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Sep 18, 2010

Why I Bother Sewing With a Treadle

Good morning, Mamie Van Doren fans and others!

Yesterday an anonymous commenter asked a very good question, one that many of you may have but feel embarrassed to ask.  To paraphrase...

Why bother with a treadle at all?  What's the fascination?

I thought about this question for a long time yesterday.  Why am I putting myself through the trials of treadling?  I could certainly make an equally-good-if-not-better-looking shirt faster on one of my many mechanical machines, like my precise, fully-electrified Singer 15-91.  It's not as old as my 1920 Singer 66 treadle, but it's still nearly 60.  Isn't that enough?

The short answer is no.

It might be easier to understand if I lay out the reasons why someone might opt to use a treadle.  If I've missed anything, please feel free to add to the list.

1.  It saves electricity.

This is undoubtedly true.  But a sewing machine isn't like an air conditioner that runs for hours on end.  How much electricity can a sewing machine use? You're just pushing that needle up and down and maybe keeping a small light bulb burning.  No, that's not my reason.

2.  I bought it, so I feel I have to use it.

This is a very good answer, but it doesn't really apply to me.  I own about a dozen sewing machines, most of which sit unused either in their hard plastic cases or atop my sewing machine table (the one in the kitchen that's basically an unused sewing machine display piece).  I don't feel compelled to use any of them for anything other than the occasional satin stitch or invisible zipper installation -- something that I find harder on an old straight stitch machine.

I could just as easily close up the treadle table and put a lamp on top and call it a day.

3.  It makes a beautiful stitch.

This is true, but it applies to all of my machines.  When thread tension is balanced, stitches always look great and I am frequently amazed by how often people talk about the fantastic stitch their expensive machine makes as if it were markedly different from the stitch you'd get from a cheap machine.  If you break down how a stitch is made, it isn't very complicated and the basics haven't changed in a hundred years.

4.  It's a way of honoring the past.

Now we're getting somewhere.  There's something soul-enriching about doing something the way people did it in the past -- especially when the results are of equal if not better quality.  Of course there are faster ways to do things.  There are lots of things people do the more labor-intensive way just because it feels better.  Many of us still write long hand even though writing at a computer is generally faster.  Many long-hand writers even insist on using a fountain pen!  They like the way it feels and it's a way of honoring the writing -- and thinking -- process.

Think of the Slow Food movement.  Of course it would be faster to use a microwave to cook the potatoes and you might not even detect the difference, but for the Slow Food aficionados, it's about the process of cooking, and microwaving doesn't fit in.

We got rid of our microwave years ago, btw.  It went out about the same time we gave away our television set.

5. It's an excellent way to hone your sewing skills.

Have you ever seen swimmers practice with strange rubber appendages attached to their hands and/or feet or wearing baggy nylon suits meant intentionally to create drag?   These make swimming more cumbersome; there's a larger surface to pull through the water.  The reason they train this way is because when they take these swim aids off, they feel like they're cutting through the water like a speedboat.

The same applies to a treadle sewing machine.  Right now since I am new to this machine it definitely makes the sewing process more challenging.  Not only do I have to power it myself, there's no numbered needle plate like I'm used to (and I have chosen not to label it myself with tape for the time being).  There's a screw edge that lines up with 1/2 inch and a hole exactly at the 5/8 inch point so there's really no need to mark anything, but this is all new to me.

All the topstitching involved in making a shirt -- on the collar, sleeve plackets, button plackets, yoke, etc. -- is hard enough to do precisely on a regular electric machine; peddling a treadle while you're focusing on turning corners and getting your stitching even makes it even more challenging.

But I know that when I return to any of my electric machines, topstitching will be that much easier.


It's fun.  It really is fun to treadle a sewing machine and in the scheme of things it's not hard.  It's not like learning to play the piano; it's more like learning to play a player piano.


It's super quiet, making a gentle clackety-clack.  Not that I'm waking any sleeping toddlers in the next room with my regular machines, but still.  It's a soothing sound.

And there you have it: seven great reasons to sew with a treadle.  Have I convinced you yet?

Here's my shirt as of this morning; almost done but not quite.

Moving right along, a reader pointed this store out to me -- it's the All Saints clothing chain, based in the UK and now even in NYC.

