Before 1900, women spent many of their daylight hours sewing clothes for themselves and their families by hand. Women also formed the majority of the labor force that sewed clothes in factories and wove fabrics in mills. The invention and proliferation of the sewing machine freed women of this chore, liberated workers from poorly paid long hours in factories, and produced a wide variety of less expensive clothing. The industrial sewing machine made a range of products possible and affordable. The home and portable sewing machines also introduced amateur seamstresses to the delights of sewing as a craft.
The pioneers in the development of the sewing machine were hard at work at the end of the eighteenth century in England, France, and the United States. The English cabinetmaker Thomas Saint garnered the first patent for a sewing machine in 1790. Leather and canvas could be stitched by this heavy machine, which used a notched needle and awl to create a chain stitch. Like many early machines, it copied the motions of hand sewing. In 1807, a critical innovation was patented by William and Edward Chapman in England. Their sewing machine used a needle with an eye in the point of the needle instead of at the top.
In France, Bartheleémy Thimmonier's machine patented in 1830 literally caused a riot. A French tailor, Thimmonier developed a machine that stitched fabric together by chain stitching with a curved needle. His factory produced uniforms for the French Army and had 80 machines at work by 1841. A mob of tailors displaced by the factory rioted, destroyed the machines, and nearly killed Thimmonier.
Across the Atlantic, Walter Hunt made a machine with an eye-pointed needle that created a locked stitch with a second thread from underneath. Hunt's machine, devised in 1834, was never patented. Elias Howe, credited as the inventor of the sewing machine, designed and patented his creation in 1846. Howe was employed at a machine shop in Boston and was trying to support his family. A friend helped him financially while he perfected his invention, which also produced a lock stitch by using an eye-pointed needle and a bobbin that carried the second thread. Howe tried to market his machine in England, but, while he was overseas, others copied his invention. When he returned in 1849, he was again backed financially while he sued the other companies for patent infringement. By 1854, he had won the suits, thus also establishing the sewing machine as a landmark device in the evolution of patent law.
Chief among Howe's competitors was Isaac M. Singer, an inventor, actor, and mechanic who modified a poor design developed by others and obtained his own patent in 1851. His design featured an overhanging arm that positioned the needle over a flat table so the cloth could be worked under the bar in any direction. So many patents for assorted features of sewing machines had been issued by the early 1850s that a "patent pool" was established by four manufacturers so the rights of the pooled patents could be purchased. Howe benefited from this by earning royalties on his patents; Singer, in partnership with Edward Clark, merged the best of the pooled inventions and became the largest producer of sewing machines in the world by 1860. Massive orders for Civil War uniforms created a huge demand for the machines in the 1860s, and the patent pool made Howe and Singer the first millionaire inventors in the world.
Improvements to the sewing machine continued into the 1850s. Allen B. Wilson, an American cabinetmaker, devised two significant features, the rotary hook shuttle and four-motion (up, down, back, and forward) feed of fabric through the machine. Singer modified his invention until his death in 1875 and obtained many other patents for improvements and new features. As Howe revolutionized the patent world, Singer made great strides in merchandising. Through installment purchase plans, credit, a repair service, and a trade-in policy, Singer introduced the sewing machine to many homes and established sales techniques that were adopted by salesmen from other industries.
The sewing machine changed the face of industry by creating the new field of ready-to-wear clothing. Improvements to the carpeting industry, bookbinding, the boot and shoe trade, hosiery manufacture, and upholstery and furniture making multiplied with the application of the industrial sewing machine. Industrial machines used the swing-needle or zigzag stitch before 1900, although it took many years for this stitch to be adapted to the home machine. Electric sewing machines were first introduced by Singer in 1889. Modern electronic devices use computer technology to create buttonholes, embroidery, overcast seams, blind stitching, and an array of decorative stitches.
Industrial sewing machines require cast iron for their frames and a variety of metals for their fittings. Steel, brass, and a number of alloys are needed to make specialized parts that are durable enough for long hours of use in factory conditions. Some manufacturers cast, machine, and tool their own metal parts; but vendors also supply these parts as well as pneumatic, electric, and electronic elements.
Home sewing machine
Unlike the industrial machine, the home sewing machine is prized for its versatility, flexibility, and portability. Lightweight housings are important, and most home machines have casings made of plastics and polymers that are light, easy to mold, easy to clean, and resistant to chipping and cracking. The frame of the home machine is made of injection-molded aluminum, again for weight considerations. Other metals, such as copper, chrome, and nickel are used to plate specific parts.
