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Apr 6, 2013

When Bad Things Happen to Good Sewing Machines (and Tables)



As a child of the late Sixties and early Seventies, I am no stranger to the recycled and the repurposed, readers.

Back then it seemed like everybody owned a pair of candlesticks made from old textile spools, or a beat-up aluminum milk can/vase, or an antique wagon wheel mounted on the wall of the family room (alongside a macrame hanging, no doubt).  I guess these objects would have been destined for the landfill, so why not find another use for them?

Repurposing sewing machines and treadle tables is part of that same trend.  I'm sure most of you have seen things like this -- you may even own them yourselves!









A few examples surprise even me...









I sometimes wonder if someday we won't wish we hadn't turned all those treadle bases into marble topped cafe tables -- we might actually need to treadle again.  But in the meantime, what are we supposed to do: hoard them in our basements and garages? 



Turning a treadle table into a sink base is one thing.  Using sewing machines for lamps has always disturbed me, though I suppose if the sewing machine was no longer working, it would be OK.





Then there are people who decorate with sewing machines -- my friend Johanna for instance.   In her defense, I happen to know these machines are all in excellent working order, and she does have a great eye.







This is not Johanna's bathroom (below) -- but this is novel!



Speaking of reuses for old objects,  I picked this up 21" x 44" poster at the flea market today and I'm very curious to see what Michael makes of it (he's at the gym) -- he's a big Sondheim fan but not much for clutter.  I'll keep you posted!



In closing, readers, how do you feel about the repurposing of yesterday's industrial cast-offs into today's bric-a-brac and (arguably) kitsch conversation pieces?  Would you rather turn grandmother's treadle table into a vanity table that will actually serve a useful purpose, or keep it as a working sewing station that never gets used?

Do you decorate with sewing machines and/or sewing-related items?  Be honest! 

Have a great day, everybody!

43 comments:

  1. Love the repurposed tables...hate the lamps. (And those tractors are some thing else! )

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  2. I loved the poster! Thanks, Peter...if only it was my birthday coming up instead of yours.

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  3. Converting sewing machine tables etc. to home decor has been around for quite some time. I've found that the upcycling is typically done with machines that don't work anymore so what's the problem?

    I'd love to have the converted treadle table from my grandma's, but alas, my sister inherited that house. I did get a working machine though, so I guess it's all good.

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  4. If it's a rare piece of Americana, it should be a crime to turn it into something else. But something as ubiquitous as old sewing machines? Do whatever you want. It's preferable than cluttering the landfills.

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    1. That's how I feel about it. *Millions* of sewing machines have been manufactured in the past 100+ years. According to Wikipedia by 1876 Singer was making over 250,000 machines a year. And even though All Saint's Spitalfields creates and entire wall of sewing machines in each on of their stores there are still plenty out there on Craiglist on any given day.

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  5. The first time I saw an old Singer turned into a toy tractor, I cried.... especially since the seller admitted that it had been a *working* model. It just seemed like such a waste! And for the record, as someone who lives in an all-electric house, I would *love* a treadle for our power outages if nothing else, if it works, I don't think it should be touched!

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  6. My grandma's always had a treadle table, working as a little table, on her balcony. I've always loved that, and still love it. Turning a working sewing machine into something else is much more arguable... but then, so is the old Singer gathering dust and other things in our yard. (It's covered, and under roof, and allegedly not working. I haven't gotten around to checking yet, because of reasons.)

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  7. Trying to make something be something it's not seems to me to be (at least part of) the definition of bad taste. So, sewing machines turned into lamps, ack. Treadle bases supporting sinks and tables--well at least those bases are attractive, but it always gives me a pang of regret for the loss of another working machine. Because I don't assume the machine must have been broken, I assume most people wouldn't know how to determine if the machine worked.

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    1. At the same time, if these people don't know enough to operate one of these machines, then maybe the best thing for them is a table...

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  8. I had never seen sewing machine lamps before, and now I'm horrified. I understand making one table-like object into another table-like object...but lamps?

    In theory, I support turning a non-working sewing machine into anything one wants to, because I'm all about repurposing and upcycling and whatnot...but lamps? From sewing machines? In practice, that one stumps me--I just don't understand the appeal.

    Working sewing machines, on the other hand, should always be used, if not by the original owner, then by someone who appreciates it. When I upgraded from my grandmother's 50s-era Kenmore to a shiny new Brother, I asked everyone I knew if they wanted it (free!) and when no one did, I donated it. I hope it's found a good home!

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  9. In central Ohio there is someone selling sewing machine cum "tractor lamps" (a combined combo-platter).

    Cringeworthy.

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  10. Oh my! Those pictures just made me sad...

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  11. G Street Fabrics in Rockville, MD has a bunch of old treadle consoles that they use for displaying fabrics and the like - they no longer have machines in them, so I assume the machines were no longer working or perhaps cannibalized for their parts. But they've done a beautiful job of refinishing the wood, which I think it important. It always kills me when someone makes a table out of one and then uses it outside, leaving it to rust and rot.