These pictures left me a little queasy -- like walking through the Museum of Natural History and seeing your own family members stuffed and on display instead of elephants and tigers (which is nauseating enough).

I know this is meant to be good cheeky fun and perhaps even a tribute to the sewing machine but I don't like it.

It makes me treasure my treadle even more.



  1. Better that these lovely machines are on display, than in the landfill. Just like food, most people are ignorant of HOW that clothing gets made, and into the stores. So think of it as a subliminal message to all who pass by. A sly attempt at education...
    By the way, LOVE the western shirt! I have a closet full myself, in lovely girly flower prints- some with snap fronts and some with buttons. They make me feel grounded and comfortable-happy!

  2. I get it. But then I grew up with a flip-down toaster. I love the restrained western shirt---very classy. There's far to much faux-cowboy crap out here for me to stomach it, but your shirt in NYC should be awesome.

    As to that company... What a perfect resting place for machines like you old doorstop!

  3. I can't wait to give mine a try and being of a similar age to you (I think I'm a year older) it must be good for our know...kind of like how they tell older people to do crossword puzzles and such? I'm sure new neural pathways are being created and that is surely another BONUS!!! It keeps your mind young. :))

  4. I LOVE your western shirt, so subtly elegant. Beautiful stitching, too, Peter. Are you sure you're a beginner???

    Treadling is like hand -sewing, -appliqué, and -quilting. For those who like it, it is soothing. It's not about speed.

  5. I don't like the sewing machines displayed as they are. It looks messy to start with. I agree it is better than in a land fill, but wouldn't it be great if all those machines were shiped to some small village without electricty and the people learned to sew something. Someone would have to buy there goods. I was just thinking of what a good non-profit idea it would be to give an old treadle, with lessons, and a buyer. Kinda like heifer international. Give a gift that keeps giving.

    I also love the shirt. I think western, and my first thought is, no. The fabric is a great choice not too much, but the cool bat wing detail still gives it something special.

  6. When I was in high school my friend had a treadle table as her make-up dresser. I remember sitting there getting ready for dates...all imaginary....and playing with the treadle as I tried blue eyeliner and frosted eye shadows. It was like meditation. If I wasn't moving every year or so I think I'd like to pick up a treadle just to get that feeling back...but not the blue eyeliner.

  7. "I am frequently amazed by how often people talk about the fantastic stitch their expensive machine makes as if it were markedly different from the stitch you'd get from a cheap machine."

    Amen! I've seen totally crap stitching done on machines that cost 5 or even 10 times as much as mine simply because the tension was off, or the needle/thread/presser foot/pressure was not appropriate to the fabric being sewn.

    If you want to shell out the big bucks for a sewing machine, knock yourself out. But don't tell me it's because the fancy machine makes a better straight stitch.

  8. OK -- here's my reason (if I had a treadle machine, which I don't but this is more sort of the general 'why I sew' reason): Because I can. In its own way, except if you have issues of fit and quality (and I have both), it makes no logical sense for someone to go out and buy fabrics, thread, supplies, buttons, etc., sit down and make themselves something to wear. Anyone in these United States has a WalMart, H&M, Target, purveyor of cheap (in all senses of the word)clothing. Go to the store, hand over your $xx, pick out the shirt and go home. Strictly on the basis of actual physical need, there are options which are cheaper than making it yourself. But making things yourself (whether it's cooking, sewing, canning fruit, using a caulking gun, replacing the glass in a window, baking bread)is a sign of self-sufficiency, which is very powerful stuff. Given the state of the country and the economy, being able to look in the cupboard and say, "I MADE that" lessens the feelings of helplessness and possible depression. The knowledge that no matter what happens, there are things you can do for yourself is a very important piece of information. (and yes, I've always wanted to learn how to weld - why do you ask?)

  9. I like your reason #5.
    I'd love to learn on a treadle. I think it would be a great dynamic to my skill set.

    And I know exactly what you mean about the 'it makes a great stitch'. I've seen some friends sew on some war time industrial machines and man, not only can they keep going (like Buicks they are!) but they can only do one stitch (sans attachments) and they do it freggin' well.

    I think the challenge of a machine that does not do all the small things that we have our modern electrics to (don't forget to knot your threads) is a great way to learn and understand.
    Yay sewing.

  10. If I were in that store, I would feel a very strong urge to pull down one of those machines and start sewing!

    I grew up hand-sewing doll clothes (without patterns) and hand-hemming my own pants. (I got lots of practice because I'm short!)

