Treadling on: Antique sewing machines on display at museum

Joan Grewe, of Front Royal, sits beside her hand crank sewing machines on display at the Strasburg Museum through the end of October. At left is a Singer 1924 Red Eye Model 66, and at right is a 1930 Singer Model 128K. Rich Cooley/Daily

STRASBURG – The Strasburg Museum will hold a monthlong display of antique sewing machines after a Front Royal resident allowed a sampling of her collection to be part of the exhibit.

Joan Grewe brought five sewing machines she has collected over the years to be put on display at the museum until Oct. 31. She has a collection of 50 machines at home that she still uses to sew with.

She added that this is the first time her machines will be on public display.

Her love of sewing machines began when she was about 5 or 6 when she learned how to sew on her grandmother’s Singer treadle machine. She now has this machine in her collection and said it’s a “very treasured piece of my collection.”

The machines on display include an 1864 Willcox & Gibbs, an 1877 Howe treadle model B, a 1924 Singer model 66, a 1929 Singer handcrank model 99 and a 1930 Singer model 128K.

A 1864 Wilcox & Gibbs chainstitch treadle on display at the Strasburg Museum was manufactured in New York. Rich Cooley/Daily

“The older machines were works of art,” Grewe said.

She said that all of the older treadle machines, the machines with a foot pedal, had a skirt or dress guard so a woman’s skirt or dress wouldn’t get trapped in the machine.

“Because of course, you’re a lady and you wore a skirt,” she said about women’s attire in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s.

But she added that that European nations didn’t consider treadling to be lady-like, so they used handcrank machines to power the machines.

These older machines also didn’t have a reverse feature, she said, so if someone wanted to lock a stitch she would have to pick up the fabric and turn it around.

A Singer leather stitching sewing machine from the 1910 era on display at the Strasburg Museum was used for soft leather in boot and shoe repair. The machine belonged to O.M. "Buddy" Wilson and was used in his repair shop on Main Street during the 1940s and 50s. It is now owned by Brian Bauserman ,of Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

Grewe said the sewing machine industry was a booming business back in the day.

“There were as many manufacturers of sewing machines in this country as we had automobile manufacturers,” she said, “so there was a lot of competition to find out who would be the best. And pretty much Singer became the dominant player, but it took 50 years for him to dominate.”

She said that the two handcrank machines are also set up for visitors to try them out at the museum.

The machines are cast iron and “made to last,” she said. A few of the machines on display also have a measuring stick built into them.

Grewe said the history of the sewing machine began with Barthelemy Thimonnier, a French tailor who invented the first sewing device to be used in commercial operation.

“And he had a manufacturing shop and the Paris tailors burned it to the ground because they were afraid that automation would eliminate their jobs,” Grewe said. “So it’s that sentiment in Europe where they have a really strong tailor skill and sewer skill where they had more people and less land that forced the innovation of sewing machines onto this continent, the U.S., where we had lots of land and very few people and we’re trying to automate as much as possible to get things done. So the sewing machine really took off in this country.”

While the history of the sewing machine began with Thimonnier, historians regard a different man as the inventor the sewing machine, she said. Elias Howe, of Boston, patented a crude machine that had all the elements of a modern sewing machine. His machines never make it to production, but his patent lawsuits and royalties make him rich.

A few years later in 1851, Isaac Singer patented his first sewing machine and became founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Grewe said Singer built manufacturing plants around the globe in Scotland, Russia, South America and Canada to avoid patent fees.

“So for many, many people around the world who spoke a language other than English, you didn’t say ‘sewing machine,’ you said ‘Singer,'” she said.

Singer dominated the market, Grewe said, and with one exception, all domestic sewing machines in the world now take a Singer needle after the  standardized on his needles.

Back in 1856, James Gibbs, of Rockbridge County, received his first patent for a simple sewing machine, Grewe said. The single thread chain stitch machine became manufactured by the Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine company until 1946.

Then in the 1920s the electric motorized sewing machines became available to the public.

Grewe and her husband Bill are part of an international organization, Treadle On – a group of “like-minded people who like to collect people-powered machines.”

“We just fell in love with them,” Grewe said. “They are so pretty and functional, and we met like-minded people from all over the world.”

She added that international sewing machine collectors get together in the U.S. and they get together and trade, buy and share experiences.

For more information, visit http://www.treadleon.net.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com.