Sewing without electricity

Sewing is a useful skill for preppers to have. If readymade clothing becomes unavailable, you will need to be able to mend, sew new clothing, and perhaps re-tailor hand-me down clothing for younger children. Like our ancestors, you might want to use fabric scraps to make quilts to keep your family warm. You can do all that by hand, but sewing by machine is much faster and most machine sewn seams are more secure than those done by hand.

image by Hammer51012

We preppers like to plan for TEOTWAKI, where no electricity is available, so why not consider a “people-powered” sewing machine? Treadle and hand crank sewing machines work just as well now as they did 100 years ago. I occasionally demonstrate the use of antique sewing machines at museums and someone always says, “I remember my mother/grandmother/aunt using one of those,” and “I have one of those in the barn/garage/attic”.

One hundred years ago, sewing machines were made to last. If you have or can acquire a treadle machine, it probably just needs a good cleaning and a nice drink of oil, and it will be happy to sew a lovely stitch for you. Most treadles were straight stitch machines, and most have no reverse, so don’t expect to find one that will do all the things modern machines will do. Instead, they came with a box of ingenious attachments for ruffling, hemming, making tucks, and binding. Optional attachments assisted with buttonholes, zigzag stitches, and machine embroidery.

There were literally hundreds of sewing machine companies in the 1800s. By the early 1900s, that was narrowed down to a few main brands in the U.S. Except for the early, primitive designs, almost any of them would be suitable for sewing clothing.

image by BruceTurner

If you have one, by all means roust it out of storage and get it going. If you have to shop for one, I recommend looking for a round bobbin Singer machine (as opposed to the earlier long bobbin variety) because bobbins are still widely available. This includes Singer models 15, 115, 66, 99 and 201. With the exception of early Model 66s, these machines all have standard low shank feet that fit modern attachments such as a zipper foot, darning foot, walking foot, etc. These machines were all available in both treadle cabinets and as hand cranked portables. You can often find electric versions of these models and convert them to hand crank using a kit that is readily available on eBay. For conversion to hand crank, you need a Singer model with an external belt driven motor, a motor boss, and a spoke wheel.

The White rotary is another excellent and widely available treadle machine. The slight disadvantages compared to the Singers are that there are no modern equivalent bobbins, although old ones can be found, and it has top clamping feet that are not compatible with modern attachments. These are irrelevant if you find a machine with lots of spare bobbins and a complete set of attachments. Standard and National rotary machines are also great choices. In the 1950’s, the market was flooded with electric Japanese imitations of the Singer 15. These are excellent candidates for conversion to hand crank or treadle.

Where do you find one of these machines? Auctions, yard sales, Craigslist, flea markets and eBay are all great resources. Prices vary with region of the country, but in many rural areas you can sometimes get a treadle for $5 or $10 at a household auction. I’ve even seen them go for that cheap on eBay. Most auctions on eBay are for local pickup only, so it helps to set up a daily radius search with the number of miles you are willing to drive and have new listings emailed to you every day. Beware of sellers who think that because it runs without electricity it is a valuable antique worth big bucks. If you are patient, you should be able to find a nice one for less than $100.

If you have the older bullet shuttle/long bobbin machine, don’t worry, they are also excellent. The only disadvantage with them is that shuttles wear out and bobbins break and get lost, and you can’t just go to your local fabric store and buy replacements like you can with the Singer 15 and 66 style bobbins.

Don’t forget that in addition to the sewing machine, you should have a stockpile of sewing machine needles, thread, suitable fabrics, clothing patterns, zippers, buttons, elastic, hand needles, pins and maybe a spare treadle belt or two.

There may be links in the post above that are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission, which does not affect the price you pay for the product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. 

© Copyright 2011 The Survival Mom, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Survival Mom
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  1. Lisa_Kbrook says

    Do you know of any good online sites for info on using them, parts, etc.? I inherited my grandma's singer and want to refurbish it but am a little confused on how to do so. Thanks for any insight, I was excited to read this and get any info!

    Lisa K.

    • Barbara says

      If it is a Singer (and I'll bet it is) There are Antique Singer sites all over. They even have a "society". Don't know for sure, but I'll bet the official Singer site can lead you their direction.

