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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Relearning to Sew On Treadle Sewing Machine

When I was young, I’d watch in fascination as my mother used her treadle sewing machine (an 1800’s Singer that belonged to my great-grandmother) to fashion fuzzy coats, couch covers and zippered pencil bags. I’d sit on the floor and watch as her feet deftly pedaled fast on the straightaway and then slowed as she rounded a curve or reached an end.

Built before electricity, the Singer purred, interrupted only when the ancient leather belt flew apart. Mom would stop pedaling, rejoin the belt ends with a bent nail and string, and resume sewing. Without realizing it, I was learning much about human-powered machines just by watching my mother sew.Linda Holliday 

Finally, at age 11, I was allowed to use the machine myself. What a thrill to pick out a Raggedy Ann pattern at Ben Franklin in town for my first project. The fabric, buttons and stuffing came from my mother’s scrap box – what she called “glad rags.”  They may only have been faded remnants of former garments, but she was “glad to have them.”

For the ruffles, I used the Singer pleat-gathering tool. Embroidering the facial features required attaching another clever gadget. I followed the directions in the yellowed manual, eventually trying out each attachment as I completed Raggedy Ann.

As a teen, I modified straight-legged jeans by adding triangles of gaudy fabric to create bellbottoms. It was the 70’s. What can I say?

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

Nothing compared, though, with the satisfaction of sewing with that antique treadle machine. The hum of an electric motor is impersonal and the speed challenging to control. But, I grew up being told technology is better. My mother, too, gave away her treadle in favor of a modern plastic and tin marvel. Thankfully, her treadle did not end up in the city dump with mountains of others.

On our journey to self-reliance, my husband, Darren, and I have been gathering human-powered tools when we can find them. It’s surprising and sad how quickly hand- and foot-powered tools were junked when electricity became available. From 1850 to 1890, more than 100 apple-pealing devices were patented. Then none, except those running on electric power. And so it goes with thousands of other nifty human-powered appliances.

I drove by a fix-it shop recently and couldn’t believe my lucky find – an antique stainless steel hand-powered washing machine sitting out front. I zoomed in the parking lot and ran over to the washer, only to discover petunias blooming in the rusted out basin.

Our search for non-electric tools revived memories of that faithful Singer. Within a few days of putting my brother-in-law on the lookout, he found an abused White Rotary treadle machine at a Springfield thrift store for $60. Even though I was somewhat discouraged by its neglected condition (I didn’t even take a picture), I was eager to get it home and start refurbishing. I wasn’t interested in beauty; I just wanted a working treadle machine.

The machine appeared (and smelled) as if it was stored in a chicken coop. The cabinet was brutally battered and the hand wheel was nearly 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 a few photos to remember how to put it back together.

We learned that unless a machine is severely rusted, it is not difficult to restore. Ours was not missing pieces, but even those can be found online for little Linda Holliday2expense. I bought 25 feet of leather belt online (enough for a lifetime) for less than $10. Copies of manuals are also available, which you may need to learn to thread your machine. I discovered that opposite of other machines, the White hand wheel is turned away from the operator to sew. That took some getting used to.

Handy online sources include

Here is a great 1975 Mother Earth News article by Helene Ellis illustrates "Tips on Buying, Restoring and Using a Treadle Sewing Machines."

As we worked, Darren and I marveled at the White’s quality craftsmanship. Online copies of advertisements reveal this machine was built to be affordable for the average household, costing about $55 new in 1913. Yet, the cabinet has in inlaid ruler, handsome curved drawers and detailed wrought iron stand. The machine is adorned on every side with golden decals.

Darren was especially intrigued with the precise machine work. After cleaning and oiling the treadle in the shop, he gave it a few pumps to get it spinning and then came in the house to fetch me. We went out and saw the flywheel still silently turning minutes later, perfectly balanced and smooth.

Between the two of us, we had the cabinet and machine looking and running like new in three days. Then, I couldn’t stop sewing. I scoured the house looking for small repair projects – a kitchen curtain, cover for the cinder block holding our water filter and padded arm rests for my rocker. Then, just for fun, I created a true scrap quilt of ragged clothes, bits of leftover fabric and old pillow stuffing.

It’s been a few months since we restored it, but I still marvel at the machine’s strength, precision and ease of use. I picture the machine’s original owner, whoever she may have been, in a long calico dress sewing bushels of baby clothes by lantern light. The machine was surely a treasured piece of furniture in her home.

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

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well Water Boy, a company devoted to producing products for off-grid living. 

8/26/2013 10:53:39 AM

I purchased a treadle sewing machine this weekend. I cannot determine the maker. It looks like a singer, but doesn't say that anywhere on it. The words Mc Gills or Mr Gills is printed on it. Ring a bell with anyone?????

8/26/2013 10:47:31 AM

I purchased a treadle sewing machine this weekend. I cannot determine the maker. It looks like a singer, but doesn't say that anywhere on it. The words Mc Gills or Mr Gills is printed on it. Ring a bell with anyone?????

