Do I Really Need that Treadle Sewing Machine?

When I was a teen, my mother found an antique Singer treadle sewing machine and converted it to a vanity for me. The little side drawers were perfect for storing all my new cosmetics, and, while I sat and primped, I loved to rest my feet on the treadle and rock it slightly back and forth. The sewing machine itself was gone, but I could still appreciate the Industrial Era beauty of the casing.

This old Singer went from sad disrepair
to beautiful and useful. 

I'm not sure what happened to that vanity, but I'm pretty sure that it didn't end up in a garage sale in Sayville, Long Island. What did turn up and landed in my living room was a sadly dilapidated Singer treadle from the early 1900s. The veneer was water-stained and peeling, the metal stand rusting, and the machine appeared to be beyond repair. What I wouldn't give to have a glimpse of the life that century-plus Singer had lived.

My husband had picked up the machine from his cousin, who was holding a spring cleaning sale. He and my sister-in-law were tickled pink with themselves that they had found such a perfect present for me. I didn't have the heart to tell them that this machine was long past a useful life in every sense, so I just threw a pretty cloth over it, and kept in it my living room as a side table.

I was having a family piece refurbished and when it was returned to my home in gleaming condition and set up in my living room, my eyes settled on the sad sewing machine. I asked the man who had done such a splendid job on the family piece if anything could be done for the Singer treadle. He wondered about my interest in sewing and mentioned that his wife was a fashion design professor. It turned out that his wife and I had worked on a magazine story together. I had known him for two years and would never have guessed at that connection but for the machine. Small sewing world indeed.

He took the machine and returned it two months later. Not only did he restore the wooden case and metal stand to its former beauty (or better), he had also gotten the machine into working condition! I still keep it in my living room as a side table, no longer sad and hidden, but unveiled in its full glory and ready to stitch in a minute. And that talented man and his wife have become good friends.

I just love that something thought to be long past its usefulness was not only restored to be beautiful and useful again, but also served to cement friendships through a chance encounter. Yes, I do need that magical treadle machine!

For whatever machine you have and love, check out the marvelous Stitch Winter 2012 patterns, now in the Sew Daily Shop.

What stories does your sewing machine have to tell? I would love to know!

Happy stitching!

Other sewing topics you may enjoy:


Sew Daily Blog

About Amber

Amber Eden is the editor of Stitch and She LOVES sewing and editing Stitch and She also loves dance, yoga, iced decaf triple espressos, and her two golden retrievers. She divides her time between Boston and New York.

36 thoughts on “Do I Really Need that Treadle Sewing Machine?

  1. I have several antique and vintage Singer non-electric machines and every one has herstory:) But my favourite is my Singer treadle 66.

    ‘Born’ in 1933 right here in Scotland, she was sold as a wedding gift from groom to bride in 1934 (receipt still in cabinet she came with, sniffle, so romantic!). She was in the same family until late 2010 when the bride passed away and her family donated the machine to a local charity shop…where my soon-to-be husband saw it and knew straightaway he’d just found the perfect wedding gift for me.

    He had no clue about the herstory on that beautiful machine – I’m the one that dove into the drawers of the parlour cabinet (a style most mid-grade Singers of that time came mounted into) and found the original user manual and the receipt. Yes, I cried. A lot. Her first owner had kept her in perfect sewing condition and I was able to start using her right there and then.

    She sews gorgeous stitches, is used to teach new sewers, and in my side business of wax cotton jacket repair. I have a modern electric Singer (built in 2011, a Singer Talent 3321, a reliable and basic machine) but the treadle has place of honour in our sitting room. I am her second owner and feel responsible to keep her safe and working until time for her to meet her third:)

  2. My mother and my paternal grandmother both had singer treadle machines, and when I left the farm and went to work in Christchurch I convinced a potential employer that I could use these. I was given football boot uppers to sew and my “overconfidence” showed up when I didn’t know how to operate the brake . The supervisor laughingly demonstrated the process, understanding completely my exaggerating a little in order to secure the job. Needle tracks were not a good look, but once taught it was all easy.
    Lin S, artist and craft maker.

