Tuesday, August 7, 2012

a treadle and a crank

i've been asked to whisper a little more about my treadle  machine and why it has such a prominent place in my heart when it comes to sewing machines. if you know me at all, then you know that i have too many sewing machines. ha! is there such a thing? actually, it isn't as bad as it sounds. i know people who literally have hundreds of machines and don't think twice about it. however, i prefer to live smaller than that and would have no place to sleep if i had that many machines. at last count, i believe it was only 6 or 7 machines, ranging from a high-end, newfangled computerized pfaff on down to a little toy singer lock stitch machine!

one of my "go to" machines is an old treadle singer machine that has travelled half way across the world to live with me.  i purchased it at a yard sale in duarte a couple decades or so ago from a woman who purchased it in cairo several years before immigrating to california.  it was originally made in england, according to serial number records and has a lovely sphinx decal set. when i purchased it, it had been set into a reproduction treadle stand as the previous owner had to replace the original after it fell over in one of many earthquakes in that area and had become damaged. i have since acquired a wonderful, vintage oak cabinet and relocated the treasured machine into happy new digs!

i really enjoy sewing with my treadle machine as there is something nearly mystical about it. the rhythmic rock of the treadle is soothing and the hiss hiss of the leather belt turning the wheel is near hypnotic.  this machine and i have a long history together as it first came to live with me back in the 80's when i was making artist teddy bears. many a bear has come to life under its wondrous needles. since then, it has helped me create dolls, quilts, rugs, costumes and clothes. now it focuses on slow cloth and salvage re-invention garments.

one of the benefits of sewing with a treadle machine is that thicker, tougher fabrics can be sewn in many layers! since you are basically stepping on the needle by stepping on the treadle, so long as you have a good strong needle in place, you can really push through some of the thickest layers of denim, duck and canvas!

yes, yes. i could sew more quickly with the computerized machine. i could incorporate several hundred decorative stitches. my studio could be filled with the brassy beep beep of electronics. in truth, it is...but usually only when burning out a baby quilt or other gift that needs to appear post haste!  but my heart stays with the treadle. as i rock its gears into play, i can almost hear it whisper stories of past dressmakers and designers it and its forebears has known... there really is no substitute for this sort of connection, and this way i get to utilize the tool known as a sewing machine, but still feel a close tie to history.

however, if you would like to meet my deepest desire when it comes to sewing machines...then you want to shake cranks with this little gem! this baby is a treadle machine that has been mounted into a bentwood portable cabinet and fitted with a hand crank. now...i can already hear the groans as you begin contemplating the nature of this machine and its operation. coordination?!? you mean, you have to be coordinated?!?

yes. you do need to develop a little coordination to work this machine since you must crank the wheel with one hand while directing the cloth being sewn with the other hand. but it really isn't as complicated as it sounds. believe me...i am not one who can pat his head and rub his belly at the same time...but this machine truly is a breeze to operate!

why would i want to jump through so many hoops to sew with a hand cranked machine? it is as near to hand stitching as one can get with a sewing machine. it is extremely accurate as you have complete control of the machine. as well as it speeds the sewing process up a bit...

ever wonder how the kuna indians of panama turn out so many wondrous molas? yes, a great many of them are done as they have been traditionally created...each painstakingly hand-stitched!

however, they are not always stitched by hand. hand cranked sewing machines have been around for over 100 years and they have been put to good use by the kuna indians, chinese, malaysians, indonesians, europeans, eurasians and more!

lest you think that reverse applique by hand crank machines is an anomaly, the treadle machine has a long, time honored tradition of being used by masterfully skilled hands (and feet!) of embroiderers across the globe! i have seen amazing examples of traditional clothing bathed in embroidery that would boggle the mind when one stops and realizes that it was all created by hand....on a machine!

read one woman's recollections of her grandmother's "precision, control and skill in manouevring her embroidery hoops back and forth under the steady up-down-up-down of the [old treadle] machine needle" (and see other examples along with examples of hand-manipulated cut-work embroidery done on treadle machines) on her blog here. i dream of one day developing a fraction of the skill her grandmother had!

still can't believe it? watch a treadle machine in action here!

i hope now you may understand my passion for remembering and re-incorporating sewing machines into the process of cloth-making. when we are able to shift our perception and realize that the machine is merely another tool, then all sorts of possibilities open up to us! i personally tend more toward manually operated machines such as the treadle and hand crank machines since i feel i still have total control over the stitches i am making with the machines. however, i am open to the possibility that more modern, electric and computerized machines are simply another extension of these tools. but for now, i am loving my treadle and hand crank machines all over again!



  1. I started on my grandmother's Frister and Rossman with a bullet shaped shuttle - wonderful sound! Sadly it was replaced with an electric one, but I do remember that sense of rhythm with the wheel turning. Not sure I'd manage with one now, I do appreciate having both hands to steer!

    1. Awesome! There are *some* limitations...but adaptability is one of our greatest traits! :)

  2. My first reaction is..I am in love! lol! I want one!
    Thank you so much for sharing information about your fabulous machines.
    I really enjoyed watching the young woman and I was amazed at her precision!
    : )

    1. just one? ha! it is like a sickness...before you know it, you will have no room for you!

      seriously, though...wasn't she just amazing?!?

  3. Great machine. I want one too.Or even two or three. I have some 50's industrial overlocker sergers I love. And a computerized ugly plastic thing I only use for button holes. Bryan

    1. computerized ugly plastic things...yes! have a couple of those...and they are marvelous for button holes, are they not?

      i adore my treadle and my hand crank! both for their own idiosyncrosies. i could so easily see them tucked into your corner of paradise...with you hovering over them making your magic flow!

  4. my first sewing machine was a cheap plastic horror that broke as after 10 minutes of sewing, that machine almost put me off sewing machines! but about 6 months later and lots of hand sewing i brought my first proper sewing machine an alfa from 1960. since then i have got myself 12 machines dating from 1889 to 1964. i wouldnt buy anything newer than that. i have 2 treadles which i use far more than the electic models and if i fancy using a different machine i tend to swap them over in the treadle rather than using electic.