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:


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:


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


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


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


And sewed and pressed them:


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.

Baby Blue FMQ treadle machine

November 25, 2014 - 3:48 pm

Today’s job was to get the Japanese 15 clone set up on the treadle and sewing. I managed to complete the first part of that, as well as a cleaning and oiling, this morning. Hoping to try to actually sew something later today.

Here’s the set-up:

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Rafiki and Figment are supervising: 

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This is my sewing machine toolbox, to give you some idea what I carry around to work on these machines:

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Maybe I’ll go through the contents in another post one of these days. Oil, rags, grease, tools, and a few common parts. The shop towels double as fabric for test sewing, by the way. There is one thing leaving the toolbox as of today:

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That bottle was most of the way full when I put it away. The tip telescopes out to make it easier to get oil exactly where I want it, but it also leaked terribly. Fortunately it was isolated in a compartment in the toolbox tray, so the mess was contained and easily cleaned up. I used the resulting oily rag to give the machine a good wipe down.

The biggest challenge to this install was the treadle belt. 

Traditional treadle belts were made of leather cord, and so that’s what many folks use today. They are frequently stapled, but can be sewn. I removed the old belt by prying open the staple:

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And then installing the shorter spare I had on hand and closing its staple: 

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I love these pliers for working on belt staples: 

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I quickly discovered I had mis-measured, and the new belt was too short. To get around this I discarded the staple and elected to sew up a belt with two splices. Fortunately I am the thrifty sort who keeps odds and ends rather than pitching them, so I had the remainder from shortening a couple belts on hand.

Sewing a treadle belt is easy, and I honestly prefer this method of finishing them. It only takes waxed nylon thread and a blunt tipped mending needle, as for sewing up a sweater. There is no staple to scrape and rattle, and the splice is far less likely to open up. The key to an easy job is to open the hole well enough that the needle goes through easily. 

So I made the first splice:

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Measured the belt to see how long it needed to be: 

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Note that I measured twice, and cut between the two measurements. Belts are stretchy. It should end up just tight enough not to slip, but not so tight that it puts strain on the parts.

I clipped it off, poked another hole, and sewed another splice:

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I tie surgeon’s knots and bury them between the ends of the belt, then clip the ends of the nylon thread a little bit longer than the belt is wide: 

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And so I have a double spliced belt!

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The machine was very much in need of a clean and lube. I thought I had done that when it came in; this machine was the last acquisition before we started packing to move to the new house. Short story is, it was NOT cleaned. I pulled out clumps of felted lint and thread that had wrapped itself around every part that turned. It cleaned up nicely, though! 

One tip for taking these machines apart: always put fasteners back in their holes. Notice that I’ve screwed the screws back in that hold the feed dog cover plate:

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Those screws are serving no practical purpose and might even be a bit in the way when I’m cleaning, but what they’re not doing is getting lost, or disappearing into a pile of fasteners that all look the same but are slightly different. I’ve had to try to sort out those piles more than twice. I don’t recommend the game. It leads to frustration and bad words.

This machine has a gold decal marking as a JA-6: 

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And a cast-in brand of J-C2:

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Here’s a full view of the underside: 

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It’s badged “Dressmaker Deluxe 2000,” and ready for testing!

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Rita Makes Stitches!

January 11, 2014 - 2:28 pm

!!!! End product of the morning’s efforts:


Rita and the treadle are together, and look! she makes stitches!


I am so pleased with myself I just can’t stand it.

I woke up this morning REALLY wanting to get the machine and the treadle married up this weekend after my visit with Captain Dick yesterday. Which was awesome, and I will also write up. He knows so much! And makes it all look so easy!

!!!! The exclamation police should come get me.  I’ve already exceeded my monthly quota with this post.

Last night I was looking at the treadle base and lid, and coming up with ways to mate them up and build some sort of surface to support machines and frankly I was getting despondent about it. Here’s why:


I had forgotten while I was with the Captain and when I hatched this plan that there’s not really enough wood to securely fasten the treadle base to the top. And what wood is there was deeply scored for reasons that escape me: 


The flash is lighting up the deep gouges in the wood. I drew in the “X” representing the screw line and the outer edge of the base— the screw would actually be placed smack in the middle of the middle groove. Which is kind of a non-starter, and in other corners the wood is even more damaged.

I was thinking about getting some bar stock and bolting it to the top of the treadle base to extend it long enough to bolt on properly, and contemplating the tools I would need to make that happen, and that was before I even started on designing and making the surface. 

So I woke up and tried to talk myself into shelving the Rita project until “later,” but it just wasn’t budging. I wanted to treadle. Today. I sat down to look at the problem of cleaning the machine, which was back in the $2 Goodwill sewing table, and it dawned on me.

This table has a top. 

There is a lot of clearance between the back of Rita and the end of the opening— enough for a treadle belt. 

I pulled Rita off and flipped the table, and sure enough it was just screwed onto the base. (note I need to do a better job installing the hinges; I want to make a backing plate and through-screw them, sandwiching the particle board. Project for another day, hopefully before Rita drops through the hole.)


