Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Interviewed by Leah Day!

Andy Warhol said that everyone gets 15 minutes of fame.  This is my moment, and it lasted longer than 15 minutes.  Take that, Andy Warhol!

Imagine my thrill when I got an email from Leah Day a couple of months ago.  I have followed her almost from the beginning of her online career.  Yes, I confess, I am a fan girl.  She is an awesome machine quilting guru, among other things.  Check out her site at the link above.

And check out the video podcast with my interview too.

I ALSO have to confess that one of my posts was written as a reaction to a post of hers back in 2013 in which she was contemplating buying a new and expensive sewing machine.  This led me to write  FMQ The Cheapo Way.

She emailed me to ask about which vintage or antique sewing machines would be good for free motion quilting.  I figured she had found me through my blog.  But no, Bonnie Hunter from Quiltville recommended me to her.  Be still my beating heart.  I don't know if I can handle the thinner air up here in the stratosphere of quiltyness.

Before my head explodes from my inflated ego, let me tell you the stone truth.  Only a handful, maybe a couple of handfuls by now, of us blog about the restoration of old machines.  So people can find us easily online, even quilting world superstars like Leah Day and Bonnie Hunter.  Doesn't make me special in any way other than rarity, lol.

Y'all know how much I LOVE to talk about old sewing machines.  Several emails followed.  And then Leah asked me if she could interview me for her podcast, Hello My Quilting Friends.  Oh, yes!  Then I found out it was a video podcast.  Oh, no!  I do NOT consider myself photogenic.  But on the other hand I have come to terms with being an old fat lady.  So I said yes.


So, you want a treadle powered vintage sewing machine for piecing and free motion quilting (FMQ)?  Good idea.

First, lets talk about power.  Real power.  Sewing machine power.  There are three possibilities:

  • Treadle, in which the machine sits in a cabinet and a foot pedal drives the action
  • Hand crank, in which the machine sits in a case (usually) and the user turns a crank on the right hand side to drive the machine.
  • Electric motor, the machine can be either in a case or cabinet.  Electricity provides the power, which the user controls by a foot pedal or knee lever.  And those are totally interchangeable.

Singer 99 with an added hand crank

The hand crank option is ideal for any sewing where you need total control and precision.  Think of it as machine-assisted hand sewing.  It's great for teaching sewing, whether to children or adults, because it starts and stops on a dime.  Well, really, not a dime, more like a fraction of a grain of rice.  It is great for sewing tiny seams on doll clothing.  It is perfect for paper piecing.  Any of the machines discussed below are good candidates for hand crank conversion and you can read more about it here.

Comparing sewing with a treadle versus sewing with a motor:  You might be surprised.  THERE IS NO PERCEPTIBLE DIFFERENCE.  It's a sewing machine.  It goes.  It stops.  Once you get the physical rhythm of the treadle you never even think about the power source while you are using it.  At least I don't.  YMMV.

So why have a treadle?  Because it is really, really, cool?  Because you can keep on sewing even if the power fails?  Because it puts you in touch with previous generations?  with history?  Choose your own reasons.  All of those are my reasons.  You may have more, please leave them in the comments below.

Here's what you do:  Buy a Singer treadle.  There are millions of them.  There are LOTS of great vintage sewing machines NOT made by Singer which will fit in a Singer treadle.  The footprint of sewing machines was pretty standard.

The bed opening should measure 14.5 inches x 7 inches.  There MAY be a metal piece to the left (shown above) designed to hold the cord so that it does not get pinched when it folds down into the machine.  That MAY or MAY NOT be missing.  This adds another 2 inches to the width of the opening.

Why specifically a Singer treadle?  There are lots of antique treadles out there, but Singers are the only ones where I can PRETTY MUCH guarantee that the non-Singer postwar Japanese machines discussed below will fit.  There are always exceptions, so make sure you have a working tape measure while hunting.

Where should you look?  I have written detailed advice about searching for a good vintage sewing machine, and much of it also applies to treadles.

What should you pay?  Whatever you are comfortable with.  The more you are willing to pay, the more treadles will be available to you, and/or the faster you will find one.  Here in the Piedmont of NC I have paid as little as $25 and sold one for as much as $150 .  My friend Linda sells them for $250, fully serviced and with a fully serviced working sewing machine in it.

