To Sew…..To Sew


Few things made such a huge difference in an 1800’s woman’s life than the sewing machine. But the price in the beginning put it out of reach of most.


Hand sewing has been around for over 20,000 years, probably since Adam and Eve’s day when they had to make clothes out of leaves and things. The first needles were made of bone or animal horn and the first thread was animal sinew.


(By the way, the first needles with eyes didn’t appear until the 15th century.)


Lots of men tried unsuccessfully to design a sewing machine. The first functional one was made in 1830 by a French tailor, Barthelemy Timonnier. It used only one thread and a hooked needle that made a chain stitch such as that used in embroidery. But he was attacked by a group of seriously upset tailors and almost killed. They burned down his garment factory because they feared the sewing machine would put them out of business.


The first successful American to design and put the sewing machine to the test was Walter Hunt in 1834. Unfortunately, he lost interest and abandoned his patent, again out of fears of unemployment.


Next came American Elias Howe in 1846. His machine used thread from two different sources to create a lockstitch. After he patented it, he spent the next 9 years looking for investors and fighting off imitators who looked to steal his idea.


Then Isaac Singer came on the scene. In 1854 he designed a machine that used an up and down motion and a foot treadle instead of a hand crank like the others.


Even though Singer’s machine was decidedly different from Howe’s, Howe sued him for patent infringement and won. For the next 13 years Singer had to pay Elias Howe considerable patent royalties. Howe’s income jumped from a mere $300 a year to $200,000. He became a wealthy man. But so did Singer in spite of everything. Interest in the Singer Sewing Machine exploded. (On the right is a photo of Isaac Singer.)


Finally in 1889, sewing machines made it into homes. They were no longer just used in factories.


In the late 19th century on the American frontier, home sewing enjoyed renewed popularity. Numerous women’s diaries listed sewing for the family as the most common domestic activity for women. Those women fortunate enough to have machines to assist them, often worked as community dressmakers to bring in extra income. They would work for about one dollar a day, which was excellent back then.


Sophie Best wrote to her parents from her homestead in Minnesota:

“It is wonderful what progress civilization makes! My head is filled with those pretty sewing machines that are being bought by so many families and are so delightful to have! Some people have been able to get these little fairies for between $10 and $60. The stitches they make are so strong, so pretty and so easy to make.”


My mother taught me to sew on a Singer treadle machine exactly like the one on the left in the 1950’s. I still remember how fun it was. But one day the needle went through my finger and broke off. My mom had to get some pliers to pull it out. Man, that hurt! After that I learned to keep my fingers out of the way.


Did you sew? And if so, did you ever use a treadle machine?

Website | + posts

Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

33 thoughts on “To Sew…..To Sew”

  1. Linda, what a great post! I didn’t actually learn to sew until I was in college. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I asked my mom to teach me. She taught me the basics the gave me a pattern and told me to get after it and ask if I had questions. By the end of summer I had bought my own portable machine to take back to college with me and spent many an hour making my own clothing. Once I had children, though, I put the machine away because of fears they would get hold of my needles and scissors. I now take it out only for mending – it’s the same machine I bought all those years ago and still works like a dream.

    I do have one of those old singer treadle machines that I inherited from my grandmother – it looks similar to the picture in your post. It sits in my living room and though I’ve never actually sewn with it I treasure it greatly.

  2. Not a sewer by nature…I didn’t do well in sewing class, but my mom was a seamstress and worked during WWII helping out the troops. She made us winter coats one year. She was really good at it. I WISH I had kept her old Singer. It looked similiar to the above picture, only more updated, but not by much. Later she got a newer machine, but I loved that old Singer…with the bench seat. Never could grasp the idea of bobbins.. Me, I’m not the crafty one.
    Great blog…brought back some good memories, Linda!

  3. My best friend in high school got her mom to teach both of us to sew one summer. It was great. I still have the basic portable singer I bought for $200 back then. I don’t have the time to use it very often, but every now and then it makes an appearance. I still have a few dresses in my closet that I made on that machine – of course they don’t fit any more, but I just can seem to get rid of them.

    My first heroine was a seamstress, and some of my favorite research was spent in looking up photos of antique Singer machines. They really were a piece of art back then with all the gold embellishments on the shiny black surface. Thanks for sharing, Linda.