  3. My husband’s grandmother gave me her old Singer Treadle Machine soon after we were married. It came complete with the receipt (she paid 23 pounds in 1933) and the box of accessories. I haven’t used it for some time now but did put it to work several years ago when I was making a loose cover for our old couch. The big flat bed top was ideal for the heavy polish linen fabric I was using and long lengths of piping and valances. Not only does it still function but it holds treasured memories of a dear lady who lived to be 94.

  4. I was 18 or 19 the summer I worked at a state school for developmentally disabled people, in the wilds of New York State. There was a treadle machine in the dorm where I lived, and I sewed all summer and taught my friend from college, also working there, to sew. The only project I remember is a two piece bathing suit made from a pair of my father’s old dungarees–that’s what jeans were called in those days. It was rather an enchanted time, in beautiful country with good friendships and lots of free time and Carvel frozen custard, too.

  5. I was 18 or 19 the summer I worked at a state school for developmentally disabled people, in the wilds of New York State. There was a treadle machine in the dorm where I lived, and I sewed all summer and taught my friend from college, also working there, to sew. The only project I remember is a two piece bathing suit made from a pair of my father’s old dungarees–that’s what jeans were called in those days. It was rather an enchanted time, in beautiful country with good friendships and lots of free time and Carvel frozen custard, too.

  6. I had to chuckle when I read this post because I was just saying last week that I wish I had one of these machines. I lost power for about 6 hours the other evening. I was in the middle of a sewing project and had at least another hour and a half of natural light. I wish I had one of these machines at that time so I could have kept sewing and not been impacted by the power loss. 🙂 I would love to have one of these some day. Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Years ago, my mother found an old treadle sewing machine in a junk store. She bought it for me and refinished the cabinet. (We donated the machine itself to a local museum.) It was the kind of cabinet where the machine sat on top and there is a box-like cover that goes over it. My husband trimmed the top of the cabinet so that my machine would fit down flush in it. The cover fit down perfectly over it. I’m still using it.

  8. We inherited a New Home Treadle machine from my husbands grandmother. He refinished it for me and we keep in the house as a side table also, The neat thing about it is the only thing it’s missing is the leather belt that turns the wheel. It has the funniest bobbin I have ever seen, looks like a bullet. Don’t know how old it is but I love it.

  9. mine was found in a small building that was used for storage out in the country. My sister in law and I slowly carried it up to the house and it became a table in many different rooms over the decade. We decided that we needed a microwave table and they were cheap or way over our budget since we had just bought a new home. So we refinished it. and put a glass top on it and it is now in my dinning room looking as beautiful as it was when it was new 🙂

  10. Hi! just enjoyed the story . I have my grandmothers 1900 Singer Treadle with cabinet. It is in great shape. Still works. My grandmother was a very talented seamstress and extremely talented crocheter. My mother made baby quilts as gifts on it. I adore it. I also crochet and sew. After 35 yrs. Of sewing on a 1970’s Singer I recently moved to a very modern machine. I couldn’t part with my original. What a history these machines have 🙂 Geri

  11. Actually I hear that old non-electric treadle machines are needed shipped to Haiti, where many seamstresses are still trying to recover after their terrible earthquake years ago. Many places still have no electricity, people are still living in tents, and have little ways to make a living. Development of home industry without electricity is badly needed, and treadle machines are in high demand there! However, shipping them there is a costly, but some missionary groups will pay to help Haiti redevelop their economy. Someone from a non-profit missionary group out of Rhode Island told me this. Maybe a church-to-church shipment of working treadle machines from US to Haiti would be appreciated.
    Those long belt cables are easily replaceable like car belts that come in different sizes. If it’s not quite the right size, you can always cut it and hook it back together with one huge staple or wire to be exactly the right size. I still have my grandmother’s parlor machine, love it, and it is working fine! (Luckily, my mother loved them too, and saved them through the years! )

  12. I’m an American, married to a Spaniard. When I married I inherited my mother-in-law ‘s Singer sewing machine and later her sister-in-later’s. both in working order and on which I have Made clothes for my children and for my home and later for their homes ( mostly sheets). Both the machines are treadle run, one on its original table and the other in a 1960’s Formica cabinet . I have this one in our apartment and the other one in our old farm-house in a village 2 hours away from here. I have looked up the origins of both machines on the Internet and they where both made in Scotland in the 1930’s, where most of the Singer machines were made at that time. I wanted to go and sew this factory, hopping that there would be a museum or similar, but unfortunately there is nothing to show for what was a large place that employed 100-s of people.
    I would never have my machine changed to electricity. The electricity in the village has been known to go out in a storm, but I can still sew!