    In my late 20s, I decided I would take on sewing "for real". I got a machine, and stocked up on patterns and notions which were supposed to "make sewing easier". Soon after that, I upgraded to a computerized machine.

    A few years later, I realized that I didn't need so many specialized glues, markers, and gadgets to make a garment. I didn't care to sew faster. And I hated the computerized machine.

    Now I'm back to the basics, enjoying my mechanical machines and traditional dressmaking techniques. I find it calming to sew this way. Someday I hope to get a treadle.

    BTW your comment about fountain pens brought back a nice memory for me. When I was 16, I won a prize in an essay contest. The prize was a book, and when the contest official was asked to sign the book, he asked for a fountain pen. I remember a bunch of people running around the room looking for someone with a fountain pen, because he couldn't sign the book with just any old pen. It really made an impression on me.

  11. I, too, enjoy returning to older, more time-consuming and, in my opinion, more satisfying ways of doing things. I get almost a meditative buzz when focusing on the making of something -- sewing, cooking, carpentry, etc. The treadle's rhythm as heard in your video sounds so soothing, too. Your maiden voyage on that treadle -- the blackberry cowboy shirt -- looks wonderful. Thanks for letting us electricity land lubbers come along for the ride!

  12. Do you need a reason? You like it, it's there and so you use it. It's certainly not something I and my plantar fasciitis are about to do, and I don't have to but I do share the belief and appreciate that you don't need to have a fancy tol machine to make a great shirt.

  13. Olá!

    Parabéns, adorei suas razões.
    Voce nem precisa de razões, a escolha é sua e seu trabalho é ótimo.



  14. Your readers make good points about landfills and resting places, but I felt a little heartsick when I first saw the picture of all those treadle machines---- it seems like a graveyard, all those beautiful antiques stacked to the ceiling...


    Western shirts are glorious.

  15. Peter,
    Your shirt looks great. I'm glad you are enjoying your people-powered machine. It is feeding my hankering for a treadle machine of my own.
    I learned to sew on my grandmother's treadle Singer (and no, I'm not ancient, and yes she did have electricity...but this was the machine she got when she married and it served her well and she saw no need for a new one). I loved the rhythm you built up as you sewed.
    I (volunteer) teach sewing to refuge women. They come from many places to live in the United States, and things are so strange to them. This week I got a new student, from Sudan, who has been in the US for only 2 months. She speaks very little English, and I speak only English. She knows how to sew...on a treadle machine. I told her that's how I learned too! By the time another student arrived who could interpret for us, she was ready to try the electric machine. Oh, how she laughed when she saw how fast it could go! And she had a surprising amount of control. She is going to be a great student, and I think her treadle experience will be such a big help.
    hmmm...where would I keep a treadle if I got one?
    Thanks for sharing

  16. I like Toby's comment, above. There's a certain counter-cultural rebellion thing going on when you sew for yourself, like growing your own vegetables .... its a freedom.

    As for that Singer graveyard, I walked past it with my sister in London a couple of months ago and it made me feel frightfully sad. I want to rescue and breathe new life into an old machine like you have.

  17. Oh, I would do it! Oh yes. I have gone through phases of actively looking for a treadle and I wasn't lucky. At some point, I'll have one, too.
    And I am 100% in the Bonus Reason #1 camp (with a splash of the clackety clack sound from bonus reason #2)


    It's fun. It really is fun to treadle a sewing machine and in the scheme of things it's not hard. It's not like learning to play the piano; it's more like learning to play a player piano.

    that, dear, is hilarious.

  18. hey! my dad used to sew on a treadle machine, so i actually kind of want one to honor the history. however, i did try sewing on that machine when i was a kid, and i remember that it ws quite difficult -- if you dont treadle the right way, it will go reverse instead of forward! its also a little too big for my sewing room :P

    *drool* on the last few pictures

  19. wait, it wasnt the sewing machines that are 70% off in the pictures?! booooooo!!!

  20. Your shirt looks terrific! I'd be the kind of person who'd use it because I'd bought it - I'm very Presbyterian that way. And also I like novelty.

  21. When I see all those lovely sewing machines, I think- How Cruel!!! They hold captive and inactive all those wonderful functional tools and taunt all of us who desire one, and make the statement that "they" own the means of production and we are (more and more) forced into purchasing our clothing from them and others like them.

