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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

  • Missing

    Jun 3, 2011, 09.46 AMby iin

    I sew on my mother old treadle black butterfly sewing machine since child, it was great. it s quite comment in indonesia,place where i used to live.til now my mom still used it. and i had used my friend singer vintage sewing machine .til i brought my own singer 3 years a go. thx for great article.

  • Missing

    Jun 3, 2011, 09.22 AMby varenoea

    I’ve used them too… they’re great. The only drawback is that they don’t sew jersey fabrics (unless you use the old toilet paper trick). The real advantage is that when something is broken, you can easily find the problem and fix it or get it fixed – much easier than with a modern electric one.

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    Jun 3, 2011, 07.15 AMby missflax

    What a fantastic article. A friend of mine has an old Singer machine and will appreciate your thoughts and information.

    I have to agree with you on the All Saints reference – I actually think it is quite shocking and a waste of a still useful machine, plus all of them will see the grave as soon as the company decides to change their shopdressing style – what a complete waste :(

    1 Reply
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    Jun 3, 2011, 06.08 AMby squiddlepop

    My mum has an old vintage sewing machine in our hallway….so i am convincing her to teach me how to use it on Queens Birthday :)

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    Jun 3, 2011, 05.42 AMby bohemiannow

    I have used my grandmothers vintage singer sewing machine but only for a little while… she won’t let me! She thinks I’m used to the electric one, which is different. I can’t wait till she changes her mind! It will be chalenging.

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    Jun 3, 2011, 05.00 AMby jen .ss1

    It’s a charming thing, but please use it with care! My grandmother sewed up her finger on one of those and the joint never worked properly after that. I’m not sure how she did it, but I think she got distracted by the treadle action…

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    Jun 3, 2011, 04.22 AMby luluxo

    I do see these sometimes at thrift stores (maybe not quite as beautiful as the one you have- amazing) I always felt either overwhelmed- could i even figure it out, find the right parts, accessories, etc. or like I just don’t need another machine I might not use. After reading this post, I think I will just get one next time, if I’m lucky enough to come across one again. Thanks for the inspiration <3

    2 Replies
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jun 4, 2011, 08.49 AMby Peter Lappin

      As long as you get a machine that takes a regular class 66 or 15 bobbin, you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding parts.

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      Jun 5, 2011, 05.49 AMby luluxo

      thanks for the tip <3

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    Jun 3, 2011, 04.07 AMby alissaslagle

    I bought a treadle sewing machine almost 2 years ago. I love it! I rarely even bother using my electric machine unless I have a button hole to make or necessary zig-zagging. There is just something so simple about the treadle. I really enjoyed this post!

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    Jun 3, 2011, 03.33 AMby mandrych

    I just love my treadle machine, it has a beauty that is nurtured by age. Opening up my treadle machine is like opening a time machine. Out comes the memories and the sounds and the faces I loved so much as a child. It is like looking through old photographs. I have an Ellisimo that does everything but turn off the lights and it’s more than great, but something about the simplicity with a treadle machine that can make sewing soothing to your soul. Thanks for the article!

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    Jun 3, 2011, 03.18 AMby ealis

    Great article Peter. I’ve sewn on a treadle before, it belonged to a friend of my mother. It drove me batty. Of course I was about ten at the time and everything drove me batty. After reading your article, I’m thinking of giving it ago again, especially since I have seen them popping up at yard sales. Maybe the next time I see one, I’ll get it just to have an alternate to modern technology. Keep on sewing!

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    Jun 3, 2011, 02.40 AMby loyl8

    I would love to have one and learn. All Saints store in Vegas has the same amazing window display.

