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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Treadle powered sewing machine

I'm on a constant mission to reduce the amount of electricity we use and as part of that, I look at my various appliances and wonder whether there's an alternative to using electricity for that job. By happy coincidence, this week's challenge at Change the World Wednesday is about reducing electricity usage, so I can write about this project and link it to that challenge.

I have a 1970s electric sewing machine that I inherited from my mother. It's very, very heavy, but that's it's only downside. It's a robust bit of kit and has survived a good twenty years of neglect in my ownership without the slightest complaint. Examining the back of the machine, I found that the motor is attached to the back with a bolt-on bracket, and drives the mechanism by a simple belt. This might have been sold as an electric machine, but appears to be based on an older, probably treadle-powered, design.

I also have a treadle. My dad gave this to me some years ago, nicely powder coated (that's a way of applying paint, by the way, not a powdery finish) with a glass top to make a decorative table. It's certainly decorative, but it's also functional, and working the treadle makes the wheel spin smoothly in a most satisfying way.

Could I put these two together? Wandering around the internets, I came across treadleon.net, a website for people who want to actually use (rather than make museum exhibits of) old, human-powered sewing machines (isn't it amazing what you can find on the internet?!) Somewhere on this site* I found instructions for converting an electric machine to treadle-power. Bingo!

What I needed next was a sturdy table top to go between the treadle base and the machine. Since I needed to cut a hole in it, this needed to be solid, rather than strips that would separate when cut. I decided that I wanted something fairly big. Although the treadle would have originally had a fairly small top, not much bigger than the machine itself, I'm used to having the whole dining table to spread out on when I sew. I'm not going that big, or I'll never find house space for it (to be honest, that's going to be a problem as it is), but I'd like a reasonable amount of table to support the fabric as I sew.

Whilst visiting a wood-working friend of ours, a general offer of wood was made, so I mentioned that I was on the look-out for a table top, and he said he had just the thing cluttering up his workshop. It was a hefty lump of pine (strips glued together, but very strongly), 4' x 2'2" and an inch and a quarter thick. He was even kind enough to plane the edges for me, to remove the rather unattractive varnish (we agreed that it would be much nicer used upside down, removing just a little varnish to take it back to the natural pine colour. I did have to remove a couple of lumps of chewing gum, too.)

Where are we now, then? I have the machine, the treadle, and the table top to go between them. There's just one more thing I need, and that's the drive belt. A bit more internet research found Alan's Alterations. As well as altering things, Alan sells industrial sewing machines and traditional leather machine belts, as well as who knows what other unlikely things. He has a shop in Machynlleth which, would you believe it, is just down the road! Well OK, it's thirty miles down the road, but that's really not very far away and happens to be the same town as the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is an interesting place to visit.

My dad came to stay for a week and before he came, he said I should line up a project for him to help me with. I considered the home-made solar panels, but decided that the sewing machine had a better chance of being completed within a week, considering 1) I had all the bits lined up, and 2) we'd probably want to do other things in that week, too.

It turned out that I didn't quite have everything I needed. Dad said we'd need a wide, flat drill bit for the corners, so we went out and bought one of those. After all that preamble (most DIY jobs seem to take more work in the preparation than the actual doing), here's what we did.

First, assemble all the bits.

Sewing machine, table top, and various tools. There are other tools too, that didn't make it into this picture.

At this point I'd already removed the drive wheel from the machine so we could use it to gauge the length of the belt needed.

Next came lots of measuring, head scratching, and marking out of where the hole should be cut in the table top.

A pencil is the most important tool in many jobs

You may notice that the Cut out arrow doesn't go to the edge of the marked area. This is because the front edge of the sewing machine is set into the table, but supported. The instructions told us to cut the hole right through then screw another piece of wood underneath, but I thought it would be stronger, and neater, to leave the original wood in place and just cut a rebate (lowered bit) to take the machine.

While Dad started drilling holes...

Let the drilling commence!

... I removed the electrical gubbins from the machine.

No more electric light in my sewing machine! I wonder if I can fit a little candle into the space where this used to be?

Then came a lot of sawing and chiselling (for the rebate) that I don't have photos for, so you'll have to use your imagination for those bits. Eventually we removed enough wood that we could fit the machine into its new home.

Sewing machine in place, with string belt for lining up with the treadle

At this point we discovered that the slot for the belt needed to go quite a bit further back than the hole for the machine. Here, the rasp came in very useful. We just filed away until the dummy belt (bit of string) went round both wheels without rubbing against the table on the way.

