I have always said that there really aren’t any real “rare” Singer sewing machines. I believe that to be true in the mainstream of sewing machine availability and it is my response to all of the listings that I regularly see for a “rare” model 66 or a “rare” model 99, or any other model folks pin the “rare” moniker on. Take your pick… I think that if there was any machine that Singer ever produced that would be scarce (but not rare), it would be the Singer model 101. Only about 264,000 101’s were produced over its entire seventeen year production run. After 85 to 100 years, one would think that a large portion of that number would have simply disappeared! On the other hand, millions upon millions of model 15’s, 66’s, and to some lesser extent every other machine Singer ever produced for the domestic market. I’m not talking about the very earliest machines, and there are some that are in fact very rare, but not the typical machine capable of making a decent lockstitch mass produced to meet the explosive demand for a reliable home sewing machine .
Well, that’s my opinion in the sewing machine mainstream. In fact, there are backwaters where machines exist and by virtue of some unique feature not shared by any but a few of their sewing machine sisters are truly rare. It’s kind of like coin collecting. Two coins of the same year may differ in rarity simply by a minting mistake or a mint mark. They can be the same denomination, but one is rare because it is unique in some way while the other is quite plentiful. Finding one would make a coin collector’s day while the other is just loose change. It’s the same with sewing machines and it is particularly true for this Singer model 221 Featherweight. It falls into the class of a collector’s machine and it is indeed a rare featherweight. Why? Well I’ll try to explain what sets it apart from the others based on my research of this machine.
The serial number of the machine is EH897711. Ismacs records that it is a 221K and one of 10,000 commissioned for manufacture on March 4, 1953. But if you look at the machine, it has a badge that identifies it as a 221J. Singer manufactured all of it’s 221K machines (as well as the 15K, 66K, 201K, and other machines with a “K” following the model number) in Kilbowie Scotland. Singer machines designated with a “J” following the serial number were manufactured in St. Johns Canada. In the case of this machine, it is not a clerical error or a mistake in the database and there is a reasonable explanation for the discrepancy. This explanation leads to why this Featherweight is truly rare.
At it’s peak, Singer was the largest corporation on planet earth… Bigger than steel, bigger than coal, bigger than oil, you name it… Singer was on top of the heap. Like any large corporation, Singer was dealing in a global market and a sea of rules, regulations, and laws that dealt with import, export, and custom taxes of finished goods. It’s simple, the machines sold in Canada were almost always manufactured in Great Britain, but there are some rare cases where these machines made in Great Britain will look like they were made in Canada.
Singer had to pay import or customs taxes on all of the functional machines it exported from it’s many factories around the world. The same did not apply to non-functional machines. Knowing this, an unknown number of featherweights were produced in Kilbowie Scotland and sent to St. Johns Canada as non-functional machines (it did not have a motor) to be “finished”. As a non-functional machine, it was exempt from customs taxes. That’s were the second clue comes in. The motor emblem on this featherweight says that it was manufactured in St. Johns Canada. To legitimize the ruse, the machine also has the 221J emblem and a decal on the back of the sewing arm that says “Made in Canada”. Mystery solved! Singer put those “Made in Canada” markings on the machine to avoid customs/import taxes by making it appear it was made in Canada.
So, what we have here is a machine that was manufactured in Scotland except for the motor shipped tax free to Canada as an unfinished product. The motor was made and attached in Canada to finish the machine. Oh, and the 221J emblem and extra “Made in Canada” decal was added to make it look like it was made in Canada. Here’s the interesting thing… while the database correctly identifies it as a 221K, and the emblem correctly identifies it as a 221J, aside from the number of 10,000 221’s commissioned between serial numbers 890,443 and 900,432 there is no record of how many featherweight machines with this manufacturing history and these features there are. To be sure, they are rare in the marketplace and desired by Featherweight collectors. For a featherweight collector, it is a machine that could make their day. That said, there are other featherweights that are unique and share some feature such as a particular decal, decal location, blackslide finish, or an exposition badge (not centennial) that make them rare as well. In the realm of rare featherweights, there are some that are rare and some that are extremely rare… and this 221 Featherweight falls somewhere in between.
This machine is in very good condition both mechanically and cosmetically to begin with. This in itself is somewhat unusual, especially for the condition of the front bed decals. The original shellac top coat is largely intact, the decals are in excellent condition (except where shown in the condition pictures,) and aside from a few minor paint chips, slight wear consistent with usage, and slight crazing in the black paint finish, the paint is dull but in very good condition. Close inspection of the machine suggests that it was gently used and well taken care of. There is very little lint or old oil varnish buildup normally found in and on the mechanical sewing mechanisms.
The key to a collector machine is condition… meaning original condition. The better the condition, the higher the value for a collector. This makes this conservation special. To preserve the collector value, it is important that the original finish is kept unaltered. Aside from gentle cleaning, I am not going to make any cosmetic repairs or diminish the patina in any way. I am not going to make any paint chip or decal repairs. I am not going to disassemble the sewing mechanism except for the bits and pieces necessary to thoroughly clean the machine. The gears, rotating assemblies, and rocking assemblies will be cleaned in place. In fact, there is only one item that will be replaced… the power/foot controller cord. Because of cracks in the insulation, this cord set is not safe to use. This is more about conservation than it is about restoration, so except for cleaning, oiling, and adjusting the machine, it will retain it’s original character. While the machine will retain in it’s original cosmetic condition, it is still a featherweight and it is expected to sew like a featherweight. To this end, great attention to detail in cleaning and adjusting the mechanical assemblies will ensure it is runs and sews like a Featherweight should.
