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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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    Jun 7, 2011, 07.24 PMby genevi

    My mother got my first treadle machine so I would leave her machine alone. She said I messed up the timing. Children tend to pull the fabric instead of allowing the feed dogs to do the work. I had the same problem with my girls. My machine got left behind when we moved and I felt I had lost a good friend.

    1 Reply
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      Jun 10, 2011, 05.50 AMby Cytheria

      I had the same problem with my girls. My machine got left behind when we moved and I felt I had lost a good friend.Rolex Replica Watches

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    Jun 7, 2011, 07.16 PMby genevi

    I have a lovely WHITE treadle machine which I bought about 35 years ago when my Great Grandmother’s machine went to someone else. Since then, I always buy my own heritage. I believe Singer bought out a few smaller companies one being White. I have used it to sew sock monkeys which I have been doing for 35 years also. It just seamed appropriate.

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    Jun 7, 2011, 07.16 PMby Ashley Bender

    My mom has a treadle and I love sewing on it! There is just something about it….so pure and simple. I’ll never forget the time my great-grandmother came over to sew on it. Man, could she make that thing sing! There’s something wrong with ours at the moment. Haven’t touched it in a while, so can’t remember what. Makes me want to get it fixed, sit down, & sew!

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    Jun 7, 2011, 04.25 PMby Leana Luna

    I have an almost antique Singer sewing machine (or at least I believe it’s Singer, since I’m not at home atm, I can’t check ;)). In any case, it’s complete, and I think it still works, but I don’t know how… Still have to figure it out :(

    1 Reply
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    Jun 7, 2011, 12.01 AMby Peter Lappin

    For anyone who’s interested in learning more about treadles — and I’m delighted to discover so many are — an excellent resource is the website TreadleOn.net.

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    Jun 6, 2011, 11.55 PMby harrietbazley

    I learned on a hand sewing machine as a child (my mother didn’t trust me with her 1970s-vintage electric machine, so bought me a second-hand Singer in a home-made case to play with).

    The local sewing shop has a couple of these still for sale today at thirty or forty pounds each in amongst the hundreds-of-pounds’-worth of programmable electronic models; I’m somewhat tempted… A treadle machine, of course, was the ‘ultimate’ (two hands free!)

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    Jun 6, 2011, 10.44 PMby eyeofthebeholder

    Cool! I’m not the only odd ball! I love my 1926 hand crank(which I stumbled across in a thrift store for $100 what a steal- even has all the attachments and accessory feet!)- goes through leather like no one’s business and all the pretty decals- it is my favorite machine (shhhh my serger might hear! :-) ) Love the article! Can’t wait to visit All Saints!

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jun 6, 2011, 11.59 PMby Peter Lappin

      I’m really interested in trying a hand crank — it surprises me that you wouldn’t miss having that extra hand free….

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    Jun 6, 2011, 03.27 AMby gentlegemdesignes

    I have been looking for one under $200.00 (I have a small budget) but have not found one. I do have a 1960’s or so Viking that I absloutey love but it is electric. It has these really cool stitch functions which have to be manually added to the machine. I personally think the older machines are built better but I’m comparing it to a brother and singer ( the singer is great when its workin right).

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    Jun 5, 2011, 11.55 PMby corinneski

    One of my Aunts bought one of these old Singer treadle machines and discovered she could buy all sorts of feet for it and made the most wonderful things from loose covers for the couch, dresses, skirts and blouses. She’s long gone now and I have no idea what happened to the machine. I think she really liked that machine because the user had full control of the process. I remember the stand for the machine had drawers on either side below the sewing surface and the woodwork was just beautiful.

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    Jun 5, 2011, 04.56 AMby margif513

    Peter, I enjoy your articles greatly, and am thrilled to hear from others who have treadle machines. My uncle gifted me with a machine from his aunts. The table is exquisite all on it’s own with quarter-sawn oak. The machine is in need of repair, but my husband is taking it apart (carefully!) and will take care of any problems. I’m thrilled to be able to join the many sewists who are exploring our seamed roots. I also have a 1928 Singer. Amazingly, I also have an instruction/ class book for this same exact machine model. I’m looking for more info on the treadle machine-do you have any suggestions? Thank you for all of your entertaining and interesting columns.

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    Jun 5, 2011, 01.05 AMby Timea Schmidt

    Oh,it brings back such a good memories!!! My grandma use to to have one. Not a Singer, but an old Russian model(being European). I think I was 5 or 6 y old, and she used to make bags for corn and bean and whatever she was growing. She was sewing on the machine and I was making dresses for my dolls from old lace curtains by hand:))) Sometimes I forget how and why did I started to sew. Thanks Peter to remind me!

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    Jun 4, 2011, 09.06 AMby kiesja22

    Ode to the Singer foot treadle machine!!!!!….I learnt to sew on a Singer Treadle at my Grandmothers house and I was only about 9 years old. At ten years of age I sewed a very neat skirt with pockets, zip, button hole and a matching lined waistcoat as my first complete outfit. What an amazing machine! It allowed me to sew at my own pace with enough hand control on my garment. My love of sewing began then!!! Oh I fell in love with sewing!! the ability to create something beautiful out of a piece of simple cloth..wow!

