Treadle Sewing Machines played a huge role in our American Heritage
There’s just something magic about treadle sewing machines from kids being fascinated with the way they work to growing up sewing on one.
If you love to sew and haven’t experience the peaceful solitude of just you and the control of the treadle, you just have to try one to believe in the magic.
Many have ditched their electric machines to return to a part of sewing history that shaped our American Heritage.
Why are treadle sewing machines still so popular?
Surprisingly the old treadle powered sewing machines are still extremely popular even among those who have electric machines.
Sewing ranges from a hobby, a businesses and for many still a basic family necessity.
The home sewing machine provided a significant contribution to how people were able to homestead and provide basic clothing and fabric items used in day to day family routines.
During the late 1800s and into the mid 1900s almost everything that a family wore, or used made of fabric was home sewn on a treadle sewing machine.
Prior to the treadle sewing machine clothing was made by all hand stitching. One can only imagine the hours it took to just make one garment.
A treadle machine is powered by a foot pedal(s) at the base of the machine cabinet.
On the more common single treadle cabinets the operator sits in front of the cabinet with both feet on the treadle base. The treadle takes very little effort to rock back and forth.
As the treadle is rocked a flywheel on the side transfers it into a continual circular motion that is then transferred by a belt to the machine hand wheel.
The hand wheel sits on the right hand side of the machine.
Much like an electric machine the hand wheel is used to position the needle up and down while doing various task of aligning the material or threading the bobbin that is located under the machine bed.
On a treadle the inside of the hand wheel has a pulley for the treadle belt. The hand wheel is also used to give the machine a boost start as the treadle motion begins to turn the hand wheel.
Some of the older models used two pedals side by side in place of the treadle. The operator would use the rocking motion alternating between the two pedals.
The pedals were hooked to a crank shaft similar to an old fashioned kids pedal car that would transfer into a circular motion to attach to the machine spindle.
Treadle sewing machines of today
While some just like the nostalgic machine and cabinets, actual sewers of all ages are still pedaling away on an old fashioned or new model treadle sewing machine.
Experienced sewers who first learned to sew on a treadle still like using them over electric.
They feel in better control of the speed and patterns they have perfected in their sewing projects.
Cultures who are still maintaining a conservative past are still making most all of the families clothing and linens at home.
In fact one sewing machine company has developed a new treadle machine geared specifically for the Amish and Mennonite communities.
The Janome 712T is a modern looking sewing machine with the old style hand wheel to take an old fashioned treadle belt.
Surprisingly the Janome 712T treadle has become very popular for non-Amish households for those who would rather use a treadle sewing machine.
History of the treadle sewing machine
The first known treadle sewing machine was patent in 1790 by an Englishman. It was designed for leather and canvas shops but was never fully developed by the inventor Thomas Saint.
There were several other attempts to design and manufacture a treadle sewing machine in England, Austria and even France.
Interesting the French tailors rebelled and destroyed a French factory using the only French made treadle sewing machines.
Their motive was to put the treadle machine company out of business so that they could maintain their hand sewn business.
They succeeded and no other sewing machines were made by the company.
America saw the first treadle machines in 1832 when Walter Hunt began manufacturing a sewing machine.
Hunt’s machine would take thread from the top side of the machine loop and hook into another spool of thread located under the sewing bed after the sewing needle penetrated the fabric.
Hunt accomplished the loop and hook method by using a special sewing needle with an eye hole.
This basic concept called the “lockstitch” has remained the working format up into even the modern day sewing machines.
Hunt could never really perfect the design and timing of the machine to prevent the thread from balling up the inside the machine.
Hunt was trying to run the fabric and machine horizontally and probably encountered the forces of gravity.
Consequently Hunt never perfected the process to apply for a patent and soon dropped the project.
In 1845 Elias Howe found that by taking the Hunt design and making a machine so that it took the fabric vertically while modifying the needle path he could prevent the thread from balling up.
Howe submitted his design and was awarded the first America patent.
Howe attempted to take his machine and market it in England, but with little interest he returned to the America to market it here after being away for several years.
During his absence he discovered that several others companies were well on their way in manufacturing sewing machines in America including a company owned by Merritt Singer.
To his surprise they were using his patented design. In 1854 Howe won a patent case against the other American manufactures and was able to collect royalties, including those being made and sold by the Singer company.
Several American companies, such as American, Standard, New Home, White and etc. made efficient sewing machines but Singer continued to improve their design and models maintaining the market share in order to stay in business for all these years.
Singer was able to stay ahead of the American heart beat by being the first to develop such things as the vibrating shuttle and being able to produce so many different models.
Singer also developed the first electric sewing machine in 1889 by adding a motor to the back side of their standard treadle machines.
The transition to electric machines was interrupted by the war until around 1920 as the factories were all making war materials.
The rural electrification act of 1935 began the forward push for electric sewing machines.
The early electric machines could be used with a treadle or the added electric motor.
These came in very handy as electricity especially in the remote rural areas was not dependable.
Singer was very famous for their 15 class machines and then hit a home run with their small Featherweight electric sewing machines which even today are still highly sought after by quilters and sewers wanting a lightweight traveling sewing machine.
Several companies including Singer also made a hand crank machine. These were used by travelers who couldn't obviously haul around a treadle cabinet.
The traditional hand wheel was replaced with a folding hand crank. The machine sat in a base and had a locking cover with a carrying handle.
The machine was rather heavy cast iron and probably wouldn't be something that was carried very far at a time.
