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The "White" 221K - Does it Live Up to the Featherweight Legend?

The informed collector will be aware of the relative shortcomings of the "white" Featherweight when compared to the classic black models, and may willingly accept these differences for the sake of owning the highly collectible and sought-after 221K. Meanwhile, those choosing their first Featherweight should acquaint themselves with the significant differences between the "white" model and the classic black Featherweights.

All Featherweights were fine machines, no doubt, but it shouldn't be considered blasphemous to acknowledge that the celery, pale turquoise or generally termed "white" models leave a bit to be desired in comparison to the more abundant black models.

The white 221K, manufactured in Scotland, was a later incarnation of the already decades-old 221 series, a technical marvel unrivaled by other straight-stitch portables of that era. By the 1960s Singer decided to introduce this seemingly more contemporary design. Had Singer opted to introduce bold color to the Featherweight line by the 1960s, they would have likely tapped into the marketing advantage of the countless colorful Japanese-manufactured machines which appealed to the American consumer's sensibility of the post-war era.

The unfortunate reality of Singer's effort to modernize the Featherweight was that the design changes reflected cost savings more so than innovation. In fact, some of the choices foreshadowed the impending decline in manufacturing integrity throughout the sewing machine industry. Perhaps these design choices were even part of the decline.

The most significant mechanical difference in the white 221K is its internal belt-drive, a striking change from other Featherweights which rely on a shaft and metal gears. The belt-drive has stood the test of time as problems related to the belt appear rare, so this engineering choice shouldn't necessarily be considered a deficiency.

However, more visible exterior differences are significant. The flip bed, most apparently, is shorter.

Operator controls utilize a lot of plastic.

Plastic light switch.
Plastic knob on stitch regulator.
Perhaps most disappointing is that the classic Singer badge is now nothing more than an adhesive decal. This particular machine demonstrates a sticker's obvious inferiority to a riveted badge:

A dilapidated red-S "badge" - actually a sticker. 

While the underside drip pan is a hidden component of the Featherweight, its design and material are nonetheless relevant to a lasting heirloom-quality product. Rather than the original metal pan with an absorbent liner, the white 221K has a rather pitiful Masonite board with no lining.

The Featherweight line is quite portable due to its light weight. Still, a key aspect to making the classic black models easy to handle during setup and storage is the removable power cable and foot controller assembly. Meanwhile, these components are hardwired into the white 221K, resulting in a more clumsy task of handling the machine when removing from and repacking it into its case.

Speaking of the case, it's just not made as well as the black cases, not by a far stretch. For example, a single clasp might be enough to secure the case, but there is no way around the fact that one clasp is 50% fewer than other model cases. And while the locks on previous cases might have been rather superfluous, they at least existed.

Our demonstration machine shows us a potential challenge for the collector who purchases a "white" Featherweight in need of parts. White motors and tensioners aren't abundant when requiring replacement. There are other parts to the white Featherweight that are exclusive to this model as well.

This black motor sticks out like a sore thumb.
The white 221K has its own unique faceplate and a white tension unit.
Ultimately, any criticism of the white Featherweight is pointless overall. It remains a great portable machine. It is unique and relatively rare. Purchasing one in reasonable condition is a sound investment. But it's differences should be understood for the enthusiast choosing their first Featherweight, especially if any preference is based strictly on color. If you want the absolute heirloom-quality for which the Featherweight is truly known - sans stickers, plastic, and cumbersome cabling - our recommendation is to begin with a classic black 221.

If you want all the quality of the original Featherweight, but something more colorful (or even white), that can be accomplished without sacrificing the noteworthy features of the earlier Featherweights.



Unknown said...

Thank you for the article!
Definitely worth mentioning that the decal was a mere sticker instead of a lovely gold S plate.

Bonnie Rae said...

Thank you so much for this informative--and very honest--assessment of the 221K. Several other vintage sewing machines sites on the Internet sort of gloss over the 221k's shortcomings. And there are a lot of shortcomings! I was recently given one--no cost to me. A friend's mother had had one tucked away. It looks to have never been used. I sew daily on my Mom's black 221 which she purchased in the spring of 1940. Mom just did occasional mending, but in the past 45 years I've sewn to the moon and back on it. It's never been "serviced"--not once. The wire thread guide broke off once and one of the screws came out of the bobbin case and I had to take it in to have the bobbin tension adjusted right. And that's it. It's on its second light bulb--after 81 years!
So, anyway, I have the 221K now. And the difference is like night and day. It's noisy--not bad, clattering noise--but ten times noisier than the black machine. The foot pedal is awful. That might just be me not used to it. But still, nothing like the responsiveness and ease of the old bakelite foot pedal. It looks cheap. No pretty chrome. And that tiny lift-up sewing surface is very inadequate. You'll notice it immediately when you're sewing.
I will say it has a beautiful stitch.
I don't really understand the "collecting" thing with sewing machines. I guess I'm looking at it from a different angle. I've pretty much wore off all the gold pretty stuff on my black one. And the case has sure seen better days. But it's ready for me when I'm ready to sew. And I cherish it.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add that the white featherweights also came with a soft vinyl case in two colours, red or blue. Most of these were produced and sold in Canada.

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