Friday 14 October 2016

Song of the Singer Sewing Machine

Yesterday, I listened to The Song of the Singer Sewing Machine on BBC Radio 4.  It is a fascinating history of a machine that changed the world, bringing the ability to sew to millions and being described by some as 'a factory in a box'.

My first proper sewing machine (after a miniature toy one, which wouldn't sew), was a Singer treadle.  I don't know where my mother tracked it down, but it was waiting for me one Christmas morning many years ago. I can't remember how old I was at the time, but probably around the age of ten.  I still remember the thrill of excitement when I realised that I had my very own sewing machine, and was eager to learn how to use it.

My mother chose a treadle instead of the more portable hand-driven machine because she said that it would give me both hands free to manoeuvre the fabric and do the actual sewing.  (Looking back, I'm sure that it gave my legs a good workout too, though I was too young to appreciate this at the time!)

Soon, I was happily treadling away and learning to stitch in a straight line.  I do remember that I had to learn to slow down on the treadling as I neared the end of a seam, otherwise the machine had a tendency to run away from me and just keep going, resulting at best, in a tangled knot of thread, or at worst, a broken needle and a jammed shuttle.

The bullet shuttle was a challenge to fill and load at first.  The long bobbin fitted in from the end and then the thread fitted around this clever metal clip, which held it securely.  The whole thing was then loaded into the machine by holding a metal clip on the bullet until it was correctly positioned.  Once in place and operating, the transverse shuttle moved back and forth (almost like a horizontal pendulum), producing a lock-stitch.  There were no complicated dials for stitch selection in those days, as this machine did only one stitch.

One of the most striking design aspects of the early Singer sewing machines (aside from the weight of the treadle models), was the quality of the finished machine with some stunningly beautiful decals.  Designs included flowers, leaves and various intricate designs.  For pictures of the patterns, do take a look at the Singer photo gallery here.

I don't remember the exact details of the decal design of my own Singer and sadly, I no longer own it (nor do I have any photos of it from that pre-digital era).  It was replaced by a more modern electric machine once I became a more experienced sewer and required a machine that could offer a wider stitch selection.  It was so heavy that I was unable to move it from place to place during various house moves, so it was sold to another novice sewer, who I hope had as much pleasure from it as I did.

Aside from a little cleaning and oiling, the only real maintenance required was a replacement drive belt.  These belts were made of leather and fitted with a hook to connect the two ends.  They needed to be sturdy to withstand the wear and tear of the rocking motion of the operator spinning the large wheel of the treadle, which in turn, powered the smaller driving wheels of the machine.

I like to think that my machine is still going strong and that it is loved and treasured.  I hope that it brings as much joy to another sewer as it did to me.


  1. This was lovely reading, Marie! I first learned to sew at school, and didn't really enjoy it very much, in truth... and I zipped along too fast with the machine too. ;) But I learned to sew mostly from my Mum, and she always had a Singer Machine. And I came to enjoy sewing in time, and love to sew and quilt now. I've never worked with a treadle machine though, just electric. The first sewing machine I bought with my own money was a Singer FeatherWeight II, which was a great little machine. I have a Janome machine, which is also very good. But I have a soft spot in my heart for Singer machines. :) ((HUGS))

  2. Tracy, thank you for sharing your sewing experiences. I still have a soft sport for Singer machines, though I have not owned one since my treadle. I currently have a Pfaff, which I bought almost twenty years ago. How time flies! Marie x

  3. I love the story of your treadle machine, Marie. I remember my grandmother's treadle sewing machine as I used to be allowed to look in the little drawers and play with the buttons and ribbons I found in there. I still have my Mum's singer sewing machine. I looked it up on their web site and it was made in Scotland in early 1939. I don't use it as I'm afraid I'm not very good at sewing but I expect I will have to let it go one day:)

  4. Rosie - it is lovely to share memories like these. I'm sure you would find it hard to part with your Mum's Singer, even if you don't use it. Marie x