Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What is a boat shuttle?

For the last couple of weeks I've been trying to finish a quilt made from the Treadle On "boat shuttle" block exchange. I started quilting it back in October, but decided I didn't like the way I'd quilted a couple of sections so took a while to pick those stitches out. I finally got that stitching out last week, with a little help from my "cat attachments," and now just have to decide how to quilt the borders.

If you are not a collector of antique sewing machines, you are probably saying, "what the heck is a boat shuttle?" So here's a little sewing machine history.

When the first inventors tried to come up with a sewing machine, their first idea was to put the needle all the way through the fabric, just as in hand sewing. Didn't work. The mechanism that worked was a chain stitch, which has a single thread. It works well and the chain stitch is still used today, for example I opened a bag of cat food a couple of days ago that was closed with a chain stitch. But the problem with the chain stitch is that it has to be secured at the end or it pulls out and if it is cut, bye-bye stitching.

The next big development, and the one that is used today, is the lock stitch. It uses a spool of thread on top of the machine and a bobbin of thread under the bed of the machine. The earliest lock stitch machines used a transverse shuttle. That's a long bobbin in a long shuttle and it moves in a straight line. The shuttles for the transverse shuttle machines were usually open on one side and the bobbin dropped in. They look kind of like a little boat so we call them boat shuttles.

One of the purposes of the Treadle On list is to encourage people to use their treadle and handcrank sewing machines, so we have regular block exchanges. Sometimes they are for a specific brand, or for machines of a particular time period, sometimes open to any machine. For the boat shuttle exchange we also included another class of machines that have an open top shuttle, those made by the American Sewing Machine Company. This company came up with its own arrangement, a tiny round bobbin which drops into a tear-drop shaped shuttle. I've been researching the company for a while and from what I've found they were probably the first company to use a round bobbin. But the bobbins were tiny and didn't hold a lot of thread and the company didn't make it into the big leagues.