The home machine also requires an electric motor, a variety of precision-machined metal parts including feed gears, cam mechanisms, hooks, needles, and the needle bar, presser feet, and the main drive shaft. Bobbins can be made of metal or plastic but must be precisely shaped to feed the second thread properly. Circuit boards are also required specific to the main controls of the machine, the pattern and stitch selections, and a range of other features. Motors, machined metal parts, and circuit boards can be supplied by vendors or made by the manufacturers.
After the automobile, the sewing machine is the most precisely made machine in the world. Industrial sewing machines are larger and heavier than home machines and are designed to perform only one function. Manufacturers of clothing, for example, use a series of machines with distinct functions that, in succession, create a finished garment. Industrial machines also tend to apply chain or zigzag stitch rather than lock stitch, but machines may be fitted for up to nine threads for strength.
Makers of industrial machines may supply a single-function machine to several hundred garment plants all over the world. Consequently, field-testing in the customer's factory is an important element in design. To develop a new machine or make changes in a current model, customers are surveyed, the competition is evaluated, and the nature of the desired improvements (such as faster or quieter machines) are identified. Designs are drawn, and a prototype is made and tested in the customer's plant. If the prototype is satisfactory, the manufacturing engineering section takes over the design to coordinate tolerance of parts, identify parts to be manufactured in-house and the raw materials needed, locate parts to be provided by vendors, and purchase those components. Tools for manufacture, holding fixtures for the assembly line, safety devices for both the machine and the assembly line, and other elements of the manufacturing process must also be designed along with the machine itself.
When the design is complete and all parts are available, a first production run is scheduled. The first manufactured lot is carefully checked. Often, changes are identified, the design is returned to development, and the process is repeated until the product is satisfactory. A pilot lot of 10 or 20 machines is then released to a customer to use in production for three to six months. Such field tests prove the device under real conditions, after which larger scale manufacture can begin.
Home sewing machine
Design of the home machine begins in the home. Consumer focus groups learn from sewers the types of new features that are most desired. The research and development (R&D) department of a manufacturer works, in conjunction with the marketing department, to develop specifications for a new machine that is then designed as a prototype. Software for manufacturing the machine is developed, and working models are made and tested by users. Meanwhile, R&D engineers test the working models for durability and establish useful life criteria. In the sewing laboratory, stitch quality is precisely evaluated, and other performance tests are conducted under controlled conditions.
Isaac Merritt Singer did not invent the sewing machine. He was not even a master mechanic, but an actor by trade. So, what was Singer's contribution that caused his name to become synonymous with sewing machines?
Singer's genius was in his vigorous marketing campaign, directed from the beginning at women and intended to combat the attitude that women did not and could not use machines. When Singer introduced his first home sewing machines in 1856, he confronted resistance from American families for both financial and psychological reasons. It was actually Singer's business partner, Edward Clark, who devised the innovative "hire/purchase plan" to alleviate initial reluctance on financial grounds. This plan allowed families who could not afford the $125 investment for a new sewing machine (the average family income only equaled about $500) to purchase the machine by paying in three- to five-dollar monthly installments.
Psychological impediments proved more difficult to overcome. Labor-saving devices in the home were a new concept in the 1850s. Why would women need these machines? What would they do with the time saved? Wasn't work done by hand of better quality? Weren't machines too taxing on women's minds and bodies, and weren't they just too closely associated with man's work and man's world outside the home? Singer tirelessly devised strategies to combat these attitudes, including advertising directly to women. He set up lavish showrooms that simulated elegant domestic parlors; he employed women to demonstrate and teach machine operations; and he used advertising to describe how women's increased free time could be seen as a positive virtue.
Donna R. Braden
When the new machine is approved for production, product engineers develop manufacturing methods for the production of machine parts. They also identify the raw materials needed and the parts that are to be ordered from outside sources. Parts made in the factory are put into production as soon as the materials and plans are available.
- 1 The basic part of the industrial machine is called the "bit" or frame and is the housing that characterizes the machine. The bit is made of cast iron on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine that creates the casting with the appropriate holes for inserting components. Manufacture of the bit requires steel castings, forging using bar steel, heat-treating, grinding, and polishing to finish the frame to the specifications needed to house the components.
- 2 Motors are usually not supplied by the manufacturer but are added by a supplier. International differences in voltage and other mechanical and electrical standards make this approach more practical.
- 3 Pneumatic or electronic components may be produced by the manufacturer or supplied by vendors. For industrial machines, these are typically made of metal rather than plastic parts. Electronic components are not necessary in most industrial machines because of their single, specialized functions.
Home sewing machine
Parts production in the factory may include a number of precisely made components of the sewing machine.