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  12. My mother has an antique singer table that she uses for her TV stand

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  13. I havbe the machine head for a treadle machine but not cabinet for it. The first person I called in search of a cabinet asked what i was going to make with it. Really. I have talked to a few antique dealers and they both said people have been buying treadle machines to repurpose the cabinets and tossing the machines. So sad. I am still looking for a working cabinet. The few I have come across don't have the pedal part. I will keep looking.

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  14. If it doesn't work AND is beyond reasonable hope of repair ... do whatever you want with it. If it works or is fixable ... leave it alone. (But that's just IMHO.)

    My great-grandmother's treadle Singer (which still works, though it does need some TLC) has been a side table in my mom's house for as long as I can remember. And I have given strict orders that it is to be left alone so that when I finally get it, I can use it for its original purpose when the zombie apocalypse (or some other disaster) hits. Between that machine and my fabric stash, we'll be the best-dressed post-apocalyptic survivors around!

    However, I must say ... that throat plate/elephant thingy up there? SO CUTE!!! I'd actually shell out cash for that.

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  15. I dunno. It kind of makes me cringe although I can't really make a coherent argument why, especially it they weren't working.

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  16. I actually liked all of the repurposed items except the tractors.

    The lamps would be great in a sewing room.

    Would I prefer that the items be non-working? of course. In an ideal world people would actually use their sewing machines for good. :) But if repurposing keeps them out of landfills, then I'm all for it.

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  17. I have to agree with Bratling. The old Singer machines are nearly as good as some of the newer industrial machines. If I could find an old treadle cabinet and machine, I would spend the money to refurbish it and keep it. I'm an old antique myself, and I have to appreciate anything that can last 100 years and still function as it was designed. There is almost nothing made these days that is made to last. -Babe.

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  18. If it is yours, and it not illegal, do what you want. If you want to save an antique sewing machine or anything else, buy it.

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  19. Personally, I think that these items are abominations, but it's a free country, and obviously other people disagree.

    It makes me want to buy every old machine I see and hide them.

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    Replies
    1. I feel the same!

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    2. Me too. I can't look at these pictures, the carnage is too horrible.

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  20. My grandmother haunted the auctions in the 30's, looking for cheap items that she could use for her growing family during the depression. I think my mother inherited that gene because she was always dragging stuff home and expecting my woodworker father to "fix it up." I still have a walnut night table next to my bed, made from a treadle base she bought for probably a dollar. I love it and will hand it down.

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  21. It always make me cringe to see treadle bases being re-purposed. You never know when someone will have a working machine that will need that base and I don't see many of the bases being able to go back to what they were originally for. As far as making the machines into lamps, tractors, and whatever else is being thought of; it's a shame to think that working machines would be used for that. It might be okay if the pieces of the machine were taken apart to be used for other machines. Since these vintage and antique machines last so much longer than newer models it is a shame to see any of them going to landfills.

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  22. Be honest. You have a sewing machine tractor in your collection. lolll

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  23. Sorry, but,

    if your car is unrepeirable, you buy a newer one. Because its better
    if your tv set is unrepairable,you buy a better one. High def, lcd
    If your fridge is broken, you buy a more ecofriendly one
    if your computer is getting too old (too slow) you buy a newer one,
    Why then, so much to do about old sewing machines?

    Used to work in a sewingmachine shop, as a repairman, and almost everyone owning a sewingmachine, wants to hold on to his or hers sewingmachine for decades. Why?

    All other stuff in your house (e.g. smartphone, micro wave, washing machine etc.), we replace without any regret.

    We have millions of threadle machines in the world. Lots of them are turned into those tables and everything. Why so much grief?

    C. from the Netherlands.

    PS threadle machines are about 15 dollar here. Mostly for almost free. Away with this old stuff. They've done a perfect job, but he, are you still watching shows on a valve black and white television from the 50/60's ?

    Don't think so.

    http://www.marktplaats.nl/z/antiek-en-kunst/antiek-naaimachines.html?categoryId=1101

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  24. C from the Netherlands, I assume you don't sew. The older models are stronger, sturdier and more reliable than the plastic machines of today. In America, a working treadle is a precious thing (To people who know what it is!).
    -Sandra

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    1. Hello Anonymous,
      yes, I can sew, absolutely! And am the owner of about 30 plastic machines. Pfaff, Viking and Bernina.
      All very strong, sturdy, electronic machines. With dito strength.
      If it feets under the pressure feet, they sew it. Better than threadle machines.

      Plastic machines, the very very cheap ones, I agree, they are much inferior to the platic machines from the brands named above (from the higher range models!)

      Greetings, C.

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    2. My treadles make a better stitch than my $7000 embroidery machine every day of the week and twice on sundays. I keep the embroidery machine around for large jobs and embroidering but everything else goes on the treadle.

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  25. Those sewing machine tractors have to be some of the ugliest creations in the world.

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  26. I would love to have an old singer tradle vanity! BUT only if the machine is not working anymore. Only then.

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  27. this was painful to read. i think i cried a little. (but i would so take the vanity.)