    • Kelly says

      Treadle On is an online community of around 1500 members world wide who use treadle sewing machines. The website ( contains a wealth of information about selecting and repairing a machine. There is a page that explains how to treadle – it takes a bit of practice to get the machine going and keep it going, but it is very easy once you get the feel for it. The forum is a group of very helpful people who will be happy to help you through the refurbishing steps, but first I recommend that you look through the pages and pages of information on the website. There are "flea market" pages where members sell machines/parts/manuals etc and dealers advertise.

  2. Chris says

    I'm fairly certain our machine at home can be easily converted to hand cranked. I'll have to check on that because my hand stitching is horrible. I will be practicing my sewing skills this summer though (when I get home). I really need some new clothes and I can never find clothes at the store. They are either ugly or don't fit, oh and lets not forgot that many clothes tend to show off more than anyone has any business seeing. You get more bang for you buck when you make them yourself anyway, because you can make your clothes to last, not fall apart in the wash in a month. If anyone knows of any good BDUish/tactical/cargo pants patterns I would be very thankful.

    …I got kind of off topic there, but oh well. Back on the topic of sewing machines, any recommendations for a smaller machine that I can keep in my tiny apartment?

    • Kelly says

      If you are following the advice in the article to get a "people powered" machine, the Singer 99 is an excellent choice. It is a smaller version of the Singer 66 and is easily converted to hand crank. It is considered a portable, but don't expect it to be as light and easy to carry as a modern machine. It uses class 66 bobbins that are available in WalMart, Jo-Ann Fabric, and any sewing supply store. In the boonies where I live, I find them at flea markets, on craigslist, and at auctions. They are on eBay all the time, but be sure to buy from a seller with experience packing a sewing machine or there is a good chance it will arrived damaged. They are usually electric, but all you need is a spoked wheel and hand crank kit to convert them.

    • EJP says

      I found that "hospital scrub" patterns are good for our family. we can make them using any cloth and in a variety of sizes. they are durable and comfortable. You can add pockets where ever you want. You can even take two sets and quilt them together with batting for winter weight clothing!

  3. shotzeedog says

    I have my grandmothers White treadle sewing machine. I learned to sew on it back in the mid 50's. Recently I had it serviced and bought a replacement belt for it too. Now I have to try my hand on using it again.

  4. Sean says

    My Wife is an avid sewer, and a few years ago, I bought her the exact model pictured in the first pic on this entry. I spent several months restoring the cabinet and machine (piece of advice to anyone restoring one…SAVE THE STAPELS/CLIPS THAT ARE USED ON THE LEATHER DRIVE BELT! You can get another belt made easily, the clips are hard to find).
    I never even thought of using it as a SHTF supply piece until this article, it was just something she had fond memories of learning to sew on from her Grandmother, but now, I'm going to have to start hunting spare parts for it (3 is 2…).
    It's funny how you don't realize supplies and preperations you may have in your home, until someone else points them out. Thanks Kelly!

    • Kelly says

      You're welcome! Re: belt clips – if all else fails, you can sew the belt together with dental floss and put a dab of fingernail polish on the knot to make sure it doesn't come apart.

  5. says

    For readers who don't have access to low-cost treadle machines you can convert an electric sewing machine into a treadle. Shetler's Wholesale Co. is a mail-order company that services primarily Amish and Mennonite customers and they sell handwheels, belts, and treadle cabinets that you can use to convert your electric sewing maching. You can request a catalog by writing to them at Shetler's Wholesale Co., PO Box 8, Geneva, IN 46740.

    (No, I don't work for them or receive compensation for this comment. I'm just a very satisfied customer.)

  6. says

    What a great post! I have 2 treadle machines, both Singers…just love old antiques. I am going to get them up and running asap. I admit to being in the same boat as Sean, just never thought of them like that! I think they just need replacement belts and oil. I do know on the singer web site you can acquire manuals for all their machines. You just need the serial number off yours.

  7. andrea says

    Janome has a treadle machine that is reasonably priced. They make their machines for the Amish. Check them out. I'm considering buying one rather than searching… I've seen them for 200-250.