The following pictures show the machine in it’s as found condition.
The front plate, bobbin case, feed dogs, tension assembly, bobbin winder guide, balance wheel, and top plate are removed for access to clean the machine. These parts are cleaned by hand.
The mechanical assemblies are first cleaned with compressed air to remove any dust and loose contaminants. They are then cleaned in place with acetone using a cotton swab. The gears are cleaned and coated with Singer lubricant. all of the assemblies are oiled with mobile Velocite 10 sewing machine oil. This oil is is a very fine quality sewing machine oil specially formulated for lubricating high speed industrial sewing machines.
The Bobbin case spring is removed to clean any trapped build up or debris that may affect bobbin thread tension. True of any surface in direct contact with the thread the smoothest possible finish is needed for consistent tension and consistent stitch formation.
The top tension assembly is disassembled to clean any debris or dirt on the tension discs and the tension assembly post. The tension post in in the thread path and like the tension discs, must be smooth.
The bobbin case base and feed dogs are cleaned and reinstalled.
Next, the old motor grease is removed from the motor grease tubes and filled with new motor grease (petroleum jelly). The motor brushes are removed and inspected.
The Singer “button” motor controller is cleaned, lubricated and rewired. The replacement cord set has a molded plug to match the plug terminal on the machine. Like the original cord, there is one wire cord that plugs into the wall, and one wire cord that attaches to the controller.
The body of the machine is cleaned exclusively with sewing machine oil. This is the cleaning method recommended by Singer and is safe for both the shellac top coat and the decals. Sewing machine oil is applied to the body of the machine and gently rubbed in with my finger. This allows me to feel any dirt on the surface and is gentle on the finish and decals. When the surface feels smooth it is clean and the excess oil is wiped away with a cotton cloth.
The motor is loosened at the mount and swung away to facilitate cleaning the machine’s body and motor casing.
The rest of the machine is similarly cleaned in sections. The small bits and pieces are cleaned and reinstalled. The final cosmetic touches are made by rubbing the body of the machine with a clean cloth. The cosmetic cleaning with sewing machine oil has re-nourished the original finish and results in a beautiful appearance. The gold decals stand out bright and have that special deep gold foil appearance that only time and original Singer decals can have.
Post Conservation Machine Condition
Following the cleaning and reassembly of all parts, the machine is adjusted to produce the quality stitch the Featherweight is known for. The stitch formation is very good and the machine runs smoothly and quietly.
The following pictures show the finished condition of the machine in detail. These pictures describe the complete cosmetic condition of the machine. The finish has not been enhanced by wax or polish and the only treatment applied to the finish is a light coat of sewing machine oil. As noted earlier, no attempt was made to polish out marks caused by normal usage or hide and otherwise enhance the original finish on the machine. These pictures show all areas of the machine and the condition of the paint in detail.
The case, attachments, and items included with the machine are shown below.
That’s it! The machine has been safely cleaned, adjusted, lubricated, and the original finish has been re-nourished with sewing machine oil. The patina of the finish has been preserved. The emphasis of this conservation was to bring out the full potential of the machine cosmetic appearance and assure that it runs and sews well without disturbing it’s history or the patina it has acquired over 68 years without diminishing it’s collector value. Fortunately, the machine was in great condition to begin with and a beautiful outcome was possible without considering the need for restorative methods to repair the paint or decals . The outcome of this conservation is enhanced cosmetic appearance and mechanical smoothness in operation. It’s one thing to start with a rare machine, but it’s another thing to have a rare machine in this beautiful condition.
Valuation on a machine like this is hard to do because the collector market is small. While this Featherweight would be a gem in our Etsy shop, the selling platform is not suitable for listing it. Instead, this machine will be listed on Ebay with a reserve price and an auction period to provide ample exposure for prospective buyers. The Ebay listing item ID is 154564004371 (Item ID: 154564004371).
Please let me know if you have any questions or comments regarding this machine. I will provide any additional information or pictures on request.
Thanks for reading!
2 thoughts on “Conservation of a “Rare” 1953 Vintage Singer Model 221 “Featherweight””
I’m two years older than she is and I’ve got a little wear and tear on me too. But I feel that I’ve earned it, and so has she. With good maintenance, plus regular oil and lube jobs, she could keep sewing for another 60-plus years (and beyond). The nice reconditioning job you did has left her beautiful with her minor flaws; they’re part of her charm.
You could try to polish me up too, but it most likely wouldn’t make much difference! ; – }
Loved the story about J’s & K’s!
I’m with you 100%!
I’d wager that with proper oiling and cleaning, a Singer 27 or 66 would sew for a thousand years! Made with cast iron and heat treated steel, I can’t see any part in the sewing mechanism that would prevent it.
Have a great evening!