Selecting an Old Treadle Sewing Machine for Use

Many people have been collecting vintage sewing machines for some years. Their primary interest has been in collectability… rarity of model, visual condition, etc. Lately, particularly with the establishing of the Treadle On list, there has been increased interest in putting old machines, especially treadles, into regular service as primary sewing machines. This has rather changed the emphasis on what to look for. This page should help you in the search for a machine that will give good results in regular service. Some of the recommendations here may raise objections from a purely collector's viewpoint… please remember, our aim is use.

This discussion will not be a substitute for joining the collector lists and learning to identify the old machines in all their variations, but it will give you a good running start.

What are We Looking For?

In looking for a machine for use, concerns should be the amount of work needed to restore the machine to good working condition, availability of parts or parts machines, the machine's suitability for the kind of sewing we do (clothing… quilting… ?), ability to accept special purpose feet, convenience features like reverse and lowering feed dogs, and the degree of aesthetic satisfaction we feel we must derive from whatever we are sewing on.

Answers… From Easy to Difficult

The easiest answer to all of the above is to look for later model Singer treadles. The Singer Model 15-88 was the last machine they designed specifically for treadle use. It was supplied in a somewhat modern looking treadle with steel or occasionally wood sides, a bit smaller than the older ornate treadles. It was equipped with built in lever stitch length regulation and reverse, plus lowering feed dogs. The Class 15 action is a good strong one. This machine uses standard needles and standard low shank feet, and will accept all of the modern piecing , even feed and darning feet. If you can find one, you have virtually the best of all possible worlds from a treadle user's standpoint.

So, what are the disadvantages of a 15-88… basically only aesthetic… they are the typical plain black Singer, and the treadle is quite simple in appearance. They were marketed from the early 1930's into the 1950's. If your interest is in sewing on something substantially older, then you are going to have to look for and consider a lot more machines, and of many different brands.

It is possible to buy a new 15-88 treadle. Singer is having treadles made in China and importing them. Currently, they run about $300. I do not recommend them. The machine's decoration is rather garish. The decals are traditional to machines older than the 15-88, but the colors are "off" by the standards we are used to… rather like the colors you see in Chinese advertising, understandably. More importantly, the machines are simply not as well machined as the old ones… they run rougher. The cabinets are chip board rather than real wood, and the treadle stand is cast out of very brittle metal that has already acquired a bad reputation for breaking. Generally, an old treadle can be found for in the vicinity of $150 or less, and will provide a much better machine.

Singer Models You Might Find

Older Singer treadles found in the United States include a fair variety of models. The oldest commonly encountered are the Model 12 or New Family machines. These are from the period 1865 to 1880. They are easily recognized by their low arms, fiddle shaped bases and the fact that their shuttles move right to left, rather than front to back. These are fascinating old machines, but I do not recommend them for someone who is looking for a treadle for regular use. While there are people who do use them regularly, they are generally a bit too far back on the development curve for trouble free regular service.

The next development you will encounter is the Singer Vibrating Shuttle machines. These came out in the 1880's with the VS #2, which later became the Model 27, then the Model 127. This model continued in production until WW II. The mechanism type was continued in a 3/4 size electric version called the 128 until 1959! This is pretty much your standard old shuttle bobbin treadle… many folks remember grandma using them. They will give still give excellent service today, and many, many are in use all over the world. Parts are readily available in the form of machines that are being parted out to keep others running. Since there are literally millions of them, this isn't a problem. These machines will take standard feet and needles.

The next common type of Singer is the Model 15, introduced in the 1880's and continuing into production today. The Model 15 series features a removable round bobbin in a bobbin case mounted under the needle vertically… quite different from the shuttle bobbin machines. The oldest version commonly found is the 15-30. It has a lever stitch length control, but no reverse. This is a somewhat better built machine than the shuttle bobbin models… it was more expensive in it's day. They are a fine machine to use. Again, they take standard feet and needles.

One of the most common of all Singer treadles is the Model 66. This model was introduced in 1902 and discontinued in 1960… a long life indeed. You can tell a Model 66 by the bobbin… it is a round bobbin that just drops in to the left of the needle… no bobbin case. This was Singers middle of the line machine, and many, many millions of them were sold. The latest models, after WW II, had a reverse lever called a "back tacker". Again, standard low shank feet and needles work. This machine is often encountered in a very ornate red and gold decoration called a "Red Eye" model… you can see two red ovals, like eyes, on the arm. Once caution… pre-1920 versions may have a non-standard foot, with a clamping screw on the back instead of on the side. These will not accept modern feet. Not a major problem, but a consideration. Many pre-1920 machines were converted to the more modern side clamping foot in later years, and actually this can still be done.

There is one other Singer treadle model that should be mentioned, that is the 201-3 or 201K. The 201 machines were introduced in 1936 and are generally regarded as the best machine Singer ever designed. They are a full rotary, fully geared and ball bearing equipped version of the Class 66 movement. The vast majority are electric, but they are occasionally found in treadles. If you find one, don't pass it up!

