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Column #17

Vintage Stitching

Kate Greta VanDenBerg at work with her favorite human-powered sewing machine, a Wheeler and Wilson No. 8 treadle.


AwawaAn 1867 Howe treadle with a "coffin top" owned by Greta VanDenBerg.


AwawaGreta VanDenBerg's first “free-motion” quilting project on a treadle sewing machine. "Some of these wonderful early machines actually have many of the features found on modern machines today, including the ability to drop the feed dogs to accomplish decorative free-motion stitching which makes them nice for machine quilting," explains Greta. "On this particular machine I had to actually remove the feed dogs but one screw does the trick!"


AwawaShoo, Fly by Pat Nordmark. Honorable Mention, Innovative Pieced, Large category at the 2008 “Quilts: A World of Beauty” Judged Show.

My Aunt Neva had an old treadle sewing machine that she liked to use for piecing quilts. I vividly remember her showing me where to place my foot on the treadle, and the special sound it would make as it stitched. 0

It was pretty too, I thought, in its wooden cabinet of long narrow drawers crammed with colorful thread, rickrack, seam tape, embroidery floss, and other “sewing things” on either side. There truly was something different about sewing on that machine as opposed to newer machines I’ve since used—less complicated and more comfortable, maybe, or perhaps it offered fewer ways for a perpetual novice like me to mess up.

The fact that it was hers, she was there with me, and I loved her dearly doubtless had something to do with it as well. In any case, it gave me a good feeling to sew on it.

That good feeling is shared by many quilters—some of whom not only prefer older technology when piecing and quilting, but rely on vintage machines exclusively when making their quilts. I say “machines” in the plural because, apparently it is not uncommon among antique sewing machine aficionados to have more than one—sometimes many more than one. And the Singer “Featherweight” 221, although motorized, seems to be the happy beginning of the slippery slope for many quilters who prefer old machines.

Greta VanDenBerg, a self-taught quilter who learned to sew before she was in kindergarten, has been sewing on old machines for much of her life. Greta was allowed to use her mother’s Featherweight 221 to make her first quilt when she was nine-years old.

She has since inherited that machine, and laughingly says that having one vintage machine has led to the acquisition of many others, much like not being able to eat just one potato chip. Greta now has antique machines all over her 1870 farmhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and she refers to them almost as though they were members of her family, fondly recalling when each one came “to live” with her, finding a “foster home” for a duplicate machine, and citing the personality traits of a “noisy 1870s Howe” or the “very quiet” Wheeler and Wilson No. 8 treadle, her favorite.

Greta, the current chair of the American Quilt Study Group’s 2010 Quilt Study of 19th Century Star Quilts, in which members create a reproduction quilt, says, “I’m a strange combination of my artistic mother and my engineer father. I inherited my mother’s creative side but I’m also mechanical. I like to get the machines working again and I use them both to piece and to quilt.”

When asked how she determines which machine to use with which quilting project, Greta replies that it depends upon the quilt and the mood she’s in at the time.

Pat Nordmark, whose quilts have won several awards in the International Quilt Association’s Judged Shows over the years, now uses both treadle and hand-crank machines to create her works. Pat started quilting by hand in the early 1960s, teaching herself on a (“definitely not a beginner”) pattern from an Aunt Martha’s book that she saw at a dime store.

Persevering through that exercise, she continued to quilt on her own. While living in Michigan in the 1980s, Pat joined quilt guilds in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and began taking classes and entering quilts in shows. Like many others at that time, she found that a Featherweight 221 was perfect for carrying around to workshops.

“I still love that machine—it is so lightweight and easy to handle,” Pat says. “But I much prefer piecing and quilting on my 1909 Davis Vertical Feed treadle. The seam guide bolts to the bed of the machine and its speed and accuracy are amazing.”

Like Greta, Pat determines which of her several machines to use based on the project at hand. When sewing fabric on a paper foundation piece, for example, Pat relies on one of her Singer hand-crank machines because of their stitch-by-stitch control. “My old machines still run beautifully,” Pat maintains.

Quilt historian Xenia Cord got interested in antique sewing machines when she fell heir to one made in the mid-19th century by Elias Howe—who in 1846 was awarded the first United States patent for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design.

While teaching a folklore course at Indiana University Kokomo in the late 1970s, Xenia was approached by the administration to develop a course on the history of quilting. That effort developed into a series of major exhibits of antique quilts in Indiana.

The association with quilts and vintage sewing machines was a natural one for her.  “The only sewing machine I use is a Singer Featherweight 221 from the 1940s,” says Xenia. “I’ve reached that point in life where extra technology is of little use to me. I don’t want my machines to be smarter than I am, and I concentrate on just those things I need. For example, I use only a small portion of the features on my cell phone. I learned to sew going forward and backward and the Featherweight does that better than any machine I know.  It is so reliable, so durable, and so well-engineered. I can’t imagine anyone depending on a car made in 1934 for their daily driving, but I know lots of people who sew on a Featherweight of that era every day.”

* * *

If you’re interested in learning more about vintage sewing machines, any of the following groups can help:

Treadle On is a website “dedicated to promoting the use of antique and vintage human powered sewing machines” and “to promot(ing) their active use. Treadle On sponsors a wide variety of quilt shows, challenges, exchanges, mystery quilts, and other special sewing projects.”

Featherweight Fanatics is “a mailing list devoted to Singer Featherweights (Model 221) and other older machines.”

The International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society holds meetings in England and Australia and its third American convention is scheduled for October 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina.


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Archived blogs:

Column 149: Rosie’s Redwork
Column 148: The Quilt of Belonging
Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
Column 146: Patterns
Column 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery

See other archived columns here


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