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Davis NVF: The ultimate treadle for quilting

January 6, 2015 - 11:36 am

Yesterday I mentioned the Treadle Quilters on Facebook, and the quilt-along that Damascus Annie is putting together. I’m committing to going through this block-of-the-month project to improve my piecing skills, which are… not what they might be.

A quarter-inch seam sounds like an easy enough thing to manage, but it seems to be entirely beyond me to maintain it with any consistency. I can cut well enough and press diligently, but my attention wanders while sewing and takes my seam line with it. Not enough to affect the fit of clothing or soft goods, but a thread or two off on every stitching line across the width of a quilt is far too much.

I decided as part of this project that I will get all my people-powered machines running. I have five treadle machines and six machines destined to be hand cranks. The hand cranks are all Singer 99’s, and will be my beginner and quilt piecing machines when I open the shop. Three of the treadles are running, one is completely disassembled awaiting restoration, and the last one is a Davis New Vertical Feed (NVF).

Here’s a picture from the craigslist posting in which I found my Davis:

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The Davis NVF is a machine spoken about in hushed tones and sought after by treadle enthusiasts and quilters. It’s the only consumer machine ever sold with a “needle feed system” instead of the friction feed that all other domestic sewing machines use to move fabric under the needle stitch by stitch. The difference between a needle feed and a friction feed is that the multiple layers of fabric can’t slide past each other while the fabric is being advanced, because the needle is pinning them together during the movement. Here’s a nifty video:

A standard machine, by contrast, relies on friction to hold the two layers of material together. The “feed dogs” in the bed of the machine pinch against the presser foot and move the fabric along while the needle is up in the air between stitches. This is notoriously unreliable when layers are slippery or stretchy, so much so that an attachment called a “walking foot” has been created that grips the top layer of fabric just like the teeth on the feed dogs grip the bottom. It helps some, but is still an imperfect tool. Particularly for quilters, who are moving three layers of material instead of two when they quilt, and it’s the middle layer of fluffy batting that tends to be the most slippery.

Needle feed machines are relatively common in industrial settings, where they are used to sew leather, silks, and various other fabrics, but somehow the Davis is the only domestic machine ever sold with this mechanism. Davis sold machines for about 50 years, and that link is a fascinating history of the company. (Spoiler: Davis became the Huffy Bicycle Company after they lost a bicycle contract with Harley Davidson)

The New Vertical Feed model was the last needle feed machine produced by Davis, and has two important improvements on it’s predecessors. First, it has a reverse button for back-tacking. Second and more importantly, Davis switched to the needles and bobbin shuttles that Singer had made standard. Older Davis models are much harder (and more expensive!) to operate, because antique shuttles and specialty needles must be searched out. For the NVF I don’t have to look any further than the closest fabric store to find what I need.

I am not ready to do a full restoration on this machine yet. It’s filthy, and the original finish has not aged well, but the decals are nearly perfect. I want to get more practice restoring sewing machine finishes before I attempt to do justice to this one. But it doesn’t have to be perfect to be functional!

First up I pulled the head out of the cabinet and oiled all the parts well:

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I used a bamboo skewer to clear the solidified grime off the bobbin winder and other moving parts sufficiently to allow everything to move freely. Then I put it back in the cabinet and gave it a spin, and right off the bat it made stitches!!

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I stitched on rags until I had worked out all the extra oil from lubricating the machine, and tweaked the tensions a bit, until I had clean and even lines of stitching:

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Then I cut the strips for our first block of the month, which is Rail Fence:

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Attached a seam guide to the Davis (the original attachment for this purpose has been lost) and sewed up the strips:

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Pressed and cut the assembled strips into the required 6.5” squares:

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Decided on block layouts for the three complete blocks I could make from the strips I cut:

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And sewed and pressed them:

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At some point in this process I noticed that the magnetic seam guide I had purchased a while back was a waste of money. The magnet is deeper than the guide, and the guide is badly formed, such that there’s a gap underneath it when it’s used. This allows the fabric to slide under the edge of the gauge instead of riding against it, which rather defeats the purpose. My seams wandered, but were close enough that I could trim the blocks up and end up with more or less the desired size, albeit without perfect point alignment at the centers of two of the blocks. Given the layout, though, that won’t be noticeable.

I attempted to repair it this morning, and gave up after about an hour’s effort. So this gizmo:

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is garbage. Don’t buy it.

I will continue on my quest for a perfect quilter’s seam.

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