  13. I learned to sew on a treadle machine when I was about 8 yrs old. We didn’t get an electric machine until I was a Jr. in high school. Mom would still mend binder canvas and other heavy repairs on the treadle. Now that she is gone, I have that machine and plan to make a quilt on it this winter. Still runs as smoothly as can be and sews a beautiful stitch 60 yrs later.

  14. My dining room is graced with my grandmother’s and her mother’s old White treadle machine. It is a large room so the machine cabinet is a lovely side table for an old candelabra. My mother had the cabinetry refinished for me years ago. The little drawers still have some of the notions and bobbins that Grandma and Great Grandmother used to make not only clothes for me but tiny little clothes for my much loved “Ginny” dolls. You are probably much too young to remember those dolls, but I spent hours with them. I still have a few things. They had little tiny snaps hand sewn on them. I never knew hooks and eyes came so small. The dolls were about 8 inches tall. If Grandma made a dress for me, she would make the same dress for “Ginny.”
    The machine itself works, but needs new belts. My daughter doesn’t sew, so I don’t know what will become of it. I’m sure she will find a good home for it once I’m gone.
    Thanks for bringing back some really nice memories. I spent a lot of time with my Grandma and Great Grandmother. They lived just up the street where I grew up, so I was up there daily. I am 65 and now retired. I sold the property where they lived in Hermosa Beach, CA, a couple of years ago. They were very early residents in that beach community when they bought it in 1923. So glad I have such great memories. I think of all three of them and thank them for their wisdom, patience, and love when I look at the lovely machine.

  15. I traded an electric to get the treadle I have. It has taught two generations to sew, can be run with everything from vinyl-coated clothesline to rawhide boot laces, and will sew through just about anything. Granted, the veneer is warped and loose from an overflowing flower pot, but I wouldn’t trad it for the world.

  16. The one phrase that jumped out at me from the article was this one…” I didn’t have the heart to tell them that this machine was long past a useful life in every sense…”. Very few treadles I’ve refurbished were “past a useful life” (in ANY way) when I found them. I’ve lost count of the number of machines I’ve fixed, cleaned, refurbished (self-taught), but I think it’s safe to say it’s well over 100. That includes a large number of treadles. Initially I by-passed them and only looked at electric machines, but when I started finding unusual ones with extraordinary names (Ohio Farmer, Texas Advocate, etc) they piqued my interest and I started collecting them. My oldest treadle is 126 years old. It is a Singer Improved Family. It needed cleaning and some minor refurbishing but it still sews! I still look for the unusual ones with ornate cabinets and coffin top covers. Love sewing and love sewing machines, especially bringing them back to life again and keeping them out of the landfill. My only wish is that they could talk and tell us where they’ve been and what they’ve seen.

  17. In 1969, I was an independent young woman, living on my own, supplementing my income by sewing costumes for a local costume company. One evening, with my deadline approaching, my sewing machine broke down. I went to my neighbor in the duplex where I lived, an elderly lady, and asked if she had a sewing machine I could borrow. She hesitated, and said, “Yes, but it is a little old fashioned.” She invited me in and brought me to her treadle machine. I was desparate. I dragged it next door and she showed me how to use it. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning finishing those costumes and a love affair was born. The rhythm of the treadle is magical. The stitch is beautiful. That Christmas my parents surprised me with a Bernina 740, which I still have and use and treasure, it is a work horse of a machine. But when my husband and I bought our house and were furnishing it, I was drawn to a treadle sewing machine and it sits in the living room as a side table and always will stir fond memories in my heart.

  18. My sister Rita and I learned sewing by watching our mother make our clothes on the Singer treadle machine she got before I was born (1946)…and it was used. We were told it was one of the first treadles with a reverse stitch, a very handy tool to lock stitches in or do zig-zag patching.

    The Old Girl still helps us make our garments and other items. Usually one of us has to sew something every week. This past week Sis sewed up new curtains and cushion covers for an ancient Apache hard-side camper her eldest son bought. All out of “repurposed” fabric that we had at hand.