What should you look for?  Check carefully for any cracks or breaks in the cast iron, which are costly and difficult to repair.  Push the foot pedal.  Does the big flywheel on the right hand side turn?  If so, this is a working treadle.  Cleaning and oiling are all it needs and you can read about that here.  The leather drive belt connecting the big flywheel with the machine will probably be dry-rotted or gone, but it  can easily be replaced.

I advise against buying a treadle that is not already in good working order (most of them are) but if you have inherited a family treadle with problems, there are complete instructions on how to break it down and rebuild it on the TreadleOn site.

There were two versions of the Singer treadle (and many different cabinets),  The most common one is black cast iron with logos that were originally gold, but may now be obscured by dirt.  Please note that by "treadle" here we mean specifically the cast iron beneath the machine and the cabinet.

Cast iron:  Singer logo in gold over foot pedal

Cast iron:  Singer logo in gold on sides of treadle
A less common type is made of aluminum and known as the "straight leg treadle".  I have one and it works just as well as the heavier one.  They are painted brown rather than black.

But we're not talking about ALL sewing machines, we want something specifically good for FMQ.  And what you need there is a machine with a class 15 bobbin system.  That's the kind where you insert the bobbin into a case and then insert that into the machine.

There were MANY different bobbins and therefore bobbin systems and cases and this is not the place to go into all that.  Google is your friend.

One thing I will tell you is that class 15 bobbins are still in wide use and plastic ones are available.  Modern metal ones have problems and one of my suppliers now refuses to sell them.  The vintage metal ones may or may not have holes in them as shown above.

And this is where you insert the bobbin case into the machine.  On this machine the access cover flips up.  Some of them slide open to the side.

Singer's most popular class 15 machine was the 15-91, which CANNOT be treadled.

Singer 15-91
The 15-91, and the later 15-125 in green, have a "potted" motor and direct gear drive.  The fact that the motor is permanently connected to the machine with gears is what prevents it from being treadled.

Singer 15-125

The potted motor is easy to spot on the back of the machine.  15-91s potted motor looks just like this but in black (which is harder to photograph).

Singer 15-125

Singer 15-125 potted motor
So if you see the potted motor, that is not what you want for treadling because you just can't do it.  You need a machine with a removable motor.

Singer also made class 15 machines with an external motor, such as the 15-88, but these are much harder to find, at least around here.  As a result, I have no photos of them!

But I have lots of photos of the post WWII Japanese machines which were line-for-line copies of the Singer 15.  These are often referred to as "15 clones".  Serious vintage sewing machine people are invited NOT to yell at me for using this term.  It's a good term if you limit it to the machines that are line-for-line copies.  Although the Japanese made them in a rainbow of pretty colors,

The identifying characteristics of the 15 clones are the fact that the tensioner is on the left hand nose of the machine rather than facing you on the front.  And that distinctive round stitch length lever.

Tensioner sticking out, view from the back

Tensioner, head on view

round stitch length lever

And all of the clones have external motors, which are easily removed for treadling.

not the same machine, but you can see where the motor was removed

Underneath the hand wheel you can see the motor mount, where the motor was attached with a large bolt.  It is a matter of a minute to remove the motor.

And here's another pretty one.  Note on this one and the pink ones that the Japanese added a feed dog drop feature, pretty handy for free motion quilting.  (although on the Singers it is an easy matter with a screwdriver to drop the dogs or remove them entirely).

The Japanese produced machines in enormous numbers and eventually came up with new designs (and produced some wonderful zigzag machines too).

Modernage, class 15 but not a clone
This machine uses the class 15 bobbin system but is stylistically different.  So I don't call this one a clone.  But you can if it makes you happy.  Just prepare to be chastised by the purists.

Back to the pretty clones.

This one is labelled "Gibraltar" but the names are meaningless.  Japanese companies naturally did not want to sell machines with the names of Japanese companies on them to American consumers in the years after WWII.  So they came up with random appealing names.

Clones came in black too.  I fitted this one with a hand crank.

And boring beige.  Whatever its name was, the nameplate is gone now.

Now for a word about presser feet.