I turned 8 screws and had the base clear of the surface:


It passed poodle inspection: 


And then I set it on top of the treadle, and it fit beautifully:


I added Rita and confirmed the clearance was sufficient and alignment would work:


Did a little happy dance, and set about collecting tools. I knew from talking to Captain Dick and from my antique spinning wheel resurrection efforts how important it is to align the path of the drive belt so it won’t hop off. My goal in simple terms was to align the surface to the treadle base such that Rita’s drive wheel is directly aligned with the base’s wheel. That means I needed I needed a plumb bob. 

I don’t have a plumb bob.

A plumb bob is just a weight on a string, at its most basic. I have lots of string, and plenty of things that are weighty enough to vector towards the center of the earth when suspended. I pulled a couple big nails out of a junk box and some thread, and connected them up. 


I pulled off Rita’s bobbin winder:


Thanks to Richard for giving me a tour of the machine yesterday, so I could easily and confidently do this!

Next step was to mark the line on the surface that the drive band needed to pass through to be aligned with Rita.  

A true plumb bob has a point at the bottom of the weight so the tip of the weight can be used for alignment. In this case the weight will hang off center, and so must be ignored. What I’m aligning to is the string, which will point in the right direction. If I tried to align to the nail it would come out wonky:


I needed to drop the weight below the surface so I could use the string for the measurement line. I also confirmed that Rita was square to the base, so I only needed one plumb line and a measurement in from the edge of the surface to draw the correct line:


Which I did with an erasable pencil:



For the next step I needed to square the base to the surface, which meant I needed two plumb lines. I extended the line to the edges of the surface, wrapped strings around the lines so they hung off the edge of the table and extended the line down past the top of the wheel. Forgot to snap a pic, but imagine thread wrapped twice around the edges over the lines and taped down with blue tape, and you’re there. 🙂

I now could sight across the treadle, aligning the strings with the wheel, adjusting the top so they all lined up in a row: 


There really are two strings there; here’s a picture slightly off center:


Once I had the spot I needed to find screws. I chose 1” wood screws, because they appeared to be the perfect length to bite into as much wood as possible without coming through the top:


I pulled out my drill and installed the first screw. One of my favorite drill attachments is the little slidey thing that holds the screw for me. It seriously reduces the amount of swearing from dropping screws:


After the first screw I wanted to install the diagonal opposite corner. I went around behind the treadle and made sure I was still aligned:


Then installed the screw, which was the back left as you’re facing the machine. This locked the two pieces together so I could just install the other two screws.

Er, wait. 


The treadle had a screw through its guard and into the wheel, locking it in a fixed position. The Captain and I removed it. I dropped the screw in the top of the treadle and forgot about it yesterday. The treadle’s been flipped upside down and right side up again half a dozen times or so. Somehow the screw knew that if it stayed in the hole it would have one more chance to cause trouble. Grr. 

I backed out the back left corner screw, rotated the top so the BAD SCREW could be removed.


I then realigned the surface and the treadle which fortunately was still well centered on the back left screw hole, so I could just put the screw back in. I installed the other two screws:


Assembly finished! Rita then got put onto her hinges and tightened down:


She won’t quite drop under the surface; I should be able to file a corner off the support for the front flap and get her in, though:


I DEFINITELY want to improve the way the hinges are installed before I trust them to support her, though.  

I can also tip her back to get to her guts: 


Note that I couldn’t do this before on the Goodwill table because she would tip it over.

Better and better!

Next up: treadle belt.

I don’t have a treadle belt.

The Captain and I discussed using a strong bungee cord as a treadle belt for a universal table. One of the things I have on deck this weekend is (hopefully) picking up a 15-90, so I’m hoping it can also get installed on this treadle base. At any rate, I have a ton of bungee cord and no other option, so I figured I’d try.


I ran the cord over Rita’s wheel and around the treadle wheel and stretched it tight, cut it, melted the ends of the nylon, sewed it up, went to put it on the treadle…

Oh. I know from spinning wheels that the drive band has to be tied in place because of the footman. Not sure why I thought I could sew this one together sitting in my comfy chair and have it all work out swimmingly. heh. 

Cut another one, routed it through the belt path, and this time remembered to take a couple pictures of sewing it up:


The trick to sewing bungee together is to sew through the nylon casing, not through the elastic. Trying to put a needle through elastic is unpleasant and damages the elastic. running it through the casing and tying it down tight works well. I use waxed nylon thread for this job, and find a curved needle to be the best tool.

For this application I debated between lapping the ends (stronger since the two ends are joined more completely) and butting the ends (smoother since there’s no big bump) and chose the former. Here’s a progress pic on the sewing, again I forgot to take the final pic:


I criss-crossed and tied the two ends of the waxed cord several more times so the cord was quite compressed and there aren’t big bumps at either end. I suppose I can take a pic of the knot in situ if anyone wants to see.

The end result is: Rita sews!


The cotton thread broke twice while I was testing. This is the same cotton thread the Rocketeer was displeased with for free motion quilting. It’s now in the garbage. 🙂