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.
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 expense. 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 www.TreadleOn.net.
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.