You love to sew.
Or perhaps you are looking for a sensible off grid sewing machine and think you’d like to buy a treadle sewing machine but don’t know where to start or what to look for?
Maybe you are worried that all treadle sewing machines are expensive antiques and you can’t afford one?
Or you’re concerned that you’ll have to do without a zigzag stitch or machine made button holes if you use one? Or maybe you don’t know how to sew but would like to learn?
Well grab a spool of thread and get ready to sew – because I’m about to give you some practical and very basic advice on one of my favorite off-grid topics – treadle sewing machines!
WHAT IS A TREADLE SEWING MACHINE?
A treadle sewing machine is simply a sewing machine that is powered by what you ate for breakfast instead of electricity.
All Sewing Machines Have Main Elements In Common
Sewing machines – electric or treadle – consist of a “head” and some type of mechanism that drives the head.
The machine head is the part of the sewing machine that actually does the sewing. A sewing machine head consists of precisely machined and tooled fitted rods, screws, wheels, springs, disks, gears and other parts. Some of those parts are hidden and encased within the head and some parts are visible on the outside of the sewing head.
Keep this information about sewing machine heads in mind because you’ll need it later.
The mechanism which drives a sewing machine head can either be electric or non-electric as in a treadle or hand cranked sewing machine.
An electric sewing machine usually has a machine head with an attached light and the sewing machine may or may not be computerized, and is driven by an electric motor.
Treadle sewing machines also have two main elements to them; the sewing machine head and the treadle base. The treadle base is the table or cabinet that the sewing machine sits in.
Treadle sewing machines are powered by a drive belt that is most often made of leather and connected to a treadle assembly.
The belt sits in a groove on the hand/balance wheel of the sewing machine head and is fitted down through the top of the table or cabinet base of the sewing machine in a continuous loop.
The leather drive band loop usually encircles a large metal grooved wheel under the base of the sewing machine that is attached by way of a pitman rod to a foot treadle.
When the foot treadle is worked, the attached pitman rod turns the large grooved assembly wheel which begins to move the leather drive belt caught in the sewing machine’s hand wheel and the parts of the sewing machine head begin to move.
The result is that if the sewing machine head has a needle and the head is properly threaded, when fabric is placed under the foot of the machine – sewing commences.
A hand cranked sewing machine is also a “people powered” sewing machine. Instead of being belt driven it has a handle attached to the balance wheel. As you turn the handle on the balance/hand wheel the machine sews. Hand cranked sewing machines are a good choice for people who don’t sew often. They can be quite a bit slower to sew on as opposed to a regular treadle sewing machine. Hand cranked sewing machines are usually about ¾ the size of a standard sewing machine.
WHO USES A TREADLE SEWING MACHINE?
In spite of the modern electric and digital age, there are millions of treadle sewing machines still in use around the world.
Thousands of brand new and not so new treadle sewing machines are used every day in private homes and in 3rd world garment and textile factories.
The odds are pretty good that if you are over the age of 35 at some time in your life you have worn a factory ready-made garment that was sewn in part on a treadle sewing machine.
WHY USE A TREADLE SEWING MACHINE?
A treadle sewing machine in good working order is a joy to use. The physical act of treadling can be soothing and relaxing. Many people who love to sew or quilt prefer to use only a treadle sewing machine. Many who sew professionally will keep a treadle sewing machine as a backup to their electric sewing machine in the event of a power outage or a looming fitting deadline. Believe me the drama of a two day power blackout during a final wedding dress fitting with a nervous bride and her mother will take 10 years off your life.
The needle speed on a treadle sewing machine is usually slower than that of an electric machine. The slower machine speed can be a real advantage for the novice sewer because it is easier to watch their fingers and maintain control of the fabric and seam width. I think a treadle or hand cranked sewing machine is the very best way to teach a child or a beginner to sew.
Treadle sewing machines are built to last almost forever and are actually very simple devices and lend themselves to easy home repair, service and maintenance.
HOW DO I GET ONE?
New Treadle Sewing Machines
Modern treadle sewing machines are available new but they can be very expensive. Janome makes a fair to good modern treadle sewing machine that is popular with the Amish and other people who live without electricity. The Janome 712T treadle sewing machine uses a top-loading bobbin and has 10 utility stitches and a built-in buttonhole stitch.
