Sewing 1911 style

· sewing ·

I have been looking for a treadle cabinet for my Singer 201K for a while. The electric motor is perfectly fine, but I was curious to see what it would be like to power it entirely with my feet. A cabinet or table would also mean that I could store the machine in the table, and when using it, the bed of the machine would be flush with the table surface, which is ergonomically much better, and means you have more control over the fabric as it goes under the presser foot. I have a dual-purpose machine/cutting table for my modern Janome machine, which fits in a cutout in the table with a perspex insert. I have found that flush-mounting the machine in this way has made my sewing more accurate. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I found a beauty of a cabinet and a lovely vintage machine into the bargain. Read on for all the details!

It isn’t that hard to find Singer treadle tables or cabinets on eBay. Often they are quite cheap, because people don’t have room in their houses for them. Unfortunately, many end up being sold as purely decorative items, or for people to ‘upcycle’ into side tables. Generally I’m in favour of reusing items so that they don’t end up being thrown away, but I think it’s a shame when perfectly functional sewing tables get converted when they still work well. Some of the tables you find are in poor condition (with the veneer lifting off), or they have seized treadles which need work to get moving again.

I was lucky and found this glorious Singer ‘Drawing Room Cabinet No. 21’ from 1911, which came with the vibrating shuttle Singer 27 or 127 (I am a bit confused about the differences) you can see above made in the same year. Amazingly, both had been in one family since new, and had obviously been well-cared for. The cabinet is oak with a beautiful glowing colour, and closes up completely to keep the dust off the machine and the treadle assembly when the machine is stored inside.

What I love about old Singer machines and cabinets is their modular, interchangeable nature. For decades, Singer kept the same size base for all their full size machines and the same size and placement of cabinet hinges. This means that a huge variety of Singer machines from the first half of the 20th Century will all fit in any of the cabinets. Even better, most of the old cast iron models have a single mounting boss on the end of the pillar to which you can attach a hand crank or an external motor, and if you take both off, the same handwheel will accept a belt for a treadle machine. All you need to do is remove or attach one screw to swap between them, so making a decision about how you power a machine is quickly reversible, and you can swap cranks (and motors, I guess), between different models. They all (except the very early machines) use the same design of machine needle as modern machines, and the parts that wear out (treadle belts, rubber tyres for the bobbin winder wheel) are all still available to buy new (amazingly).

The cabinet has a lot of doors. On either side of the central part, there are narrow doors which cover five drawers on the left (ideal for storing sewing tools, pins, spare presser feet, tailor’s chalk etc.) and the compartment housing the treadle wheel and belt on the right. The central part houses the treadle, and is opened up by two lower doors which open out and lay flat, and two upper doors which push into the cabinet and help support the bottom of the machine platform. Since six doors obviously wasn’t enough for the designers, there’s a hidden door on the right hand end which you can open for easier oiling and servicing of the treadle wheel and belt, and two doors at the back of the cabinet that you can open for reasons that are not clear to me: ventilation if you are treadling really hard, or space for outsized feet that don’t fit on the treadle? Either way, I don’t need to open those when operating the machine. Finally, the lid on the top is hinged to the left, and rests on the left hand end of the top surface to act as an extension table to support the fabric you are working on.

Most of the treadle tables and cabinets I have seen before store the machine by tipping it sideways into the body of the cabinet. Usually you lift up a hinged section at the front of the top surface while tipping the machine back on its hinges. The lifted section then allows the machine to drop forwards and hang on its side or upside down in the cabinet. This cabinet is a bit different and is much more impressive. After you have opened the lid/extension table, you press a button on the front of the cabinet (while pressing down on the machine inside), and it releases a catch and allows a powerful spring to push the machine platform vertically into the hole, fitting flush with the surface of the table. It reminds me so much of something out of Thunderbirds that I find myself humming the Thunderbirds theme to myself whenever I get the machine out! Quite apart from the sheer James Bond-ish cool factor, this also means that you can leave the machine fully threaded with a spool on top when you store it, without anything falling off or getting tangled.

The 27 (which I am calling ‘Flossie’) is a beauty featuring the ‘Sphinx’ decal style, and a long bobbin shuttle which moves on an arc rather than a round, rotating bobbin as I have on the 201. All the parts move when I crank the handwheel gently, but I think she needs a good cleanup and oil which I will tackle gradually to bring her back to life. She also needs a new bobbin winder tyre and perhaps a new tension knob spring, as that seems to have broken. It should all be easily fixed with time and care, and I think she will work beautifully when that is done.

I was so impatient to try out treadling that I set up my 201 in the cabinet today. First, I practised with the handwheel disconnected from the needle, and without any thread in the machine, just to get the feel of starting and stopping the wheel, and the feel of catching the motion at the right point to keep the speed constant. You need to avoid the wheel turning backwards when the machine is threaded, otherwise you end up with a thread jam. The idea is to rest your feet on the treadle, spin the handwheel with your hand to get it started, then continue the motion with your feet. It’s not easy to do at first. If you get the timing wrong, you stop the wheel or send it backwards, so you need to get the feel of the optimal point to put energy into the motion to keep it going the right way.

Once I had a reasonable grip on that, I used an old training trick and put a blunt needle in the holder (without threading the machine), and tried ‘sewing’ a piece of paper, following lines, turning, stopping and starting in the right places. Then came the moment to thread the machine and try sewing properly on a scrap of fabric. I made a thread jam once, but I was pretty happy with how it went, and spent a blissful morning making quilting blocks out of scraps of fabric to both practice my technique (lots of starting and stopping, which is the hard part), and also to make a mat to protect the surface of the cabinet when I store my other machines on top of it. The sound and the feel of the treadle is wonderful. You feel much more connected to the sewing because you can feel through your feet when the machine is working harder to get through layers, and it is easier to control the speed than with an electric motor. Initially it is a bit like trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time, and you need to remember to keep pressure on the treadle to balance the needle at the right point (up or down) when you are changing direction, but it is a lovely feeling when it all goes well.

I get enormous joy from using a 74 year old machine with a 108 year old powering mechanism, and will be even happier when I can pair 108 year old Flossie up with her cabinet again.