Last Updated on October 15, 2021

Remember the sewing machine your grandmother loves to use? If she passed it down to you, what a lucky sewist you are! That sewing machine that works by a foot pedal is called a treadle sewing machine. This manual sewing machine makes beautiful stitches that every modern sewist wants to achieve.

What is a treadle sewing machine? A treadle sewing machine is a sewing machine that is powered by a foot pedal that is pushed back and forth by the operator. Today these antiques serve to be reminders of America’s industrial prowess and might.

Know more about treadle sewing machines in this article as it will discuss the different parts that make this vintage sewing machine work. In the latter part, you will also get a glimpse of its history, from its first



A Brief History Of Treadle Sewing Machine


You can think of the treadle sewing machine as the sewing machine of the good old days. It is an early type of sewing machine that both traditional and modern sewists enjoy.

The first-ever patent for a sewing machine was granted to the British cabinet maker Thomas Saint in 1790. While it has not been verified if he ever built a working prototype of the machine, which was originally designed to work with leather, subsequent builds using Saint’s blueprints and drawings did not work.

In the year 1800 up to 1820, less than five different attempts were conducted to build a sewing machine. The rest were all failures and not successful at all.

The first one was back in 1804, where Thomas Stone and James Henderson received their French patents. The second one, the same year, Scott John Duncan received the British patent.

In late 1810, Balthasar Krems from Germany invented the cap-sewing machine. In 1814, Josef Madersperger, who was known as a tailor in Austria, was awarded an Austrian patent. Only in 1818 where John Doge and John Knowles invented the first American sewing machine. 

After these attempts, in 1830, a french tailor named Barthelemy Thimmonier invented the machine that used a single thread. It includes a single hooked needle to make a chain stitch like the ones used in embroidery. 

A treadle now powers this machine, and it finally worked. Soon after polishing the blueprints, Thimmonier had eighty machines going and a lucrative contract for army uniforms from the French government. This success, however, was short-lived. Fearful of being unemployed because of the brand new inventions, tailors in the area destroyed Thimmonier’s factory.

In 1846, the first American patent for a sewing machine was awarded to Elias Howe. His invention could create a lock stitch using a process that utilized thread from two sources.

Howe didn’t have the easiest time marketing his invention as well as defending his patent. Out of all these people, there was a man who would soon be the creator of the infamous treadle sewing machine. The name was Isaac Singer. These efforts reached their peak between 1880 and 1900 with some highly curious add-ons for the sewing machine.


1. Bradbury Automatic Foot Rest 

This invention had a footboard and a counterweight on a pivoting rod for treadle machines with a cross brace between the sides. All the operator had to do was touch the weight, and the footrest would be deployed.

2. Hall Treadle Attachment  

This modification placed gearing between the pedal and the flywheel to ensure that the machine would start in the right direction.

3. Spengler Treadle

Instead of the commonly used treadle, the operator would rock a full-length push bar back and forth. It was connected to a freewheel device through a cord, which translated the motion from linear into circular.

4. Whitney Cushion

Whitney cushion is a shaped piece of rubber that was attached to the treadle. It is used to make the machine start quicker and run faster while making the entire process more bearable by relieving the operator of shock and vibration.

5. Cowles Treadle System

Cowles Treadle System consists of two pitman shafts and cranks that can provide you with one up and one down pedal movement. It also received a medical endorsement from physicians who said that it would improve the operator’s health the more it was used.


A vintage singer sewing machine set on a table


How To Determine If You Are Using A Treadle Sewing Machine


A common feature of treadle machines is the foot pedal (treadle) on the base, responsible for driving the needle. Be that as it may, it can still be a little challenging to determine what kind of machine is in your possession.


Start By Finding The Brand


Sewing machine manufacturers usually place their brand names somewhen on their machines. More often than not, you can find these names in the cast iron base or somewhere easy to distinguish on the machine itself. 

Some common brand names include Singer, White, Howe, Willcox & Gibbs, National, and many others. Knowing which brand your machine came from can help you narrow down your machine’s manufacturing date and model.


Check The Model Numbers


Whatever model and brand it may be, the machine is bound to have numbers printed on it somewhere. For example, in the case of Singer machines, serial numbers are often located at the base of the mechanism. White sewing machines have a metal plate that has the serial number of the machine. 

Once you can figure out the number present in your sewing machine, you can use the Sewing Machine Collectors Society. It will help you get the details you might need to find out what is in your sewing machine. 


Find Clues About The Date


Treadle sewing machines were made well into the 1950s. However, they were most common during the Victorian era.

So, the most effective way to determine the date of your machine is by looking for some clues in its design. More elaborate and ornate stands signify machines from the Victorian era, while simpler and sleeker designs are hallmarks for 20th-century models.


Look for Similar Machines


You can also try looking through listings on antique and auction sites to help you locate similar machines. Looking up photos may help you determine whether you have the same model as the pictures that come up. Some great sites to conduct research in are eBay and Etsy.


