This story is about a sewing machine. An old treadle sewing machine. In fact, a sewing machine that’s nearly 120 years old! My story’s also about sewing, dressmaking and other sewing machines I have used and owned over the years.
I learnt to sew from an early age.
I must have been very young when I started to sew. Hand-sewing, that is. I’m sure my mother taught me long before I had sewing lessons at school.
As I recall, sewing lessons commenced in Grade 3. I was 8 years old. I still have a linen sampler I made in Grade 3 and samplers and accompanying hand-written instructions in botany books from Grades 3, 4 and 5. The samplers are evidence of my early efforts at hand-sewing.
Actually I didn’t really like sewing lessons at primary school. I found them dull. Hand stitching samplers was not at all inspiring.
I wanted to make things. Just like my mother. That’s what interested me.
My mother was a competent, experienced dressmaker. Like her mother before her, she made her own clothes and those of her family too. She even made my father a suit! She made my brother’s clothes and mine too: school uniforms, shirts, blouses, shorts, skirts and dresses.
Every year, for the Rockhampton Show, my mother made me a new dress. I remember clearly the one she made when I was 10. It had a fitted bodice, collar and elbow-length sleeves trimmed with white guipure lace, and flared skirt. I loved the fabric my mother chose. It was pale blue gabardine-like material embossed with tiny white flowers. To complete the outfit, I wore a new white hat. (Everyone wore a hat to the Show in the 1960s.) I thought I looked terrific.
I dreamt about having a sewing machine of my own.
My parents knew what I wanted. My own sewing machine. One on which I could make clothes, just like my mother. Dolls’ clothes, of course. (I was 9 or 10 years old at the time.) And guess what? For Christmas, my parents bought me the cutest little sewing machine a little girl could ever dream of! It was bright red, made of die-cast aluminium and steel, strong, about 20 cm wide, 8 cm deep and 15 cm high.
It was a toy! But it worked.
My pint-size Vulcan “Minor” sewing machine was a real novelty. It kept me occupied, at least for a while. That is, until I realised that its chain stitches didn’t keep intact the little garments I made. I didn’t want my parents to think me unappreciative, but clearly I was disappointed with my toy sewing machine. My parents were too.
The Vulcan miniature and toy sewing machines were manufactured in England by the Sydney S Bird Company under the trade name “Cyldon”. The first Vulcan sewing machine was produced in about 1948 and was inspired by the classic Singer 20 sewing machine.
When I turned 11, my parents gave me a “real” sewing machine.
It was my birthday. I vividly remember my parents ushering me excitedly to the sleepout that morning, keen to show me their gift. When I saw it, I was overwhelmed. This was no toy. Here was an adult-size sewing machine in a grand timber cabinet. It was just like my grandmother’s treadle machine. “Is this mine?” I asked. “Is it really mine?” This had to be the best birthday present ever!
My mother showed me how to use my new treadle sewing machine. Of course, this sewing machine was not new at all. It was very old, but it sewed perfectly. And I learnt quickly. I soon mastered how to set up the machine, thread the upper thread, wind the bobbin, place the bobbin in the shuttle, fit the shuttle in its slot, thread the lower thread, insert or remove the stitch plate, replace the needle or presser foot, adjust the tension, clean and oil the machine.
I loved my old treadle sewing machine and I put it to good use. Using material from my mother’s store of fabric scraps, I made simple items like drawstring bags, aprons, cushion covers, pillowslips and potholders. They made great gifts.
How a treadle sewing machine works
A treadle sewing machine is operated by means of a foot treadle, which means that its power comes from the user’s legs. Two feet are required to make a left-heel-right-toe (or vice versa) motion on the treadle pad. One complete down-up motion produces exactly four stitches. The faster the operator’s feet move, the faster the machine sews.
When I was 12, I learnt how to use my mother’s electric sewing machine.
Once I mastered my treadle sewing machine, my mother let me use her electric sewing machine. Under strict supervision, of course. She was a good teacher, and I soon learnt how to use that machine too.