    About eight years back a “twin” popped up at a garage sale and Mom got it. It sits on the porch with our original, as we enjoy sewing together.

    Actually found a gentleman with a repair shop who was older than us and delighted to give our “babies” a tune-up a couple years ago and explain a few things about keeping them in good shape. We can now do minor repairs. They should last years longer than we do, even in our un-air-conditioned house in humid Florida.

    Sis and I took sewing in our Home Economics classes, each of us chose the only treadle the school had. None of the other girls in our respective classes wanted to be so “ancient and outdated”. But we can still sew when hurricanes knock the lights out for weeks at a time.
    Priscilla of The Sisters Curry

  19. My aunt gave me her treadle sewing machine that she had gotten from a friend. My brother and I were fascinated with pumping the treadle. When I was in my teens in the 70’s, I decided that I was going to sew on it. I created a few treasures, but always enjoyed the simplicity of controlling the speed of the machine my pumping away.

    Sadly, I lost the machine in Hurricane Katrina. When I think of everything that I lost in my old house, the list starts with my grandmother’s settee and second is my treadle machine.

  20. My aunt gave me her treadle sewing machine that she had gotten from a friend. My brother and I were fascinated with pumping the treadle. When I was in my teens in the 70’s, I decided that I was going to sew on it. I created a few treasures, but always enjoyed the simplicity of controlling the speed of the machine my pumping away.

    Sadly, I lost the machine in Hurricane Katrina. When I think of everything that I lost in my old house, the list starts with my grandmother’s settee and second is my treadle machine.

  21. I have my grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. It’s a Davis machine and is still in working order. The cabinet was very dirty with paint splashes on it. My husband refinished it and it looks as good as new. We use it as a T.V. table. I love the contrast between a 1901 sewing machine and a new 43″ flat screen!

  22. When I was a child, I often visited my grandmother and she would make lovely Barbie doll clothes for me. I would sit patiently watching her sew on her 1950 green Bernina 540. As I grew older, she would instruct me on sewing clothes, pattern layout etc., but she would never let me use her precious Bernina. I had to wait till I went home and use my Mom’s sewing machine. As my grandmother aged and left her home for an apartment and later our home and then finally the nursing home, she took her beloved Bernina with her and continued to sew, still not allowing anyone else to use her machine.
    When she passed away, I never heard what became of her Bernina until 39 years later, my Aunt, her youngest daughter, mentioned that she needed to get rid of my grandmother’s Bernina as she was no longer using it and it probably wasn’t running any longer. I was elated to hear this and offered to take the machine. She and my uncle brought it to my house and I lovingly examined it along with my Mother, who by then was living with me. The next day, I plugged it in and put the pedal to the metal and it started right up! AND THEN IT STARTED SMOKING! I immediately unplugged it and my Mom quipped — “That’s Grandma telling you to stop touching her machine!”
    I took it to a sewing machine repairman I trusted and he got Grandma’s Bernina running beautifully. It now sits in my dining room just like it sat in my Grandmother’s dining room over 60 years ago.

  23. I sew, mend, piece, and free motion quilt on several old treadles. One of the good things about them is that they were built to outlast any “modern” machine being manufactured today. Most of the time it takes little more than a good oiling to get them running again.

  24. Both of my grandmothers sewed, one had an electric and the other a treadle. My very first memories of being around either of them was watching them turn pieces of cloth into drapes, dresses, or costumes for me. It was magic! My favorite machine though was my Buelas’ treadle. no power cord, just a foot and keeping your fingers out of the way. I have many sewing machines now, and have had many others in the past, but always the memories of sitting in my grandmothers room pushing the peddle listening to her voice behind me, her hands on mine, telling me and showing me how to sew never go away.

  25. I have my great-grandmother’s treadle machine and I love sewing on it. I taught my daughter to sew on it when she was little. My problem now is that I can’t find needles that fit it. Any ideas? I can’t find any identifying marks on the machine, so I don’t know what brand it is.

  26. I still have the $25 treadle machine that my mom got me for Christmas the year I was 10 (that was 1961). I still have it and it still works. I learned to sew on that machine and I wouldn’t get rid of it for any amount of money!

