By Michelle Foster
So you’ve got the food and you’ve stored the water. You have bug out bags and a resupply plan. You have learned how to bake bread and have chopped your firewood. Great! You’re way ahead of the game. May I suggest another skill you might want to add to your repertoire? Try sewing!
Sewing is an often overlooked skill that is very handy to have. Whether you just want to make repairs, hem a pair of pants or sew an entire outfit from scratch, you have to know how to sew. With a little practice, you can make quilts to keep your family warm, repair a tent to stay dry, craft curtains to stop drafts or make pillows for a sick room. Knowing how to sew can mean the difference between staying warm and comfortable and being miserable.
While you can certainly sew by hand, it’s a lot faster and easier to use a machine. If you live off-grid or if the grid is down, your best bet is a treadle sewing machine. Many of these iron ladies are going on 100 years old but still can provide reliable service in almost any environment. I have seen costumers for re-enactment groups drag them into field tents so repairs can be made on-site. They are made almost entirely of cast iron and are extremely durable. They are easy to use and maintain and require very little care. Interested? Here’s how to get started:
You’re first job will be to find a treadle sewing machine. Etsy, Ebay and Craigslist are all good places to start. You can also try flea markets, thrift stores and antique markets. Take your time and you should be able to find the complete package of legs, cabinet and sewing machine for less than $ 100. Many cabinets have been destroyed so that people could make tables with the legs. Often, the machine itself was just discarded. Finding a complete set can be tricky but is often easier than piecing together all the components you need a bit at a time.
There are a few things to consider while you are shopping. Make sure you pick a well-known brand that was popular. Singer and White are both good choices. Choosing a popular brand ensures that you will be able to find replacement parts and accessories. Try to get a machine with a bobbin, not a shuttle. Shuttle machines are quite a bit older than bobbin style machines and can be hard to maintain. Try to get one without too much pitting or rust. Push the treadle and see if it still moves and turn the wheels to see if they move. Avoid anything that is too bound up.
Finally, look for machines with straight, low-shanks. What is a shank, you ask? It is the bar that sticks down out of machine itself that you attach sewing machine feet to. Most Singers and White are low-shank machines. Feet are attached with a thumb screw from the side. Avoid slant shanks (running at a diagonal) and machines that have feet that snap on from the back. Both are very hard to find feet for.
After you find a sewing machine and bring it home you’re going to need machine oil, some rags and maybe some kerosene for the clean-up. You can buy the machine oil at a fabric or craft store or you can buy 4-in-1 oil at a hardware store. First, dust the machine, cabinet and legs well. Use a stiff brush on the treadle to dislodge any dirt or chunky stuff. Put some machine oil on the rag and rub onto any metal you see in little circles. Resist the urge to use stronger household cleaners! These will ruin the finish and lead to more problems down the road. Use orange oil or another moisturizing product on the wooden cabinet.
If the machine is really dirty, you can use kerosene to clean it. You can moisten the rags and rub the machine just like you did with the machine oil. Or, if it is filthy, take it out of the cabinet and soak the entire thing in a bucket or tote filled with kerosene for a few days. No, I am not kidding. I have seen this method recommended on a number of sites as well as in Singer sewing machine manuals from the time period. Once everything is cleaned, make sure each joint is oiled well.
For ongoing use, you are going to need a small screwdriver for adjustments, two pairs of small pliers (one with smooth jaws and one with teeth), extra bobbins, a package of rubber O-rings and a length of leather sewing machine belt. An awl would also be handy. You should be able to find everything except for the belt at a craft or hardware store. I had to order the belt for my Singer 66 from Amazon. For most machines, you will need a belt that is 3/16” thick and rounded on both sides. If you have room to store it, you can buy a 100’ spool of belt for a very good price. The belt should come with some hooks you can use to attach the cut ends of the belt.
- The basics
A treadle sewing machine only does one thing: make straight stitches. You accomplish this by pushing the treadle up and down with your feet. This moves the large wheel attached to the legs which, in turn, moves the small wheel on the sewing machine itself. The first task you must accomplish, then, is to figure out how to put the belt on and connect these two wheels. In general terms, you wrap the belt around the large wheel, feed it through some guide holes on the top of the cabinet and around the little wheel on the right hand side of the sewing machine itself. Punch holes in both ends of the belt and feed the hook through. Test for fit, crimp down the ends of the hook and you should be in business.