My mother’s was an electric Singer sewing machine Model 99-13. It was portable, had a wooden carrying case and was operated via a knee control. I assume she purchased it in 1946, after the war, when she and my father established a dressmaking business (Evelyn Frock Salon) in Rockhampton.
The Singer Model 99-13 was a portable electric sewing machine. Operated by means of a knee control, these machines were sturdy, reliable and easy to use. The Singer 99-13 was a ¾ size version of the established full size Model 66.
Model 99-13 machines produced a good straight stitch and had adjustable tension and stitch length controls. They had wooden bases with a small compartment under the balance wheel to store bobbins, accessories etc. What set them apart was their lockable “Bentwood” (polished plywood) cover, or carrying case, and handle.
At 13, I began to make my own clothes.
At high school, one of my first-year subjects was Home Science. It was a compulsory subject for Grade 8 girls and included sewing lessons. We learnt how to take body measurements, draft patterns, cut out garments and use an electric sewing machine to put together each item. Drafting was totally new for me, and quite a challenge, but the rest I had already conquered. And, believe it or not, the first item we made was an apron! It was for use in our Home Science cookery classes.
Nevertheless, we made some challenging garments. One was a front-buttoning cotton blouse with a collar and short sleeves, using a self-drafted pattern. Unlike primary school sewing classes, I found sewing classes at high school useful and motivating. From Grade 8 onwards, I made almost all my own clothes using my mother’s electric sewing machine (with a little help from my mother, in the early days).
In the photograph below, I am pictured wearing one of the first dresses I made for myself. It was a mid-blue cotton A-line shift with a wide frill, scooped neckline and short puffed sleeves. I was very proud of it.
Fast forward 10 years. I was still using my mother’s electric sewing machine.
I was 23 and engaged to be married. As an engagement gift, my parents gave me a new sewing machine. An electric sewing machine. Given I was soon to be married, they wanted me to have an electric sewing machine of my own.
Several years earlier I gave my treadle sewing machine to my grandmother (“Nan”). I was no longer using it and my machine was in much better condition than the one my grandmother owned. Nan was in her late 70s at the time, and she was still making her own dresses!
My parents gave me an Elna SP (Special) sewing machine. It cost them $259 (equivalent to $1,285 today). This was my first electric sewing machine and the third sewing machine my parents gave me. I really appreciated their generosity and choice of gift!
One of the first items I made using my new Elna SP was my wedding dress. Actually, it wasn’t a dress at all, but a three-piece outfit comprising skirt, jacket and blouse. Ours was a late-afternoon winter wedding, so I chose white silk velvet for the skirt and jacket and silver and white twinkle crepe for the long-sleeved blouse. I bought the fabric and silver braid I used to trim the skirt and jacket from Kirby’s, a popular drapery store located in East Street, Rockhampton, at the time. To complete the outfit I wore a beret specially-made out of the same velvet (I didn’t want to wear a veil) and silver high-heeled platform shoes. One might say I was a stylish, although non-conventional, bride of the 1970s!
For the next 35 years, my Elna SP sewing machine served me well.
I have no idea how many garments I made using my Elna SP. I guess it is in the thousands. Like my mother, I made my own clothes and clothes for my family. I didn’t make my husband a suit (as my mother did), but I made him many shirts using this machine. I made garments for my children, mother, mother-in-law, friends and (recently) my grandchildren. As well, I produced curtains, bed-covers, quilts, cushion covers, tablecloths and countless gifts using my trusty Elna SP sewing machine.
The Elna SP (Special) free-arm electric sewing machine was Swiss-made. It is operated via a foot control. A solid all-metal machine, it is portable and comes in a sturdy metal carrying case.
I found my Elna SP to be an extremely reliable machine, easy to use and maintain. It sews straight and straight reverse stitches, zigzag stitch, stretch blind and edging stitch, scalloped edging stitch, overcasting stitch, multi-stretch stitch and blind stitch. The machine has a free arm which is ideal for sewing collars and cuffs, for example. An accessory box slides nicely underneath the arm of the machine when not in use.
