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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

How to Use a White Treadle Sewing Machine

When we brought home an antique White Family Rotary treadle sewing machine from a thrift store last year, I thought it would be just like great-granny’s old Singer I’d used as a child. After we cleaned the White and doused every moving part with oil, I figured I’d hop on and be stitching away – just like that.

Well, I soon learned the White has one very distinct difference from other treadles. The top of the hand wheel is turned away from the operator to sew. Sure, the wheel will turn toward the front as in other machines, but the thread will bunch up and make an awful mess. Treadling “backwards” took some getting used to, sort of like driving on the opposite side of the road, but now is a mindless motion.

That was lesson No. 1.

Then, since the machine had only one bobbin, I went online to eBay and bought four “vintage” bobbins in a package from the 1950s or 60s for about $2.50 each. Although they are slightly different in appearance (stamped “Japan”), they work just as well as the original bobbin.

White Rotary Treadle
Recently, when I realized I needed many bobbins for different thread weights and colors, I ordered a bargain pack on eBay – 20 bobbins for $15 and free shipping.  These bobbins are brand-spanking new and shiny. I assume “made in China.”

In the bobbin case, the modern bobbins work just fine … but, the center hole is a tad larger than the older bobbins, so they spin on the bobbin winder instead of winding on the thread.

That was lesson No. 2.

My husband solved this problem by suggesting I apply a tiny dab of masking tape to the bobbin winder shaft. His solution worked perfectly. So, yes, you can buy new bobbins instead of the extra cost for antique or vintage bobbins. You can even sew with them. However, to save trouble, I recommend finding older bobbins if you can. They are certainly worth the additional cost. I’ve learned a few other tricks worth mentioning. Ifbobbins you have used an electric machine most of your life as I have, you’ve surely gotten used to modern conveniences, such as automatic forward/backward stitching to lock in your starts and stops. Old treadles stitch only forward. So, you can make a few stitches (about 1/2 inch), and then pivot on the needle to turn the fabric 180 degrees and reverse your line of stitching back to your starting point. Then stitch forward again. This takes extra time and is awkward when sewing large pieces.

An easier method of locking in your stitches is to start out with very short stitches (I set my length on 0). Stitch about half an inch and then increase the stitch length to about 4 for regular sewing. As you near the end of your line of stitching, reduce the stitch length again to 0 or 1 for the last half an inch. This should hold under most circumstances. At the top of pockets, however, I use the forward/backward technique.

Bobbin winder
And, since there is no zigzag stitch for finishing seams, I stitch about 1/8-inch away from the first seam in places where I fear the fabric could unravel over time. In places of stress or with loosely woven fabric, I’ll make a flat-fell seam, turning under the raw edges. If there is an easier solution, I’d love to hear about it.

So, even without 1,000 stitches to choose from, I absolutely love my old treadle and wouldn’t trade it for all the bobbins in China. The stitches are smooth and uniform, even when sewing through eight layers of heavy denim. The one exception, however, is if using cheap thread (the dollar-store variety), the machine will skip stitches. Use quality thread.

This is also the easiest machine to thread, oil and adjust. With my fancy electric machines, I would often scowl when it was time to rethread or wind a bobbin because it was a nuisance. No longer. Threading this machine takes just a few seconds. I have not tried out any of the attachments yet for my machine, but will get around to it on the next snowy day. Check back soon to learn more about sewing with a treadle.

To see some of the projects I’ve finished on my old treadle or for a closeup shot of the threading sequence, please see our blog.

Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid with human power, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.

7/24/2015 5:14:20 PM Perhaps this will help you see how to thread your White Rotary machine. It's actually quite easy. Please let me know if I can help.
7/21/2015 12:25:11 PM

Hi, I love this article but I can't find the blog posting which shows the close up of the threading sequence. Could you please provide a link or point me in the right direction. Thanks, Brita

3/8/2015 8:18:09 PM

Hi! I am picking up a White treadles this week it's missing the belt. Are they hard to find?thanks!Jenny

1/15/2015 2:06:11 PM

I just brought home a White Rotary treadle machine last night. I'm completely enthralled already, even though I haven't sewn a single stitch! From what I have been able to ascertain from the serial number, she's about 100 years old and she has a lovely cabinet which will be even lovelier with a bit of restoration. I was lucky enough to discover a tin of accessories, 3 extra bobbins and a mostly intact manual inside the drawers. She needs a new belt, and a soon as I can get one, I am anxious to try her out. I did a little sewing on a treadle when I was a young girl. I wonder if it's like riding a bicycle?

11/2/2014 3:16:19 PM

I can't seem to see forward on my antique White treadle! Any suggestions? I love it...paid $25 at a yard sale!

8/21/2014 10:37:39 AM

I have a White machine in a beautiful cabinet. to open just lift the lid from right to left and every thing just pops into place. I was frustrated with it to say the least. So thank-you for telling me to turn the wheel backwards to sew. I'll try again. It did seem to have a tension problem and you may have just solved it. Thank-you again.

5/2/2014 5:08:57 PM

Trish, is your machine a White? Generally, the old treadles are not too complicated. You may also find a manual online. Let me know if I can help.

5/1/2014 11:22:38 AM

My machine looks similar to the one in this article, except it's in bits and pieces on the cabinet because I took it apart and didn't make any notes on how to get it back together. I'm a dingbat who had to learn a lesson the hard way. My next step it to find any pictures I can to figure this thing out.