- 4 Gears are made of injection-molded synthetics or may be specially tooled to suit the machine.
- 5 Drive shafts made of metal are hardened, ground, and tested for accuracy; some parts are plated with metals and alloys for specific uses or to provide suitable surfaces.
- 6 The presser feet are made for particular sewing applications and can be interchangeable on the machine. Appropriate grooves, bevels, and holes are machined into the feet for their application. The finished presser foot is hand polished and plated with nickel.
- 7 The frame for the home sewing machine / is made of injection-molded aluminum. High-speed cutting tools equipped with ceramic, carbide, or diamond-edged blades are used to drill holes and to mill cuts and recesses to house features of the machine.
- 8 Covers for the machines are manufactured from high-impact synthetics. They are also precision-molded to fit around and protect the machine's components. Small, single parts are preassembled into modules, whenever possible.
- 9 The electronic circuit boards that control the machine's many operations are produced by high-speed robotics; they are then subjected to a burn-in period that is several hours long and are tested individually before being assembled in the machines.
- 10 All of the parts that are preassembled I; join a main assembly line. Robots move the frames from operation to operation, and teams of assemblers fit the modules and components into the machine until it is complete. The assembly teams take pride in their product and are responsible for purchasing the components, assembling them, and making quality control checks until the machines are completed. As a final quality check, every machine is tested for safety and various sewing procedures.
- 11 The home sewing machines are sent to packing where they are separately assembled by power control units that are foot-operated. A variety of accessories and instruction manuals are packed with the individual machines. The packaged products are shipped to local distribution centers.
The quality control department inspects all raw materials and all components furnished by suppliers when they arrive at the factory. These items are matched with plans and specifications. The parts are again checked along every step of manufacture by the makers, receivers, or persons who add the components along the assembly line. Independent quality control inspectors examine the product at various stages of assembly and when it is finished.
No byproducts result from sewing machine manufacture, although a number of specialized machines or models may be produced at one plant. Waste is also minimized. Steel, brass, and other metals are salvaged and melted down for precision castings whenever possible. Remaining metal waste is sold to a salvage dealer.
The merging of the capabilities of the electronic sewing machine and the software industry is creating an ever-widening range of creative features for this versatile machine. Efforts have been made to develop threadless machines that inject thermal fluids that harden with heat to finish seams, but these may fall outside the definition of "sewing." Large embroideries can be machine-produced based on designs developed onscreen using AUTOCAD or other design software. The software allows the designer to shrink, enlarge, rotate, mirror designs, and select colors and types of stitches that can then be embroidered on materials ranging from satin to leather to make products like baseball caps and jackets. The speed of the process lets products celebrating today's victories hit the street by tomorrow's business day. Because such features are add-ons, the home sewer can buy a basic home sewing machine and enhance it over the years with only those features most frequently used or of interest. Sewing machines become individual crafting devices and, therefore, seem to have a future as promising as the imagination of the operator.
Where to Learn More
Finniston, Monty, ed. Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of Invention and Technology. Oxford University Press, 1992.
Travers, Bridget, ed. World of Invention. Gale Research, 1994.
Allen, 0. "The power of patents." American Heritage, September/October 1990, p. 46.
Foote, Timothy. "1846." Smithsonian, April. 1996, p. 38.
Schwarz, Frederic D. "1846." American Heritage, September 1996, p. 101
The sewing machine made its debut in a culture that, for more than a century, had considered the needle "the woman's tool par excellence." Sewing was far from exclusively female, but since the late seventeenth century women workers, in defiance of long-term historical trends, had successfully laid claim to the guilds within the garment trades that made clothing for women and children. The Enlightenment belief in "nature" as an ordering principle, and thus of gender as a "natural" division of labor, bolstered conceptions that sewing—and making fashion—were inherently feminine, shoring up seamstresses' claims while simultaneously rationalizing women's exclusion from other trades and deeming their work unskilled. During the Industrial Revolution garment-making expanded rapidly, governments across Europe abolished guilds, and clothing manufacturers mobilized "battalions" of workers for increasingly poorly paid labor—work, it was said, fit only for women. By the 1830s the numbers of independent seamstresses had waned and the needleworker had become the very image of poverty, of women's vulnerability, and, for many social critics, of the wrongs of market culture or industrial society.
