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Readers, have you ever sewn with a vintage treadle sewing machine? Have you ever wanted to?

I bought a 1920’s-era Singer treadle a few months ago, and I use it all the time. It’s not the only sewing machine I sew with, but it is one of my favorites.

I was making men’s shirt on it recently, and I thought to myself: Why am I putting myself through the trials of treadling? I could certainly make an equally-good-if-not-better-looking shirt faster on one of my many mechanical machines, like my precise, fully-electrified Singer 15-91. It’s not as old as my 1920 Singer 66 treadle, but it’s still nearly 60. Isn’t that enough? The short answer is no!

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It might be easier to understand if I lay out the reasons why someone might opt to use a treadle. If I’ve missed anything, please feel free to add to the list. (You guys are great at that!)

1. It saves electricity.

This is undoubtedly true. But then again, a sewing machine isn’t like an air conditioner that runs for hours on end. How much electricity can a sewing machine use? You’re just pushing that needle up and down and maybe keeping a small light bulb burning. No, that’s not my primary reason for sewing with a treadle.

2. I bought it, so I feel I have to use it.

This is a very good answer, but it doesn’t really apply to me. I own roughly (I’m afraid to take an exact count) vintage sewing machines, most of which sit unused either in their hard plastic cases or atop my sewing machine table (which is looking a little cluttered of late). I don’t feel compelled to use my vintage zigzaggers for anything other than the occasional satin stitch or invisible zipper installation — something that I find harder on an old straight stitch machine. Oh — and sewing on buttons. They excel at that!

I could just as easily close up the treadle table and put a lamp on top and call it a day.

3. It makes a beautiful stitch.

This is true, but it applies to all of my machines. When thread tension is balanced, stitches always look great, and I am frequently amazed by how often people talk about the fantastic stitch their expensive machine makes as if it were markedly different from the stitch you’d get from a cheap machine. If you break down how a stitch is made, it isn’t very complicated and the basics haven’t changed in more than a hundred years.

4. It’s a way of honoring the past.

Now we’re getting somewhere. There’s something soul-enriching about doing something the way people did it in the past — especially when the results are of equal if not better quality. Of course there are faster ways to do things, but there are lots of things people do the more labor-intensive way just because it feels better. Many of us still write long hand even though writing at a computer is generally faster. Many long-hand writers even insist on using a fountain pen! They like the way it feels and it’s a way of honoring the writing — and thinking — process.

Think of the “Slow Food” movement. Of course it would be faster to use a microwave to cook the potatoes and you might not even detect the difference, but for the Slow Food aficionados, it’s about the process of cooking, and microwaving doesn’t fit in. We got rid of our microwave years ago, by the way, around the same time we gave away our television set!

5. It’s an excellent way to hone your sewing skills.

Have you ever seen swimmers practice with strange rubber appendages attached to their hands and/or feet or wearing baggy nylon suits meant intentionally to create drag? These make swimming more cumbersome; there’s a larger surface to pull through the water. The reason they train this way is because when they take these swim aids off, they feel like they’re cutting through the water like a speedboat.

The same applies to a treadle sewing machine. Right now since I am relatively new to this machine (and vice versa) it definitely makes the sewing process more challenging. Not only do I have to power it myself, there’s no numbered needle plate like I’m used to (and I have chosen not to label it myself with tape for the time being). There’s a screw edge that lines up with 1/2 inch and a hole exactly at the 5/8 inch point so there’s really no need to mark anything, but this is all new to me.

All the topstitching involved in making a shirt — on the collar, sleeve plackets, button plackets, yoke, etc. — is hard enough to do precisely on a regular electric machine; peddling a treadle while you’re focusing on turning corners and getting your stitching even makes it even more challenging.

But I know that when I return to any of my electric machines, topstitching will be that much easier!

BONUS REASON #1

It’s fun. It really is fun to treadle a sewing machine and in the scheme of things it’s not hard. It’s not like learning to play the piano; it’s more like learning to play a player piano.

BONUS REASON #2

It’s super quiet, making a gentle clackety-clack. Not that I’m waking any sleeping toddlers in the next room with my regular machines, but still. It’s a soothing sound.

And there you have it: seven great reasons to sew with a treadle. Have I convinced you yet?

