Relearning to sew on a treadle sewing machine – Mother Earth News

When I was young, I watched with fascination as my mother used
her treadle sewing machine (an 1800s Singer that belonged to my great-grandmother)
for making fuzzy coats, sofa covers and zippered pencil bags. I sat on the floor and looked at her feet
deftly pedaled fast on the straight, then slowed rounding a curve
or reaches an end.

Built before electricity, the singer purred, interrupted
only when the old leather belt is gone. Mom would stop pedaling, join
the belt ends with a twisted nail and a string, and resume sewing. Without realizing
that, I learned a lot about human-powered machines just by watching my mother

Finally, at 11, I was allowed to use the machine myself.
What a treat to pick up a Raggedy Ann design from Ben Franklin in town for my
first project. The fabric, buttons and stuffing came from my mother’s junk box
– what she called “happy rags”. They can
were just faded remnants of old clothes, but she was “happy to have

For the ruffles, I used the Singer pleat pucker tool.
Embroidering facial features required attaching another smart gadget. I
followed the instructions in the yellowed manual, eventually trying every
attachment I completed Raggedy Ann.

As a teenager, I modified straight leg jeans by adding
garish fabric triangles to create bell bottoms. It was the 70s. What can I

After a car, my next big investment as a young adult was $400
sewing machine that could form buttonholes and was even a bit more fancy
stitches (which I never used). I just plugged in the machine and walked away,
consuming a million miles of yarn over the years as I made curtains, quilts,
clothes and even a boat cover or two.

Nothing compares, however, with the satisfaction of sewing
with this antique treadle machine. The hum of an electric motor is impersonal
and the speed difficult to control. But, I grew up thinking that technology is
better. My mother also gave up her pedal in favor of a modern plastic and
pewter wonder. Luckily his pedal didn’t end up in the city dump with
mountains of others.

On our journey to self-reliance, my husband, Darren, and I
have collected human-powered tools when we can find them. It is surprising
and sad how quickly hand and foot tools were abandoned when electricity
became available. From 1850 to 1890, more than 100 apple peelers were
patented. Then none, except those running on electricity. And so on
along with thousands of other clever human-powered devices.

I walked past a hardware store recently and couldn’t believe my
find – an old seated manual stainless steel washing machine
in the front. I zoomed into the parking lot and ran to the washing machine, only to
discover blooming petunias in the rusty basin.

Our search for non-electric tools has revived the memory of this
faithful Singer. A few days after putting my brother-in-law on the lookout,
he found an abused White Rotary treadle machine at a Springfield thrift store for $60. Although
I was somewhat discouraged by his abandoned state (I didn’t even take a
picture), I couldn’t wait to take it home and start refurbishing it. I was not
interested in beauty; I just wanted a functional pedal machine.

The machine appeared (and smelled) like it was stored in a
chicken coop. The cabinet was brutally beaten and the steering wheel was almost
paralyzed, but we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Darren replaced broken
boards while I disassembled, oiled and cleaned the machine. I took some pictures
to remember how to wind it up.

We have learned that unless a machine is badly rusted, it is
not difficult to restore. Ours was not missing parts, but even those can be
found online for little
costs. I bought 25 feet of leather belt online
(enough for a lifetime) for less than $10. Copies of the manuals are also
available, that you may need to learn how to thread your machine. I discovered
that unlike other machines, the white steering wheel is turned away from the
sewing operator. It took some getting used to.

Handy online sources include

Here is an excellent article from 1975 Mother Earth News by Helene Ellis which illustrates
“Tips on buying, restoring and using a treadle sewing machine.”

As we worked, Darren and I marveled at the quality of the White
craft. Online copies of advertisements reveal that this machine was designed to
be affordable to the average household, costing around $55 new in 1913. Yet,
the cabinet has an inset ruler, beautiful curved drawers and intricate details
iron stand. The machine is adorned on all sides with gold decals.

Darren was particularly intrigued by the precise machine
work. After cleaning and oiling the pedal in the store, he gave it a few pumps
to spin it, then picked me up in the house. We went out and saw
the steering wheel still turning silently a few minutes later, perfectly balanced and

Between the two of us we had the cabinet and the machine
looking and running like new in three days. Then I couldn’t stop sewing. I
scoured the house for small repair projects – a kitchen curtain, a blanket
for the cinder block containing our water filter and the padded armrests for my rocker.
Then, just for fun, I created a real quilt of scraps of tattered clothes, scraps of
scraps of fabric and old pillow stuffing.

It’s been a few months since we restored it, but I continue
marvel at the strength, precision and ease of use of the machine. I imagine it
original owner of the machine, whoever she may have been, dressed in a long calico robe
sew bushels of baby clothes by lantern light. The machine was surely a
precious piece of furniture in his house.

Now 100 years later I wouldn’t trade my antique white
Rotary for a hundred brand new sewing machines.

Linda Holiday lives
in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband trained
well water boya dedicated company
to the production of products for off-grid living.

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