“The first thing is to use both feet, otherwise you’ll end up with one leg bigger than the other,” explains Charlotte Baker as she shows me how to use an antique treadle machine. She skillfully pulls the wheel toward her before she starts pedaling, and then moves her right hand over to help the left guide the fabric. The machine chugs along at a quick pace, powered only by the treadling motion that combines simple machine gears and foot pumps.
It’s clear at this point that my Singer at home is not moving yet at the right pace. The simplest refurbishing step is to lubricate all metal parts with oil. Of course, Baker has an antique oil can that’s nearly as collectible as her treadle machines. She suggests that back home I could oil our treadle and let it sit a day before trying to sew with it. But, I should avoid getting oil on the belt or else it will slip. We’ll eventually install the new belt she gave us.
I gain confidence when my instructor finally lets me try treadling by myself. She reminds me to pull the wheel forward before I start pumping my feet. I’m amazed at how easily the stitches loop their way onto the fabric. The pedal down below gives my calves a little workout, and I try to imagine people sitting for hours on end at machines like this.Baker suggests that I can tighten or loosen certain parts if the stitch isn’t even. Funny how one of the tips she gave me on adjusting the tension myself contrasts with what a sewing machine repairman recently told me. He would rather I bring the machine in to his shop. But this seamstress and collector is all about the self sufficiency of being able to repair a machine herself. She was in the middle of swapping out some parts during my visit.
It was delightful to see the display of presser foot attachments and other gadgets available through the years for adapting a treadle machine. One converts any machine to electric. Another creates buttonholes when machines don’t yet have that feature built in. There’s even a place where you can screw on a little light.