The Off-Grid Sewing Machine

When preparing to go off-grid, one item that may be overlooked is the family sewing machine. Who gives this device a second thought until they need it to repair a rip in their pants or a tear in a shirt sleeve? Sewing machines have been electrified for decades, but they had their beginnings as non-electric machines which were powered by foot pedal. In other words they were off-grid sewing machines!

Our Singer Treadle Sewing Machine

Our Singer Treadle Sewing Machine

Mr. Singer’s introduction of a mechanical sewing machine revolutionized garment making as it saved an enormous amount of time. No more hand sewing to keep the family clothed. A non-electric, foot powered treadle sewing machine, an off-grid sewing machine, is just as relevant for today’s off-gridder as it was for the housewife all those years ago when Mr. Singer introduced his first model in the 1850’s.

Back Clamper versus Side Clamper

In checking the serial number of my machine, I’ve determined my model #66 dates back to 1921, over 100 years ago! It’s a “back clamper” meaning the thumb screw used to change the presser foot is at the back as opposed to the side. Not many back clampers were made. Singer soon changed his design to the side clamping arrangement.

Slip Covers in the Making

Slip Covers in the Making

This bit of trivia is important since few attachments were made to attach to back clampers. I have a buttonholer, hemmer foot, binder and a ruffler, none of which will attach to my machine as they are made for side clamping presser feet. I can’t even attach a zipper foot to mine-at least no zipper foot that I’ve been able to find. So if using any attachments is important to you, look for the side clamping foot arrangement when purchasing an old treadle sewing machine.

The good news is that recently I found a source for side clamping attachments and I purchased all the back clamping attachments they had on offer, the hemmer foot, binder, ruffler and quilting attachment. I’m looking forward to playing with these this winter once gardening and food preservation season is over and I have more time to spend on leisure pursuits.

Up till now though, my inability to connect attachments hasn’t stopped me from using my machine to the fullest. I’ve made clothing of all sorts: men’s shirts and trousers, skirts, dresses, blouses, nightgowns and leggings for long underwear. I put zippers in with the normal presser foot and work buttonholes by hand. I make intricate patchwork blocks for all the quilts I hand quilt. Yes intricate and accurate piecing is possible with an old treadle machine. Recently I made new slip covers for an old rocking chair with my off grid sewing machine. And of course I use it to do mending.

Quilt

Quilt

Quilt Pieced on Treadle Machine

Quilt Pieced on Treadle Machine

Nightgowns and Shirts Made on Treadle Machine

Nightgowns and Shirts Made on Treadle Machine

Intricate and Accurate Piecing is Possible with 100 Year Old Machine

Intricate and Accurate Piecing is Possible with 100 Year Old Machine

Completed Slip Covers Stitched on Treadle Machine

Completed Slip Covers Stitched on Treadle Machine

Using a Treadle Sewing Machine

The trickiest aspect of using a treadle machine is preventing the feed from going in reverse. This problem is easily addressed if the operator stops the arm that goes from the treadle to the fly wheel slightly forward of top dead center. Then it’s a simple matter to press the foot treadle and off you go. For me, I’m in the habit of giving the balance wheel, the wheel connected directly to the machine’s body, a turn with my right hand to get going. Admittedly this action isn’t always necessary, but this motion is such an ingrained, subconscious act, I do it without thinking.

Alternatives to an Old Treadle Machine

If you are having trouble finding an old, functioning treadle machine, don’t despair. A clever person can convert a modern electric machine so it can be powered by a foot pedal attached to a pulley type fly wheel that has a belt going from the pulley to the balance wheel. Lehman’s, an outfit that caters to the non-electric community, is one place that I’m aware of that has taken a modern electric machine and converted it to a foot powered device. You can either buy from them or see how they made the conversion, and perform the operation yourself on the machine you already have. Whichever way you decide to go, salvaged antique treadle machine or modified modern machine, you’ll be glad to have an off-grid sewing machine when the need arises.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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2 Responses to The Off-Grid Sewing Machine

  1. Andrew Jameson says:

    That’s a beautiful machine and agreed hand crank or treadle machines have benefits beyond not requiring electricity, namely better control than electric because it gives better control of your needle position. Sounds like you already have sorted out your back clamp struggle but you can also just swap out the presser bar for a side clamp style from a later model 66/66K or a 99/99K.

    I have a slightly older model with the Tulip water slide decals instead of your Red Eye. I do like yours better though. For quilting and light upholstery work your 66 will perform beautifully, but if you need to sew canvas or denim, the Singer 15/15K is superior for presser foot height and heavy duty capability. That model shared the same vertical bobbin and drive design as the industrials of the era but within a domestic fit and form so it will attach to your treadle set up or you can use a hand crank. The 15 will sew up to 23oz denim, whereas the 66 struggles above 14oz for flat felled seams or jeans hems.

    Good luck to you

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Hello Andrew, Thanks for your response. Years ago I looked into converting my back clamper into a side clamper but the info I found made it sound way too complicated but your solution sounds so easy. This past summer Ron surprised me with a Singer 15-91 from the 1940’s. It’s electric so I only use it for special tasks such as today when I attached my mom’s old buttonholer that dates from her Singer machine from the mid 1960’s and I made buttonholes in a flannel shirt I stitched on the treadle machine. The buttonholer worked like magic. What fun. Thanks for the insight into the limitations of my 66 as well as info about the 15. All the best. Johanna

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