    They have objectified previously previously wonderful useful tools.

    Taunting us (our culture) with our own voluntary disempowerment.

    Yeah, I spent too many years studying philosophy, and politics of power.

  22. I found one of those stores in Bath and posted pics on my blog here. I'd have had more pics to post but when I went inside with my camera I was told not to take photos. ? Oddly, much of the clothing in the store was of the pre-tattered style.

  23. I am surprised anyone would ask for your reasons for using a treadle! Then again, I make my own yogurt, among tons of other things. My first thought was Toby's- why bother sewing at all when you can buy clothes for near nothing at Wal Mart? I think that it is artistic, therapeutic, interesting, and it allows for individualism. I live in a tiny town in rural NC. Once I bought a few basic tanks in the local Wal Mart. The next time I wore one in a public place, I saw 2 other women wearing the same shirt! Ugh! I also really love the creative gifting opportunities that sewing, canning, etc. allow. I recently made my husband a western shirt from an Eastern print fabric I found thrifting, and he loves it for what it is as well as the time and effort he saw me put into it at the sewing table. Anyway, blah blah blah, right? Why ask why? Try Bud Dry.

  24. Because you love it is reason enough.
    Because it does the job and you love the technology for what it is - also a good reason.
    BTW if your toddler heard the hum of the sewing machine in utero then they have no problem sleeping to the sound of it forever after :)

  25. Peter,

    Thanks for the explanation. (I was the one who asked.) I thought it was a perfectly natural question, especially since you are famously (at least here) the owner of almost a dozen modern machines.

    In addition, not that you were doing this, but some people are very self-righteous these days about doing things the "slow way" or the "green way" without seeming to have analyzed whether it's also the best way. If someone asks you why, you ought to be able to explain it.

    Oh, have you read about the Manhattan family that was supposed to live "green" for a year, including dispensing with the use of toilet paper? I wonder how that worked out. It was for a book. Guess we'll find out.

    Several months ago, I came across a blog about a woman who was writing a series of children's books in which modern kids were raised in the wilderness without the "pollution" of modern technology. Yet she was selling this book on the web. I was so tempted to leave a comment.

    If I had the room, the mechanical skills, and the patience, I would definitely try a treadle. It probably wouldn't be my main machine, but I'd love it for the historical value.

    Back to suits, this entry made me depressed, envious and admiring. But this man's a professional, even though I don't think his specialty is bespoke menswear.

  26. I'm envious that you've gotten rid of your TV! I asked my husband to consider living without a TV (especially since we watch most shows on our computers) and he thought I was a loon.

    I admire you for sewing on vintage machines. I'd heard that they are of better quality than the new ones but was too intimidated to try it and ended up purchasing a Kenmore. I'm happy with the Kenmore but would like to own a vintage machine someday. I love things that have history.

  27. I should add:

    I have several fountain pens. I stopped using them regularly because the ink needs time to dry and sometimes they leak. I could never do without a word processor, but I still like to mark up a hard copy.

    I have a very cheap machine. I bought it at someone's recommendation and probably should have spent a bit more money. The next one will be a good machine. I can't decide on whether I should save up for a Juki or a Bernina; people are all over the map with their opinions.

    The stitch on my current machine is fine, and I don't need a lot of fancy attachments because I tend to do a lot of work by hand. My main problem is with the presser feet, which are fixed.

    I've devoted a lot of time to learning garment construction because I'm sick of seeing in the stores nothing but clothes that don't fit, are unattractive or inappropriate, or are too expensive for the quality of the materials.

  28. I learnt to sew on a treadle Singer... it was great Mother/Daughter time whilst everything was explained to me with the gentle clacking in the background.

  29. I agree with Doris who found sewing with a treadle soothing. I learned to sew with one and it takes more concentration than an electrical machine. The combination of steering the fabric, peddling with your foot, lightly breaking with your hand when needed and the sound. Its a bit Zen...

  30. The photograph of All Saints made me very, very sad. What a terrible end for those beautiful machines! I wonder how many of their light-fingered patrons have the urge to snitch the machine instead of clothing?

  31. P-

    I like touching pieces of the past. It's the reason I like vintage clothes, like to make jam (memories of the past), and old books.

