Manual Monday: Treadle Sewing

So Manual Monday is a project that I’ve been thinking about ever since I bought my breathing hand washer, but what really sealed the deal was a post featured on a favorite blog of mine, wherein the author talks about learning to use a scythe for his volunteer work, the history of it and the sensation of using such an ancient tool.

Manual Monday posts will feature a near-lost bit of technology or methodology for getting something done, or even a more contemporary manual technology – like the aforementioned breathing washer. I’ll reference some of its history, how it was used, and how it is or might be used nowadays. Sound fun? It does to me!

Let’s get started!

1. done, operated, worked, etc., by the hand or hands rather than by an electrical or electronic device


I could have done a feature on hand-sewing, which is even more manual than this – but embroidery, sashiko, and other similar skills are all the rage right now, and information on that sort of thing is easy to find.


In 1790, the English inventor Thomas Saint invented the first sewing machine design, but he did not successfully advertise or market his invention.[3] His machine was meant to be used on leather and canvas material. It is likely that Saint had a working model but there is no evidence of one; he was a skilled cabinet maker and his device included many practically functional features: an overhanging arm, a feed mechanism (adequate for short lengths of leather), a vertical needle bar, and a looper. […]

In 1804, a sewing machine was built by the Englishmen Thomas Stone and James Henderson, and a machine for embroidering was constructed by John Duncan in Scotland.[5] An Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger, began developing his first sewing machine in 1807. He presented his first working machine in 1814.

The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829. His machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch like Saint’s model, and in 1830, he signed a contract with Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, who made the requisite drawings and submitted a patent application. The patent for his machine was issued on 17 July 1830, and in the same year, he opened (with partners) the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create army uniforms for the French Army. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing their livelihood following the issuing of the patent.[6]

A model of the machine is exhibited at the London Science Museum. The machine is made of wood and uses a barbed needle which passes downward through the cloth to grab the thread and pull it up to form a loop to be locked by the next loop.The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832.[7] His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down, requiring the machine to be stopped frequently and reset up. Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it. In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States.The British partners Newton and Archibold introduced the eye-pointed needle and the use of two pressing surfaces to keep the pieces of fabric in position, in 1841.[8]

The first machine to combine all the disparate elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine, was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844, built by Isaac Merritt Singer and Elias Howe in the following years. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher’s patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine in the legal disputations of priority between the two Americans. […]

Clothing manufacturers were the first sewing machine customers, and used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing and shoes. In the 1860s consumers began purchasing them, and the machines—ranging in price from £6 to £15 in Britain depending on features—became very common in middle-class homes. Owners were much more likely to spend free time with their machines to make and mend clothing for their families than to visit friends, and women’s magazines and household guides such as Mrs Beeton’s offered dress patterns and instructions. A sewing machine could produce a man’s shirt in about one hour, compared to 14 1/2 hours by hand.[18]

In 1877 the world’s first crochet machine was invented and patented by Joseph M. Merrow, then-president of what had started in the 1840s as a machine shop to develop specialized machinery for the knitting operations. This crochet machine was the first production overlock sewing machine. The Merrow Machine Company went on to become one of the largest American Manufacturers of overlock sewing machines, and continues to be a global presence in the 21st century as the last American over-lock sewing machine manufacturer.

In 1885 Singer patented the Singer Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine, which used Allen B. Wilson’s idea for a vibrating shuttle and was a better lockstitcher than the oscillating shuttles of the time. Millions of the machines, perhaps the world’s first really practical sewing machine for domestic use, were produced until finally superseded by rotary shuttle machines in the 20th century. Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish decoration appearing until well into the 1900s.

The first electric machines were developed by Singer Sewing Co. and introduced in 1889.[19] By the end of the First World War, Singer was offering hand, treadle and electric machines for sale. At first the electric machines were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side, but as more homes gained power, they became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.

Treadle machines aren’t found only in history books and antique stores, though: there is exactly one company, Janome, that makes a single model of treadle sewing machine that is currently on the market. Though why buy a clumsy plastic machine for almost $300, when you can buy a used one for a fraction of that which will last for generations?

Public Domain

Public Domain


Depending on whether you use a modern or vintage treadle machine will determine how you sew. Vintage machines don’t have any fancy settings like modern machines do – like zigzag or button-hole stitches – and many of them don’t even have a reverse setting, allowing you to do just a single, basic, unidirectional stitch. Want to go the other way or secure the end of that stitch? You’ve got to turn the whole piece around, or do it by hand.

The other consideration is, obviously, the treadle itself. There seems to be a groove you fall into with pushing your foot, and figuring that out just takes practice.

Basic overview:

How to thread a vintage machine and check tension:

How to treadle:

How to do freehand quilting with a treadle machine:

One of the things I love about these is just how QUIET they are compared to the roar of powered machines. You can actually have a conversation while sewing!


How feasible would it be to go back to using treadle machines? I think very – there is a thriving market for vintage treadle machines and tables, and not just for decoration. There’s a little bit of a learning curve, but from what I’ve seen, it seems to be no steeper than learning to use any other modern machine. The tables themselves are large pieces of furniture, but I see no difference between that and any other kind of surface that you’d need to put your modern machine on anyways. And the modern ones don’t have the benefit of being small, either. the vintage machines seem downright tiny in comparison.

I think for the hobbyist sewer, treadle sewing wouldn’t be much more difficult or inefficient than what we get with our modern machines. If you run a business, though, or do more than a few hours a week, I can see how using the pedal would get tiring after a while.

Further Reading

Interested in learning more about the treadle technology? The history of pre-electricity sewing? Or interested in buying one for yourself? Have some links!


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