Catalog Number: 1978.022.01
Sometimes a particular model of a tool or machine is so well-designed and well-made that it outlives its original owners to become a classic and a symbol of its kind. We often think of cars as “classics,” but there are other examples of industrial design that achieve this status.
Everyone who looks at the photo will know this is a sewing machine, but some will recognize it as a Singer Featherweight. The Featherweight went out of production about 1964, but it’s still used and valued today by home sewers and quilters.
This diminutive 11-pound sewing machine was first introduced at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, at the height of the Great Depression. The Featherweight was introduced as an affordable, portable sewing machine for the modern woman.
By that time the profession of dressmaker had been made obsolete by off-the-rack clothing and the growing popularity of home sewing, both of which were made possible by the 1851 patenting of the sewing machine. Sewing patterns and classes allowed any woman with a sewing machine to sew clothes for herself and her family, and furnishings for her home.
Today Featherweights are sought after on online auction sites, and there are experts in their use and care to help you keep your Featherweight running smoothly for decades to come.
For some users, the purring hum of a Featherweight is its most unique, beloved feature. For others, it is the perfect straight stitch that the machines still are known for. And weighing just 11 pounds makes this the ideal machine for taking to quilting retreats and workshops. Can’t you just picture a room full of contemporary women, all sewing on these quaint relics of early 20th century design? It happens.
The Featherweight does just one thing — a straight stitch, and it does it extremely well. By the 1960s, women were interested in machines that could do a variety of stitches, such as zig-zag and embroidery, and Singer stopped making the Featherweight. I suspect that its own high-quality, precision machining also helped to doom it, as it would have become increasingly expensive to produce at the same time that its lack of modern features put a limit on the price point at which it could be sold.
This Featherweight, in the collection of the La Crosse County Historical Society, was made in 1946. We determined its age by the serial number, as well as the style of face plate and foot control. After stopping production during World War II, there was a pent-up demand, and for a while there were waiting lists for new sewing machines.
Yet the demand for Featherweights continues to this day. It speaks to the quality of the design of these little machines, as well as to the human need to make things with our hands — even at a time when the availability of inexpensive manufactured goods has never been higher. The experience of handling materials ourselves is very satisfying, and seems innate to our human nature.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on July 8, 2017.