And here’s my shirt:

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Speaking of people-powered sewing machines, are you familiar with the All Saints clothing chain, based in the UK and recently arrived here in NYC?

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All Saints photos via here, here and here.

Some people love these displays (their trademark) but these photos left me feeling a little queasy — like walking through the Museum of Natural History and seeing all those stuffed wild animals on display. I know this is meant to look cool (and it does), and perhaps could be considered a tribute to the sewing machine, but I don’t like it.

It makes me treasure my treadle even more.

Readers, I ask you: have you ever sewn with a treadle or hand-powered machine? If not, would you like to give it a try?

Here in the United States, they’re surprisingly easy to find. (Nearly everyone who sees mine says, “My grandmother used to have a machine like that!”)

What do you think?

~Peter

When native New Yorker Peter Lappin bought his first sewing machine two years ago to hem a pair of thrift store jeans, little did he know he was initiating a journey that would bring him fame and fortune. While awaiting his fortune he stays busy writing “the world’s most popular men’s sewing blog,” Male Pattern Boldness, and now contributing to BurdaStyle.

“For more than twenty years I’d lived on the edge of the Garment District without even knowing what a seam ripper was. Now I rip daily!”

87 Comments

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    Feb 25, 2012, 02.33 PMby Chance Harenza

    I am getting a new treadle and treadle sewing machine from Cottage Craft Works. they sell amish stuff including a amish made teadle and sewing machine. there are look alikes out there but this is the real thing. I have always sewn by hand and now I am upgrading to a treadle machine. I am going to love it I am sure. the electric ones go to fast. I like to controle my stitch. Sewing is about the fun and functionality not speed. I am going to post what I learn on my own blog but for now I sit and wait as it is built for me. they have to make it and then send it so it will be three to four weeks before it arrives. I would love to see more on how to sew with a treadle and some project ideas for every level of treadler.

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    Jun 13, 2011, 06.27 AMby kraftykatina

    I got a free treadle on the side of the road but it sat outside all winter so I’m going to fix it up this summer and give it a try. It’ really neat and I think I would get great satisfaction out of putting more physical effort into my sewing projects.

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    Jun 12, 2011, 06.14 PMby laura-amy

    I just got one as a present, and its easily (in my opinion) the most beautiful thing in my possession! I love how it looks, how it feels, how it sounds and smells! I can’t wait to ship it to my new place and actually try to make something with it!!! And possibly just awkwardly hug it when no ones looking…. great piece of writing! Really enjoyed =)

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    Jun 10, 2011, 09.33 PMby broderer

    You forgot to mention the smell! I love the resinous, fragrant oil smell of treadle or hand-crank sewing machines. And the quiet ‘snick-snick-snick’ noise of the needle perforating the fabric. There’s also something about the rhythmic motion, when you’ve got the pedalling knack. It’s very solid, soothing and ultimately beautifully controllable. It has the efficient elegance of a bicycle. ‘Like a well-oiled sewing machine’ used to be a saying indicating a perfectly adjusted and smooth-running piece of machinery. When you’ve mastered treadling, you understand.

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    Jun 10, 2011, 06.52 AMby TheCreativeMissW

    I really want to try one and here they aren’t hard to get hold of either but I wouldn’t know what bobbins to use for such an old machine and what about needles etc are the right ones still commonly available?

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    Jun 8, 2011, 05.26 PMby Rileyc

    I saw my SINGER treadle in the window of an auction house and told my husband I want that (one day), I was 22 at the time. He bought it for a christmas present that year, 32 years later I still have it and use it although my clever husband 11 years ago hooked up a small motor to it and a real light that fits on it perfectly which we found in a thrift store. My children enjoyed many attempts to use it when it clickity clacked and watching the wheel spin underneath and them pumping it with their hands. Now my neice has used it to do her first sewing projects that she gave away as gifts. It has been great to have and I have thought of giving it away but my family says ‘No!, you must keep it.’ So here it stays in my dining/sewing/art room ready for duty.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 04.48 PMby riddletrait

    Love your timely – to me – article. I just had the parlor cabinet of my 1867 Willcox and Gibbs treadle refurbished and it looks beautiful. I accidently found it several years ago at an estate sale in an extremely neglected state in an old garage. The machine itself is ADORABLE and sews a beautiful chain-stitch. Now you might think a chain-stitch would be unreliable, but if you follow a couple tricks it can be very durable … and beautiful. One of my favorite sites on old machines: www.sewalot.com. I’ve spent a good bit of time reading there. I’m also quite familiar with TreadleOn and have met Capt. Dick. :-) My parlor cabinet with the W&G’s machine tucked safely inside now holds a prominent spot in my ‘parlor’ in an otherwise modern-style home. Love it!

