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.
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.
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.
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