight was one of Singer's best sellers for many years and has gone through a number of variations.
One of the iconic features of the 221 is its extension bed, a feature shared by its larger slant shank cousin the Singer 301a. At first glance, one might mistakenly dismiss the Featherweight as a toy, but with its ample extension bed, I find that sewing on the 221 feels little different from sewing on a larger machine. The extension bed comes in two flavors. The original black 221s feature a long bed while the later white 221K-7s, manufactured from the Kilbowie plant in Scotland, have short beds.
Like the 301a, the Featherweight is a straight stitch only, side loading rotary hook machine. Both machines share the same bobbin case and bobbins. Furthermore, you'll find that it feeds light to medium materials extremely well and handles curves beautifully. Read 301a review here.
The similarities between the 221 and 301a end there. The Featherweight is a low shank machine while the 301 is a slant shank machine. Since both machines are often discussed together, many people and eBay sellers mistakenly assume they accept the same types of feet.
And while the liftable extension beds are remarkably similar, the Featherweight does not have a feed dog drop thumbscrew next to the hook. In fact it cannot drop its feed dogs at all! Be aware that buttonholer attachments will require the use of a feed cover plate.
Unlike the fully gear driven 301a, most Featherweights are powered by a .4 amp external motor. The white ones sometimes come with a slightly stronger .58 amp motor. While on paper, the power output may seem a bit lacking, in practice the motor is more than enough to power this basic straight stitcher. On average these will run between 900-1100 stitches per minute once warmed up.
As you can see, internals are incredibly simple, but vary slightly between models. The black 221s are driven by by an internal gear while the white 221K-7s are driven by an internal belt. In practice this makes little difference, but I do find that the white Featherweights are quieter and slightly lighter due to the belt system (the shorter bed also reduces weight substantially).
There are several other practical and cosmetic differences between the black and white Featherweights. The white models have an integrated foot control while the black ones use the standard Singer 3 prong plug. Over the years, the bobbin winders, bobbin winder tensioners and light switches have come in a variety of different flavors as well.
One of my favorite features of the 221s and basically all of the black head Singers (99, 201, 301 etc) is their incredibly slim head profile. I build a lot of puppets, which often involves sewing in the round and in very tight spaces. Most of the older Singers have lights mounted in front of the machine, thus freeing up the nose space right next to the presser foot. Compare the head profiles below. On the left, is a Featherweight and on the right is the Elna Stella. The Stella features a sewing light right in the nose which extends the nose a couple inches to the left. This extra extension really gets in the way of sewing in the round. Nearly all non Singer machines, from Berninas to Kenmores have this lighting configuration.
See how the nose of the 221 is completely flat. Sewing in the round is easy peasy on this. Again, this is a highly specific and personal preference, your mileage may vary.
Needless to say, the build quality of this vintage Singer is indeed impressive. Constructed from a light weight aluminum, this machine weighs in at about 13 pounds naked. Too bad the lack of a handle means you'll be shlepping this in its carrying case. This adds an extra 5 lbs or so fully loaded making its practical weight comparable to the larger 301a.
The black 221s come with a black case and the white 221k-7s come in a mint green and white case. The white cases are slightly narrower. There are actually quite a few variations of cases. Some have accessory trays, while others do not. You can see below that the black case has a dedicated receptacle to stow the foot control while the mint green case does not.
Accessory wise, you'll find no shortage of low shank attachments available for your Featherweight. These range from rufflers, to tuckers, to rolled hem feet, under braiders, edge stitchers the list goes on and on.
The giant pile of attachments shown above is about 80% low shank. I think you get the idea! I'll do some articles on attachments in a future post.
The biggest complaint I have with the Featherweight is its tiny harp space. And while that is to be expected from a half size machine, there is an additional side effect that is slightly less forgivable. I have fairly large hands, and I have on more than one occasion burned the top of my hand on the sewing light! You can see below, the bulb is exposed and unshielded. Ouch!
Thankfully, the sewing light has its own switch so you can sew without fear of burns.
Overall, the Singer Featherweight lives up to its reputation. This irresistibly cute, perfectly portable straight stitcher is perfect for the space conscious sewer yet capable enough to tackle larger projects.
- Solid aluminum body
- Straight Stitch only
- Rotary hook
- Reverse capable
- Adjustable presser foot pressure
- Super lightweight at 13 lbs
- Accepts low shank feet