Special mention should be made of the fact that Singer produced some late model treadles in the 400 and 500 series that had provision to be treadled. Not all of these series had this provision... but some did. The most common one that turns up seems to be the 411G, which is simply a 401 with the treadle provision. If you find a machine with this plug, you have a Singer treadle with zig zag and selective decorative stitches (by virtue of using insertable cams) that can be put in a treadle. These special models had a "knockout plug" in front of the pillar. You knock out this plug and a path is provided to feed a treadle belt through. Here is a drawing of such a plug:

This is a picture of a top view of a 400 series Singer. Note "B", which is the knockout plug mentioned above. You punch this plug out and feed the treadle belt over the groove in the hand wheel, going down through the hole in the back of the machine and out through "A" and down through "B" to the treadle's drive wheel. My experience is that the fit is pretty tight and some belts that are a bit thick may rub.



A Word About Cabinets and Treadles.

I always advise people looking for Singer treadles to "buy the cabinet". The reality of the sewing machine world is that many, many treadle cabinets have been destroyed to make tables that somehow appeal to people who will pay more for a table made out of a treadle than they would for the whole treadle sewing machine in perfect shape. Sad but true. Anyway, what this means is that there are many old Singer sewing machine heads floating around. If you find a treadle in good condition, it is not difficult to find a better head to put in the cabinet.

In judging a cabinet, look at the veneer… is it chipped, cracked, bubbling? Are pieces missing. Are all the drawers present? Do they have their brass pulls if they had them? How is the finish… dried and cracked, water stained, sun faded? How much refinishing work do you want to do? Are you anxious to "get treadling" or patient and willing to look for something in really attractive shape? Is cost a significant factor? You can do a lot to restore a finish with a minimum amount of work, short of actually refinishing… see the page on "Restoring a Finish" on this web site.

I have, more than once, bought a treadle very cheaply that had a cabinet that was virtually fit only to salvage hinges and drawers from. These I either pirate for parts, or put whole new top boards on. As you will see from some comments later, this can be very advantageous if you have a machine head for which you cannot find a correct treadle, so don't dismiss a treadle cabinet in bad condition if you can get it cheaply.

Machines Other Than Singer

OK, I admit I overemphasize Singers… It's like teasing your sister... it's so easy! They are good, and there are so many of them that it is pretty safe to recommend them to folks who want to try treadle sewing. However, there are many, many non-Singer machines out there, and most are pretty good. What are the advantages/disadvantages? Primarily, the issues are parts availability and the need to use non-standard feet and/or needles.

The second most common brand found is White. Whites come in two varieties of treadle model… the VS, which is their variation of the Vibrating Shuttle machine, and the Family Rotary. The White VS is a very good machine, also a very lovely one. It's main disadvantage, and it can be a big one, is that it uses a very unique bobbin/shuttle. This shuttle has a center pin, and the bobbins have a hollow core. If you find one of these machines, make very certain that the bobbin is with it and that there are at least several bobbins. If you have the shuttle and bobbins, assuming good condition, you have a good treadle machine.

The White Family Rotary, or FR, is one of my three favoritest machines. It was much ahead of it's time when first brought out. They are really well made and a pleasure to use, also very attractive. There are a lot of them, and parts are generally not a problem to find. They use standard needles but use the older style top clamping feet, so you can't fit piecing, walking or darning feet. Grandma couldn't either, and she still did all of her sewing and quilting on these things, so that isn't the end of the world. I have and use two lovely White FR's regularly. They are one of the strongest of the old treadles. If you find one, give it very serious consideration… you won't be sorry.

After Singer and White, you get into a whole range of odd brand name machines. It can be very confusing. The truth is, about six different companies made machines for anyone who wanted them, and would put your company's name on them. Hence, the National Sewing Machine Co. made machines with something over 600 "badge names" on them. You can find a National machine with their name, or any of these other names on it. This is also true of the New Home, Davis, Standard, Free, Mason and White companies. White tended to keep to the large department store chains, like Sears and Montgomery Ward, and many White FR machines are found with names like Franklin, Willard, etc. They can be instantly recognized by the full rotary actions, the larger diameter bobbins and the bobbin case, which is shaped like a tear drop. New Home and National were bigger companies and their machines are more commonly encountered than the others, which makes it easier to find parts machines.

Any of these other brand machines, if found whole with the treadle, can be fine sewing machines. Just remember to look at condition carefully. You are not going to have the luxury that you have with Singers of saying, "Well, the cabinet is nice, I can always find another machine that will fit right into it…" All of these different brands mounted into their cabinets differently, so they are not interchangeable. Even within a brand, the design of casting would vary, so that one model might not fit into another model's cabinet, even though they are the same brand. I am fortunate in having a National (badge named "New Belvidere") that was a family piece, but we only had the head. I spent two years looking for a National treadle that would fit it. I finally found a parlor treadle with a machine called an "Occident" in it. I recognized it as identical to my New Belvidere, bought the unit and put my machine in it. (for more details on this, see the page on Restoration of Finish on this web site… the cabinet used as an example is this parlor cabinet.)

