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Meet the Treadle Lady

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Donna Kohler
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Fresno, California is home to the Treadle Lady, also known as Donna Kohler.  She and her husband share their home with a variety of antique sewing machines, including some rare ones they’ve adopted.  Kolher shares how her dear grandmother taught her to treadle in the 1950s, spending one entire summer with her on sewing projects.  In the 70s, Kohler was inspired to buy her first treadle at a flea market.  Kohler wants others to understand how well-constructed these machines were and how beautifully they work with proper care.  “They’re fabulous inventions that were time savers in their era.”

Kohler says that during the advent of electricity, most people rushed to convert or do away with their manual machines altogether.  Now, she sees more people appreciating them as part of the green, sustainability movement.  So it’s not only antique enthusiasts looking for intricate wood cabinets who collect them these days.  She says, “I think they are growing in popularity.”

Even if it takes more time than with electric machines, Kolher would rather treadle.  In fact, conversion kits can turn treadles into electric sewing machines, still sturdier than their modern counterparts.  She quilts fabulous sewing projects on her treadles and even brings a machine or two along when she speaks to quilt guilds.  “I made the choice in ’93 never to use an electric machine again,” she explains.  Kolher loves to reminisce about her seamstress grandmother, paying homage to her on her website. She’s taken to quilting workshops her 1939 Singer 15k, nicknamed Scarlet for the movie Gone with the Wind.  It has the Egyptian inspired decals just like the treadle machine that her grandmother once taught her on.

1939 Singer 15k, nicknamed Scarlet
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For those of us using a sewing machine handed down from someone on the family, Kolher has a thoughtful project suggestion.  “If you have a family treadle, one of the best things you can do is make Christmas gifts on that treadle.”  What a terrific idea, whether that project is a quilt or something even simpler (hint to my husband’s family, because there’s no way I’m getting a quilt made for all of you between now and December 25).

When I explained that I’m a bit stuck in my treadle restoration effort, she offered to gift me a copy of her book Treadle Sewing Machines, Clean and Use an Iron Lady, that is available at her website  You can also see some of Kohler’s immaculate treadles and cabinets on her YouTube channel.   I’ve already got some more tips on working with the bobbin now that I’ve watched one of her videos with a Singer Model 66.  She’s also cautioned me to use only clear sewing machine oil or a light mineral oil, because it won’t damage the decals like some oils and strong cleaners can. Thanks for the tips, Donna, and I can’t wait to read your book!

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