Learning How To Sew on Treadle Sewing Machines

Hello everyone, today we are going to be talking about some of the techniques that I found to be most useful when I decided to expand my sewing ability to include treadle sewing machines. The focus of the conversations will be directed more towards the mechanical base rather than the machine. We are going to talk a little about the different techniques used to treadle.

treadle sewing foot positions

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First thing, I’d like to clarify some details about myself so there will be no confusion or jumping of conclusions. I enjoy sewing on all different types of mechanical sewing machines. I have a huge respect for the electronic sewing machines and finally, the totally computerized sewing/embroidery machines are quite fascinating to watch. I have no desire to ever own one, but I also have no desire to pass judgment upon or belittle anyone because they feel differently than I do. I am a mechanically inclined, hands on type person. This combination makes it easy for me to enjoy working on my own machines, doing my own maintenance and building/constructing things to fit my needs. I don’t believe that skills such as these are gender biased and therefore it makes me indifferent to the gender of the individuals I am working with, teaching or learning from.

I have always been fascinated by treadle sewing machines but I never had the opportunity to actually sew/play with one until I bought one for my wife. After we worked with hers and got it back into top shape for an 1898 sewing machine. I researched every scrap of information I could find to learn how to treadle the thing. I was looking for an instant resolution to all the common failures we were discovering. Things such as backspin, uneven rhythm, inconsistent speed, foot and leg fatigue. Regardless of the source the answers always seemed to be the same. Experiment with different foot positions, practice with the machine unthreaded, practice starts and stops often and the final suggestion was practice going as slow as possible more than as fast as possible while keeping a smooth rotation on each end of the speed spectrum.

It took me a while but I finally started to understand why these steps were so important. They are not important because they are difficult. They are important because they are so dirt simple that it is easy to ignore the simple basics and develop poor habits. Bad habits often have shortcoming’s that will limit the ability to learn and enjoy the total experience in the process. As I started to break down each step and analyze the why’s and why not’s I started seeing the light through new eyes. I would like to share with you what I learned and how each step applied to me. I am not going to tell you what you need to do or how you need to do it. Only what I did, if it works for you also then great, If not try different styles with confidence until you find the one that works for you.

Treadle/ pedal control is the heart of the sewing experience, so we are going to discuss foot positions and techniques for operating the treadle smoothly UP and DOWN. After trying several different styles I found the two-footed split technique worked best for me. I discovered my legs were too long to sit under the table with both feet centered on the treadle when I tried to rock both feet front to back at the ankles my knees would hit the bottom of the cabinet. When I tried to slide back from the table to get leg clearance then my toes would not press forward far enough to maintain a constant rotation. When I tried one footed or two footed with feet side by side I could do ok but had a lot of problems keeping a smooth rotation and an even speed. By using the split two-footed technique with my right foot at the top of right side of the treadle and my left foot at the bottom left side of the treadle, I found I could easily keep a steady pace. I have since figured out that I can reverse the lead foot to the left and the back foot to the right.

Mel did a video a little while ago showing foot position for treadling.


By practicing my starts and stops I can eliminate the back spins without having to constantly rotate the hand wheel to start the rotation, my feet are starting to recognize which direction it is going to spin by the feel of the treadle and I can use them to make corrections so it will always spin the proper direction. I rarely have to roll the hand wheel now when starting a seam. Most of the time when I do roll the hand wheel, it is because the treadle stopped at what I call Top Dead Center and it will not allow its self to turn either direction without a little nudge from the wheel.

The final suggestion that was made to me was to practice more going as slow as possible and maintaining a smooth rotation and an even speed. What I discovered was that it is a whole lot harder to control slow and smooth than it is to control fast. By going slow I learned how to feel more with my feet and legs. The more sensitive my feet were to the feel of the treadle the more control I had over the machine. And the fun part is the more control I have the faster and smoother I can treadle. The smoother the rotation the less likely the leg fatigue. I am not going to say my legs don’t ever get tired because they will eventually. But while treadling with a pedometer strapped to my leg it is not uncommon to treadle 16 to 19 miles in an evening. When working on a quilt twin size or larger I find my elbows and wrists tire well ahead of my legs and when I have to stop for a break it’s the arms that need a rest.

I hope that by sharing my story it will find a way to help some other hapless sap like me who finds pure relaxation in the old treadle machines. Even though I will treadle anything I can put in a table I would never destroy one of the grand old machines for the base they set on. I do have several newer machines set up on older treadle irons that I love sewing on. I also have 9 other full treadles set up with all original equipment that I sew on as well.  I practice the techniques above on each and every one of them every time I clean them and before I start a new project on them.
So until next time good luck with your machines, Treat them like Ladies, love them like you would your mom and may you never get cramps in your feet while treadling.

treadle sewing practice


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About Melissa Shields

Mel is a 30 something year old quilter, attempting to balance her old school roots with today's trends. When not sewing or shopping for a new sewing machine Mel enjoys reading, reality TV, and Nascar.

2 comments:

  1. Treadling on a well used machine is so exhilarating isn't it?
    Valerie

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  2. Treadling is so satisfying & enjoyable! I love being able to create my own power for sewing. I really appreciate this post since I haven't practiced enough to start without using my hand to get the started. My feet don't yet have enough muscle memory to be sure about starting it on their own. 😊

    ReplyDelete