Sewing machine makes for family memories

Published 9:34 am Wednesday, June 6, 2012

by James D. “Archie” Howell

My mother has a Singer, foot-treadle powered, sewing machine.

The sewing head is normally folded down into a cabinet, and a flat lid is closed over top. The cabinet has drawers at either end to hold threads, tools and other sewing supplies and parts.

For use, the top is opened and folded back to act as a flat extension to support materials or items being sewn. The sewing head is lifted to an upright position and a fitted wooden part of the case is folded into position for support. A cast iron base supports the whole of the machine.

A foot treadle is connected by a rod to a large wheel; the wheel has a groove molded into the outer rim. A round leather belt fits into this groove and transmits the turning force up through an opening to a smaller wheel at the base of the sewing mechanism. Slow, constant pedaling, produces a fairly rapid turning movement to do work.

The sewing arm reaches left about 16 inches out over a workspace. The needle is mounted to a plunger through some mechanism enclosed at the arm’s end. That’s where all the magic happens.

When a threaded needle disappears through a hole in the base, it returns with another thread in tow. I’m told that below a small door is a bobbin, and the upper thread is fed around this bobbin before being raised by the needle. It all happens pretty fast.

When a bobbin becomes empty, there is a special attachment on the front of the machine to refill it with thread. The bobbin is inserted, thread is run from a spool on top, through some guides, to the winding mechanism.

I like to watch, especially when colored thread is used; the bobbin is filled quickly and reinstalled in its place. My mother has several bobbins in many colors to match various spools of thread, but basic white and black is most used. All thread is cotton; the generic term for sewing thread is “cotton.”

My mother can roll a thread between finger and thumb, push it through the needle, turn the machine manually, draw up another thread, pull them both toward the rear and be ready to sew in seconds. I marvel.

The sewing machine is always set up in front of a window for maximum light.

Both flour and animal feed sacks are printed so they can used for other purposes when empty. Kitchen towels, covers, clothing and many other items bear the generally floral print from feed sacks. Not much is wasted on the farm.

After spools empty, they become toys for my siblings and me. We use a knife to cut a groove across one end of the spool and cut a kitchen match in half. We insert a rubber band through the spool and affix the short matchstick at the grooved end.

We use a whole match (or other longer stick) inserted through the other end of the rubber band and wind it up. The toy “tank” will run a few inches when released. To increase traction, or make more noise on linoleum floors, we sometimes cut notches in the spools ends. Our family never discards rubber bands.

Spools are also used to make toy people and animals; they’re used to construct toy houses and fences. They’re rolled across floors for endless hours; they roll down dirt piles outside. Most spools at our house are two sizes. A few are much larger than most. Those generally held thicker threads used to sew heavier items manually; those spools are particularly valued.

My oldest sister and my mother both sew with the machine. Patterns for clothing are readily available in stores or by mail order. There is something generally in progress all the time around our house. The project may take a few weeks to complete; it has to be fitted into the family work schedule.

I can still see my mother sitting before that sewing machine, backlit by light from a window, feet tirelessly working a treadle, sometimes humming to herself, fingers slowly feeding the cloth, mending or making yet another garment. I can feel the rubber band unwinding in my hand. I am home.

James D. “Archie” Howell is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at