Singer Sewing Machine Company maintains an online data base of all the serial numbers and the years their machines were made. You can enter a serial number and find out when it was made by going to this link http://www.mysingerstory.com
Sewing machine cabinets
The treadle machines required a substantial cabinet base to hold the actual working treadle.
The treadle is made of cast iron and screwed into the sides of the cabinet legs or base.
Several styles and cabinets were made to fit the different models of manufactured sewing machines.
The early treadle cabinets consisted of either cast iron, metal or wooden legs with the cast iron treadle and flywheel.
Although many of the cabinets were actually built in furniture factories the sewing machine company would either own the cabinet factory or contract with a factory to have the cabinets made for their machines.
The cast iron bases normally had the sewing machine company name formed either into the design of the legs , the back castings or in the actual treadle.
Keeping the sewing machine clean and free of dust was a real issue in the early years.
Open windows and dirt roads along with blowing dust all contributed to gumming up a sewing machine.
The cabinet makers used all types of designs to provide a cover when the machine was not in use.
The earlier cabinets held the machine stationary and then covered with a fancy wooden box top when it wasn't being used.
The folding sewing machine cabinet was patented in 1901 by Albert Morlet of Chicago Ill.
Morlet’s invention transformed the treadle sewing cabinet industry.
The actual sewing machine sat in a hinged position that was then hooked by a cable to the top leaf.
The top leaf when folded provided a regular table top piece of furniture.
As the top was opened the cable would pull the sewing machine up out of the cabinet until the sewing machine base was flush with the top of the work surface.
As you trace different sewing cabinet styles you can find they too became more modern as the years rolled forward.
Some of these cabinets even appeared to transition into a piece of furniture to actually hideaway the fact the home was still using a sewing machine.
I suspect there was an awkward time in social stigma about still making your families clothing at home.
While most modern sewing cabinets resemble more of an executive or wrap around computer desk with an hydraulic air lift, the old antique treadle cabinets are still being used.
The old sewing cabinets mostly fell out of favor during the 60s into the 70s as families moved toward factory made clothing designs.
The result like other period antiques many of the treadle cabinets were destroyed or allowed to deteriorate past the point of restoration.
Many of the old cabinets were discarded completely or moved out of the homes into damp basements and dirt floor garages where the humidity and moisture quickly worked loose the wood joints and veneers.
You will see the remnants of many of the old treadle cast iron bases converted into other tables, flower planters, and such things as fish tank bases.
Some will even have the treadle and flywheel still intact.
The long wooden sewing cabinet drawers are also popular collector items for decorating as well as storing arts, crafts and hobby collections.
Some of the drawers are used individually or are still mounted in their original holders that were used under the old sewing cabinet tops.
Converting an old treadle cabinet to a modern Janome machine
The Janome 712T should fit most of the old 15 Class Singer Cabinets, if you should be so lucky to find one.
For those who are seeking to make the conversion of an old treadle cabinet to fit the new Janome 712T treadle, you need to realize this conversion is not easy and often ends up in unsatisfactory results.
The old treadle cabinets used glued strips of wood then covered by veneer. This veneer is very fragile and splinters easily when trying to enlarge or change the size of the hole.
The result often leaves jagged edges that will quickly snag fabrics as your trying to sew across the top.
Reconditioning an old treadle
Considering the numbers of treadle cabinets that were made, there’s a good number still available in antique stores and estate sales.
The old sewing machine heads were built heavy duty and with a little TLC, cleaning and new oiling, and a new treadle belt they can be put back into use. 3-in-one oil is still the preferred oil to use, or one specifically for sewing machines.
If the parts are gummed up the machine will probably need cleaning with a parts cleaning solvent from and auto parts store. Each machine cleaning is different so try a little bit in one area to test it.
On machines that have been neglected the parts may need to be completely disassemble and reassembled after cleaning.
Carefully make notes or take pictures of the disassembly so that you will be able to reassemble.
In striping down the cabinet be careful not to use a solvent stripper that will loosen the veneer. Be careful in sanding the tops and the veneer maybe thin and sand through especially on the edges.
Retro back to with new treadle cabinet and machine.
The Janome 712T treadle is not normally stocked at most sewing machine retailers. They can order one for you or you can shop online as they are very available. Just Google Janome 712T.
Finding a cabinet for one is a bit more difficult. Being a treadle machine you will need a cabinet with the treadle.
While many sell new sewing cabinets for electric machines, finding one to fit an old Singer treadle machine, or specifically the Janome 712T treadle can be difficult.
Treadle cabinets are just not considered mainstream in sales volume for the corporate sewing machine cabinet companies.
There's only two cabinets being sold on the Internet for the Janome 712T. Alpha Sew 712T cabinet and Amish cabinets from Cottage Craft Works .com
Cottage Craft Works .com sells a solid wood Amish reproduction treadle machine cabinets to fit both the Janome 712T or the 15 Class antique Singer machines.
The cabinets can be purchased with or without the Janome 712T and they ship UPS.
The Cottage Craft Works cabinets are more expensive but are very popular for those who have purchased them in oak or cherry.
You can read the reviews on both the Alpha Sew and Cottage Craft Works to see which one is best for you.
Cottage Craft Works also sells solid wood custom Amish sewing cabinets for both electric and treadle machines. http://www.cottagecraftworks.com The cabinets and machines are located under the Home Goods tab, then Amish Handcrafted, Sewing Cabinets.