Small wonder, then, that the sewing machine sparked the hopes and fears evinced in an 1845 exchange between a reader and Barthélemy Thimonnier (1793–1857) (often considered the inventor of the sewing machine) on the pages of a provincial French newspaper. As one historian remarks, the eighteenth century's faith in progress rested on science, the nineteenth century's on mechanization. Machines evoked contradictory images of newfound power and acute powerlessness. They raised the specter of vast increases in productivity but also of changes in the organization of work and in the social and moral order, both of which, as is shown in the exchange, were powerfully symbolized by gender. Many nineteenth-century writers considered machines and femininity to be incompatible and, in characteristically Romantic style, cast industry against nature or demonized automatons against icons of feminine traditionalism: distaff, needle, and spinning wheel.
In the 1840s, however, the sewing machine played very little role in industry. Expensive and cumbersome, it only made sense in trades, such as shoemaking, in which complex production processes could be broken down into specialized tasks and assigned to specific workers. Factories served to coordinate production and ensure that machines were used efficiently, but clothing manufacturers contracted most sewing work out to either well-established subcontractors or small "jobbing" tailors who employed their wives, children, or other workers. After 1870 sewing technology went in two directions, the first toward specialized machines to be used in factories, and the second toward improving and disseminating a small machine to be used in work that was contracted out. Outwork, or homework, saved manufacturers capital investments, it allowed them to skirt factory legislation, and it tapped a labor force willing, for diverse reasons, to accept low wages. By the eve of the war the expansion of homework had produced an international outcry over "sweated labor."
To the Editor,
You have announced to the public in the most laudatory terms the invention of a machine for sewing, due to the learned meditations of Monsieur Thimonnier, tailor from Amplepuis. …Of all the troubles that afflict humanity in our time, perhaps none is greater than the inability of a woman abandoned to herself to earn a living through her labor. Every day the strong sex makes new incursions in the trades which, because of their character, would seem to be the exclusive domain of women.
If the condition of the countless women in cities who spend their lives sewing and who are incapable of doing other work is already the source of moral concern; if, every day, some of these poor creatures, disheartened by poverty, debase themselves, succumbing to the deceptive promises of debauchery and seduction; if those who have the courage to resist the vices suggested by poverty earn a wage we know to be insufficient and find themselves unemployed due to lack of work, what will happen when five in six of these women has lost her only means of existence to a mechanical stitcher?
Your newspaper this month published a letter from one of your subscribers concerning the sewing machine that is attributed to me …
Why should we consider these machines to be hostile to the female sex? Why not say, instead, that these machines will expand the industrial domain of women, make their forces equal of those of men, and place them at the same level of intelligence?
The industrial world is changing as if by magic, and people believe that the fate of the most interesting half of humanity will depend, forever, on the needle.
Rather than proscribe inventions that are destined to raise the well being of all, let us cry for reform in women's education. Let us create trade schools for working women as well as working men. In that way perhaps we will abolish, or at least reduce commen-surate with their respective needs, the shocking inequalities between brother and sister, in the inequality (disproportion) of their wages.
Source: Journal de Villefranche, 14 and 28 September 1845.
The sewing machine role's in industry was inseparable from its pioneering role as one of the first consumer durables to be marketed, on credit, to a mass public. In the 1890s sewing-machine salesmen went directly into the European countryside, offering machines on credit payment plans. In some regions they helped clothing manufacturers recruit outworkers for their industry, waiving down payments on the machine and arguing that the work opportunities or higher productivity would more than compensate for the monthly bills. Workers and reformers charged that these practices exacerbated the dynamics of sweated labor. Sewing machines were also sold in the new centers of working-class consumerism in cities. The Dufayel department store on the plebeian boulevard Barbès in Paris featured a department full of sewing machines at the top of its central staircase, just below stained-glass windows engraved with the store's motto, "Saving, Confidence, Abundance, and Work."
Sewing-machine manufacturers, particularly the American firm Singer, poured money into advertising. The advertising imagery was extraordinarily varied, a reflection of the multiple markets for this machine (industrialists, tailors and seamstresses, working-class families, and middle-class women), of the tentative or experimental character of early advertising, and of the knot of anxieties and aspirations tangled around the topics of "work" and "femininity." The decorative metalwork of the machines was sometimes sculpted into odd shapes: squirrels (symbol of frugality) or cupids with drawn bows. In advertisements, magicians conjured machines out of thin air. Elephants clambered onto sewing-machine chairs as they would onto circus pedestals, and monkeys hurtled down roller coasters on sewing machines—caricatures of "dexterity" and speed. Allegorical "liberty" figures danced with machines in their arms. A Singer sewing machine with wings took flight over the Eiffel Tower. Advertisements drew on now-familiar tropes of nineteenth-century domesticity, juxtaposing depictions of sewing-machine factories belching smoke with those of women safely (and industriously) sewing at a machine at home. They also borrowed freely from the imagery of empire and the "civilizing mission"; Singer aimed to reach "every corner of the inhabitable world" and to emancipate all of womankind, whether "white, red, black, or yellow."