The second thing you will need to do it learn how to oil your sewing machine. Put a drop or two of oil on every joint you can see. Don’t forget the treadle! There are also little holes along the top of the machine and on the flat bed that are for oil. Put a drop in each hole. If you aren’t sure where to put the oil, you can use Google to find the manuals for most sewing machines. These manuals should show you what to do. Make sure you keep extra oil on hand since you’ll be using it a lot. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of oiling each time you have finished sewing for the day.
Another task you will need to perform on a regular basis is to run bobbins. In case you are a complete novice, here is a brief explanation: a sewing machine has two threads, one on the top and one of the bottom. The bobbin goes on the bottom. Whatever machine you buy, make sure you learn how to run the bobbins and use the bobbin winder. I recommend you buy extra metal bobbins, not plastic ones. The plastic ones crack and break too often for my taste. There are bobbins that are flat and those that are slightly domed so make sure you get the right ones for your situation.
There are a lot of extra things you can buy for your treadle sewing machine once you have the basics down. There are lots of different feet for different purposes and accessories that will expand greatly what you can do on a treadle machine. These extras can usually be purchased at the same store you bought your sewing machine from. Some of the most popular feet include zipper, cording and quilting feet. There are also hemming feet that are great for finishing edges. A company called Griest makes a very nice set that is appropriate for most people.
There are also more complicated “feet” called attachments. These include zig-zaggers, buttonholers, darning attachments and more. Most people will probably want to get a buttonholer and a zig-zagger because they are used so frequently and on so many sewing projects. One word of warning: attachments and feet are made for particular shank styles. Make sure that you know what kind of shank your machine has before you shop for any extras.
- Parts and service
As I mentioned above, there are some supplies you’ll want to keep on hand. These include oil, tools, belts, O-rings and extra bobbins. These are just the basics. Having a treadle machine won’t do you any good if you don’t have the consumables. Keep a selection of items in your sewing kit to be prepared for a variety of tasks. At a minimum you’ll need thread in a variety of colors, fasteners like snaps, buttons and zippers, interfacing, a seam ripper, scissors, replacement sewing machine needles, hand needles and a decent how to sew book. It might also be a good idea to keep some extra bolts of an all-purpose fabric on hand along with some patterns for basic pieces of clothing.
I also recommend that you stock a few replacement parts. One way to do this is to buy a second machine that is identical to your primary machine. Then you can just switch out parts. If you don’t have the space for this, another option is to order parts and keep them in a box in a closet. If you choose this option, I would recommend getting extra tension discs and springs, clamp washers (inside the little wheel on the sewing machine), a few thumb screws, feed dogs and an extra bed slide. You will not find these at your local fabric store but there are places you can order replacement parts online. Just Google vintage sewing machine parts to find dealers.
If you are lucky enough to have a local sewing machine repair store or sewing center, they should able to service almost any vintage machine. You might get some odd looks but most technicians can handle the kinds of repairs you would need. For the purpose of being self-sufficient, though, I really recommend that you try to figure out problems yourself. One nice thing about old sewing machines is that they are relatively simple. If you are patient, you can usually locate and correct most problems.
I hope I have convinced you of the value of keeping a treadle sewing machine on hand and given you the basics you need to get started. They are awesome, hard-working machines that are great for everyday use. They will work in any environment and require only minimal maintenance. Consider adding one to your household and you will be rewarded with years of happy and reliable sewing. If the worst happens, you will have the means to cloth your family and will have a skill to barter with. With a little practice and a little patience, you will be churning out projects on your vintage machine in no time!
This article first appeared on American Preppers Network and may be copied under the following creative commons license. All links and images including the CC logo must remain intact.
Bio: Michelle Foster lives in Kentucky with her husband and cats. She has been sewing most of her life, thanks in large part to her patient mother. She takes great pride in cultivating old-school skills like sewing, knitting and cooking. She has written a book called Sew Like Your Grandma: Using the Singer 66 that is available on Amazon and provides more details on using and serving a treadle sewing machine.