  4. Linda,I use to love to sew. When my kiddies were young I made all their clothes. I even made suits for the boys! That was when patterns were fifty cents and fabric was cheap. It now costs more to make an outfit than to buy it. Have you seen the cost of patterns lately? I still get the sewing urge on occasion. Right now I’m trying to talk myself out of making a fitted bedspread for the RV.

    Thanks for bringing back so many pleasant memories.

  5. Linda, great post! My favorite aunt tried to teach me how to sew but I never had the patience. I think I would like to try it now…again, I go back to the patience question. I like to needlepoint and cross-stitch, so maybe…one day…

  6. Winnie……….I’m glad to meet another sewing enthusiast. I made lots of clothes when I was growing up. My greatest accomplishment was a two piece lady’s suit that was lined and everything. I didn’t sew it on the treadle though. I was in high school at the time and used an electric Singer. I got sewing from my mother. She made all of my sister and my clothes. We didn’t know what it was to buy a ready-made dress. Glad you enjoyed my post. Don’t let that treadle machine get away from you. It is a real treasure.

  7. Charlene…………I’d like to have seen the coats your mother made. That would be hard to make. But I’m not surprised she was so proficient. Women back then were taught sewing at an early age. And in the old West it was one of the best ways for a woman to make a living. At least it was respectable. Now days it’s much easier to go to Walmart and pick up whatever we need. Plus, it’s cheaper too than buying fabric and a pattern and thread. Hope you always keep that treadle machine. I wish I had my mom’s but I don’t. I don’t even know what happened to it. Glad my blog brought back pleasant memories.

  8. Karen………..I think it’s really crucial to know how to sew. Clothes today don’t stay together long once you leave the store. I mostly use my Singer now for mending. I’m ashamed that I didn’t teach my daughters how to sew. They can’t even sew on a button. And when my grandson joined Cub Scouts, my daughter brought his patches to me to sew on his shirt.

    Yes, I remember your story in A Tailor-Made Bride. I became a huge fan of yours after I read that book. It had so many funny scenes. And the heroine was so feisty and determined to make a go of her dress shop. An excellent story.

  9. Margaret……………I agree about the high cost now of making your own clothes and things. It’s outrageous. And that’s if you can even find a fabric store. Those are rare. Most have gone out of business. Walmart used to have a large sewing section with yard goods and patterns. They’ve done away with it now. I guess times change and you have to move in the direction the world is going if you want to stay in business.

    Oh my goodness, I’d never tackle making a fitted bedspread. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Good luck with it!

  10. Renee………’s never too late to try. If you do, I suggest making an apron or something really simple. My goodness, girl! If you can do needlepoint and cross stitch, you have enough patience. That’s something I never learned to do. My mother could knit and embroidery but she never taught us girls how. I’d love to know how to do that. It looks so relaxing. Wishing you lots of success with your books!

  11. I worked with my Grandma’s treadle sewing machine a bit when I was young. I did the whole 4-H thing but I was never good at it and never liked it. There was always a point in every every I’m not kidding EVERY sewing project when I wanted to take the machine and SMASH IT AGAINST THE WALL!!!

    I did make some clothes I actually wore. I remember a pink gingham smock top I wore a lot in high school.
    But I never could sew a straight line. I don’t know if it was a problem with patience, coordination, APATHY???
    But probably, looking back, I would get to daydreaming about handsome cowboys and feisty lady ranchers and forget what my fabric was doing, while the machine sucked threads into the bobbin and the needle broke and the material lumped up.

    I had a little sister who really was good at it. She made almost everything she wore through highschool, the girl could sew pretty clothes.

    And now I have an older sister who is a quilt freak. She owns at least two machines. One a (I refuse to go look it up) maybe a Bernina? That cost over a thousand dollars and she also has a…serger? Is that the word? A sewing machine with a scad of different threads that do heaven knows what.

    She’s really spent the big money on sewing machines. But she makes beautiful pieced together quilts. She’s right now making one for every grandchild as they marry and she’s got about FIFTY nieces and nephews so that’s a commitment.

    I, on the other hand, bought an $89 sewing machine from WalMart that does everything I need it to do, which is mainly mending my husband’s garments…and I only do that if he BEGS.

    But can my sister write a book??? HUH??????

  12. Mary…………..You always make me laugh. I can see throwing that sewing machine against a wall. Actually, I’ve wanted to do that more than once–Usually when I was trying to put a zipper in. Those things were very difficult. But being as stubborn as an Arkansas mule, I kept trying until I got it right. No giving up for this girl. That’s why I’m a redhead. LOL I envy your sister and her quilts. I’ve always wanted to make a quilt but never have. Yes, she’s sure got a lot of money invested in her machines. Wow! Bet she do almost anything short of walking on water. And except write a book. You have the market cornered on that. I love your stories. You always come up with the neatest characters and unique plots. Here’s wishing you tons of success!

