Collector's Corner: Vintage Home Sewing Machines
By Michele Alice
For over 20,000 years there was no alternative to sewing by hand. And though elements of mechanized sewing had received patents as early as 1755, it was not until the 19th century that the progenitors of modern sewing machines were invented. American Walter Hunt devised a lockstitch machine in 1833, but it was unreliable and he never patented it. In 1845 Elias Howe patented a machine that was a major improvement on Hunt's lockstitch design, but it was rather cumbersome to use and failed to curry favor with the public.
Credit for producing the first commercially successful mass-produced home sewing machine goes to Isaac Singer. Patented in 1851, the machine utilized Howe's lock-stitch design (for which Howe sued for patent infringement - and won) but positioned the needle so that it moved vertically instead of horizontally. Along with several other important design modifications, Singer's other great advancement was the addition of a foot pedal (treadle) freeing the sewer to use both hands for the task.
Marketing also contributed to the company's success. Singer and his partner Edward Clark devised a plan allowing customers to pay for their machines in installments. Singer became synonymous with sewing machines, and by 1900 the company claimed it had 80% of the world market.
Of course, Singer had competition: National, Wheeler & Wilson, White, and Household are just a few of the manufacturers that produced machines found in homes worldwide, and in collections today.
So, just what are old sewing machines worth in the secondary markets? Due to the sheer number and variety manufactured over the last 150 years, and the large number that have survived, values are somewhat relative. Collectors are willing to pay more for early and mid-19th century specimens, for "firsts" and for "mint" because they are rarer than other machines. Most common machines sell for $100 or less, but collector will also pay more for machines that, for one reason or another, have acquired a following, and Singer's iconic Featherweight is a prime example.
Introduced at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, the Featherweight was the first successful portable due to its aluminum - as opposed to cast iron - parts, performance, and ease of maintenance. Manufactured in the U.S. and abroad from 1933 to 1970, many are still in use today, and can be worth up to several hundred dollars each for specimens in especially nice condition.
Knowledgeable collectors take advantage of the fact that the name "Featherweight" does not appear anywhere on the machines, which are often found advertised as just an "old Singer" for sale. "Featherweight" was the descriptive term given to model class 221/222. Model 221 was the earliest, 1933-34, followed by 221-1 (1935), and so forth.
Would you like to learn more about vintage sewing machines? Check out the resources listed below, and,
Antique Sewing Machines - Link to website - Great little site tells you "How sewing machines work - with animations."
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society (ISMACS) - Link to website - Founded in 1985, group maintains extensive archive (manuals, ads, etc.). Membership includes quarterly magazine. Check out site's Machine Gallery, FAQs, Restoration Tips, and Comprehensive Singer Model List
Featherweight Facts - Link to website - Planet Patchwork site offers lots of info for "Featherweight aficionados."
Singer Featherweights - link to website - Graham Forsdyke's site features History, Dating, Determining Condition, more!
Stitches: The History of Sewing Machines - Link to website - Mary Bellis presents a highly interesting survey for About.com.
Stitches in Time: 100 Years of Sewing (2004 exhibit) - Link to website - Museum of American Heritage site.
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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