Bernina 217 Review

A while back, I reviewed the Pfaff 138--a highly versatile industrial machine capable of both straight and zigzag stitches. Today, I'll cover the Chandler 217, often considered one of the kings of versatility, this is one the most sought after industrials due to its amazing build quality and feature set. As a bonus, I'll be doing a comparison between the 138 and 217--two of my favorite industrials.

Those of you familiar with Berninas, may recognize this as a rebadge of the 217 industrial. Built in Steckborn, Switzerland in the 70s, the Bernina 217 was the top of the line offering in sewing tech, but high cost and limited sales prevented it from flourishing. It was later rebadged both as a Chandler 217 and an Adler 1217 and due to increasing demand, can still be found in production today as the Global ZZ 217.

The 217 is a high speed, rear loading, vertical rotary hook machine capable of straight, zigzag and decorative stitches through an external cam box. The cam device was actually an optional add on, so while vintage 217s are relatively rare, 217s with cam attachments are even more so. I don't know the exact production numbers, but I stumble across one of these only once in a blue moon. They are far more rare than the Pfaff 138s which in turn are much less common than the Singer 20u. These get scooped up the moment they appear on craigslist, so consider yourself lucky if you manage to get your hands on one of these. Like the Pfaffs, the parts on these are prohibitively expensive, so you may want to think twice when purchasing a non working 217. Hopefully the availability of the Global 217 will drive the cost of parts down.

While I don't know the exact history of the 217, I do know that the Bernina 850 was also sold at around the same time. As you may know, x50 series are 3/4 sized rotary hook artisan industrials that offer an internal cam stack with 20 built in decorative stitches. While they have lower speeds and are much less robustly built than the 217, the convenience of the internal cam stack is really hard to beat. I suspect the x50 sold much better than the 217s and were responsible for their limited production run.

According to its previous owner, this particular Chandler was purchased in 1978 by her friend, a seamstress, who gifted it to her when she had to move out of state. I was fortunate to have acquired this beauty in near pristine original condition with a full complement of original cams, accessories and attachments.

The high speed rotary hook is designed to handle 2500+ stitches per minute, making it a bit faster than the Pfaff 138 (2000 spm) and does so doing straight, zigzag or cam stitches. As with all industrials, the top speed is easily adjustable by changing your belt and pulley size. The smaller the pulley, the greater the torque and the lower the top speed. The 217 features a rear facing, vertical hook located in a somewhat awkward position as shown below. You need to reach under and around the hook gear box to access the bobbin case. While it takes a little getting used to, with a little practice, you'll be popping the bobbin in and out by feel in no time.

Perhaps one of my favorite features is the amazing set of feed dogs on this machine. The Chandler uses a six piece feed dog that is unmatched by any other vintage zigzag machine I've worked with. Combined with the adjustable presser foot pressure, this machine is capable of handling lightweight fabrics to medium materials equally well. It's worth noting, that the 217 class machines come in a number of zigzag width varieties. This Chandler has a 6mm zigzag width, There are 8mm and 12mm zigzag varieties as well. Like the Pfaff 138, the problem with the extra wide zigzag, is that you'll have trouble finding high shank feet that fit this profile. Thankfully, this machine came with a set of original feet including a satin foot, buttonhole foot, zipper feet, compensating feet and a handful of others.

Like the Pfaff 138, the 217 features a dual upper tension but I'm not a fan of how the check spring threads. It may just be that I'm used to my Pfaff, but when threading the Bernina, I've more than on a few occasions, had to rethread the check spring due to the wide width of the channel on the check spring guide. It's not a big deal, as once the machine is threaded, the thread stays put, but on initial threading, there is a tendency for the thread to slip out of the channel unless held in place.

The stitch width and length mechanisms are ingeniously designed. Here's where the 217 really shines and has got the Pfaff beat hands down. Stitch width is granular, and can also be locked in place by a set of stoppers. You can either use the stoppers to cap the minimum and maximum width you'd like to toggle between, or you can lock the stitch width in one spot. This is super convenient as it enables you to effortlessly adjust the width of your satin stitches on the fly.

