I’ve never had much luck with sewing machines. They loop stitches, they bunch cloth, they act erratically … they frustrate the heck out of me. I’ve developed a good distaste for machines with more than two buttons, and don’t even mention computerized machines.
I figured I should try a treadle machine, just to see if I liked it better than a modern one. A year ago I bought a 1902 Singer model 27 with Sphinx decals to play around with and see if I could get to work. There was so much rust that the wheel wouldn’t spin more than an inch or two before it made a truly horrible crunching noise. At the least, I loved how it looked, even if it was destroyed. That’s the steampunk part of me talking. The steampunk part of me also named it Nigel.
Well, it took a good 30 days, a quart of mineral oil (I used that because it’s nontoxic), ten packs of steel wool, and a lot of frustrated putzing, but now it works. I credit the genius of how the machine was made: the individual parts are very simple and if they’re not bent or cracked, and if they’re oiled, they should always work. This machine is still 50% rust (no really, it looks like the wreck of the Titanic inside, except no fish) and it works perfectly. For broken pieces, this model uses some parts that fit modern machines, like the foot and many screws and nuts. For the rest you can find either modern reproduction parts or scrap pieces online, so replacing pieces isn’t crazy difficult.
The technology in this thing is kind of astounding. The bobbin is oblong and fits into a complex little shuttle, which sits in a chassis that swings back and forth. It swings against a horizontal concavity shaped like a half-moon. The needle comes down through a hole in the middle of that half-moon, and this is where the magic happens. The needle ‘hiccups’, or makes a little down-up-down-up movement, and the thread (if it’s the right weight) loops around the moving shuttle. It slips in between the shuttle and the chassis, which swing right through the loop. This makes a twist that tightens and becomes the stitch.
Another incredible thing: it’s almost silent, it just makes a snickety-snickety noise. I can listen to music, I can have a conversation while I sew. I don’t need electricity so I could literally sew anywhere I have a square foot of table. I just pick it up by the arm and haul it where I need.
Speaking of which, this thing is SOLID cast iron. If you drop it on your toe … oh boy.
I haven’t restored it fully, so it’s still missing pieces and I haven’t attached it into its cabinet or used it with the treadle yet. I use it by spinning the wheel by hand. When it’s oiled, I can spin the wheel once and just the weight of the machine itself makes it take 5-8 stitches before it looses inertia.
For more on the model 27, check out the The Franklin Institute if you’re in the Philly area. Their entire exhibit on simple machines (“Amazing Machines”) uses a Singer model 27 as an example of almost every simple machine they cover. They also have an 1890 Singer toy sewing machine which is adorable. There’s not much info online, though.