Relearning to Sew On Treadle Sewing Machine

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
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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

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

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

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

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

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.