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    1. The vanity could conceivably work without destroying the treadle table, so you're excused.

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  28. My heart aches to see it, but the reality is that there are more treadle machines around than there are people that want them for sewing, as evidenced by their fairly low price and wide availability.

    You can't expect people to store these things for decades on the off chance their grandkids will have a weird antique sewing fetish. I mean hardly anyone actually sews anyway, and only a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction would be interested in a treadle machine. Whomever they pass to is going to sell them or junk them, just like you would do with the stacks of old newspapers that were so precious to your grandmother.

    It's even possible that the widespread butchering of antique machines contributes more to their salvation than to their destruction. Antique dealers are more likely to be willing to buy them at estate sales and devote floor space to them in their warehouse or shop if they know they can sell it to someone who will make a cafe table from it. If there were no market for these (effectively what would be the case if people only bought them to sew on), they would get scrapped more often. Not sure how the balance works out though.

    Sure, some of this stuff seems horribly tacky. But the world has no shortage of tacky stuff you would never consider taking into your home, so thats not so remarkable.

    Still, it just seems so... wrong.

    Its like seeing a linotype machine used for a boat anchor.

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  29. NONONONONO! My great-grandmother's treadle machine is still in beautiful condition and can sew industrial-strength fabrics. These things were meant to last!

    The thing about old sewing machines is that, even though a lot of them were made in the past, they aren't making any more.

    I have a similar reaction when people buy antique hardwood furniture, slap some white paint on it, beat the hell out of it and "shabby chic".

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  30. This hurts to look at,
    I would never let someone harm my baby (singer 66 *still has its origanal instructions in german : ] )

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  31. Just found this. Have to admit. I met one of those people who turn orphan treadles into tractors. I was at an estate auction. He and his wife were actually quite proud of his actions. As my husband held me back (not quite a choke hold, but a good tight grip on both wrists), I did manage to unclench my teeth enough to inquire as to the operational standing of the machines he mutilated. He admitted they all worked when he got them, but some of the cabinets were very damaged. I wept and then after checking and finding that all four machines at the sale were functional, I viciously made sure he paid top dollar for them. My husband was panicked at the thought of trying to get four treadles home since we only brought the mini van and he left the seats in, but I only came away with one.

    I have 3 currently in my home. I have a Franklin with the Egyptian motif of scarabs it is a knock off of the Singer 127 VS, he is in great condition. I out bid the cannibal for him and admit his veneer is peeling on his back side, but DH is an excellent woodworker who made high end custom cabinets for years, so he will take care of Frankie's boo boos. I also have a White Rotary (round bobbin) from around 1920. Beautiful machine, she was a gift from my husband who found her at an auction. A bit of cleaning and oiling... perfection. My newest is a Singer 30-16 treadle. It was a tailor's machine and the balance on the treadle is unbelievable, it literally will just keep on running for ever. My son helped me oil and adjust it and he got the treadle in a steady rhythm and then lifted his feet and timed it to it's stop. 3 minutes it took to run down . No noise, not even the click you associate with treadle machines. It is a beast, well over 40 pounds for just the head and the treadle had to be moved dismantled from the table and head (it still took two men to lift) to move it. I have a couple of other vintage machines, a Necchi Supernova Julia, a Singer 99, a Viking 2000 (with the original cabinet and all the service papers since her purchase in the 60's), Viking 6430, coranado (Japanese 15 clone) and my youngest machine is an 80's(?) Kenmore who's only job is patching for the guys. Have to admit, not too fond of the 6430, but she came to me with health problems.....Love the extra feet tho.

    I've had new brothers and a new singer (eek) but never again. I'll give up a kidney before I'll give up one of my vintage babies.

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  32. Hello! I am late to commenting on this article (by about a year LOL) but I just want to say this article is Fantastic!
    People do not understand just how many beautiful and wonderful things are put to landfills or laid to waste in garages, sheds and in landfills.
    I applaud all ideas to recycle, repurpose and reuse items in order to create something new and loved!
    I have a website, Facebook page and Pinterest boards dedicated to this and I most certainly added your images to my boards!
    Thank you for the wonderful article!
    Brenda Ellison Re-Scape.com, Facebook page is facebook/rescapedotcom

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  33. Space is a very expensive commodity for me. So I can't keep anything that is used only as art decor. I have 4 Singer treadles and use them as treadles. They are the most versatile of all because I can use them even with thick upholstery thread successfully. I keep the machine stored inside then use it as a table fir my electric machines fir decorative stitching. I still have a Singer 15-80 head. The trash collector actually smashed the beautifully carved hard wood cabinet just to take out the machine head. I broke into tears and rushed to save the iron base. I have nothing against repurposing....but not to a complete and beautiful working one. Many people long for such beauties but cannot afford them. It's better to donate them instead of destroying a fully functioning sewing machine.

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  34. I do all of mt quilting on a treadle! It makes me sad to see perfectly good sewing machines turned int furniture or knick knacks. Maybe if there was no way of restoring it, that is different. It is hard to find good working treadles anymore because people do this to them, and that makes me sad.

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