Another factor in selecting any of these non-Singer or White machines is to be sure you have the necessaries to use them. Be sure the shuttle or bobbin case is there… are there spare bobbins, they all seem to use slightly different bobbin sizes… is the bobbin case there if it is a round bobbin machine… what about attachments, are there any? You are not going to be able to use modern attachments on most of these machines, so finding a good selection is a big plus. Many of these machines shared the use of the top clamping accessory feet, often made by the Griest company. These are often found in complete sets at garage sales, etc. Standard used top clamping feet, but a different thickness… these can be hard to find.

Doing Dastardly Things to Create a Working Treadle Where There Wasn't One Before…

If you are a purist collector, you may want to leave the room at this point…

Let me begin by saying that most of the old companies treated the sale of a treadle unit as two sales… the machine and the cabinet. There is nothing sacred about which model of machine went into which model of cabinet. The same cabinet may be found today with any of several different models of machine in it. Not uncommonly, someone would buy a cabinet and machine and later put an upgraded machine into that cabinet. I also know of instances in which someone liked a machine and bought a new cabinet for it. So I don't feel too badly today if I find a nice old Singer coffin top treadle with a perhaps ratty Model 27 shuttle bobbin head in it, and take it home and put a nice Model 15 head in it to use. You shouldn't either. As I said earlier, buy for the cabinet, at least with Singer.

As I mentioned earlier, I have taken quite a number of old treadle frames and put new tops on them. I often use a 2' x 4' piece of Apple Ply craft grade plywood to create a large table surface much favored by quilters. One nice thing about this approach is that when doing this, you can put any brand or model of treadle sewing machine head onto any brand or model of treadle frame. This can be the answer if you have perhaps an old Davis head you found or someone gave you, and you encounter maybe a Standard treadle frame alone or with a trashed cabinet… put them together and get treadling! I hope soon to add a page to the web site specifically dealing with fitting new tops or putting heads into treadles they weren't originally designed for. Meantime, just know that it can be done. You can study the situation and figure it out for yourself or email me to discuss it.

Here is an example of the above… kind of as it evolved. I am a pretty big guy. I find the standard Singer treadle a little narrow for my taste. I actually prefer the White treadle, which is much wider. The Singer treadle has a foot pedal that is centered on the whole machine, which means that I kind of get to feeling that I am sewing a little off center sometimes, as the needle is slightly to my left. The White treadle is centered on the needle. I found a White treadle with a trash cabinet. I also found an oak dining room table. I took the top off of the table and put it on the treadle frame. I cut a Singer pattern hole in the table top and installed a Singer 201K in the resulting treadle. This was my main machine for a couple of years, and a very satisfactory one. I have it in storage now because I am playing with some other machines, but it shows what can be done.

I have even played with building a treadle top that would have interchangeable drop-in boards… I could make a board for each odd machine I wanted to try but for which I didn't have a treadle.

Another possibility I have helped several people with is putting a Brand A machine into a Brand B treadle. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. In concept, it isn't too difficult. You have to either change the shape of the cutout slightly and change the location of the hinge pins, or perhaps remove the top board the cutout is in and make a new one with a cutout for the new machine. However, with a little ingenuity and woodworking skill, it can be done. One factor that sometimes comes up is that the new machine won't lower into the cabinet… no big deal. Sew up a nice quilted machine cover and just use it as if it were one of the old coffin top machines that didn't lower. So, if you find a treadle head you like, don't despair.. you can get it into a treadle.

Converting an Electric Machine from Electric to Treadle

There is a major page on this web site devoted to this. For now, it is sufficient that I tell you that there are electric machines that can be converted to treadle… quite readily. The major factor in treadling is that the hand wheel should be a little heavier than for an electric. For many models, especially the 1930 to 1960 Singers, it is not at all difficult to remove the motor and light, change the existing hand wheel to a heavier, larger diameter hand wheel, adjust the bobbin winder, and put the machine into a treadle. This can be readily done with any of the external motor Singers. I especially favor the Model 15-90 for this. The 15-90 is simply an electric version of the 15-88, mentioned above. I never pass one of these up, but grab them and convert them to treadle or hand crank. Be aware that the internal motor models, like the 201-2 and 15-91, cannot be so converted. Basically, if the machine has a motor that drives it with a belt, it is convertible.

You will encounter a lot of old electric machines with friction drive motors… no belt or belt groove. These cannot be converted to treadle. Also, you will find a number of very nice little 3/4 size Model 99 and 28/128 Singers. These 3/4 size machines seem to be very rare as treadles in the US. They do occur, but don't buy one and think to find a treadle to fit. When they did occur, they came on a special small size treadle that is very uncommon. There is a way around this. I once bought a nice little 99 in a cabinet. I happened to have one of the late model steel frame treadle frames with no cabinet. I disassembled the 99's cabinet and mounted the top, with the flip up cover, on the treadle frame. I had to cut two holes for the treadle belt to go through, but it made a really great little treadle.

This has been a long piece for a web page. Actually, it barely scratches the surface, but I hope it helps you. By all means, if you become a treadler, do join us on Treadle On… you will be amazed at how much you learn, and how quickly. You will find a page devoted to instructions for subscribing by going back to the index.

Dick Wightman