There are many, many ways for presser feet to attach to a machine, especially if you go back into the 1800's machines.  But in this post we are really only talking about postwar machines.  And by that time the three most popular kinds were:
  • low shank.  this is still the most common style.  when you see presser feet at your local big box retailer, they are low shank.  
  • high shank
  • slant shank, made by Singer
These are NOT interchangeable.  (And, btw, some companies have feet specific to their own machines.  I'm looking at you, Bernina).

All of the line-for-line 15 clones I have seen have been low shank.  I have seen many high shank postwar zigzag machines, and low shank ones also.  That is all I, or anyone, can tell you.  There may be high shank clones that I am unaware of.  There is no international database of all the machines ever produced.

So how do you know what you are seeing?  Print out a copy of this shank guide provided by sew-classic.com.  

If you have a low shank machine, almost all low shank presser feet and attachments will work on it.  Take note of that if you own a Featherweight, a low shank machine.  You really don't need presser feet advertised as being specifically for Featherweight (and at an inflated price).

And one more presser foot note:  if you want a walking foot for a straight-stitch only machine YOU MUST BUY A STRAIGHT STITCH WALKING FOOT.  Your usual walking foot is designed for zigzag machines, and the spacing of the feed dogs is different.  You will need a walking foot designed specifically to fit on the feed dogs of a straight stitch machine.

So I had better tell you where to find one, or anything else vintage-machine-related, presser feet, attachments, parts, and supplies such as treadle belts.  I am not related to this company and receive no financial or any other kind of benefit for recommending it.  But they have been providing me with good no problem service for years.

But hey, Jenny, if you read this and WANT to pay me for recommending you, just let me know.  I'll take payment in parts, thank you very much.


So, now you have your treadle and your machine.  How do they fall in love and marry?  It's easier than you think.  Slightly tricksy, but easy.

What you do NOT do is take the hinges out of either the treadle or the case or cabinet that your machine is in.  No, no, no, do not do this.  And I see it all the time.  My own, admittedly limited and amateurish, experience with wood is that every time you take a screw out and put it back in, you are degrading the strength of the object.  So don't do it.  Clear?

What you do is first discover the way in which the machine is actually attached to the machine.  It's not the hinges.  The moveable part of each hinge has a post on it.  The sewing machine has two holes into which the posts fit.  There is a set screw that tightens things down.

Describing the step by step removal and installation technique using words and still photos would be a silly waste of my time when we have YouTube. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video must be worth a million.

Dave at Super Mom -No Cape! has a good video titled How To Remove and Reinstall A Vintage Singer Machine From Its Cabinet.   I like his removal technique but unless you have a helper (and a helper willing to get their fingers pinched as a 40 pound machine descends onto those hinge pins) I would not follow his re-installation technique.  It is hilarious to see that pair of extra hands coming up into the machine opening from below however.

For a better re-installation technique, StagecoachRoad Sewing has a great video that shows how to install a machine into a cabinet.  Same process for a treadle (or a portable case for that matter).



  • Buy a Singer treadle
  • Buy a class 15 straight stitch machine
  • Put them together
  • Piece* or free motion quilt to your heart's content
It really is that simple.  Have fun and let me know your own experiences in the comments below.

*And, oh, yeah, piecing.  Haven't talked about it here because this is all about FMQ.  But if you have never used a vintage straight stitch only machine for piecing, you just have not LIVED.   Do you know any quilters who rave about the quality of the stitch their oh-so-trendy vintage Featherweight makes?  They are not lying.  But what they don't know is that ANY all metal vintage straight stitch only machine will do the same.  They only do the one thing but they do it supremely well.

And welcome to all of Leah Day's followers who wander over here and find this blog.  I'm glad you're here!  Hope I was useful or maybe just interesting to some of you.


