The Singer 221. Or featherweight. What’s it good for? Too small to be a proper sewing machine. Too expensive for a toy machine. Overpriced, no drop feed and straight stitch only. The lamp is in a silly place that burns your hand with a normal bulb. It’s just a fashion accessory.
All those issues affect the 221, but despite that, it still has widespread appeal. Are people really better off with something else?
Fans of the 221 say it’s so smooth and quiet. That it’s cute and cuddly, that it can do most things grown up machines can do, that it sews a great stitch and above all – it’s so portable. Having added a 221 to my collection – at a cost that hit three figures, I’m of the view that the 221 lives up to the hype.
Despite being one of the most popular Singers in terms of numbers produced, the 221 is a bit of an oddity in terms of its small size and therefore limited capabilities. The features that sold it between 1933 and the late 60’s – and continue to make it attractive today are:
• Very light weight. Just over 5 kilos or 11 pounds. For comparison, a basic modern Brother plastic sewing machine weighs over 7kg
• Looks – there’s no denying it’s cute and cuddly.
• Durability and maintainability. All the feet and accessories are still widely available and cheap. Most parts are still available to keep these machines going
• It performs brilliantly – a great and consistent straight stitch whilst being beautifully quiet and smooth.
• It’s ergonomically great – the flip up bed to access the bobbin case is a masterful piece of design and everything slips quickly and easily into a case no bigger than one that stores LP records. The hot bulb issue is easily overcome with an LED bulb.
• It has character – a rare thing.
I used this machine for my beginners evening sewing classes recently, where it performed perfectly. The sessions were held in a room full of computers, so there was very little spare desk space. No problem for the 221. It travelled to and from classes in a bag that I made from a pattern from Tammy at Archaic Arcane. I made the bag oversize so it would fit my Necchi Julia, so the 221 rattles around a bit, but it still works fine, protecting the machine from knocks and meaning the machine handle doesn’t have to take all the strain.
The item I chose to make at evening class was a shirt for my son. I found it very difficult – I unpicked most of the seams – and some of them more than once. I learned a lot though – which was of course the idea. The finished article still has mistakes in it, but they don’t show unless you’re looking for them. And in all the heartache and despair as I was making it, not once did I have anything critical to say about the machine. It just worked – stitching quietly, neatly and accurately. More than can be said for the other machines in the same class, which I regularly heard cursed . Those machines were of course all plastic and only a couple of years old – not the 62 years of the 221.
The 221 is a specialist that does some things brilliantly, but it has limitations as described earlier. It score badly on my “all rounder” scoring sheet. 221’s are expensive compared with other machines that can do a similar job – the Singer 185 for example. But what price do you put on the little things – the smoothness, quietness, cuteness and easy to useness? I’m not disappointed with where I put my money, but I have the luxury of being able to afford more than one machine. If I didn’t have that luxury, I’m not sure a 221 would be first choice.