All the measuring and cutting took about a day, and the next day we went up to Machynlleth to visit both CAT (being tourists) and Alan the sewing machine merchant. He sold us six feet of leather machine belt and a staple to hold it together. When asked, he even told me how to combine the two. He also said that after a few weeks' use (um, I don't think I'll be using the machine that frequently, but still) the belt will have stretched, so I'll need to take the staple out, shorten the belt, and join it again.

The next job then, was to cut the belt to size (easy) and join it together with the staple (very difficult). Punching the holes in the belt with a nail was hard enough, but when we'd got the staple posted through both ends we had to close it up with pliers. This was extremely difficult to do as the pliers tended to skid off. I'm really hoping I can get away without adjusting the belt when it's stretched with use, but I guess if it needs it, then I'll just have to do this job again.

Staple in leather belt. Much harder to do than it looks.

Finally, there was a bit of jiggling to make sure the machine was lined up with the treadle wheel** (never mind getting the table top square to the base, it's the machinery that's important) before screwing the table top to the base (or vice versa, as this was done from underneath).

So here it is, all put together, and whadda ya know, it works!

Sewing machine with treadle, all assembled and functional

I still have to sand down the table top to get rid of the old varnish and the pencil marks, then finish it with teak oil (making sure there are no traces of this left when I start using it for sewing). I should really take it all apart to do this, but because it's difficult to take the machine off its hinges, I probably won't.

I haven't yet tried sitting at the machine and actually using it, but I have pushed the treadle with my foot and got it all going round, with the needle going up and down and everything. No doubt it will take a bit of practice to learn to sew with this, but I'm looking forward to it!


* I can't actually find it again, but it must have been there somewhere. Although I couldn't find the instructions again, I remembered important bits, such as using the hinges of the machine to support the back. I didn't even know it had hinges before that!

** I found that the belt was in a different place when going round than it was when stationary, so it now rests against the edge of the hole, but hopefully will be clear of it when in use. I may yet need to make that hole a bit bigger.


  1. I am so impressed with this project, Rachel, good on ya!


    P.S. My sisters all sew with treadle machines. :)

  2. I thought it said treacle!

    I was highly disappointed to find that I won't be able to make come to a reasoned decision as to whether I eat my fuel or power something with it!

  3. Yay! It's nice to know there are others using this old-school tech. Cheers, Rebecca :-)

    I think I'll reserve the treacle power for fruit cake, if it's all the same with you, Vic :-D

  4. Wow! That's quite an impressive project. I have a friend who is a quilter. She has about a zillion sewing machines, but her favorite is the old treadle powered one.

    Me, on the other hand... well I have an old Singer from the 1950's which works, but I just don't seem to have the sewing machine gene. My last project, which was an insulated window shade, took 3 broken needles, 7 hours and a great deal of cursing. I think I'll be sticking to hand sewing from now on. I vastly prefer sitting in a fluffy chair with a cat in my lap even if it takes much longer.

    1. i also got really frustrated when i first tried my mother in laws treadle. I assumed i just have bad coordination skills and gave up. But then 1 year later i tried again for another 10 min and i was able to do it. it just takes about half an hour of practice. as for the broken needles, you have to read a sewing machine manual. after i cursed mine for 2 years i read an old singer sewing machine manual and everything i was cursing was well explained in there. needles brake because of bad tension or wrong needle size matched to the thickness of the fabric. good luck to you!

  5. I prefer sitting on a chair with a cat, too. The trouble is, the cat in question enjoys sewing projects far too much and they tend to end up in a tangled mess on the floor.

    I have a first project in mind for this machine (a rather ambitious one, as it has a deadline), so I'll let you know how I get on with actually using it.

  6. I wish you much better success than I experienced in my last sewing project!

  7. Good work! Can't wait to hear how it is to use :)

  8. I think you get the award for coming up with the most creative way to reduce energy use. Yay! I love this ... and, as a bonus, you'll get exercise every time you sew.

    My grandmother had a Treadle Sewing Machine and as a kid I would sit below her and power it for her. I loved it! It was fascinating to see how the movement of the treadle actually made the needle move. To this day, when I see a treadle machine, I'm 6 years old again ... helping grandma with her sewing!

  9. I agree, very creative! I am highly impressed by the amount of work (and the results!) that went into this project. It is amazing what we can do when we have the right support, tools, and time. I hope to do more diy projects in the coming year, but maybe not that ambitious. ;)

  10. Too right about "support", Brenna. I think of myself as being fairly competent when it comes to DIY, but when I examine that self-image carefully, I find the picture always includes my dad!

  11. It's all your fault...I bought this: http://secret-sheep.blogspot.com/2011/09/look-what-ive-got.html

  12. That's fab! I do hope you enjoy using it :-)


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