Sunday, February 20, 2011

History in Action, the 1859 Wheeler and Wilson #3

I would like to introduce you to an special piece of history, the Wheeler Wilson #3 sewing machine.  Now those that know me understand I do have an affection for old things of all kinds but the sewing machine hold a special place of honor to me as it is the main tool of my trade.  This one deserves a page of it's own.

The maker is the Wheeler Wilson out of Bridgeport Connecticut.  More on the people who started it and what they did is here : Wheeler and Wilson Company Info.  The company was founded in 1854 and this sewing machine was made in 1859, making it one of the earlier models.  What makes it even more unusual is I have been told that it appears to be an industrial make, for use in a shop.  The difference between the home model and the shop one is the large hand wheel and the pattern of the irons. 

Wheeler Wilson #3 Irons
 It was quite rusted when I got it and was frozen stiff.  After a lot of oil, cleaning and de-rusting it does turn.  I can't explain to you the feeling I had when I first saw the operate.  It was as if history was revealed to me.  What incredible ingenuity from long ago.

Some things about it were strangely  familiar.   Every person who uses a sewing machine today knows about a "feed dog" mechanism.  Here is it's first application in a machine.  It was the Wheeler Wilson that had it first.  So simple yet so effective.  I've removed the cloth plate to show how it works.

It has a four part action.  With this machine, there is a problem with that.  It seems to be missing something to hold it down so it works best when I have my hand on it lightly.  When the cloth plate is on it makes a lot of noise because of this.  I have used another model that is similar and it was not like this one so I will have to improvise a fix.  Somehow I know the local sewing machine repair guy is not going to help me.  For those who enjoy using older machines, you know this already: the modern machines we use today are not that different from those made a hundred years ago in some ways.  Here is a great example.  Another is the round bobbin.

It sews from side to side using the feed mechanism as show above and a long curved needle.  The needle arm is a separate arm to the presser foot.  The needle itself is long and has a slight curve.  When inserting the needle, the operator is to determine where the needle is to be set, rather than like today where you place the needle up as and it fits in place.   It takes a careful eye to figure this out and some knowledge as to how a lock stitch machine works to do this correctly.  I am still learning.  One major drawback to using a sewing  machine of this type is the needles are extremely scarce.  I have two.  I wish there was someone who makes these but alas, that is not the case. 
Note the curve and channel in the needle.
Very Early Rotary Hook.  This is the correct placement for the needle.

The bobbins are scarce as well.  I have only one.  They are not unlike our bobbins of today, just shaped differently.  The round bobbin was another Wheeler Wilson patent.  The bobbin fits under the machine and it held in place by a holder that is screwed into place.
Bobbin for Wheeler Wilson #1-4.  Mine is so particular it will only work with the bobbin placed the same - the same side out.  I can tell from the rust that this it to be "outside".  If you have trouble, maybe yours is also finicky.
Bobbin Holder in place.  To set, push in the holder and tighten the screw.  I then release it slightly to allow the bobbin to turn and tighten again.

Winding the Bobbin

The fabric moves from side to side, left to right.  Of all the things that make this a cool machine it has to be this.  It is so different, yet I have already wished I could use it more.  I was fixing a life vest that needed new buckles on the webbing at the sides.  To make a long story short, if I could have sewn sideways, I would have been able to fix it in about one minute.   Sometimes getting the fabric under the harp of a sewing machine can limit what you can do. 

Here is the machine in action.  Note the direction of the work.

Now about the cosmetics.  This was very rusted.  There was so much greasy dirt on it I could see almost no decal on it.  With a little cleaning, here is what I found.  
Painted Floral design, like a Fuchsia Blossom. 
The presser bar arm and needle arm both appear to have been plated as there is a remnant of a shiny silver coating in some places.  All of the cleaning was done slowly and carefully.  Rust was removed by using "Evapo Rust".  Anything that was rusted was then coated with sewing machine oil.  The painted areas were lightly coated with carnauba wax.  Not much there as it is not in great shape.  This entire machine was well used, for sure.  All moving parts are lubricated before use.

