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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Treadle Sewing Machines:
The Non-Electric Sewing Machine,
People Powered Sewing Machines, Not Just for the Amish

by Anne Kusilek

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Anne is a sewing machine collector and professional quilter from Prairie Farm, WI has been using people-powered sewing machines for 16 years. Known by sewing machine collectors as “Damascus Annie”, she is considered an authority on machines made by the National Sewing Machine Company and her collection of over 40 sewing machines is one of the largest collections of Nationals in the country.

In 1990, my husband bought me my first treadle sewing machine for a Mother’s Day gift. It was (and is) a beautiful “Damascus Grand” Rotary machine made in the early 1920’s for Montgomery Wards by the National Sewing Machine Company of Belvidere, IL.  We thought it would look pretty in our restored bungalow’s living room. I had no way of knowing that this machine would revolutionize the way I sew. We threaded it up on a whim, just to see if it still worked and I’ve never really looked back.

“People-powered” machines (PPMs for short) take two basic forms: the familiar treadle machine with its foot pedal mounted in a free-standing cabinet, and the handcrank. Early machines were almost exclusively handcrank versions, although an early French machine did feature a treadle mechanism.

Most people would agree that treadle machines are the most convenient to use as they allow the sewist to use both hands to manipulate the fabric and in my quilting studio I use treadle machines for 99% of my sewing. My customized treadle table has five machines mounted in it: three machines that were originally treadles and two that were electrics.

Many electric machines work well as treadles for the simple reason that a machine doesn’t know the origin of its power source. In theory, any belt driven sewing machine can be powered by either a handcrank, a treadle, or a motor. The only time electricity is essential is when your machine is computerized or has a direct gear linkage to the motor as opposed to a belt. By the 1920s most sewing machines were offered as treadles, handcranks or electrics and Singer’s model 15 was offered as a handcrank, as a treadle, as a belt-driven electric and as a direct-drive electric.

My five main machines are good examples of the versatility available to the non-electric seamstress. I use a 1950s Japanese-made “Brother,” a clone of the popular Singer 15, for my machine quilting business--I don’t have a long-arm quilting machine.

These inexpensive electric machines flooded the U.S. market after World War II largely because the U.S. government gave our sewing machine technology to the Japanese as part of the Marshall plan. While they are usually sneered at by sewing machine collectors for being too “new” and common, they are an excellent choice if you are looking for a strong, durable, straight-stitch machine.

I’ve tried several different vintage models for free-motion quilting and in my opinion the 15 class machines are far and away the best choice for two reasons: the bobbin arrangement and droppable feed dogs. The vertical bobbin arrangement allows the thread to feed directly up to the needle greatly reducing strain and wear on the bobbin thread. Dropping the feed dogs reduces resistance as the quilt is moved under the needle, although it’s not absolutely necessary. I often demonstrate free-motion quilting with the dogs up just to prove that it can be done.

The vintage 15 class machines are built more heavily than most modern machines and are able to punch through the layers of a quilt without difficulty. Because they have steel internal parts and only one stitch option they almost never wear out if kept cleaned and oiled. Another advantage is that they take common modern needles, bobbins, and quilting feet. I use a vintage Elna darning foot on mine, but most low-shank darning feet will work on it.


I also have a formerly electric Japanese “Sew-Mor” 15 class zig-zagger from the late 50’s or early 60s. This machine is used for patching, machine applique, finishing seams on fabrics that fray easily, and zig-zag free-motion quilting. It is a high-shank model and I use a plastic high-shank darning foot on it that I purchased at my local quilt store. Like my quilting head, it is all-metal inside and out and is as strong as an ox, punching through 5 or 6 layers of denim without a problem.

My primary piecing machine is a 1920s National Two Spool , probably one of the most interesting sewing machines ever made. The name derives from the unique bobbin: a second spool of thread that pops into a “can” bobbin case. With this wonderful machine, I can piece for 8-10 hours without winding a bobbin! If I could find a darning foot for it, it would definitely become my free-motion quilting head. Unfortunately, the presser foot clamping system is obsolete and darning feet are not made for them. Oddly enough, there didn’t seem to be a high demand for these machines so they are a bit hard to find but well worth the search if you sew a lot.

For straight line (grid) quilting, applying bindings and working with flannels or other fabrics that want to shift under the presser foot, I have a ca. 1910 Davis Vertical Feed . Like the Two Spool, this machine is an oddity: it’s a walking foot machine without feed dogs. I acquired mine from a neighbor who was going to throw it away due to serious finish problems on the head. I removed most of the finish down to the base metal, keep it wiped down with sewing machine oil so it won’t rust, and use it that way. It’s not pretty but now that I have it, I wouldn’t be without it. I’ve used walking foot attachments, but none of them ever came close to working as well as this old machine. Like most antique machines, it can handle almost anything you throw at it and doesn’t quibble when I’m sewing through 6 layers of fabric plus batting to attach a binding.

The last machine mounted in my treadle table, is a National Chainstitcher--basically a copy of the more common Willcox and Gibbs chainstitcher Often mistaken for toys by the uninitiated, these are full-sized working sewing machines that make a one-thread chain stitch (no bobbin). However, the stitch has a flaw: if it breaks or isn’t fastened off correctly at the end, the whole thing zips out! This “drawback” makes it the perfect machine for temporary jobs like theatrical alterations, clothing fittings, and other jobs requiring basting. I use mine to baste temporary strips to protect the edges of quilt tops prior to hand quilting or applique (which I do in a hoop) and for simple machine embroidery.

To see Anne’s sewing machines and examples of her work go to: http://community.webshots.com/user/damascusannie

Bio and contact info:
Her quilting business, “Finely Finished,” caters to clients who want a unique custom finish for their quilts. Many (but not all) of her clients use treadle or handcrank sewing machines to piece their tops and wish to have their quilts finished by treadle as well. Anne says, “I love my job. Every top has a story and was a labor of love for the maker. It’s a joy to bring these beautiful tops to life as a quilts.”

Anne demonstrates regularly at quilt shows, museums and re-enactment events where she dresses in reproduction period costumes ranging from the Civil War to the 1950s, depending on the event and her mood.

She comments, “I get a real kick from the reactions of quilters as they watch me free-motion quilt on a treadle sewing machine. Someone always asks me if I’m crazy, especially when they find out that I do ALL of my sewing this way.”

Anne also sets up and sells handcrank machines. Most of her machines are sold to parents and grandparents looking for safe, reliable, easy-to-use machines for children.
You may contact her by e-mail at: toomanydogs@chibardun.net or call her at:
715-455-1911 for more information about sewing machines or quilting.

For more sewing machine history, see my article:
The Sewing Machine and Quilters in the 19th Century


* Women (and Men) at Work

2005 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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