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      Jun 8, 2011, 08.12 PMby Peter Lappin

      I’ll have to check out Sewalot. Thanks!

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    Jun 8, 2011, 01.57 PMby mothertrucker

    I love my treadle and my single-speed bicycle for the same reason: I can look at the wheels, the drive train, the cogs, and understand how my body makes the machine work. In this world of digital and mechanical distance, it’s comforting to work together with simple machines.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 09.30 AMby Ruth Brown

    You left out bonus reason 3. They are a wonderful decorative, yet functional, addition to your home. I have a rather rustic decor style & my Singer treadle fits right in as well as sewing quietly while the “boys” watch tv.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 08.08 AMby rosamarin

    Wow, you really did sew a shirt with this machine! My grandmother gave me her old Singer machine when I was about 13 years old. My first sewing attempts where on an old hand-driven (!) Singer – and I loved it. Now, after many, many years I picked up sewing again ad cannot stop anymore. And you now what, after reading your article I might even try the good old granny machine again. kind regards, Marina (Austria).

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    Jun 8, 2011, 07.31 AMby pogotown

    My brother and I would sit underneath the treadle machine and treadle with our hands while Grandma sewed! Kathleen

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    Jun 8, 2011, 06.56 AMby sherivan

    When I first began to learn machine sewing at around age 10, my mother’s electric sewing machine just went too fast for me. I had a hard time controlling it, and was intimidated by the speed. After using a treadle machine in a sewing unit in 8th-grade home economics, I tried the Singer treadle sewing machine that was handed down from my great-aunt, and found that I was able to control the treadle speed much more easily! As long as I was careful not to put it into reverse, all was well. I later purchased my own treadle machine, a Singer from the late 1800s, with a spindle bobbin, and did all my sewing on that Singer for several years. Although I finally purchased an electric sewing machine (with zigzag stitch that I could use to applique a quilt), I still own the old Singer treadle machine.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 05.00 AMby lostie

    I’ve inherited a 1920’ singer machine from my grandmother… I remember sewing on it 20 to 25 years ago, but now… resqued from my «no sew» mother’s house, I don’t remember how to start sewing on it…where does the line goes?? and the rest??? But there’s one thing I do remember..it took me more than one year ( back then) to take my Elna back to work again !!!!
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    Jun 8, 2011, 04.16 AMby cathie515

    I got a Singer treadle for Christmas when I was 10 (1961). I still have and use it. Cost my parents $25, but I wouldn’t sell it for anything! When i first got married and moved to England, the first major purchase I made was for an old Singer treadle with a beautiful decorated cabinet. It cost me 3 pounds, and that included delivery. Alas, I couldn’t bring it back with me, but I still have my first one. RElaxing to use and I love it! (BTW, my daughter-in-law’s maiden name is Lappin – there don’t seem to be too many of you around!)

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    Jun 8, 2011, 03.52 AMby cajun75

    Yes, I love sewing on a treadle sewing machine. Back in the late 40’s or early 50’s — that’s as in 1940’s — my Dad found some parts and built a treadle sewing machine. The head is one maker, the treadle mechanism is another, and he built the table holding it all together. I remember my Mom sewing on the machine when I was very little, and as far back as I can remember I wanted that machine. It was given to me when I was in high school. Almost every week of my senior year, I’d purchase some fabric on Saturday afternoon and make a dress for church on Sunday. I’ve made doll clothes on that machine and even some of my children’s clothes. I hope to someday make a quilt using the treadle machine. Currently it needs a new belt so it is sitting, forlorn! in the corner as I use my Elna Quilting Queen Pro machine. Like you I have a number of machines, not necessarily vintage, and a couple of sergers; and I like them all, but there is something remarkable about my ttreadle. Maybe it is because my Dad put the pieces together.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 03.01 AMby RKgranny