Fifteen years or so into our marriage, I bought an Elna L40 Overlocker. This machine complemented my Elna SP’s functions, and greatly enhanced the garments I made. Today, after 27 years, my Elna L40 Overlocker is still in perfect condition and a much valued sewing aid.
In 2008, I made the difficult decision to buy a new general-purpose sewing machine. I sought one that offers a range of embroidery stitches (not available on my Elna SP). I purchased a Bernina Aurora 430. I’m happy with my Bernina, but I still have my Elna SP. That machine, which served me so well for 35 years, is like a dear friend. I cannot bring myself to part with it. It still sews perfectly.
My story is nearly ended. But first I want to share some facts about my old treadle sewing machine.
In researching this story, I discovered my machine’s a Singer Model 27, made in the USA in 1900. It’s almost 120 years old! And it still works. How’s that for good workmanship?
My machine is one of 35,800 Model 27 units produced by the Singer Manufacturing Company at its Elizabeth Port Factory in Elizabeth, New Jersey, USA, from May 1900. All steel, these sewing machines were designed to be repaired rather than replaced. That is why many remain today, some in collections, others passed down through families and many still in perfect working order (just like mine).
The machine is mounted in a timber cabinet about the size of a student’s desk. The cabinet (or table) has 7 drawers, 6 with embossing, making it an attractive piece of furniture. The 7th drawer is a flip drawer at the front of the cabinet, useful for storing needles, bobbins and accessories. The treadle (foot) pad is built into the cabinet base, near the floor. A looped round leather belt connects the treadle and the hand-wheel, through the cabinet. When not in use the machine can be stored in the cabinet, and the table extension folded back to become the lid or cabinet top.
Singer Model 27 machines were painted in Japan black lacquer and ornamented with eye-catching decals (mine is the Tiffany Decal #25). Not surprisingly, over the years some of the paint has chipped and most of the decals have worn off my machine. A feature of this model is its flat chrome faceplate, attractively embossed with grapevines.
The Singer Model 27 machines were the first Singer sewing machines to use a vibrating shuttle as the bobbin driver, instead of a transverse shuttle characteristic of earlier models. The bullet-shaped shuttle moves in a segment of a circle. Bobbins used in the Singer Model 27 machines are long and thin and made of metal. Once threaded, the bobbin is placed inside the shuttle.
Although a basic machine that is only capable of straight-stitching, the Singer Model 27 produces a perfect lockstitch.
So, what happened to my old treadle sewing machine?
I’ve already mentioned that I gave my old treadle sewing machine to my grandmother (“Nan”) when she was in her late 70s. Nan lived until she was 94. After she died, my mother asked me if I would like to have Nan’s sewing machine (my old treadle machine) as a keepsake.
“Of course,” I replied, without hesitation. “I would like my children to learn to sew on it.”
And they did. Just like me.
Thirty years or so have passed and I still have the old treadle sewing machine I received as a gift so many years ago. It stands proudly on display in the hallway of our home, and I walk past it numerous times each day. Needless to say, it’s one of my prized possessions.
When I told my adult son I was writing this story about my old sewing machine, he reminded me that he made several oven mitts (gloves) when he was learning to sew on it. He wanted to know if I still have the mitts! Unfortunately, I don’t.
My grandchildren (presently 11, 9 and 9) are old enough to learn how to use a sewing machine. A treadle sewing machine, that is. Next time they visit, I will give them a lesson or two on my machine. It’s the one on which their mother learnt to sew when she was 10 or 11, and the one on which I learnt to sew when I was 11.
At almost 120 years old, what a grand old sewing machine it is!
If you would like to learn more about your own sewing machine, or vintage sewing machines generally, here are some useful websites:
http://www.singersewinginfo.co.uk/index/. About Singer Sewing Machines, 1865 – 1970.
http://ismacs.net/index.html. ISMACS: International Sewing Machine Collectors’ Society.