The last I knew the Janome 712T is made in Taiwan and has a limited 25 year warranty. The advantage of a modern treadle sewing machine is that service repair, bobbins, needles and parts are readily available. The disadvantages of purchasing a modern treadle sewing machine are lack of quality and price when compared to an older machine. ***See below for extensive sewing machine rant***
HOW ABOUT A CONVERTED TREADLE OR HAND CRANKED SEWING MACHINE?
Necessity (and frugality) is most often the Mother of Invention.
If you want a modern sewing machine complete with decorative stitches, many vintage sewing machines (and some modern) can be easily converted into a treadle or hand cranked sewing machine.
If you are handy with a screw driver, drill, hammer, wire cutters and a jig saw; and have a dose of creative vision and aren’t a stranger at the local hardware store, then converting the right electric sewing machine may be a low-cost way for you to get a treadle sewing machine or hand cranked sewing machine.
Thousands of older treadle sewing machines were converted from treadle to electric. To reverse the process is not complicated.
Many good sewing machines made during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and early 1960’s have heavy grooved balance wheels that are exterior belt driven. All that is necessary to do the conversion is to simply remove the electric motor and set the sewing machine into a treadle table or base.
A sturdy treadle table can be fashioned from an old treadle base and with a new top.
Craig’s List, eBay, yard sales, auctions, thrift stores, Free Cycle and plain old-fashioned asking around, are all good ways to find low-cost or no cost sewing machines and treadle bases.
Very often a simple classified ad in the local newspaper (old people still read newspapers) will turn up a gem of a sewing machine. Many people have old treadle sewing machines sitting in their garages and basements and would like to have them gone. Often the sewing machine belonged to a beloved family member that has passed away and the family would be happy for the machine to go to someone who would appreciate it.
Depending upon the condition, such sewing machines can usually be had for $0 – $90.
A word of warning: A treadle sewing machine with a base or a cabinet is heavier than a dead preacher so be sure you bring help to load it if you plan on taking it home.
If you don’t have enough room for a full size treadle sewing machine a hand cranked sewing machine may be a really good low-cost non-electric solution for your sewing needs.
The Pfaff sewing machine below is a good example of a high quality sewing machine from the 1950’s that can be easily converted into a hand cranked or possibly a treadle driven sewing machine.
The sewing machine is precision Swiss made, has a solid steel head and is built like a tank. That sewing machine was made when I still had my baby teeth and will outlast me.
I paid $3.99 for it last year at my local Salvation Army Thrift store. For about $6-$12 I can convert it to hand cranked or treadle operation if I find a balance wheel to fit it.
*** See extensive sewing machine rant below***
SOMETIMES NOTHING BEATS A REAL IRON LADY
If your heart is set on an older or antique treadle sewing machine but you don’t know where to find one or you’re afraid that you can’t possibly afford one – relax – be happy and don’t fret.
If you really want an older or antique treadle sewing machine you can probably find or assemble one to call your own. It is much easier and more affordable than you may imagine.
If you know how to read and follow directions; and can work in an orderly, methodical fashion; and if you aren’t in too a big hurry and don’t mind some really grubby, dirty work – a beautiful old Iron Lady can be yours.
It is impossible to do antique treadle sewing machines the justice they deserve in a blog post – even a long post like this one.
Among collectors and aficionados of antique treadle sewing machines there are lots of different opinions. So don’t take what I’m about to tell you next as the only gospel. I would encourage you to follow the hyper links located in this post and visit The Treadle Lady and other websites for more information.
In general, there are 3 considerations when buying an older or antique treadle sewing machine. You must keep all of them in mind.
The 3 considerations are:
The Sewing Machine Head which includes:
- Bobbin Type
- Needle Type
Base or Cabinet & Treadle
Availability of Parts
The Sewing Machine Head
When looking at or considering the purchase an older or antique treadle sewing machine, the head of the sewing machine is the most important part and requires the most consideration.
You will need to determine the condition of the machine head and check to see if all parts of the head are present with a visual inventory.
If all parts aren’t present – what parts are missing?
When examining a sewing machine head carefully and slowly examine the head moving from the right to left and from top to bottom.
Does the balance/hand wheel turn or is it frozen?Does the needle move?
What is the condition of the bobbin winder?
What is the shape of the base? Are the feed plate/or plates present?
What type of bobbin is used? What type of feet? What type of needle is used?Who is the manufacturer? Is there a model or serial number?
Are the thread pins intact and tension disks, springs or plates present?
What is the condition of the steel, chrome, the decals and how much dirt, grime or rust is present?
Sadly nothing can really take the place of life experience when it comes to buying antique treadle sewing machines.