8/26/2013 10:43:24 AM

I purchased a treadle sewing machine this weekend. I cannot determine the maker. It looks like a singer, but doesn't say that anywhere on it. The words Mc Gills or Mr Gills is printed on it. Ring a bell with anyone?????

cheryl james
4/11/2013 3:33:25 AM

I own four treadle sewing machine. A Singer, A New Home, A White Rotary, and a Jones. I would not trade them for anything. I do own electric sewing machines as well, but when I am working a customers job and my electric machines act up, I head straight for my treadles. They never let me down. Two of them I purchased from a fabric store during their going out of business sale. They did not even know they worked, that was the New Home and the Jones. The Singer I bought at a yard sale for $50.00 and the White Rotary, well there was a young lady that called me up and asked if I wanted this old sewing machine that was in her garage. Her description of it is "this old machine that someone took the motor off of". I told her sure I would gladly buy it from her. She said no way am I taking money for something that someone took apart, "in fact I will even bring it to you just to get it out of my garage". When she should up I could hardly believe my eyes. There is not much wrong with the cabinet and all the machine needed was cleaned and oiled. It runs great. If anyone ever sees one at a yard sale or thrift store do not pass them up. They are worth every bit of work to fix them up, and during times of power outages, you can still sew-on.

missy shay
4/11/2013 2:56:45 AM

I have been sewing on my treadle all day today, I also have a hand crank sewing machine. I much prefer sewing on them to sewing with my electric sewing machine. I just went to a T.O.G.A. (treadle on gathering academy) this weekend where I learned so much about how to use, fix, clean my people powered sewing machines. In fact all of my friends are now wanting ones after seeing mine!

gordon deisting
4/11/2013 12:43:26 AM

MY MOM made a vest from a moose that I gotten on my hunting trip alone.She used that old Singer to sew the vest where she could and sewed the rest by hand.My late grand parents tanned that hide as the last hide for me remember them,& mom well she did her magic and sewed.Well today I still got that vest and all the money in the WORLD couldn't buy it.So as," I'd always say never give something away for it never comes back."

gorman deisting
4/11/2013 12:32:26 AM

My mother has one calle d a "Singer",And my late father bought for her in Spurfield Alberta,And he paid a hevty price of $5.00,Well today ol' Singer still hums,And all the Gold in caliphoney couldn't buy it.My other half had one given to her that needed restore work and to is not for sale.These 2 sewing machines will only be handed down in the family as heirlomes.So as you see one for $100.00 GRAB IT CAUSE IF YOU DON'T I WILL.

linda holliday
4/10/2013 9:48:12 PM

Christen, the old treadle machines aren't as inexpensive as they were 20 or so years ago, but I still see them in thrift stores for $100 or less. They don't last long in the store, though, so grab it quick. I paid $60 for mine, but it wasn't beautiful. I didn't care, and later discovered it was easy to refurbish. I wouldn't buy one that is terribly rusted. So long as you buy a common make, such as Singer or White, missing parts are easily located online. I bought bobbins for 50 cents each on eBay, and bought the belt on Amazon for $8. The old machines are really quite simple and made to last for generations. Good luck!

marian viviano
4/10/2013 8:56:16 PM

I have my mother and grandmother's old Singer treadle in my living room and it looks just like your photo... plus some water stains and chipped wood along the front of the cabinet. I love to just look at it and imagine Mom and Grandmother sewing for the family. By the time I came along in 1948 Mom had a newer electric machine, which now sits in my guest bedroom and is an antique in it's own right, but I can still remember the treadle humming away as she put all her love and creativity into laces and frills for my 3 sisters and I until I was in my teens. She even sewed clothes for my and my younger sister's Barbie dolls. She is 92 now, and while no longer sewing clothing, she still hand quilts beautiful creations to give to her family. She is a treasure... and so is "our" old treadle machine.

sue schuster
4/10/2013 6:46:11 PM

I love this piece about the old treadle machine. I spotted one at a thrift store and didn't buy it. I could kick myself for not buying it. I think I was afraid that I could not restore it.

4/10/2013 6:00:48 PM

My mom has an old Singer treadle, and I would love to find one for my home. Any tips on the best places to look for one?

linda holliday
4/4/2013 9:36:49 PM

Yes, Lisa, hang onto that old Singer. Treadle machines are surprisingly easy to use -- once you learn how to thread them. They are also very strong. While making some firewood carriers of old denim fabric, I stitched through 6 or 7 layers of heavy denim without missing a stitch. I've never used a modern machine that could do that. Another great benefit of a treadle machine is the ability to sew one stitch at a time, which is handy when sewing curves, points or tiny articles.

lisa mcleroy
4/3/2013 2:24:18 PM

So, I guess I shouldn't try to get rid of the Singer I have!??