What Is a Treadle Sewing Machine - a tutorial by The Sewing Korner

Seamstresses with all experience levels love the new electric, technologically advanced sewing machines that offer everything you’ll ever need regardless of what you intend to create with them.

However, at one time, seamstresses made do with sewing machines that are a lot less fancy than they are today, and they created great masterpieces every day anyway.

Chances are good that regardless of your age, you already know what a treadle sewing machine is, even if you don’t know these items by their name. 

Treadle machines are not electric but manually powered, and there is a large pedal on the floor that you move back and forth to operate the machine itself. 
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    Treadle Sewing Machines

    Treadle machines are not electric but manually powered, and there is a large pedal on the floor that you move back and forth to operate the machine itself. 

    If you think these sewing machines are only able to handle basic projects, think again. Women have been creating masterpieces with these sewing machines a lot longer than most people realize.

    Back in the days when every article of clothing was homemade and all homemakers had to know how to sew, these sewing machines provided a great alternative to sewing everything by hand. In 1790, a British cabinet maker named Thomas Saint received a patent for the first sewing machine, although no one knows for sure if he ever built a prototype of that machine. Saint wanted the machine as a leather-making tool, but a machine built from his patent drawings was not successful.

    Between 1800 and 1820, a minimum of five people received patents to develop a sewing machine. None of them were successful at the task, but they included men from France, Austria, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. Finally, in 1830, Barthelemy Thimonnier from France created a machine that used a thread and a hooked needle which made a type of chain stitch, the type that today is associated with the embroidery process.

    Soon after this machine was invented, Thimonnier made 80 of the machines and even received a contract to make military uniforms for the French government, but his success didn’t last long. Tailors in the area, afraid they were going to be put out of business, destroyed his factory and put him out of business instead.

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    In 1846, Elias Howe received a patent in the United States for a sewing machine, but marketing and defending his new invention was difficult. Later, a man named Isaac Singer adopted his mechanism and created what would be known as the first treadle sewing machine, and the rest is history. Even today, the name Singer is associated with high-quality sewing machines, both treadle-powered and electric, all over the world.

    In fact, until the 1950s, the Singer company basically dominated the sewing machine industry in the United States. During this timeframe, Japanese-made sewing machines began to flood the market, providing Singer with some competition, and today Singer no longer makes sewing machines, having sold the business to Pfaff Sewing Machine Company, which still makes the machines in Asia. If you see a sewing machine today with the Singer name on it, it was made in Asia by the Pfaff company.

    Lots of Improvements Along the Way

    Naturally, the treadle-type machines improved through the years, and some of the main conveniences that resulted from these improvements include the following:

    • Bradbury automatic foot rest: built for certain types of treadle machines, this foot rest had a footboard and a counterweight connected to a pivoting rod. To operate the machine, the user simply touched the weight and the foot rest automatically came down.
    • Cowles treadle system: this system provided a one-up-one-down pedal motion and was even endorsed by doctors who thought the users’ health would improve the more they use it.
    • Hall treadle attachment: this was simply a modification of the pedal and flywheel and made it easier for the sewing machine to start in the right direction.
    • Spengler treadle: with this type of sewing machine, there was a full-length push bar that the user would push back and forth, which changed the motion from linear to circular and made it easier to do.

    Naturally, with each of these improvements the sewing machine became more valuable and easier to use. In fact, one of the things that surprises many people is that the similarities between treadle machines and today’s electric sewing machines are very much the same. Treadle machines even came with various accessories and specialized parts at one time, so they were able to accommodate everything from basic hems to fancy ruffles, which explains why they were so successful.

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    Are There Advantages to Treadle Sewing Machines?

    These days, a treadle sewing machine is usually hard to find, but they are sometimes found in antique stores and have even been replicated and sold as vintage items. The reproductions are not always as good as the antique sewing machines, which are true originals, but if you can find one, you’ll likely be surprised by how easy they are to operate and how many things they can do. Indeed, these manual sewing machines offer many advantages you may not be aware of, which include the following:

    • They are low-maintenance and built to last. They have no computer chips, fancy wiring, or complicated electrical parts that can malfunction or may need to be replaced at some point, ensuring you’ll be able to keep your machine for a very long time, especially if you take good care of it.
    • They are a means of getting exercise, because you have to rely on your leg muscles to operate them properly. You can actually burn calories and build up calf muscles by using a manual sewing machine!
    • They are a great way to go “green” because they require no electricity to use. If you care about Mother Nature and reducing your carbon footprint, a manual sewing machine is one way to do it.
    • They provide more control over the sewing process. As soon as you take your foot off of the pedal, the sewing machine stops. With electric machines, this isn’t always the case because you normally get a few more stitches even after you stop pedaling.
    • They are a great way to relax. This old-fashioned sewing machine is quiet yet provides a light humming sound that can provide the perfect way to relieve stress, regardless of how long you sew on it.

    There’s no doubt about it – treadle-type sewing machines offer many advantages that electric sewing machines simply don’t offer. If you’re lucky enough to find one that comes with the original bobbins and other accessories, you can do even more with it than you think. You can still find these sewing machines all over the place, even though you have to search for them at times. Still, they are great products that provide all seamstresses with a great tool for creating masterpieces the old-fashioned way, which all seamstresses can appreciate.

    Video: How to Operate a Treadle Sewing Machine

    Care of Treadle Sewing Machines

    If you find a good treadle sewing machine and would like to keep it around awhile, all it takes is a little regular maintenance – usually no more so than your electric sewing machine requires. For the most part, the first thing you should do once you purchase an old sewing machine like this is to give it a good oiling. For this task, you should use oil made specifically for sewing machines; never use an all-purpose household oil because it can become gummy and work improperly.

    Using oil made for sewing machines, you should also oil any moving parts on the machine that rub together, including oil holes in the head, the parts on the lower section of the machine, and even the treadle mechanism. If your sewing machine is extra dirty, you can try using an oilcan and flushing all of the moving parts with kerosene. After you do this, operate the machine for a few minutes, then let the oil dry completely. After it’s dried well, you can reapply small amounts of the oil onto the moving parts to keep them well-oiled.

    If you use your sewing machine regularly, daily oiling is never a bad idea, but there are other things you should do to make sure your treadle machine is kept in good running condition. If you find the machine doesn’t sew at all, it could be your tension, which you may have to reset from scratch. Drive belts should be kept neither too tight nor too loose, and if you have problems with puckering, skipped stitches, or thread that keeps breaking, it could be due to problems related to improper threading, needles that are the wrong size, the tension in one or both threads, the shuttle point being too blunt, or even too much pressure on the presser foot.

    Some users are lucky enough to live in cities that are big enough to house a competent repair person for these manual sewing machines, but if you’re not one of these people, finding a repair book for these machines should be relatively easy. Nowadays, you can find almost anything online, including treadle sewing machine repair kits.

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