But luckily, eBay is a great way to see lots of treadle sewing machine heads, cabinets and treadle assembly bases.
The “zoom” feature on eBay auction listings can give a treadle sewing machine newbie the opportunity to look up close at many different types of antique treadle sewing machine heads.
Just be forewarned about eBay – often the description from the seller is wacky and inaccurate. Complete and intact treadle sewing machine prices tend to be wonky and are often outrageously high.
That said, the eBay prices for sewing machine parts are good and antique sewing machine manuals are plentiful.
Very often there are real deals to be had on sewing machine heads – especially Singer, White, New Home and Domestic. eBay is my favorite place to buy antique sewing machine parts.
A word of advice: antique sewing machines are just like coins, guns and rare books. Condition is everything.
Just because something is old doesn’t make it particularly valuable. People who don’t understand or know anything about treadle sewing machines will tend to over price them.
At present (2013) here in western Pennsylvania, the going auction price for a complete antique treadle sewing machine in good condition is about $45 – $120 depending upon cabinet condition and who’s at the auction.
Lastly, keep bobbin type and parts availability in mind when looking for an older sewing machine. In general, bobbins are divided into 2 types – a shuttle with a bobbin and a modern round bobbin.
Shuttles and the bobbins that fit into them come in different sizes and are not interchangeable.
This is an important consideration when purchasing an old sewing machine. Round bobbins are a more modern system and they are much easier to find and not as expensive.
MY BEST ADVICE FOR BUYING AN ANTIQUE TREADLE SEWING MACHINE
When buying an old treadle sewing machine it is wisest to look for a sewing machine that was mid-priced and popular for its time.
Singer sewing machines were made by the millions and are still relatively easy to find and affordable.
The Singer model 15-88 and Singer model 66 are both good choices when looking for treadle sewing machines.
The Singer 15-88 was the last sewing machine that Singer made for treadle use. Most were made in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. The model 15-88 uses a modern needle, low shank feet and has a reverse.
The feed dogs can be lowered and it’s a good machine for darning or free form stipple quilting. There is a buttonhole attachment, a zig-zag attachment and a walking foot attachment for the Singer model 15-88, along with the standard hemming foot, ruffler and other specially feet. As of today, I would expect to pay between $75 -$170 for a head in very good condition.
The Singer model 66 was made from 1902 to about 1960. It is uses a round bobbin and a standard needle. Singer model 66’s made before the early 1920’s have feet and attachments that are non-standard. They have a back clamp instead of a side clamp and don’t have a reverse. The Singer model 66 often has attractive and distinctive decals and is nicknamed a “Red Eye.
As of today, I would expect to pay $40 -$90 for a Red Eye head in very good condition. In fact Craig’s List and eBay are positively polluted with them.
Often times it is easier and more affordable to assemble an antique sewing machine from parts.
Old sewing machine heads tend to outlast their cabinets and bases and it’s very common to find a sewing machine head in good working order with a cabinet that is beyond repair.
If you plan to assemble an antique treadle sewing machine from parts it’s a good idea to find the base or cabinet that you want first, then buy the sewing machine head.
Singer is my first choice for this kind of “parts & pieces” assembly. Singer heads will almost always fit in Singer treadle cabinets (never seen one yet that didn’t -but measure first to be safe); but don’t assume that other sewing machine brands are sewing head to cabinet interchangeable.
That said, sometimes cabinets and machine heads will fool you – but it is still safest to stay with the same sewing machine brand. That means a Minnesota model “A” should be moved to a Minnesota treadle or cabinet- don’t take a chance with a White or Domestic cabinet. When you go shopping for a cabinet take the machine head with you so you can fit it on the spot.
A good quality cabinet is scarcer than a good sewing machine head.
And just so you know it is possible to construct a new top for an old treadle assembly. Read more about it here.
When you buy your treadle sewing machine don’t forget to hunt down an owner’s manual for the one you are buying. Many old manuals are free online and many are available for purchase as reprints or on CD’s for under $10.
HOW TO CLEAN & RESTORE AN OLD TREADLE SEWING MACHINE
Tools You’ll Need to Clean the Sewing Head
Lots of clean rags
Sewing machine or household oil
Flathead screw drivers – large & small
Needle nose pliers
Air in a can
Extra fine steel wool
Small paint brush
Small plastic bags
NEVER EVER! use any type of household cleaning product on a sewing machine head. It is risky and you may destroy the decals. Household oil is the only product ever used to clean the exterior of an antique sewing machine head. Household oil will remove rust, layers of grime and dirt.
