quilts, treadle sewing machines, crochet, watercolor, dogs, & other fun stuff

Strings & Treadles

Neutral Strings for "Cherry Crunch"

Apart from a couple of evenings of diamond painting (no photo, but I think I’m about halfway through), craft time lately has been spent working on the string project. 

That means:

  • time spent at the treadle string-piecing those “wild neutrals”…
  • then time at the cutting mat, trimming them down into smaller units…
  • then sitting at the laptop watching something while I tear the papers off the backs (I’m using old phone books as foundation papers)…
  • and finally gathering the units into groups of ten and clipping them together for easy counting later on!

I think I had 140 at last count, and I believe I need nearly 450 before I’m done. 

No rush!  Just taking this one as it comes.  A little here, a little there. 

It’s fun to be back at the treadle again!

Tips for Treadle Sewing

The last time I was sitting at the treadle, I found myself wondering if other treadlers use some of the same tips and tricks that I do.  For the most part, probably so.  But maybe some newbies out there might be searching for everything they can find about sewing on a vintage treadle sewing machine (as I once did).  If one of them happens to stumble across this blog post, maybe one or two of my words of wisdom can come in handy and make the process easier for them.  

With that hope in mind, here are a few of my tips and suggestions (many of which are probably very obvious):

Tip #1: Use a Stable Chair

This is one that is probably obvious, but just in case…

When I sew at my electric sewing machine, I prefer a wheeled, swivel chair.  It’s comfortable and easy to maneuver as necessary to get into just the right position for sewing or pressing.  However, for treadling, a stable, non-wheeled chair is better—for me, at least. 

Maybe some people are able to use a treadle while sitting in a wheeled office chair, but after trying both, I found that I prefer a regular dining chair or desk chair—anything without wheels.  A chair that just sits in one spot gives greater stability and keeps you from accidentally pushing yourself back away from the treadle as you work.

Tip #2: Use a Grabber or Reacher Tool

The downside of a non-wheeled chair is that it’s more difficult to position perfectly for comfortable treadling, so I don’t like pushing back from the treadle to retrieve dropped tools, papers, or pieces of fabric.  In fact, once I’m “in position”, I really prefer not to move my chair at all until it’s time to stretch or stop sewing. 

However, if you’re anything like me, you will sometimes drop things, and reaching them can be tricky, especially if they fall behind the treadle cabinet.  That’s why I like to keep a handy grabber or reacher tool (sometimes called a trash picker) within reach of my chair.  With this little gadget, I can snag dropped items from the floor before the dogs discover them—and without having to move my chair and then readjust to find the best treadling position.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a big difference for me!

Tip #3: Add Plenty of Light

Because these old non-electrified vintage sewing machines don’t have built-in lighting, it’s helpful (some might say absolutely necessary) to add sufficient task lighting. 

I suggest adding multiple light sources:

  • If possible consider placing the treadle cabinet near a window to take advantage of natural light.
  • Small clip-on LED gooseneck lamps are extremely affordable, effective, and don’t take up space on your work surface.  (I like to protect my cabinet by putting some padding, like scrap fabric or batting, between the clip and the wood, just in case…)  These small lamps are great for illuminating the area around your needle.
  • For even better lighting, a floor lamp is another way to light the whole treadle area without taking up valuable tabletop space.

Tip #4: Find and Print the Manual

Did your vintage treadle come with a manual?  Is it the correct manual?  Sometimes the manuals are damaged, difficult to read, dirty or oily, or yes, even the incorrect manual for your machine.  (In the photo below, you’ll see an original manual for a Singer 66.  I don’t own one, but it came in the drawers of this treadle cabinet.)

If your treadle didn’t come with a manual (or with the correct manual), you can probably find one online for free, particularly if it’s not a very unusual brand.  A quick search is often all it takes to locate a PDF of the original manual, with handy illustrations of how to use the machine.  

(Check out the International Sewing Machine Collector’s Society website to see if they have your machine’s manual.  Here’s a link to their page of Singer manuals, for instance.)

Free video tutorials on YouTube demonstrating the basics of common treadle machines can be very helpful, too, but I also prefer to have a print copy for reference. 

I printed the manual for my Singer 15 and keep it in a simple paper folder with pockets and prongs.  I think it’s actually better than the original manual, because it’s larger!  I keep this within easy reach of the sewing machine, and it’s very helpful when it comes time to oil the machine, thread the machine, refill the bobbin, etc., especially after an extended period of absence.

You can also keep other relevant information in this folder, such as receipts, records of when the machine was last serviced, oiled, etc.  (I don’t do this, but maybe you’re more organized than I am!)

Tip #5: Replicate Your Usual Set-Up

(Maybe this one is pretty obvious, too, but I think it makes my treadling more enjoyable.)