  8. GoneWithTheWind says

    I remember very well at about 6 years old in 1949 that my sister who was taking a homemaking class in high school and her assignment was to make a blouse by hand (no sewing machine). She was not "crafty" and it was very difficult for her but she did it. Part of the grading depended on the stitch spacing and neatness so she worked carefully. I have often thought how useful this would be for anyone to learn even if they have a sewing machine available to them. Kind of like learning to drive with a stick shift even though you intend to drive an automatic. Or digging a garden by hand with a shovel and pitchfork before you get a rototiller.

  9. Humanist Dad says

    Does anyone know of a good hand operated (possibly hand held) machine?

    We don’t have need for a full size treadle in our home. (One more thing to dust)

  10. kdonat says

    In the mid 1970's there was a gentleman in Elkhart, In., that was adapting brand new Husqvarna Viking sewing machines to treadle for the local school system. They were for the Amish girls to use in home economics classes. Since I sew on a Husqvarna this would definitely be worth researching for adaptation to an existing treadle base.

    • Kelly says

      To convert to treadle, the machine has to have the kind of wheel that you can run with a belt. Many modern machines do not. Also, most modern machines have internal motors and I believe the internal mechanisms would create a lot of drag if you tried to run them by hand or foot power. The trick is to find a machine with an external motor and a groove in the wheel for the treadle belt. Also, these old machines came with hinges that fit into the treadle cabinet or wooden base. The spacing is not the same between different brands, so don't expect any machine to fit any base or cabinet. Plus modern machines don't have those hinges, although you could build a new treadle table top and just sit the machine on top of it.

      The Amish still buy electric machines and convert them to treadles, so it can definitely be done. I prefer the "built to last" quality of old machines over modern ones, though. :)

  11. says

    Most things can be done without electricity. But does it make sense?

    No. Let’s not spend time doing things foolishly in the name of being ‘different’. We should focus on how we can get more done by using more energy.

    I just think the Internet and blogging brings out the most absurd and foolish thoughts sometimes. Maybe we should use less electricity. Reducing idiocy would be worth it.

  12. brookbesorfarm says

    What a great post (and comments) to find! I have my great aunt's Singer Slant machine (which I love far more than any other machine I've ever used) but I kept wanting a treadle machine. My husband surprised me with a treadle machine for Christmas (he knows the way to a Farm Mom's heart :->). The cabinet needs some refinishing, but the machine is in good mechanical shape. I can't wait to sew on it! And he found it for just $35 :-)

  13. Jenn says

    I collect and restore antique and vintage machines (let's just say I stopped counting at 12) and own multiple treadles. The great thing about antique (all metal!) sewing mchines & their cabinets, is that they serve well as end tables, night stands, or hallway tables. A perk to treadling is the strength you build in your legs. It's productive excercise!
    Also, on the topic of patterns, trace the pattern pieces using wax or freezer paper, and that way, as your children grow, the pattern is still usable. As for fabric, cotton is shooting up in price, so go for higher quality fabrics (they will wear better), I get mine for less than $7 a yard (usually about 1/2 that price) by watching for sales and catching online fabric retailers when they are going out of business. Twill is a good fabric for trousers, jackets, shirts, and belts. Cotton thread will stand the test of time longer, while poly-blend threads will cut the fabric and cause seams to rip and tear. Keep away from the cheap thread, I personally prefer gutterman.

    Sewing not only gives you long lasting clothing, but you also develop a sense of pride in what you have made.

  14. katieo says

    I have a Singer treadle that was made in 1910 Before zipper foots for sewing machines. Made all my maternity clothes on it. It took me a week to get a zipper in a blouse though. I replaced the belt but had no idea where to get more and the staples/clips for it. Thanks for the info on the web site and catalogue. Now I just have to find someone to get it cleaned and conditioned.Our Singer repair place has closed down and I am NOT willing to let it out of the house. My Aunt's "disappeared" from the place she took it to and all they would compensate her for it was about $25.00 IT's an old non electric machine is what they said . she had to get a lawyer and oh my gosh , it was found and she got it back unrepaired.

    • Faye says

      Katieo, one thing you might try is the way they taught us to put a zipper in, in homemaking, back in the mid-60’s.

      First you stitch the seam up to the point that the zipper will be put in. Then stitch the seam that the zipper would go in, in with a basting (largest) stitch.

      After that’s done, use pins to center the zipper (on the wrong side of the fabric), all the way down the seam (be sure your pins are on the right side of the fabric) and sew it down. Once the zipper is in the garment, it’s a matter of simply pulling the basting thread out.