There is an unusual feature that I was sure was not original but have since found out that it indeed was.  The tension for the machine is regulated by a round hard wood spool and a clip.  This allows for a large amount of thread or a heavy thread to be used.  Here is the tension mechanism in place with blue thread.  Surprising to me, this works pretty well. 
Tension Mechanism and Thread Spool.  It can be adjusted by tightening or loosening the knob.

A new treadle belt was cut for me at Tandy Leather and sewn in place.  Different Wheeler and Wilson models have different widths.  Inexpensive and looks great.  It's a bit loose right now.
Lacing for treadle belt.  This arrangement allows for adjustment on either end.
In conclusion, I have been tinkering with this machine for a long time.  It is not the easiest machine to use.  The needles are so rare that I am very careful with how I use the machine for fear of breaking one.   
The parts are so simple yet all has to be perfectly in place for it to work.  Yet for all the frustration, when it does work it is a joy to behold.  After over 150 years, just being here is enough. 
1859 Visiting Dress.


  1. Thanks for the update on your W&W. I've never seen one in person and loved all your photos and explanations!

  2. What a great machine! I love the unusual ones for what they show us about the history of sewing machines and their individual history.

  3. Hello can you please post a detailed video of how one would get the needle to pick up the bobbin thread to work.

  4. I will give it some thought, as to how to do this. Most of the work by the machine is not visible from the outside. For now, note the placement of the needle. Have you experimented with this yet?

  5. Wonderful blog post, thanks. I really enjoyed seeing the machine. In fact, I am drooling over it!

  6. Thank you so much for your detailed post!! I'm visiting a retreat center in July that has a Wheeler & Wilson and I'd like to get it working for them. I'm going to look through my needles to see if I have a curved needle that would work. Appreciate the close up of the belt too. I was thinking it needed to be round like the Singer treadles. I've learned so much this morning. Thank you again!! Allison in North Texas

  7. Great to hear from you both. Allison, if you need needles, I can put you in touch with someone who has them. Send an email. Good for you in getting one working for your group. They are not easy to use but hands down the coolest to see in action. I brought this one out for a demo with my seamstress co workers...all pros that use sophisticated industrials machines all day, and all were very amazed. I removed the needle and let people just try it out. That was very enlightening to all.

  8. How cool ! so awesome to see someone else sewing on one ! I made a video too when I got mine sewing

    and the needle setting instructions if anyone needs them :

  9. Thanks for posting this, the video is great. I have been meaning to make another one because mine is not so good and you have reminded me, I rarely use this machine because i am afraid of breaking the needle. If the were available to us modern users I would sew with her more, just because it is so amazing to watch.

  10. Does anyone know where to get a wooden thread spool for this Wheeler and Wilson #3 sewing machine discussed in this article, above? My machine was made in 1858. Thanks,

  11. Try joining this group and ask: Yahoo Group Wheeler_and_Wilson Sewing Machines. If no one has one, I can photograph and measure mine. You can make your own duplicate if need be. These may be hard to find. Join the group and please post a have a very special Wheeler Wilson.

  12. Thank you for sharing. I have an OLD Wheeler & Wilson that was my Great Great Great Grandma's that I am still to this day trying to figure out the model and what I should insure it for. This is very inspiring.

  13. Thank you for sharing. I have an OLD Wheeler & Wilson that was my Great Great Great Grandma's that I am still to this day trying to figure out the model and what I should insure it for. This is very inspiring.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. You might find some information by joining here. A very knowledgeable group.

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    2. Try a site called with a seller called Relics. I am unable to paste a link but there is a search feature in the site. Try "Wheeler Wislon needles". Nice people and they do have needles for our machines. Ebay does on occassion. I only have two.