Whenever we see or think about a treadle sewing machine, we normally think of our grandmother’s sewing machine that now sits hidden in a corner somewhere collecting dust … something in an antique shop… or a museum exhibit piece.
All of that is true. Treadle sewing machines are found in all these places. When Isaac Singer first introduced home sewing machines to the public, the treadle sewing machine became an instant hit.
For the first time ever, the average woman was able to use a machine to make clothes for the family, curtains and other items in the comfort of her own home.
Longevity and the Treadle Sewing Machine
The treadle sewing machine is operated by a large rubber belt that extends from the balance wheel to the large foot pedal at the bottom.
Few if any original treadle machines even had a stitch length adjustment. In other words, the treadle sewing machine did one thing and one thing only… a single straight stitch.
The stitches created by treadle sewing machines were and still are among the prettiest, most delicate and durable stitches ever seen.
With the advent of electric powered sewing machines, treadle sewing machines gradually gave way to their faster, more efficient counterparts.
Like treadle sewing machines, the stitches made by early electric sewing machines were just as delicate and sturdy.
Over time, however, as electric sewing machines evolved and technology developed to include many different utility and decorative stitches, the treadle sewing machine faded more and more into the background.
Treadle sewing machines, however, never faded away completely. My grandmother had a Singer treadle sewing machine that she inherited from her mother.
It had a black head with gold decals and was mounted in a beautiful oak cabinet that had two or three small drawers on each side.
Inside the drawers were all of my grandmother’s sewing notions and accessories… a tape measure, pins, needles, scissors, thread, extra bobbins and lubricating oil.
In her later years, after she stopped sewing, my grandmother’s oak sewing machine table held a portable television until her death.
Sewing on a Treadle Sewing Machine
It was a real thrill for me to sew on this machine. I think I was about 12 or 13 when she first allowed me to work on this gem.
I watched Granny engage the machine by placing her feet side by side on the large treadle and pumping it back and forth. I tried to imitate her actions, but simply wasn’t able to get that smooth rhythm that she had achieved so easily.
For me, the trick was to place one foot slightly in front of the other and pump my legs as if I were riding a bicycle. In no time at all, I sailing along, stitching my little heart out.
Winding bobbins was a very interesting task. By the time I was allowed to work on the treadle machine, I had been sewing for about four or five years, and was quite accustomed to winding bobbins on sewing machines.
My great grandmother’s sewing machine however, didn’t have a bobbin winder. Therefore, anyone who used this heirloom was required to wind bobbins by hand.
I was never clear as to whether or not the bobbin winder was broken or if it simply didn’t exist.
At first, I loved working on my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine, but soon tired of all the physical exertion and the drudgery of hand winding bobbins.
After a few weeks, the novelty had worn off completely and I was glad to get back to an electric sewing machine. I don’t think I ever sewed on that machine again, but the memory will remain with me forever.
In time, however, I have come to truly appreciate the workmanship and artistry of treadle sewing machines. I have even come to appreciate the physical exercise. Now I understand how those old people were so healthy.
If I sewed on a treadle machine as much as I sew on my electric powered machines, there would be no need to spend so much time and money at fitness centers.
All kidding aside, in my opinion, no other machine can or will be able to math the intricate beauty of the stitches created on these old fashioned machines.
Treadle Sewing Machines in the 21st Century
Because they have been around for so many years; because sewing machine technology has advanced so much just in the last decade alone, you may be tempted to believe that treadle sewing machines can be found only in museums and in the private collections of true sewing machine aficionados.
That may be true for many treadle machines; however, I am pleased to report that a significant number of treadle sewing machines are still hard at work in private sewing rooms as well as a few small professional work rooms.
When I reviewed a Singer 66 treadle machine at the Pfaff Sewing Center in Ft. Lauderdale in 2011, I learned that a souvenir vendor in the Bahamas was interested in purchasing it to make some of the items sold in his shop.
I didn’t ask about the specific location of his store or stall, but I know from my own frequent visits to Freeport and Nassau that many of these shops are located where electricity may be scarce.
With a treadle machine on site, tourists could actually see the merchandise being made before their very eyes.
While on vacation in the Washington DC area, I visited a fascinating shop that offers its customers one of a kind clothing and accessory items called Think Outside the Store.
To my complete surprise, Sarah Gingold, the genius behind this store uses only treadle and crank operated sewing machines.
Not only does she use these machines to create the items she sells, she also teaches classes for beginning and intermediate sewers… almost exclusively on treadle machines.
Sarah explained that her primary motivation for establishing Think Outside the Store was to combine her passion for ecological responsibility with her penchant for offering one of a kind earth friendly clothing and accessories to her clientele.
Her decision to use treadle sewing machines is linked directly to her desire to conserve electrical energy in every possible way.
She even had one White zigzag sewing machine converted from electric power to treadle operation in order to gain access to zigzag stitch options not available on traditional treadle machines.
At first, I thought it odd that anyone would want to turn back the hands of time like this. After thinking about it for just a little bit, however, I came to not only understand Sarah’s commitment, but to appreciate it as well.
The converted machine works just as well as it did before the cord was removed and the foot pedal replaced by the treadle. The only difference is it is now far more ecologically friendly and economically efficient.
No doubt, other people who prefer to use treadle sewing machines are not as committed to the ecology as Sarah, but they nonetheless are committed to the beauty and charm that is unique to the treadle machine and its delicately strong stitches.
Whatever the motivation, there is no question that the treadle machine has been able to outlast a lot of its electric powered counterparts and will continue to do so for many, many generations to come.
There is definitely a market for treadle sewing machines out there. Just take a look at sites like e-bay and see for yourself how popular they are.