    I got my treadle machine from my mom. She got it for free from a friend that had it stored in their barn far many years.I ordered an instruction manual from Sewing Educational Warehose. I haven’t been able to sew with it yet as the belt is broken.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 01.36 AMby willowtower

    I own a Singer treadle. Purchased it at an auction for $10. That was over 20 years ago. It’s been through various house moves and will be in another one in next couple of months. It just sews through anything. I find it calming and relaxing. The rhythm just comes naturally.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 01.34 AMby aglanceatmyworld

    Loved reading this! When I bought my first vintage machine (I have 7 vintage now) in a cabinet for $5 I passed up a treadle with cabinet for $15. I had no idea at the time that I would end up ‘collecting’ sewing machines. I really wish I had bought it because I have the feeling that it would have been my favorite and most used machine. Sigh oh well…maybe I’ll run across another one sometime in good condition for about the same price.

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    Jun 8, 2011, 12.56 AMby snoodle

    My wonderful mother-in-law recently gave me my husband’s great grandmother’s treadle which currently has a motor attached. We’re working on restoring it back to its original quiet treadle self. The All Saints photos made me chuckle. We saw the same storefront when we went to Boston (with hopes that it might be a fabric store…I’m not sure if there are any in all of Boston!) Anyway, I thought it was super cool, probably because of the grand scale of seeing so many machines. This, however, gives me the willies: http://www.potterybarn.com/products/found-sewing-maching/?catalogId=68&bnrid=3380801&cm_ven=Google%20Base&cm_cat=Shopping&cm_pla=Feed&cm_ite=Google%20Base-3093341 A big price tag for something that won’t sew a stitch!

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    Jun 7, 2011, 10.14 PMby janetmiller1

    I haven’t tredled, but I have a beautiful 1954 Singer hand crank. I got it just a few years ago for my birthday. I also have a wonderful top of the line computerized machine and several others. The hand crank is a thing of beauty. It sews wonderfully and is perfect to use when our power goes out! It’s a lovely zen experience to stitch away quietly and rhythmically.

    1 Reply
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      Jun 7, 2011, 10.49 PMby Peter Lappin

      I really want to try one of those, Janet!

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    Jun 7, 2011, 07.58 PMby SUZAG

    Great article Peter, thanks for giving the treadle it’s well deserved praise. My BF has his mother’s old treadle from 1899 with the Spinx design and I have a harp shaped base Singer treadle with carnations on it. Both have beautiful oak cabinets and covers. They are both in our living-room! LOL I love the look of the old treadles and yes, we do use them occasionally. I wouldn’t think of getting rid of them. I also have a collection of old wooden spools that adorn the machines. I will definitely be checking out that web site!

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    Jun 7, 2011, 07.47 PMby Statuess

    I’ve never used a treadle machine, but I until recently I used my Mum’s old manual one (with a wheel handle). I’m soldiering on with mastering the electric one we got, but to me it seems much harder to use, especially as it goes to fast my lines tend to be a bit wobbly (I make mostly doll clothes, which means sewing around teeny waistbands etc.). The other stitches are handy, though!

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    Jun 7, 2011, 07.31 PMby betty-boo

    My gran gave me a Singer for my 12th birthday, many, many moons ago! I learned to sew on it. I loved the thingy which hems with a minimal hem, I love the ruffler attachment, although I’m not a ruffle kind of girl, I just love thie idea that I could be if I chose. I bought a very, old hand wound, Singer a few years ago because it is like silk to turn the crank handle. It’s an EA813406 to be precise. So old it has a shuttle not a bobbin below. Sorry folks I am so not technical enough to know all the correct phrases, forgive please… But I just can’t work out how to thread it. I found the SInger website archive, and didn’t understand the diagram. Clearly written for someone whom had once known how to do it but had forgotten. So it sits in my window looking gorgeous!

    My last Singer is a treddle, I was given it by a fellow Freecycler last year and I love it to bits. Peter ,you didn’t even mention the calorie burning, calf shaping aspect of using one.

    I do have a new(ish) Janome, but when the lights go out due to global warming, I’ll be the one with new clothes still. ;-) Betty

    1 Reply
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      Jun 7, 2011, 10.51 PMby Peter Lappin

      You’re right, Betty. It’s great for the legs AND keeps you aerobically fit! LOL

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