When I bring home a “new” treadle sewing machine the first thing I do is to set up a neat and orderly work space.
Before I start to disassemble the sewing machine and while it is still in the cabinet I begin by taking pictures from all angles. I photograph everything about the machine – the hand/balance wheel, the bobbin winder, the needle position, the shuttle, the tension disks; every screw, loop or spring.
I next take pictures of the cabinet from every angle too – the under carriage, the skirt guard, the treadle, the pitman rod, all hinges, springs, the drawers and top.
By keeping an extensive picture diary I have a record of what the machine looked like before I started cleaning it, but more importantly a I have a reference for how the machine is supposed to look like when I’ve finished. More than a couple of times I’ve been left with an extra washer, spring or screw from a sewing machine restoration that I couldn’t figure out or remember where it was supposed to go.
A photographic record will save you lots of reassemble headaches.
To clean a treadle sewing machine head it must be removed from the cabinet or base.
As I remove the head I set the screws or bolts on a paper or cloth towel and sometimes letter or number the towel to keep track of the disassemble order. I take a picture of the towel for reference.
After the head is removed from the base I will usually remove the front plate, bobbin cover (covers) and any other chrome or steel pieces or fittings from the head that have screws in them. Those pieces are put on to a different towel which is also numbered along with the screws and I photographed them too.
Next the tension disks are removed and placed on another numbered towel in the order which they came off – and you know what comes next-…I take another picture.
I continue in this manner around the entire head.
Household Machine Oil Is Your Best Friend – You Can’t Use Too Much
When the head is complexly stripped of all removable parts I begin cleaning the head in earnest. I rub machine oil over the entire surface in a circular motion with my fingers and wait awhile for the oil to break through the dirt and grime. After about 10 minutes the surface is wiped with a clean rag. I continue “massaging” oil into the surface and wiping until there is no grime – just oil on the cloth.
It is important to proceed gently as too much surface abrasion will remove the decals.
I clean all the fittings the same way – with household oil and rags, Q-Tips or a toothbrush. Sometimes if I’m feeling brave I will clean the brass or metal fittings with Formula 409 and a toothbrush.
When the exterior of the sewing head is as clean as I can get it I then proceed to clean and oil the entire interior.
Anything that moves (or is supposed to move) will get a coat of kerosene with a small brush.
I let the kerosene soak into the grime and then wipe with a clean rag. Sometimes I will blow out the dirt or dust with a judicious blast of canned air – but not too much.
For a really filthy sewing machine head I will put it into a covered plastic tote tub outdoors and pour 5 gallons of kerosene over it and let it soak for a few days.
The grime will sometimes just dissolve in the tub.
Often a couple of squirts of Liquid Wrench or any other brand of penetrating oil product will be needed if the sewing machine head action or balance wheel is stiff or frozen.
I clean the forked bars under the machine head with a brush and kerosene first, followed by oil, clean soft rags and fine steel wool.
After the last bit of grime or dirt is removed from the sewing machine head I will dry the head with a clean rag and apply 2 or 3 coats of a high quality car wax and buff it.
The sewing machine head is ready to reassemble after it has been completely cleaned, oiled and waxed. This is where the pictures and separate numbered towels come in handy. The parts are carefully reassembled in the order in which they came off. Once the head is reassembled I usually will oil it with a good grade synthetic oil.
CLEANING OR REFINISHING THE BASE
If the treadle base is in very good condition often all that will be needed is a thorough cleaning with mineral spirits and a coat of paste wax.
But more often than not, the wood finish will be bleached, dark, dry, cracked, stained or peeling or a part of the cabinet will be in need of repair.
If the finish on the cabinet just looks dirty and not in need of complete removal, I will usually try to clean it with Murphy’s Oil Soap and water and lots of soft rags. I apply the soapy water with a soft cloth and then dry the wood with a clean rag. I repeat the process until the wood is clean.
When the wood is clean and dry I like to apply 2 coats of Milsek Oil or Old English Scratch Remover over the entire cabinet and allow the product to soak in. I remove the excess with a dry, lint free cloth.The metal treadle assembly can be cleaned with a bucket of hot water and diluted white vinegar. Be sure to dry the metal parts after they are cleaned.
If the cabinet finish is completely hopeless and beyond the powers of ordinary soap and rags, I usually will remove it. I have had good luck with fine steel wool and an acetone based furniture refinishing product like Formby’s. But I will use standard paint remover like Zip-Strip in a pinch.
