How to Use a White Treadle Sewing Machine

Reader Contribution by Linda Holliday
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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.

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. If
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.

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.