    1 Reply
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      Jun 4, 2011, 07.09 PMby Peter Lappin

      Those sound like great memories!

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    Jun 3, 2011, 10.58 PMby sarsaparilla

    I bought a treadle machine a few years ago, and I absolutely love it for the same reasons as you. Initially it was frozen; during the hours I spent working on it I learnt a bit about sewing machines work. Now I can diagnose problems with my other machine :) Unfortunately I have to keep it at my parents’ house because we can’t get the poor thing up the stairs to my apartment!

    2 Replies
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      Jun 4, 2011, 08.45 AMby Peter Lappin

      What a pity! You DO know you can remove the machine from the table, right?

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      Jun 4, 2011, 11.16 PMby sarsaparilla

      Sure do (I had to remove it to clean it). The table itself is in a sad state, and I’m not sure if it could handle being lugged up 6 flights of stairs. I’m looking forward to the day when our elevator is in working order ;)

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    Jun 3, 2011, 08.57 PMby aldara

    We have an All Saint store like this in Berlin and I walked by it thinking “Hey, why do they have all those cool vintage sewing machines and I don’t?!” (Well, it’s because I’m a poor student and they aren’t quite as common to find here in Berlin as they apparently are in NYC.)

    Concerning the question: I’d definitely love to have a functioning treadle machine (and have the space to put it up), and I would use it, at least occasionally. My mom has an old treadle desk (inherited from my great-grandma, I think) but the machine has disappeared…

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jun 4, 2011, 08.46 AMby Peter Lappin

      You know, one of the surprises to my treadle was that it’s actually quite small — the size of a child’s desk.

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    Jun 3, 2011, 08.51 PMby oopsitssierralu

    I used to have a small beginner’s sewing machine before (still do) when I went to a tailoring course in summer I was like 9 at the time my teacher said i should use the new one because it would be easier,it wasn’t.I stopped using the new one and only sewed when I went to my grandmother’s house then 2 years ago she died and now I inherited her sewing machine;its an over 60 years old Bernina and whenever I use it I feel a sense of nostalgia,and remember all the sewing lessons we where ment to do…And that it somehow helps me teach myself how to sew. I’ve always wanted a 1890’s Singer but I’ll stick to my Bernina…Its beautiful and its from the sixties…my favourite decade.

    1 Reply
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      Jun 4, 2011, 08.47 AMby Peter Lappin

      It’s great that you have that lovely Bernina — sounds like a gem for so many reasons.

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    Jun 3, 2011, 07.17 PMby grammybear55

    I learned on a treadle sewing Machine and I would go back to it to. I have 2 in my garage one is a singer and a white (which is for sale) I have all the attachment to the singer and my grand kids thinks its relly neat that they can learn to sew like grandma did when I started………

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    Jun 3, 2011, 06.37 PMby mimifashion

    I’m sewing right now with a vintage SINGER that is hidden in a wooden cabinet. It is REALLY old

    and it struggles sometimes but it does the JOB very well. Don’t you just like old rather then new?

    SINGER machines are immortal. They are maybe old but still run like ’’champ``!!!!

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    Jun 3, 2011, 05.04 PMby Su2y

    My mum has one of these old Singer machines, they look so beautiful compared to today’s. My dad did add a motor to it when I was only a small child and I used it too before I left home and had my own machine. My mums Singer is elegant and easy to sew with and does denim no trouble, my more modern one struggles with denim. My mum gave away her modern sewing machine to my future daughter in law a few weeks ago as she needed a machine and my mum always uses the old one anyway. Speaks volumes to the quality of vintage singers!

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    Jun 3, 2011, 12.17 PMby Stitchgirl78

    I love and appreciate the beauty and patina of the various styles of wood cabinets, very decorative cast iron treadles, and sturdiness of the old, yet sometimes beautifully ornate machines. Over the years, I have collected eight fully functional and pristine antique treadle machines (the oldest of which dates back to the 1850s, feeds the fabric from left to right, and has glass presser foot inserts). Most of these machines came with a variety of attachments to make ruffles, tucks, pleats, gathers, rolled hems, etc.

    As you have now experienced, Peter, there’s nothing like sewing on a treadle machine. It is truly a solid piece of machinery, unlike many of today’s machines with their ever increasing plastic parts. A well cleaned, properly oiled machine can give immense sewing pleasure and gratification.

    There were MANY attachments made for the old treadles, and although they may look strange, they do an amazing job. Thanks to the internet, instructions can always be found.

    Thank you for your wonderful article, Peter. It’s nice to see that others appreciate these beautiful old work horses too : )

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    Jun 3, 2011, 11.54 AMby amandaloschiavo

    Ive seen lots of these style sewing machines but never used one, I like the process but having a small business selling clothes unfortunatley speed plays a factor. I only have a domestic electric sewing machine, so it doenst go that fast, but I couldnt imagine hand spinning the wheel or using a threadle.. but i think had i been brought up on that kind of thing,then i’d be like i know how to use it, i know what i can do with it and i’d probably go nooo i dont want to touch an electrical sewng machine..

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