Everyone has their own preference for a sewing “set-up”.  For me, that means having my fabric pieces or strings to my left and an iron for pressing to my right.  Whatever your personal preferred “sewing station set-up” is, try to replicate that at the treadle, as far as possible. 

In my case, that means having my fabric and iron in roughly the same place as usual.  It also means keeping my most-used tools within easy reach.  Scissors, thread snips, stiletto, seam ripper, sewing machine oil, a few clips, a basket or other container for snipped threads, and a spot to temporarily stash strings too short for the current project. 

(This ties in with another tip:  Keep your sewing machine oil within easy reach.  You need to use it fairly often with these older machines, and if it’s easy to lay hands on, you’re more likely to oil when you should.)

Tip #6: Manage Your Thread Wisely

This is actually a few tips in one, but they’re all relating to thread: 

Use thread cones
I love using cones of thread.  It’s cheaper that way, I don’t have to buy thread as often, and I don’t have to change the thread as often.  Less rethreading is always good with me!  I’ve written about using cones instead of spools before (far down this blog post about the Minnesota treadle).  There are special cone holders you can buy, or you can make one of your own without too much trouble.  

Use a mini doily or felt round to hold the thread in the right place.
If you do choose to use a thread cone, you can’t put it where the spool would usually go.  Instead, it goes behind the machine, but you may find your tension is better if you use the spool post on the machine as a guide for the thread, so the thread feeds from the intended direction.  Some machines may come with an old felt round that would normally go under the spool of thread, or you can buy replacements for this piece of felt.  If you crochet or know someone who does, a mini doily works the same way.  (Patterns are available.  Search for “spool pin doily” to get started.)  I’ve also seen people selling small machine-made lace motifs for this purpose.  Whatever you use, just pop the thread under the doily or felt and see if that improves your tension (and keeps the thread from getting caught somewhere it doesn’t belong).

Use a second cone or spool to wind your bobbin.
If you can manage to have a second spool or cone of thread handy, it saves a lot of time and effort to wind your bobbins without having to unthread and rethread your machine.  (This is true for any machine, really, but I find it particularly annoying to have to stop and rethread a vintage machine.)  

Double check your bobbins and buy spares, if necessary.
If you’re lucky, your vintage treadle sewing machine may have come with multiple bobbins.  Not everyone has this good fortune.  After closer examination, I discovered that my Singer 15 came with two or three different types of bobbins, most of which were for an entirely different machine.  Always give bobbins a close look when you buy a used sewing machine.  Sometimes the wrong bobbins get mixed in, and just because they fit in the case doesn’t mean they’re the right type of bobbin!  

In the end, I only had one correct bobbin for this machine, and you can get by with that if you don’t need to change thread colors.  I don’t really change thread colors when piecing, so I would simply refill that single bobbin every time it ran out.  However, you can buy replacement bobbins to fit most common vintage sewing machines, especially if it’s a Singer or Singer clone.  I like having the option to fill a few bobbins at one time so the next time I run out, I can get back to sewing with minimal disruption.  It’s faster and easier to fill several bobbins at once.

Tip #7: Find and Use Online Resources

This is another obvious one, but if you’re brand new to treadling, you may not realize how much useful information is available online.  Yes, treadles are mostly a curiosity in the modern world, and sewing with them is a bit of a niche interest, but there are more people using treadle sewing machines than you might have thought, and many of them are eager to share the benefit of their knowledge.  You can find helpful people on sewing machine or quilting message boards, websites, blogs, and video tutorials online, and all of this information is typically available for free.  

Everything I know about treadles I’ve learned online—how to clean and oil the machines, how to replace the treadle belt, how to operate the treadle, and so on.  If you need help, just do a search, follow some links, or find an active message board and ask for advice. 

If one person’s explanation isn’t clicking for you, you should keep looking.  We understand and explain things differently, and there are often multiple ways to do the same thing.  For instance, you can use different feet positions for operating the treadle, and what works perfectly for one person won’t be as good for others.  Some people like to treadle with shoes on, while others prefer to go barefoot.  Some get good results operating the treadle with only one foot, but it’s probably more common to use both.  You might have success by keeping both feet side-by-side on the treadle, or maybe you’ll use my preferred position, with one foot forward and one back.  There’s no single right way, so just keep experimenting and searching for alternatives until you find what works for you!

Recent Listening...

George Winston’s album titled Autumn:


I’m Michael (a female Michael, to remove any doubt).  I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast with my husband, Donald, and our crazy American Eskimo Dogs. 

I love to fill my spare time with various crafts and other hobbies, and this blog is where I share photos, record my progress, and ramble endlessly.

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