      The only part of this method that is sometimes awkward is right at the top of the zipper, where it closes but that’s usually remedied by unzipping the zipper, sewing a few stitches, then lifting the presser foot while you zip the zipper back up, then putting the zipper foot back down and continuing sewing the zipper in.

      I started learning to sew on a treadle machine, when I was 12-13 years old (1957-58). Once you develop a “rhythm” it becomes quite natural and definitely beats hand sewing a garment!

  15. Kelly says

    Cleaning your treadle machine is not difficult. Modern sewing machine dealers have people convinced that they have to bring their machine in every year for an expensive service call, but it is not at all necessary with a treadle machine. Cleaning instructions are details here:

    The basics are: Open access ports, clean out fuzz and threads, dissolve built up oil, and lubricate. Usually the only adjustments necessary are a little tweaking of the tension. Your treadle base may need some grease.

    Any circa 1910 Singer machine except a Model 66 should have a standard low shank foot , so you can use a modern zipper foot on it. The early Model 66s have a back clamping foot and attachments are hard to find and do not include a zipper foot..

    Treadle belts can be sewn together with dental floss if the clip is missing. Put a dab of fingernail polish on the knot to keep it tied. You can find treadle belts on eBay and at some sewing machine shops.

  16. Stephen Clay McGehee says

    You mentioned the Singer 201 as being a good choice for hand or treadle use. That is true, but only if it is the Model 201K. At the time the 201 came out, rural electrification in America was far enough along that the Model 201 sold here was electric-only. It does not have an external motor and belt. (Yes, anything can be converted to a hand crank or treadle, but no need to make it any harder). The 201K was sold in England and could be had in either hand crank, treadle, or electric. Just about any 201K that you find will have come from there. I have a 201K with a hand crank (I am working on putting it on a treadle base), and it is truly one of the finest machines Singer ever built. If you can find one, grab it. Just make sure it is the 201K.

    • Kelly says

      I specified: "For conversion to hand crank, you need a Singer model with an * external belt driven motor *, a motor boss, and a spoke wheel." There are 4 versions of the Singer 201: 201-1 (treadle), 201-2 (electric with potted motor, the one Stephen is referring to, can be coverted to a hand crank but it is more of a project), 201-3 (electric with belt driven external motor – easy to convert in about 5 minutes), and 201-4 (hand crank). All versions can be found in the US, but the 201-4 original hand crank is more difficult to locate. I have been using one as my primary machine for the past year or so and I agree that it is the best machine Singer ever built. Don't expect it it be portable like a modern electric machine though, it is *heavy*!

  17. Kelly Sangree says

    I actually converted a ’50’s vintage electric sewing machine that had a zigzag stitch to run on my treadle cabinet. I had used the original “head” (the old Singer sewing machine) that came with it, and it was nice, but I wanted more than just the straight stitch. All you do is find a machine with an external belt drive that goes to a motor on the back, remove the motor and belt, install in the treadle cabinet, and attach the treadle belt. I’ve sewn on it for 3 years now. The control factor is amazing – the treadle NEVER zips off and gets ahead of you like an electric!

    I’m currently experimenting with de-motorizing a ’50’s vintage factory serger that had an external belt drive. I wouldn’t recommend it for home-grade sergers, but this ran well at low speeds when it was motorized, so I THINK it should work well as a treadle powered machine too.

    • Kelly Sangree says

      An update – the serger treadle conversion was a success! It serges as smoothly as ever, and it’s virtually silent – a huge advantage over the noisy industrial motor. Once again, the control factor is greatly improved. To the skeptics – it’s like going from an automatic transmission to a manual. At first it seems like more work, but very soon you come to appreciate the level of control you have over your machine. Then you never want to go back!

      Added bonus – my calves look great! :)

  18. says

    Should there be no electricity at all, I am well versed in how to hand sew clothing, quilts etc- more people need to know that – and how to mend by HAND.
    I started sewing at age 6- and am currently almost 53.

  19. Charles says

    My wife read this article about a year and a half ago and wanted a treadle machine. We bought a Singer 66. This article was one of the few resources she had so she decided to write a book. It’s called Sew Like your Grandma and you can get it on Amazon. I know I’m biased but it’s pretty good. I hope it helps.

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