(Originally published March 2015 in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #15. Article written by Rita Farro.)
The Singer Featherweight is to sewing machines what a 1957 Chevy is to cars. Both were mass-produced, both were considered masterpieces of engineering for their time, and both became classics — coveted by collectors 50 years after their manufacture. I knew the Featherweight was a highly prized vintage collectible. But I had no idea how relevant it was in today’s sewing world — until October 3, 2014, when I visited the Grout Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.
Grout Museum, Waterloo, IA.
The Museum was hosting a quilt retreat to coincide with their annual quilt exhibit (www.gmdistrict.org). The 2015 exhibit was What’s In a Name: The Soul of a Quilt. I stumbled into a room of women — all sewing on Singer Featherweights. I felt like a time traveler . . . . They looked like modern women. Their smartphones were sitting next to them . . . . But why were they all sewing on little antique black sewing machines? The Featherweight cult let me sew on one of their machines. The purr stayed with me. I did some casual research . . . I Googled it.I also bought the book Featherweight 221: The Perfect Portable And Its Stitches Across History. According to the author, Nancy Johnson-Srebro, the Singer Model 221, the Featherweight, made its debut at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. The midst of the Depression was an odd and risky time to introduce a new, revolutionary model of anything …. It should have flopped, but it didn’t. Singer’s Featherweight caught on, built its reputation, and the little marvel endured. The Featherweight was in continuous production until 1964 and Singer produced over 3 million units. The history was fascinating — but it didn’t explain why the Featherweight was still resonating with TODAY’S quilters. I called Robin Venter, the Exhibit Curator, at the Grout Museum, hoping she could explain it to me. Robin was attending the retreat with Featherweight owners who call themselves the “Vintage Sisters.” Robin said, It only weighs 11 pounds, so it’s the perfect portable. Quilters covet the impeccable straight stitch, and I love the sound it makes when I’m sewing . . . . With Ritaluck as my constant companion — one month after meeting the Vintage Sisters — I walked into an estate sale and saw a Featherweight, priced at $150. I screamed — “SOLD!!” But I was afraid to sew on it. I needed more information. Once again — TO THE internet! The first website was: www.Singer-Featherweight.com. However, on the front page, it says that the website has been sold to April 1930’s Featherweight Shoppe. I called the number on that website and met Carmon and April Henry.
a Singer Featherweight.
Ten years ago, April was a homemaker in Idaho who loved collecting vintage things from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, and finding a use for them in her home. Over time, she started selling her overflow on eBay. A Singer Featherweight soon found its way into April’s sewing room. She developed a niche selling attachments and accessories. Her husband was a mortician and after coming home from a long day at the funeral home, he would work well into the night, adjusting and cleaning Featherweight machines and attachments. Eventually, he quit his job so they could devote themselves to their internet business. They realized there was a huge demand for education. Carmon started teaching, and at his all-day Featherweight Maintenance Course (http://april1930s.com/school/singer-featherweight-workshop/), his students learn how to disassemble, oil, adjust, troubleshoot, etc. They now operate a full-service Singer Featherweight Shop. April says, It’s definitely a family business. When we find a Featherweight, Carmon spends 8-10 hours to clean and check everything. I sew the samples on every machine before it goes to its new owner, and our 11 year old daughter sews machine bed cushions. Our son, 15, is apprenticing with Carmon and loves it! April said, Graham Forsdyke was the main Featherweight purveyor for over 15 years — his name will go down in history books as the one that made owning, collecting, and servicing the Singer Featherweight a hobby all its own. He retired in 2014 and sold his remaining parts inventory to us — as well as his domain name (www.Singer-Featherweight.com) which has been the number one Singer Featherweight website for years. Graham felt our family was the perfect match to keep his purveying alive for future generations. We are very grateful and honored to be provided such a privilege. In the next few months we will be combining the two websites to build an exhaustive online Singer Featherweight Shop. During my internet research, I also met Nova Montgomery (www.novamontgomery.com). Nova is a quilt teacher/historian who is devoted to preserving and protecting Singer Featherweights. She sells a full line of parts and accessories, as well as beautifully serviced Featherweight machines.
Quilt Historian, Teacher and Featherweight 221 Specialist
Nova’s mission is to keep these little engineering marvels in working order for generations to come. She recently taught her highly acclaimed maintenance workshop (http://www.novamontgomery.com/singer-featherweight-221-maintenance-class.htm) at the International Quilt Market in Houston. It’s an intense six-hour PowerPoint Presentation with approximately 300 slides. People from all over the world ship their Featherweights to Nova for servicing. She has also developed a number of unique products. Nova created her Sew Straight Guide specifically for the Featherweight (though it fits and works on most sewing machines). Nova herself is an avid user and collector of Featherweights. She has a badged machine from the Century of Progress Chicago World’s Fair of 1934, and she is the proud owner of 13 other historic machines. Two of her machines get very active use. One lives on her farm in Arkansas, and the other is at her home in Texas. So — 81 years since its introduction — why is the Singer Featherweight still such a relevant, successful sewing machine? Maybe because it makes a sturdy, perfect straight stitch — as good today as it was in 1933. Some quilters believe they can look at a quilt and know if it was stitched on a Featherweight.
The Featherweight also owes its unprecedented, continued popularity to the internet. Prior to the 1995 launch of eBay — finding a Featherweight in working condition was like looking for a unicorn. You could spend your life going to estate sales/garage sales/flea markets and NEVER see one. But, thanks to the internet — with a few clicks on a computer — anybody can find and buy a Featherweight. Also, thanks to the internet — Featherweight parts and accessories are widely available on many reputable websites. The internet also provides a place for devoted owners from all over the world to share information. The Singer Featherweight Facebook Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/SingerFWGroup/) page, started with 300 and now has nearly 5000 members. Many Featherweight devotees are looking to the future and buying Featherweights for their grandchildren. It is the perfect little machine for a child to learn to sew on. My own Featherweight obsession could not have come at a better time because my Granddaughter is five years old, and she just started to sew. Lilly’s first project on the Featherweight was a ragged edge flannel quilt. As I watched her sew the squares together, I wondered about the woman who bought our Featherweight when it was brand new. What did this sewing machine mean to her? Where did she live? What did she sew? Who did she love? Because for me -- sewing is love. Women who sew make things so they can give them away. And teaching a child to sew is a gift that will last a lifetime. www.april1930s.com www.singer-featherweight.com www.novamontgomery.com