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    Jun 3, 2011, 02.11 AMby lillybeeandpaul

    what a great article. I have an an old Singer from 1908 made in Koenigsberg -then Germany now Russia, that belonged to my grandmother. My grandfather attached an external motor to it. So I my grandmother could choose between electricity or not. It still has the original manuel and a box full of different feet, I never got around to explore these nice little gadgets fully, because by the time I was finally able to sew more than a straight line we moved from Europe to the US and it was just to difficult to get another motor attached with the right voltage. So I had a good excuse the get a new one, which is a good machine but it was never as stable and reliable as my old singer, and it does not stitch as beautifully.

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    Jun 3, 2011, 01.06 AMby mountainhoney

    I almost forgot. There is one more reason I like using my old singer. There is just something about watching the bobbin winder work. It’s so fun to watch that little thing go back and forth winding every bobbin perfectly. I even used my singer as part of the logo for my shop. Check it out here:

    www.mountainhoneystitchery.com

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    Jun 3, 2011, 12.59 AMby mountainhoney

    I have my great-grandmother’s machine. I think it’s the same one you have Peter. It’s in perfect working order. I like using it because it has some really fun and interesting attachments.

    1. Foot Hemmer – This one makes that tiny rolled hem. My modern machine has this one but the old one has a slot so that you can perfectly add lace or trim to the edge at the same time.

    2. Adjustable Hemmer – No more pinning or pressing your hem in place with this one. Just turn the dial to the desired width and start sewing.

    3. Tucker – Tuxedo shirts are a snap with this attachment. It will sew one tuck any size and mark the next one at the same time.

    4. Ruffler – This one is my favorite. It will do gathers with any amount of fullness you like and attach that ruffle to the edge of another piece of fabric at the same time. It will also make plaits with varying amounts of fullness. It will even make groups of plaits with a space and then another group of plaits.

    5. Binder – This one will attach 1/4" wide bias tape or ribbon to the edge of fabric. No need to press or pin your tape ahead of time. Just feed it into the attachment with your fabric a let the machine do the rest.

    6. Edge Stitcher – This is an extra attachment that didn’t originally come with the machine. It has five different slots in it and a right and left position. I’m not exactly sure what it does but I think you can lap two pieces of fabric and stitch them together.

    7. Zigzagger! – This is a crazy one. I have only tried it once. Basically you can sew a zig-zag with a straight stitch machine. It works by moving the fabric back and forth instead of the needle.

    8. Buttonholer – I haven’t tried this one yet but I imagine that it works like the zigzagger and moves the fabric around instead of the needle.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jun 3, 2011, 11.18 AMby Peter Lappin

      Wow — you’re fortunate to have all those attachments. I have a few but they’re hard to find as they screw on from the back (you can see some of them in a pic in the article, including a ruffler).

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    Jun 3, 2011, 12.50 AMby fearlessfairy61

    Hi Peter, Great article. I sew on my grandmother’s treadle machine as a child & teenager and it was great. Now I have and old electric Singer machine that weights a ton but sews everything in site ( from the 50’s) . A friend gave my daughter and old German sewing machine ( Veritas VN 213 S) from the 1920-30’s , that the bobbing has the shape of a bullet. We are still learning how to use it.

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    Jun 2, 2011, 11.37 PMby verypurpleperson

    When I first learned to sew, my first sewing machine was a hand-cranked Singer. It sewed without any problem although it was kinda hard holding the fabric with one hand while the other cranked the handle. Then it got treadle installed so I could use both hands.

    It wasn’t vintage though, as treadle black Singer are quite common in Indonesia, where I used to live. It is used by every street tailor. There are even mobile tailors who carry this black treadle on bike, people use their service to shortening or hemming pants and other small things like that, not making the actual clothes. They are quite a funny sight, their bikes are modified to have small cupboard for the treadle which also act as sewing table. They can sew everywhere!