I refinish bases and cabinets by removing all hardware and working in small 6” X 6”sections using a pad of fine steel wool that has been soaked in Formby’s or paint remover.
After the old finish has been removed, I will go over the wood surface with rags and a small amount of mineral spirits before I finish and seal the wood. Sometimes I will apply 3 coats of Johnson’s paste wax, buffing between coats. Other times I mix paint thinner with polyurethane. I have also used Danish Oil with excellent results. The type of finish that is chosen depends upon personal taste and preference.
When the base is clean and presentable, the sewing machine head is finally ready to be reinstalled.
Hopefully by the time you are done cleaning the machine head and treadle base you took my advice and found an owner’s manual. The manual will give the proper threading sequence, bobbin winding procedure, needle placement and other important information.
All you’ll need to do next is to prepare yourself for a lifetime of sewing joy.
Strong opinion below-read at your own risk
*** SEWING MACHINE RANT****
What the hell is wrong with people living in a country who will pay more for a Big Mac and fries than the used Swiss made sewing machine in the above post?
Not a month goes by that I don’t come upon a vintage used Swiss or German manufactured sewing machine for sale for under $30. That’s less than a six pack of beer, an order of cheese sticks & a large 5 topping pizza.
Swiss, German and some American Singer sewing machines made prior to 1960 or so, were for their time and still are, some of the finest household sewing machines ever manufactured in the world.
Less than 60 years ago it was not uncommon for a regular blue collar American family to spend 3 – 5 months of the family’s entire income on a household sewing machine. And that money was very well spent.
That’s because at one time in this country Americans actually produced some of their own clothing and household needs instead of sitting on their fat asses and watching television or screwing with their phones and tablets.
Let’s face it, the vast majority of Americans are happy to wear cheap underwear and ill-fitting clothing made by essentially slave labor in 3rd world sweat shops instead of sewing it themselves.
What really gets me cranked, is that so called “public education” (funded by a coercive shake down of property owners), believe they are doing children and society a favor by “teaching” correct & hygienic condom use or SAT test preparation to teenagers instead of basic sewing or cooking.
Yeah that’s right…like I’m so sure every young person in this country can’t wait to get laid or plans on wasting $35,000 for a useless college education.
The fact of the matter is that with sound and basic sewing skills, the $3.99 Pfaff pictured above, along with a pair of scissors, chalk, thread, a yardstick, tape measure, an iron & ironing board and some old-fashioned common sense, is the start of a lucrative home based business.
Think I’m kidding?
How many of you reading this have wanted new custom fitting slipcovers for your ratty looking furniture but couldn’t afford them or couldn’t find someone to make them?
Well guess what?
Slipcovers are easier to construct than a dress or a pair of pants and you’ll find a leprechaun faster than you’ll find someone to make a custom slipcover or lined drapes.
How many of you are a specialty size or have a clothing need that ready-to-wear cannot address? Lots of other people have the same needs too and would love to find someone to help them with their apparel requirements and concerns. That’s a business opportunity just waiting for you or your child.
Enola Gay’s Naturally Cozy is a perfect example of a successful home based sewing business meeting a need.
So the next time you order a Big Mac and fries or kick back with a pizza and a 6 pack, consider that you could have started your own business with a Swiss sewing machine or saved your son or daughter from the heartache of being “college educated” and unemployed.
Don’t Buy A New Sewing Machine
I have never bought a new sewing machine – electric or treadle and don’t recommend that you buy one either.
I know that new treadle sewing machines are being manufactured at present but don’t waste your money if you can help it.
Buy a good Singer model 15-88 or Singer model 66 if you want a treadle sewing machine.
If you are determined to buy a new treadle machine because you don’t want to deal with a restoration project please buy it from this link and help me pay for this website.
Here’s a blanket statement that you can put in your pipe and smoke: Modern household sewing machines electric or non-electric are not as well made as older sewing machines made before 1965 or so.
Don’t ever pay more than $200 for a household sewing machine. Always buy a good used sewing machine.
The Singer model 201-K or a Singer 401-A are both excellent electric sewing machines and I recommend them.
Pfaff, Elna and Bernina have always made good sewing machines.
The older vintage Pfaffs, Elnas and Bernina machines from the 1950’s & 1960’s are superior in every way to the newer computerize bells and whistles sewing machines that cost an arm and a leg. Sure the old machines may not look as snazzy as the brand new computerized sewing machines. But believe me, a brand new sewing machine will not make you any more skilled and you’ll never be sorry that you didn’t spend an extra $2000.
End of story.