Photo credit: http://sewing.about.com/library/machines/bltrmachine.htm
Adventures of a Treadlin’ Man
Written by Brian Szetela
Edited by Rebecca Szetela
Inspired by several power outages during a recent surprise October snowstorm, I got interested in an antique treadle sewing machine at a local consignment shop. The old sewing machine looked neglected. The stylized ancient Egyptian decals on the machine were badly worn and the finish was scarred, but I could make out a sphinx or basilisk here and there. Although the decorations were worn, the machine did not seem to be “locked up” with ancient oil and thread and even though the belt was broken, the treadle mechanism was intact. I bought it.
Once I got home, I looked up the serial number on the Singer website and discovered that this was an early Singer “15-30” manufactured in New Jersey in 1908. From a website called Treadle On, I found instructions on how to refurbish the treadle. I disassembled the treadle, cleaned out the old threads wound in the works, reassembled and lubricated it and adjusted the treadle mechanism. Then I used kerosene to remove the old oil and lint from the machine’s interior shafts and bearings and I cleaned the outside with a soft rag and mild car washing soap. Finally, again referring to the Treadle On website, I fitted the new drive belt I found on Ebay.
The “15-30” model was the first Singer sewing machine designed to use an oscillating hook mechanism, departing from the back and forth shuttle mechanism suggestive of a weaving loom. The “hook” on a sewing machine is the mechanism that catches the needle thread, bringing it around the bobbin in order to complete the stitch. Oscillating hooks are rarely used on sewing machines today. The oscillating hook design was an intermediate step leading to the full rotating hook mechanism used on most modern sewing machines.
The stitch length on my 15-30 treadle sewing machine is adjustable, although there are no numbers to go by, and the machine can only make a straight stitch. There is also no reverse mechanism on the machine. Since I can’t reverse direction in order to “lock my stitches” I have to draw both threads to the back of the garment and tie them off instead. In spite of its limitations, my “new” sewing machine stitched flawlessly once I got the treadling motion down, despite its age and appearance of neglect.
I wanted to test the machine out on a garment sewing project, so I decided make lounge pants for my first treadle sewing adventure. I chose this as my first project as it has long straight seams and wide seam allowances to practice on. I wasn’t quite ready to start out working on a complex project with small pieces that required detail sewing. The challenge was going to be just getting my initial stitches done correctly! Once I got started I quickly found out that it takes practice plus finesse to get the pedaling motion down on the treadle.
In treadling, I quickly discovered that the goal was to get the treadle flywheel to start moving in the right direction so the belt would move forward over the top of the machine’s handwheel. This can be challenging, because sometimes it wants to go the wrong way, causing tangled stitches in the process. The good news is that the large spoked handwheel allows fine control of stitching because it is so easy to turn by hand. Once I got it started correctly on one of the long side seams, the treadling finally went smoothly and the seam came out great.
I am now the happy owner of a great pair of cotton flannel lounge pants and in the process I have discovered that treadle sewing is fun and relaxing. My 1908 treadle-powered Singer 15-30 machine makes a neat, precise, consistent straight stitch that is a delight to see and the whirring sound as I treadle is very soothing. It makes me wonder what the pre-electric, pre- gasoline powered world was like. I suspect it was very quiet back then.