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Singer Featheweight Sewing Machine – Mend and Make Do

Sunday September 13, 2009

The other day as I was sewing binding tape to the hem of a pair of my son’s trousers, I looked down at my Singer Featherweight sewing machine and thought that of all the sewing machines I have used in my life, this was my favorite. I think of myself as having worked up to this one, which I know now from the internet, was manufactured on June 11, 1937. (Featherweights have a fan following and you can find out lots about them on the web.)

As a very little girl I was given a tiny machine that you ran with a hand crank so I could sew alongside my mother. It was never very useful – I seem to recall that my brother and I used it more to perforate paper. So the first sewing machine I used seriously was my mother’s, on which I learned to make real clothes. It was a portable electric model, but large, with a round bobbin and an electric foot treadle. My grandmother’s, to which I moved next, was an earlier electric with a knee-treadle and a spindle bobbin. It was a also portable machine, but big with a beautiful arch-topped wooden case. In between these two I had the first machine of my own, which was more of a repair project than a productive sewing machine. It was a pre-electric treadle model still set in its own table with drawers on either side for thread, etc. I purchased it for $12.50 at a junk store down the road, fixed its belt, oiled its parts, and figured out its ancient bobbin. It worked okay, but I never sewed much more than doll clothes on it and I’m not sure what happened to it after I moved to live with my grandparents. That is when I first used my friend’s Singer Featherweight––small and light, but solid and strong. The Singer Featherweight sews forward and backward and, with the right attachment, makes a very nice button-hole. The Featherweight became my ideal machine — something to dream of owning one day. Meanwhile I continued to use my grandmother’s machines, including the successor to the lovely knee-treadle model – a Singer Zig-Zag with too many options and clad in off-white plastic. I managed to use it to appliqué patches on my blue jeans, but I never came to terms with its many stitch widths and waggling needle. I still longed for a Featherweight like the one my friend’s father gave her.

Finally, years later, I found my Featherweight in the repair shop across the street from my New York apartment. I was bringing in a larger and older machine for repair and there it was. I convinced the shop owner to buy back my old machine and traded up to the Featherweight. Finally I had my sewing machine. It works reliably and with it I have made and mended clothes for thirty years. I don’t use it very often, but each time I do, it works away with its assured and competent stitch.

Today I am lowering the hem of a pair of Banana Republic slacks from a suit my son purchased at a consignment shop over the summer. A seventeen-year-old boy who is most comfortable in a T-shirt and jeans, he doesn’t wear suits very often and I am happy that he has learned the value of second-hand shopping. He looks great in the suit and fixing it for him gives me pleasure. My used Featherweight and his used suit unite to illustrate our family’s adoption of the notion of ‘mend and make do’ – a British phrase born of the wars and shrinking empire of the last century. Now my son and I find ourselves in a similar place of reappraisal and adjustment at the end of the first decade of our new century. Knowing that we are not alone and others have gone this way before makes things a bit easier.

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