  13. I also learned to sew on treadle machine. I had sewed a lot before reaching high school and home ec classes, mostly doll clothes and handkerchief shirts. Then my teacher decided that I needed to sew a dress. She picked the pattern. It was a shirtwaist with pintucks on the bodice front and back. It had a front placket with tiny buttons(Oh those horrible buttonholes) and puffy sleeves and gathered skirt and self fabric belt and a side zipper! By the time I finished the sleeves, the fabric was weak because I think I had to redo them at least a hundred times(well maybe only 3). Then before they were graded we had to wear them. As I was undressing after church, my heel caught in the hem and ripped a hole. Okay now I had to learn to do an invisible patch. How I hated that dress!! Now it’s time for our final test. We drew to see what part of a dress we would be making for Moose Hansen(her cousin also taught in our school and was TINY, hence the nickname) I feared that test because I just knew I would draw the sleeves. Holding my breath I marched to the front of the room to draw then marched back to my seat before I dared look. The belt, I drew the belt, the only part of my dress that recieved a 100!! And yeas I sewed for many, many years after that, making almost all of my daughters cloths, including prom dresses, swimwear, and underwear. Infact you should see the bikini I made our daughter when she was in college. That is a whole nother story!

  14. This was a great post. I remember that my godmother had the Singer sewing machine depicated here with the peddle controls. It belonged to her mother or grandmother if I can remember back to those days. I wonder what her family did with that machine.. I hope they preserved it. I think I better find out. It is a collecters item for sure..

  15. Great post, Linda! My grandmother had one of those treadle sewing machines, and my mom told about doing the same thing with the needle in the finger. OUCH. My mom taught me to sew on her Singer which didn’t have a treadle, but one of the very first electric foot pedal controls. It was also very unpredictable, speed-wise.LOL Also, I took a home ec class in highschool and we learned to sew in there. My last venture in sewing was making clown costumes for my kids when they were 1 and 4. I swore if I finished those costumes by Halloween I would never sew again, and I never have. LOL

  16. Awesome post, Linda. I have an old fashioned treadle machine in the family room but it’s nonworking as it’s missing a lot of innards. But I also have my grandmother’s very early electric machine. Every Christmas she made all us girls a new flannel nightie on it.

    I learned to sew in eighth grade and am quite good at it. But as Margaret says, it’s more expensive these days to make something than buy it when all’s said and done. I did make my daughter’s senior prom dress as well as her “presentation” dress for the sorority. I’d probably sew if I had granddaughters but right now, it’s two little boys.

    Good job, filly sister!

  17. Interesting post, Linda, and it brought back some memories. I learned on a treadle, too, and still have the one that belonged to my aunt. My Mom made lots of clothes for me and my two sisters through the years. I loved to sew and made my bridesmaids’ dresses. I hope when I retire I can learn to machine quilt.

  18. Connie J………..I hated to make buttonholes. That and put in zippers. I didn’t mind any of the the rest and got quite proficient in making sleeves. The main thing I remember about sewing on the treadle was that if you didn’t keep the treadle running smoothly it either broke the thread or broke the needle. You couldn’t stop in mid-stream, or at least I couldn’t. Wow, that seems like a hundred years ago. And in Home Ec in high school…I hear you about having to rip out so many seams so many times that it weakened the fabric. But how else to learn. I’d like to have seen that bikini you made. You’ll have to tell that story one of these days.

  19. Kathleen O………..thanks for coming by to chat. Glad you enjoyed my blog. It’s fun talking about times past and remembering things. I hope you find out what your godmother did with her treadle machine. That is a treasure for sure.

  20. Cheryl P………….Seems there’s quite a few of us who either learned to sew on a treadle or watched our mothers. I’ll bet those Clown costumes were adorable. Maybe you should try your hand at sewing again. But, I hear you. It’s too easy to just go buy it already made. Glad you enjoyed my blog.

  21. I also learned to sew on a treadle machine, and also ran the needle through my finger once–it didn’t break though, I just got my hand away on the upward swing!