    I use a modern Janome now, with all its fancy stitches and buttons. But sometimes I miss the simplicity of my old treadle. I’ve used it to make a lot of things from dolls to my own clothes and I don’t remember ever had problems with it. Sometimes straight stitch is all that we need :)

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    Jun 2, 2011, 11.35 PMby aurorat

    You know what? I desperately want a treadle sewing machine. They are a machine of beauty. I never understood a man’s fascination with cars and engines until I really got into sewing. There is something so powerful and fantastic about knowing how to use a machine AND the ins and outs of it. I love it! My mom has a machine from the 50s that I learned to sew with and everytime I use my 1 year old Singer machine, I wish it had it’s own history. I suppose I’ll give mine some history, but until then Iam in LOVE with old swing machines-working and non. Love love LOVE them!

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    Jun 2, 2011, 11.16 PMby minnietheminks

    You do write the best articles, I enjoy them very much.

    I have never sewn on a treadle machine, but I often admire them when I go to antique fairs and would love to own one eventually. My partner and I want to be living off grid one day and that might be the time to get one, for when the sun, wind or water ain’t giving enough power to plug in.

    I agree with the All Saints display. I first saw this last festive season when I went home to Scotland, it was like a train crash, morbid but I still wanted to look! All I could think of was all that they could all be still sewing… still I did take a few photos of all the beautiful decals on them. Why do sewing machines look so boring in comparison now?

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    Jun 2, 2011, 09.17 PMby FabricUiPhoneApp

    I’ve sewn with a 1950s Singer…and it sucked fabric into the feeddogs like somebody’s business. I’ve said here before at BurdaStyle that led me to temporarily abandon sewing…I only returned to the waters with a high-tech Viking Husqvarna…which got me to sew jerseys and knits, unpreviously unexplored territory to me. That said, I’d still buy a old machine. Right now, I’ve a friend with a Featherweight…I ask her if I can buy it. She says no can do. Sigh.

  • Missing

    Jun 2, 2011, 08.13 PMby egdirb

    We have a treadle at home that has spent most of my childhood with the TV on top. I have to say it was probably the first thing I ever sewed on but the belt broke early on and due to the difficulties of finding a replacement in the pre-internet highlands of Scotland I moved onto an old hand crank instead.

    I’ve always understood that one of the advantages of a treadle is its strength, and I know several people that swear by them for sewing heavy canvas and sail cloth (sadly not something I need much in day to day life).

    You’ve really inspired me to check out those old sewing machines again, hopefully when I return to Scotland I can get them up and running again.

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    Jun 2, 2011, 07.59 PMby hoorayforever

    I bought a treadle from the 1890s (I think) last year and want to make it a summer project to get it running. It needs a new belt, which I have but haven’t installed yet. I’m excited but also intimidated to start using it!

    I think I relate most to your reasons 4 and 5, but related to 1, I think it’d be pretty cool to sew through the the apocalypse. ;)

    1 Reply
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    Jun 2, 2011, 07.37 PMby leonx

    i love my treadle sewing machine my great great grandma got it as a present in the second world war and ever since it has been passed down from generations i love sewing with it it makes me feel that i put more love into the garments i make. it is in perfect and i mean perfect condition, every time i use it, it feels like its brand new!

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    Jun 2, 2011, 07.25 PMby flymy

    the only sewing machine i own is a treadle similar to the ones in the photos and i love it! however i would like a more modern one aswell as the lack of stitches and the weakness of the one stitch it does have is fustrating when making clothing and using fabrics other that basic cotton.

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    Jun 2, 2011, 06.37 PMby bjr99

    Hi Peter,

    What a great article!!!

    I too have a treadle. It was my great-grand mothers from the 1890’s. It still sews like a dream! What is there on it to go wrong other than the belt breaking.

    Do you remember that summer a few years back when an airconditioner in Cleveland took out the electricity here in NYC on one of the hottest days of the year? Well, I had a fitting scheduled for the next day and had to make a muslin for it. I moved the treadle to the window and sewed the muslin up while my business partner did the cutting out.

    1 Reply
    • Jeans_sew_along_best_large

      Jun 2, 2011, 07.57 PMby Peter Lappin

      Yes, I remember it well. That’s fantastic!

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