Greta VanDenBerg at work with her favorite human-powered sewing machine, a Wheeler and Wilson No. 8 treadle.
An 1867 Howe treadle with a "coffin top" owned by Greta VanDenBerg.
Greta 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!"
Shoo, 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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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
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