  1. Cheryl, I was so entertained reading your wonderful blog entry today (and all the other times you have posted). Now if anyone reading today’s post or watching your interview with Leah Day (I’m trying not to faint from the celebrity effect of your announcement) contacts you wanting to acquire a singer treadle or singer straight stitch machine or hand crank machine, I have quite a few of them I am trying to GIVE AWAY or sell for next to nothing. I am getting too old to use or feed and care for them, they are covering my sewing room floor making it unusable and committing a greater sin of intruding on the garage—my husband’s domain. I cannot deal with all the work and details required to ship them. Thus no EBay. I have had no success getting interest on Craig’s list even as free. They are not in need of rehab. Only one of the treadles is disassembled cabinet from base because I was starting to clean and paint the cast iron base and took so long I forgot just how to put it back together—really. There are about twenty machines. I think three treadles—one is a like new Singer 411G original zig zag TREADLE machine. One treadle has a Singer 201K machine that came in it and I can’t remember exactly which machine goes in the third treadle. I am feeling so desperate about what to do with them. I can’t bear to just dump them off at a thrift store because it feels like you would feel dumping a pet on the roadside to me. I Already donated many machines to a refugee resettlement organization. I know you need more sewing machines yourself :) but if you want them I will figure out how to get them to you at no charge. And I also live in NC. Just say the word. If I haven’t made it clear, they are causing me a LOT of grief, which I already have enough of to go around. Congratulations on your accession to fame and thanks for any help you can render in rehoming my beloved machines. Katie S.

    1. Hi, Katie. Do you belong to any of the Yahoo sewing machine groups? There are groups for vintage Singers, treadle groups, etc. Most of them allow you to post sewing machines for sale. I've had good luck thinning my herd by letting the groups know which machines I wanted to sell, although I still have a lovely Lady Kenmore 89 (original cabinet and chair, all original attachments) which is still in my sewing room. iOne nice thing about having a machine go to someone in one of these groups is you know it's going to a good home. Just my two cents. Best of luck.

  2. Hi Cheryl, just want to say hello as my comments haven't worked for so long and I'm hoping this will now - because I so often want to tell you how I enjoy your posts, never mind learn so much from them. I want to say I hope all is well with you - of course it is, you've achieved another level of celebrity status today's blog tells us. But you're already a hero, and especially so for consistently giving us insights into the world of the sewing machines made to last a lifetime and beyond, with your lovely humour and totally good sense. Thank you so much.

  3. ...and I know you! (I met you at a NC Toga one year, so I can bask in your glory!) Thanks for the great blog. When I retire, I hope to repaint one of my White Rotary machines per your instructions.

  4. I caught your video blog and hurray for you promoting vintage machines and treadles. I am so proud of you. Sometimes I feel like I am the only one around here that cares about preserving and using them. I also have followed Leah Day, benefiting greatly from her 365 FMQ designs. I wish I could promote more and meet the people who graciously devote their time and energy on the yahoo groups I belong to. Thank you so much, Cheryl!

  5. Oh mighty Cheryl the famous! I watched the podcast (very unusual for me, but, since it was YOU being interviewed, I couldn't not watch it). Nice job! I have both of the treadles that she has purchased (I got 3 treadles in 3 weeks, when I started).

  6. I'll watch the video when I get off work. But try the Ravelry group for vintage sewing machines. Facebook has several groups for treadles. If you can't find homes for all of them, give Facebook marketplace a try.

    I do know the feeling as I'm up to 7 with two more bases to put machines in. I just hate to see them turned into tables.

  7. Great post, Cheryl! It's a great reference - all kinds of vintage SM info in one location! Now I'm feeling guilty that I don't use my vintage machines more often. I need to get one of them set up for FMQ so I can just sit down and practice when I have a few extra minutes.

  8. Hi There! I think I may have finally figured out how to comment after following for many years and being frustrated by denial of contact. I am horrible with computers and resist adding yet another reason to create an identity and new password. Loved this post and I love Japanese 15's. One other improvement in many of the Japanese copies of the Singer 15, besides the dial on the bed to raise and lower the feed dogs, is the easy-peasy snap-in shuttle assembly. So easy to clean, compared to the Singer Assembly, which requires a screw driver to remove. I am another old sewing machine nut and not ashamed to admit I also shelter over 100.

  9. I own a treadle machine that my Papa put a motor on. You and Leah have encouraged me to clean it up and use it!!! THANKS!!!!

  10. I loved your Interview. I have a singer 66-8 that most likely was originally a treadle and was converted post war to a electric motor. It works and sews beautifully. I recently picked up a Singer Improved Family. The iron work is great, the machine is in great shape, the wood needs to be replaced. but I can't use it yet cause I need bobbins. I also am looking for a bobbin winder assembly and rear shroud for it. The 66 is easier to find parts for, but I will get the IF up and running.

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