  27. I learned to sew on a treadle machine. Believe it or not, that is what we had in our grade school, where the girls as well as the boys learned to use them. We also learned to use tools like hammers and screw drivers and saws, etc. This was in the late 1950’s – early ’60’s – again, believe it or not.
    Those old machines – electric ones also – if taken care of, will last forever. They don’t make them like they used to! When I taught sewing for years, I always told people who brought in an older machine NOT to apologize for them. Take care of them. Yes, they might not have all the bells and whistles, but you don’t really need all of that for basic sewing – basic meaning construction of the item. Straight stitch is the number one useful stitch.
    And – here’s another thing – you can still sew on a treadle machine if the electricity is out. And some one also told me hers had infinitely better control, esp. to go slowly when needed, than electric machines.

  28. I have a treadle sewing machine cabinet in my living room with a large dictionary on it. My aunt brought it to me and said she brought the machine in one of the curved top carrying cases. My husband and I didn’t see it. The had told me some months earlier that she didn’t get the machine–just the cabinet. The cabinet belonged to my great-grandmother who died early in 1940 before I was born later that year. The top was missing when my aunt got it, but someone made a top for it just like the one that would have been there. I don’t know what brand of machine it was as we can’t find a name on it anywhere. My husband refinished it so it makes a pretty addition to our room. I just wish I had the machine that went in it.

  29. I recently inherited two Singer treadles from my mother’s side. We think one was my Great grandmother’s and the other was either my Grandmother’s or Great-great grandmother’s. I know one came out in 1901 the other in 1907. Almost all the parts are there,including a partial manual (bad shape though), save a few foot attachments. I’m in the process of restoring them myself so I can use at least one of them.
    It will be nice to have a back -up to the antique electric Electro-Grand Precision, still trying to find out it’s history think its from the 1930’s- ish. I know that the Electro was my Father’s Aunt/great Aunt’s. Someday I may modernize but for right now I’m the youngest member in my quilting group by 20-40yrs bringing in and using the most antique machine. Its kind of funny the reactions I get when they see me using my machine and then find out I’m restoring these two treadles for use.

  30. @vivian perry – the next time you are in Scotland, enjoy the new museum exhibition (permanent:) of Singer sewing machines and about the now demolished (sniffle!) factory:

    The council web pages do not do this exhibition justice, the collection is fantastic, award-winning, and immense:)

  31. Six years ago I had a great sewing machine. I loved sewing in mybspare time. However, my uncle, whom I was caring for, was dying od cancer. My regular sewing machine made to much noise and disturbed his sleep. So I drug out my trusty singer 66 treadle and sewed. Not disturbing his sleep and completing many projects. Love that treadle!!!!

  32. When I was in school needlework classes in the late fifties I never had to queue for use of a machine because I was the only one who had learnt how to treadle, on the Hobbies treadle fret-saw that we used to cut jigsaw puzzles etc at home. I made sure not to tell any of the other girls how easy it was, just enjoyed my power!
    At home we used the old Singer hand machine that my Mother had been given, second-hand, when she was twenty-one, in 1937. That did everything from babyclothes to adaptation of the ex-army artic warfare reversible camouflage bell tent for family camping, or new seat covers for the 1933 Austin Seven Nippy. It still comes out now when I have something demanding like a tent to mend, a bit hefty for the 504 Bernina proudly, bought with one of my early salary cheques in 1968.
    Now I enjoy the refinements of a modern electronic model, but it’s temperamental compared to the sturdy reliability of those old friends.
    Sally Leszczynski

  33. Your story is wonderful. My mom had an old Singer that had been converted to electric that she made all my clothes wit .and I was not allowed to sew on it, but my grandmother had an old trundle machine on her porch and I could sew all I wanted. How I wish I had that machine! I have an older Singer, one made in the 50s that was my mother in law’s and it is a treasure.

  34. I would love to have a treadle machine. I have never used one, but I imagine that it would be easier to very slow stitching with it than a powered machine. I was stitching bead embelished lace onto a wedding gown and wished I had a way to slow the stitching down other than miles of turning the machine wheel by hand. It had to be slow to move the needle to the next spot over the cording without hitting beads. Even though it was slow, it was much faster than by hand, and the careful placement of the needle along the cording in the lace hid the stitches. But I think a treadle might have made it easier if not faster, because I wouldn’t have had to rest my wheel hand so much.