Additionally, there is a needle position lever located conveniently above the stitch width mechanism. It even has a setting for buttonholes. The Pfaff 138 needle positioning mechanism is clunky at best. Read the full Pfaff 138 review here.

The stitch length regulator is one of my favorites as it utilizes a simple push down reverse instead of a flip up reverse of the Pfaff. 

Additionally, the Chandler also features a fine stitch length adjustment dial that gets activated by pushing in a metal stopper. This is used to finely tune in the length of your satin stitches.

Both the 138 and the 217 can be set up with a chain pedal reverse! To install, tilt the machine back and look behind the stitch length regulator for the small metal hoop shown below. I didn't install a chain reverse on this Chandler as I primarily use it for long satin stitch runs.

It is evident a lot of thought went into the design. There are tons of niceties such as the thread take-up finger guard, belt guard as well as the standard, hands-free knee lifter.

Accessibility is also top notch. Like a domestic, you can access a lot of the machine without a screwdriver. All you need to do is loosen a thumbscrew to remove the nose plate. While the 217 is not a self-oiler, there are quite a few felt drip pads strategically placed in the head to keep moving parts lubricated. The top swivels off to the side to reveal the internals. There's quite a bit going on in there due to the additional cam mechanism in the back. Unlike the Bernina 950 and other x50 industrial Berninas, there are no nylon gears to be found. This baby is solid! Much like the Pfaff, all the oil ports are marked in red.

Perhaps the biggest reason why the 217 is so popular is due to its optional cam attachment. This isn't an attachment you mount onto the machine yourself, it needs to installed by a mechanic as it integrates with internal gearing. However, because it is external, you need to activate it via a series of levers on the back of the machine.

The metal cams have two mounting grooves in them. Secure one of them onto the metal pin on the external cam shaft while ensuring the numbered side of the cam faces outward before you screw on the stopper.

To enable the cam system, you need to do two things. First engage the cam follower by raising the lever on the left side of the cam box. Remember, the same applies in reverse when removing a cam. Never remove the cam when the follower is engaged!

Next, flip the lever on the right side of the cam box to activate! The stitch pattern is now controlled by the cam while the width of the pattern is adjusted by the stitch width regulator.

Here are a handful of stitches made by my stack of cams. You'll recognize these as the same patterns the x30, x40 and x50 Berninas make. I can't stress how fast and smooth this machine is. While not a fair comparison, the 217 makes my domestic Bernina 730 Record feel like a snail, a toy snail at that! Even the highly praised Bernina 950 Industrial feels flimsy in comparison. Stitch quality is excellent and this machine feeds very straight thanks to its feed dog configuration. I can practically let go of the fabric and it will produce a straight satin stitch, hands-free. 

Despite the heaping amounts of praise I have for this machine, there is a downside, it is loud compared to my Pfaff. In fact I liken the sound to a super charged Singer 301a. The whirring is completely understandable, given the large amount of moving parts especially with the installed cam system. As a result of all the gearing, the balance wheel on this machine doesn't turn nearly as freely as the Pfaff either. 


  • High speed, rotary hook
  • Adjustable presser foot pressure
  • Superior 6 feed dog system
  • 6mm zigzag
  • Elegant stitch width control
  • Chain pedal reverse capable
  • Micro stitch length adjustment
  • LCR needle positions
  • Accepts cams for decorative patterns. 20+ patterns available
  • Accepts high shank feet
  • Uses 287 WH needles
  • Knee lifter

So what's the verdict? This is hands-down, the most fully featured industrial lockstitch machine I've worked with. No doubt the Chandler 217 is a pleasure to sew with, but surprisingly, I still prefer my Pfaff 138. While I may be biased because I've grown accustomed to the 138, it wins out slightly due it's smoother and quieter action. On the flip side, if I had to choose only one machine to keep, it would be this one, due to the extra functionality offered.

Which would you choose?