The Parts Of Treadle Sewing Machine That Makes It Work


When dealing with the components and parts of a treadle sewing machine, you need to know the different categories. These categories can be broken down into two parts, the upper parts and the lower parts.

Some major components that make up the upper part of the sewing machine are the head, arm, and bed. You can expect to find the belt guide, band wheel, dread guard, treadle, legs, and belt shifter for the lower part.

Three components make up the upper part of the treadle sewing machine. Following are the components that make up the upper part along with their functions:

  • Arm – This is the sewing machine head’s curved part that comprises the mechanism to operate the needle.
  • Balance Wheel/Hand Wheel – The entire mechanism is set in motion by the balance wheel. The wheel’s function is to raise and lower the needle manually. A motor drives the wheel, and this motor can be turned by hand to adjust the height of the needle. This component can be found on the sewing machine’s right side.
  • Bed – It is the machine’s flat portion; the bed is mounted on the feed dog, which then lies beneath the machine. It is also where the lower thread and the shuttle can be found. The bed is essential for stabilizing the machine to allow it to stay in one place.
  • Bobbin Case – It is where the bobbin can be located, and it does not only hold the bobbin. It can also provide the lower thread with tension. Bobbin’s case is responsible for wrapping the needle around the bobbin thread. In addition to that, the needle thread is pulled up through the needle plate.
  • Bobbin Winder – This part of the machine winds the thread and controls the bobbin; it is basically simple, a mechanism for winding the bobbin thread.
  • Bobbin – The bobbin is the part of the mechanism that provides the lower thread. A stitch is then formed by looping together the needle thread and the thread of the bobbin.
  • Face Plate – The face plate is a cover that provides access to the needle bar’s oiling points, take-up lever, and presser bar when it is removed.
  • Feed Dogs – Feed Dogs are known to be small pieces of textured metal. It is the one responsible for moving the fabric while it is sewed.
  • Head – The head is pretty straightforward. It is the sewing machine itself with a cabinet or a carry case. 
  • Needle Bar – The primary function of this part is to keep the needle at one end by utilizing a clamp. The needle bar then provides motion to the needle.
  • Needle Clamp – It is used to hold and tighten the needle, and it keeps the needle in position.
  • Needle – A needle is an extremely lean piece of metal that features a hole for thread at one end and a very sharp point at the other. Using a needle, you can stitch the fabric and make any arrangement you want. 
  • Stitch Selector – As the name suggests, the stitch selector selects the type of stitch to be used while working. It is regardless whether the stitch will be an embroidery stitch or a simple straight stitch.
  • Presser Foot – Attached to the machine shank, the presser foot keeps the fabric in place while it is sewed.
  • Presser Foot Lever – Presser foot lever is used to change the altitude of the presser foot. It is known to have tension discs responsible for engaging when the pressure foot lever is lowered. 
  • Reverse Lever – A reverse lever is used to deflate the lever of your sewing machine. This movement will allow the mechanism to reverse or move it backward.
  • Slide Plate – A rectangle-shaped movable plate, the slide plate covers the bobbin case. It makes it possible to remove the bobbin case without lifting the entire machine for a refill.
  • Spool Pin – Located at the top of the sewing machine, the spool pin is used to hold the thread packages.
  • Stitch Regulator – It is used to control and regulate the fabric stitches’ length and width.
  • Take-Up Lever – This component plays a vital role in the threading of the sewing machines. The take-up lever is moved up and down with a needle to maintain an appropriate tension with the fabric.
  • Tension Disc – It is used to regulate and toggle the tightness and looseness of stitches.
  • Thread Cutter – Attached to the sewing machine’s left side, the thread cutter is a tiny blade in the later models of the treadle sewing machine that conveniently cuts thread tails for a more polished experience.
  • Thread Guide – It is used to hold the thread in place and guide it from the spool to the needle.
  • Needle Plate – The needle plate is made of metal and is the part that covers the bobbin casing and the feed dogs; it can be used to guide the fabric through at a seam.


Antiques Vs. Vintage Reproductions


One area where collectors need to be careful with is the issue of vintage production lines that foreign manufacturers are putting the Singer logo on. In the US, treadle sewing machines are labeled as vintage products.

However, they are still being sold into other parts of the world when manual labor is invaluable. The machines are expensive and are usually inferior to their authentic, antique counterparts. 

These models feature very crude decals such as the 1930s lighting and eagle motif or the Egyptian Memphis motif, to name a few. Their black enamel is also quite thin. In spite of the acceptable work these models may put out, these machines are still very easily distinguishable from the real deal in terms of quality output and performance.


Vintage treadle sewing machine


Some Final Words


Experts will always advise that whenever you’re in the process of investing in a sewing machine, you can’t go wrong with the original. Since these models are common and are established in the market, it will be easier for you to repair and replace parts for your sewing machine.

Experts also say that if you ever find treadle sewing machines at auctions or garage sales, grab the chance to buy them as they are definitely antiques.

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