    I also like to spin my own yarn on a wheel. It may be a bit "Little House on the Prairie", but I love the treadling action. It's meditative and quiet. I can think and spin at the same time.

    Plus, if the power goes out, you can still create!

    Now I am off to the SF Vintage Expo. Off to touch more pieces of the past.

  32. What a wonderful post! Your shirt is looking gorgeous. I can't wait to see the finished product. My mother-in-law is holding a New Home treadle for me on the other coast. I just have to find a way to get it to my home. I think sewing with a treadle would be rewarding in the same way as baking your own bread is rewarding. I love baking my own bread.

    BTW, when I met my husband I wouldn't let him move in until he disposed of his microwave. Four years later, we sent the TV away. Not having it makes for more time to sew and bake bread.

  33. ....And the there is the part that using a vintage machine does not expoit low wage workers in "developing countries" and the same applies to making your own clothes.... you understand what they are worth in real human terms, what went into them and what was given by the maker...

  34. whenever I walk past, (never ever into) All Saints I always get a little angry. What a waste of machines.Its like passing a graveyard


  35. Hi Vicky, I agree with you. We have a new "All Saints" here in Glasgow (in the huge building that used to be Borders Bookshop) and the windows are full of old Singer machines. It always makes me feel really sad, like something has died or is missing.

    Peter, I used to have a treadle machine. It had been in my Mum's house, unused for decades and when I went to University I took it with me. I completely restored it using parts from the Singer shop in Edinburgh. It was a really old machine that used the shuttle bobbins and was so ancient that the leather belt that connected the treadle with the machine had completely crumbled away. I loved that machine. It had so much history for me. My maternal grandmother had bought it second-hand in the 1920's and had made all my Mum & her siblings clothes on it through the Depression years. My Aunt had made her wedding dress on it and I used it to make clothes and quilts. I lost it when a relationship ended and I had to leave it behind as I had no way of moving it. I was devastated and miss it still. I keep thinking about getting another one as it was so therapeutic to sew with (and probably slimming):) I don't think that modern machines have the same appeal.

  36. I have a treadle, unused by me (so far). I got it as a nod to history. She's not in perfect condition, shows wear from many garments sliding across. Why haven't I used her? When I got her, she didn't have a belt, and then we got Miss Piddles (puppy) and she was a chewer. She's outgrown that, but somehow I've just never gotten the new belt put on, or a new slide plate. I have however found a few attachments for her.

  37. That's attachments for the treadle, not Miss Piddles. Who's real name is Riley.

  38. I came across your blog while searching for antique sewing machines and I totally love your blog. I grew up being taught that women sew while men do carpentry. Time went by and I discovered that men sew better than women, on the treadle...why? My mom taught me how to sew on the treadle when I was 8 years old. I had trouble treadling then because my legs couldn't reach far enough. Now I have 1 industrial, 3 electric zigzag plus a serger. I also own a Singer 66 handcrank and a Singer 15 clone treadle made in Japan, which I love dearly. It's not a real antique, just vintage back from 1956, and the wonder machine clicks along zen-like creating smooth and perfect stitches, making me feel the nostalgia of yester years...remembering my mom and her mom. It's a perfect way to destress and concentrate in creating fine detailed work. Unlike an electric sewing machine that can sometimes create problems when the pedal is stepped too hard, making mistakes. The treadle does take up alot of space but then it also allow alot of flat surface sewing space. I love it when I open up the cover, take out the machine, set the belt, thread it, and just sew, knowing that I can sew without complaining that the table is not flat enough or that I have no space to cradle the rest of my project....peace, and save on electricity too. There is really no excuse not to sew on the treadle, is there?

  39. Welcome, Laura.

    Thanks for sharing your treadle experience!

  40. I loved my treadle machine, it would sew anything I brought to the table. I sewed countless dresses, shirts, curtains, pillows and my wedding dress on that machine.

    When we moved to California, I sold it to an enthusiastic new seamstress. I hope it is still being loved. Sometimes I miss it, but really don't have the space for another. Thanks for the memories!

  41. Treadles are great but give me a hand-crank any day. Mind you, I am biased as I make my living selling hand-crank leather and canvas machines.

  42. How do people using handcranks manage with fatigue or with guiding material with one hand?

  43. I know one of the people who helped set up one of those shops in Miami. He says every machine works


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