How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Treadle Sewing Machine

Human-powered tools are not only better for the environment than their gas and electric counterparts, they serve as an act of self-sufficiency, too. Learn how to build a treadle sewing machine and discover the difference human-powered tools can make.

| February 15, 2013

  • Human Powered Home Cover
     "The Human-Powered Home," by Tamara Dean, is your complete guide to modern pedal-powered, treadled and hand-cranked devices for the home. 
    Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Electric To Treadle
    Figure 1: Electric sewing machine converted to treadle sewing machine.
    Illustration Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Remove The Motor
    Figure 2: Removing the sewing machine motor.
    Illustration Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Measuring The Belt
    Figure 3: Measuring the belt.
    Illustration Courtesy New Society Publishers
  • Connecting Belt Ends
    Figure 4: Connecting the belt ends.
    Illustration Courtesy New Society Publishers

  • Human Powered Home Cover
  • Electric To Treadle
  • Remove The Motor
  • Measuring The Belt
  • Connecting Belt Ends

What if I could harness some of all this energy my own body produces? An unusual question, to be sure — yet human power is a very old, practical and empowering alternative to fossil fuels. The Human-Powered Home (New Society Publishers, 2008), a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Book for Wiser Living, is a one-of-a-kind guide to human-powered tools gathered from a unique collection of experts. This book discusses the science and history of human power and examines the common elements of human-powered devices. For those who are beginning to understand the importance of a life of reduced dependency on fossil fuels, this book can be a catalyst for change. 

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Human-Powered Home.

Read more from The Human-Powered Home:
How to Make Human-Powered Tools: Bike-Frame Cultivator

After reading about Anne Kusilek’s enthusiasm for treadle sewing machines maybe you’re inspired to try treadling yourself. This plan guides you through converting a mid-20th-century electric sewing machine to be treadle powered. One advantage of using a newer-model sewing machine rather than an original treadle machine is that it provides a wider variety of stitches. At the same time, using a treadle allows you to sew free from the grid. This plan is the simplest in the book, and after you’ve learned how to make the conversion, you could do it in 5 minutes or less for a friend.

The parts list includes a sewing machine with an external, belt-driven motor. Though the criteria are very specific, you won’t have any trouble finding machines that fit this description. And providing they don’t have a special feature that collectors covet, you can get a good, used machine for $20 to $40. Because these machines were manufactured to last generations, and because they don’t rely on electronics, virtually all of them still function well. (You might also find a bargain on a machine whose motor is faulty; since you’ll be removing the motor, it doesn’t matter whether it works.) For optimal performance, consult a sewing machine maintenance manual and clean and oil the machine properly before use.

Treadle bases — the stand that contains the cast-iron treadle drive and a wooden table, sometimes with drawers on both sides — are also easy to come by. Prices depend on condition, but average about $50. Make sure the treadle apparatus is whole and working. Some treadle bases have been converted to side tables or plant stands, their drives dismantled, and of course, these will no longer operate a sewing machine.

8/24/2017 8:40:43 PM

Hello to Both of you, to answer your questions, GO to EBAY !! You can find both manuals and long bobbins, I know as I have found both of what you are talking about as I 'restore' many sewing brands and types of sewing machines for our christian school's thrift store. As for you turning your electric machine into a treadle machine where the rubber belt wheel is on the motor, that's the wheel you will attach your treadle belt. If you have any more questions, please just ask.

6/2/2013 5:33:37 AM

Hello everyone I was hoping that someone here could help me.  I just purchased a vintage sewing machine in the hopes of converting it to a treddle machine.  It's in amazing shape, seems to have the original finnish and cords, a strange tool that seems to be a screwdriver for the machine.  Looks more homemade than anything but works well.   I was also able to get a few accessories with it small stuff but helpful the one thing that I DIDN'T get was an instruction book I was hoping that someone here had one or knew where I could print one out.  I don't need an original hard copy just something to go by to USE the machine not collect it.  The information on the machine that I have is:  International Sewing Machine De Luxe (spelled that way on the machine or somethings missing), serial # E5505312 with an M inside a circle.  The motor is on the OUTSIDE of the machine in a casing, a light on the back with cover (i'll stick an LED in there to light my work),  looks like an 1800s style housing with the shaped housing next to the needle assembly, it has a small rubber belt that stretches from the motor to the wheel, it looks like there was something attatched just under the wheel but not certain as to what; there are several "Service" panels original to the machine; it reverses as well as winds bobbins, NOT on top but it'll work.  I could get someone to take a picture of it if that will help you. It seems to have all the metal tags and things from the factory still on the machine.  Please if you recognize this machine and can help i'm lost.   Thank you so much for your time, I didn't know where else to turn that wouldn't send me on a wild goose chase.  THANK YOU!  Jenny

Mary Jane Harvill
4/4/2013 1:54:56 PM

I have an antique treadle sewing machine in great shape that I have had for many years but have not been able to use because it doesn't have a bobbin. It doesn't take a round bobbin like modern machines but a long one. Does anyone know where I might be able to locate such a bobbin?

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