  22. Tanya………….My gosh, girl! You’re a whiz at sewing. You’ve made all kinds of things. I’d like to have seen the prom dress. Don’t let that treadle get away from you even if it doesn’t work. It’s a piece of history. I sure wish I had my mom’s. Don’t know what happened to it. We don’t have time to sew now. We’re too busy writing books. Times have sure changed. Enjoy those grandsons! And who knows, you may just get your granddaughter one of these days. You never know.

  23. Judy H…………Glad you stopped by. Those treadle machines were fun. Seems a lot of us learned on them. I hope you pick up sewing again when you retire. You can make so many things on them. And machines now can do jillions of things. They’re quite versatile. Good luck with making quilts. Hope you do. Quilts are so popular. And besides, they’re very pretty.

  24. Hi clynsg…………….Thanks for stopping by and joining in the discussion. Those old treadles must’ve been notorious for us getting the needles in our fingers. I can’t remember real clear but they must not have had a presser foot. I never got my finger in the way after I started sewing on an electric. But then maybe I was really accident-prone. I got my hand caught in our wringer washer also. That hurt too, but the needle in the finger was worse.

  25. I have used a treadle machine several times in my life. I think my sister has one now just not sure where she has it stored. My first job was working in a sewing factory and I put several needles through my fingers then. We made blue jeans there really quick.

  26. Hi Linda, I apologize for being so late getting into the conversation. What a great blog! Sewing is such a lost art today. My grandmother had a treadle sewing machine just like the picture you showed. I never used it, but my mama, who you knew, always told me about standing up and sewing on it when she was so short that she couldn’t sit, but had to stand to use the treadle and sew at the same time. I love to sew. Actually, when I grew up in our schools you could take gym or cooking and sewing, so since I hated gym, or anything that make me sweat, I took sewing and cooking every semester. I’ve never been sorry either. When my two girls were growing up, I made all of their dresses. My mama worked for Cloth World (now Joanne Fabrics), as did my youngest daughter, so sewing truly ran in our blood. I taught both of the girls and am now teaching my granddaughters, although I do very little sewing of my own now. I used to cut off a strip of fabric and stapled it to the pattern, so recently when my girls were going through patterns they remembered the dresses I made for them. Auh, such wonderful memories. Thanks for a fantastic blog. Hugs, Phyliss

  27. Hi Linda,

    Very interesting post. I can’t believe those men were almost killed for inventing a sewing machine!

    I never learned to sew, except for the two projects required in Home Ec. class. But I’ve always envied those who could.


  28. I always say I will become a seamstress when they invent a machine where you can drop the pattern in one slot, the material in the other and a finished dress comes out at the bottom.

    That I could handle.

  29. I love to sew! I’ve done it all my life. My mom says I must have gotten the “gene” from all my relatives because they all sew but SHE doesn’t! She was very glad I did because I made everything growing up (even when I was quite young). She still mails me things to fix for her and I mail them back to her! She has her mother’s treadle machine (inherited it when my grandma died) in her house and I love looking at it but I never tried using it. I tried to teach my girls to sew when they were growing up but they had no patience and I eventually gave up!

  30. I used to sew quite a bit, but haven’t done much but costumes in the past several years. Currently it is Civil War reenactment outfits for my daughter and her family. She of course picked out one of the hardest patterns out there. I am afraid I may be too out of practice to do a good job. We’ll see. I need to start it soon, she wants it for a Spring ball.

    I learned on an electric machine in high school and made a straight pink skirt that I don’t think I wore very much. My next project was a lined linen suit. I stayed with my maternal grandmother to do it. She was an excellent seamstress. She sat back and let me do it all, just offering advice and help. I am sure it drove her nuts because she could have done it in less the time.

    I have my maternal grandmother’s treadle sewing machine. It still works well and is preferable to use on heavy fabrics.

    Thanks again for an informative post.

  31. $10 to $60 sounds very expensive for those days!

    My mom didn’t sew, but my first experience was junior high, and I aced those classes. Loved sewing. I got an old machine from my grandmother. It was electric, but didn’t have backstitch or anything. I always made summer dresses for my two oldest daughters. I still have that cabinet with the machine in our shed.

    Now I rarely get my machine out, except to make new kitchen curtains and sometimes my daughter and I do a project. One Christmas we made microwavable heating pads out of fun fabrics filled with rice and flaxseed and gave them to everyone. Of course I have totes of projects in my storage room.

    I do use an old Singer treadle cabinet, like the one in the pic for a table in my living room.

    Enjoyed your post, Linda.

Comments are closed.