Monday, February 15, 2016

The Singer 12 Sewing Machine and How to Use It

A little history on this particular machine and then some help on how to use this type of model for those who might be stopping by needing help. It's story is like so many others. This tiny 1884 Singer 12 came to me in desperate condition. It had been in a shed, covered with boxes. The cabinet had been painted white with gold trim in the past. Even the irons were painted. Still, I could see it was indeed a fairly old machine that was complete and worth saving

The machine was taken out, paint was removed. After paint removal the wood was oiled, irons were then repainted the original black. When the machine was replaced, it got a little adjustment. That included cleaning with sewing machine oil, some new needles, TriFlow lubrication, gear grease and a new treadle belt. Not much, really. Very little was needed to make this one work again. It was used quite a bit in it's time and well cared for. The wear is in places that many years of fabric and hands passed over, as mine do now.

The Singer 12 here was made in 1884. The first model 12 also known as the "New Family" was made in the 1860's continuing for many years. The decal and designs for these are often very spectacular in true Victorian fashion with colorful patterns and mother of pearl inserts. Mine is a bit plain but still a fairly unusual decal pattern that is not seen often.


The machines came with a very practical set of attachments, of which I was lucky to have found in the cabinet drawer, along with the original hardware. So far I have not used them yet and am not completely sure what some are! Other parts are nearly unchaged to our times, such as the ruffler which is so beautiful on it's own.


Sewing with the Singer 12

A manual is needed. This one is from the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society. I recommend a visit to their site, and if you have a machine like this to join them. So much useful information!

I have been able to use this right away but must warn new owners operating this model is a bit different and can be a frustrating. It does take a bit of practice to get it all just right. I wrote on this site about my adventures with my other one, a handcrank.

Here are the areas that anyone first trying one out might want to review:

The Needle

The need required it is a 12x1 needle. There have been suggestions as to what else will work in place of this now extinct type but I have been able to find them so have not explored this further. My source is Vintage sewing machines treadle or hand crank by TreadleLady

*Setting the needle: This is going to be a trial and error process at first. Read the manual. The setting is described well but here it is in a nutshell -The needle groove goes in front. Thread is front to back.

How far the needle goes into the needle shaft is variable. On my machine here the top is exactly even with the clamp. On my other it sticks out about 1/8". Try it out, very slowly, until the needle doesn't hit the bobbin shuttle and will pick up thread.

The Bobbin



Wrap the thread a few times to get started. The end fits all the way into the winder. By the way mine was completely frozen and needed to be oiled a lot. The tire part pulls back to allow the bobbin to fit for winding.

On many machine there is a metal piece that the thread passes throughto wind the bobbin. There is not one here. Maybe there was, and it is missing but no matter this is quite simple to do by hand to get an even treading. I do this:

The Shuttle

The bobbins for the Singer 12 are much like a weaving shuttle. The shape is a bit like the later Singer 27 but with an essential difference- the thread tension is created by looping trough the side , over and through again the holes in the shuttle body then through the leaf. My first attempts at this were frustrating, so please be patient with yourself. Once you do it a few times it will work, amazingly. I found bobbin tension for ordinary poly/cotton thread was the second hole as shown. With different thread you may with to try it differently. Yeah, it's weird but it works great.

Now it is just set into the carrier and go. The transverse slide plate should move as shown above. My other Singer 12 had problems here and maybe some of you might as well. It was frozen closed from rust. If necessary, the shuttle can go in from the other side too, just get one slide plate free.

Making Adjustments


Pretty strait forward adjustments for the Singer 12. The main difference is that they are knobs on top rather than side adjustments with numbers. Not much is needed to get results so just experiment. Stitch lengh is often frozen up for older machines like this so more oil and maybe even try heat (I use a blow dryer) to free it up. Mine took a long time to move and is still tight! I do not recommend taking apart the faceplate unless there is a reason. The interior parts will all fall out. It is not assembled like a Singer 27 or 127. That is a later post, but be forewarned!

The Belt

I like to use rubber belting for my treadle so as to be able to get it on and off easy. Leather is good too and is available widely. If anyone here is unfamiliar with putting on a new belt, here is a great source for help on all things treadle with a section on belts.


Not much is needed to know how to do the actual sewing other than one big difference for a modern sewing operator. The tension discs do not release when the presser foot is lifted. It may be just my machines but neither of mine do this. Not a big deal but it will become a new habit to pull up the top tension disc when removing the work. The needle needs to be in the highest position to let the thread go as with other lockstitch machines.

So small a machine yet it can sew some heavy work. My guess is because it has very simple yet powerful gears inside.

After a bit of work and practice, this has become a really great machine to use. Here is her first major project in many years, done easily with good tension and accuracy.



  1. What great information! Thanks! I still haven't finished cleaning my Singer 12. I'll use your info to help me learn how to use it. Thanks again!

    1. I hope you enjoy it. I was a bit skeptical of the transverse shuttle idea, but really this little machine sews very well and is stronger than it looks. Luv.

  2. The decals on your Singer 12 are in much better condition than my three 12s.
    I prefer treadling with a large, tailor type band wheel to the Singer 12's smaller band wheel. I should use my Singer 12 treadle more often.
    Thanks for the concise information in one post.