Did sewing machines change women's household work? Yes, but not in the ways one might predict. Historians know more about the transformation of industry than they do about the history of unpaid household labor. But research shows that labor-saving domestic technologies were very slow to make their way into European homes. Middle-class women in Europe usually hired servants to do their work, and most working-class and peasant families were too poor to afford specifically domestic appliances. While women routinely spent long hours mending their families' linens and garments, to actually fashion clothing required skills that women usually acquired in industry and only afterward turned to use in their homes. Yet the sewing machine was one of the first widely disseminated consumer durables—by 1914 an estimated one in three European households from Portugal to Russia owned sewing machines—largely because it could be used for wage earning as well as household chores. In a century when the garment industry employed so many women, the sewing machine was almost inescapably hybrid, joining industrial and domestic—an object of desire that literally had to earn its place in the home.
Coffin, Judith G. The Politics of Women's Work: The Paris Garment Trades, 1750–1915. Princeton, N.J., 1996.
Crowston, Clare Haru. Fabricating Women: The Seamstresses of Old Regime France, 1675–1791. Durham, N.C., 2001. The best analysis of prerevolutionary developments.
Frader, Laura L., and Sonya O. Rose, eds. Gender and Class in Modern Europe. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.
Giedion, S. Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History. New York, 1948.
Green, Nancy L. Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work: A Century of Industry and Immigrants in Paris and New York. Durham, N.C., 1997.
Hausen, Karin. "Technical Progress and Women's Labour in the Nineteenth Century." In The Social History of Politics: Critical Perspectives in West German Historical Writing since 1945, edited by Georg G. Iggers. New York, 1986.
Liu, Tessie P. The Weaver's Knot: The Contradictions of Class Struggle and Family Solidarity in Western France, 1750–1914. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994. Particularly astute on dynamics within working families.
Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York, 1988.
Scott, Joan Wallach, and Louise Tilly. Women, Work, and Family. New York, 1978. Still a classic.
Valenze, Deborah. The First Industrial Woman. New York, 1995.
Just as the needle marked the beginning of humanity's first technological and aesthetic efflorescence, the sewing machine affected not just tailoring and dressmaking but manufacturing technology, intellectual property management, marketing, advertising, consumer finance, world commerce, and technological leadership. Even more fundamentally, and largely unexpectedly, the sewing machine became a new kind of product—it was both commercial and domestic, and, in appearance, both industrial and ornamental. The continuing development of machine sewing is in part the story of the changing balance between household and factory.
Like the personal computer over 125 years later, early commercially successful sewing machines combined a number of separate innovations into a new system for which an immense latent demand existed. In fact, the crucial single innovation, made by Elias Howe Jr. in his patent of 1846, was a system based on a radically new curved, grooved needle with an eye at the point end. Instead of making an easily unraveled chain stitch that emulated manual work, it engaged thread from the needle with another in a moving shuttle to create a stronger lock stitch. It was the first machine with a significant advantage in speed over hand sewing, but was limited to straight stitching and could complete only a limited length of material at a time. Another inventor, John Bachelder, remedied the Howe machine's drawbacks with an improved design patented in 1849, allowing continuous sewing of material with a needle moving up and down on a horizontal table. Isaac Merritt Singer made a series of other improvements in 1850 and 1851, making curved stitching possible and replacing the hand wheel with a treadle.
While no single inventor controlled all the patents needed to make commercially successful equipment, Singer and the others were able to settle the claims of Howe and to include his original patent in a pool. For a substantial fixed fee per machine, partly distributed by the corporation to its patent holders, any manufacturer could produce sewing machines without infringement.
The American setting was essential for the sewing machine's success in the 1850s. A French tailor, Barthélemy Thimonnier, had secured French government support in the 1830s for establishment of a firm using his wooden-framed sewing machines to produce military uniforms. A crowd of journeyman tailors had wrecked them as a threat to their livelihoods. In the United States of the 1850s there was no comparably powerful and politically active craft organization. To the contrary, America was already leading the world in production of ready-made garments; even before the Civil War, companies were using standardized measurements and patterns to remove the most skilled and best-paid parts of tailoring from the manufacturing process. Jacksonian Americans hoped ready-made clothing of mechanically spun and woven fabrics would limit visible class distinctions in public life, closing the gap between the custom tailoring of middle-and upper-class men and the rough workman's clothing called slops. In 1835, one New York firm was advertising for three hundred male and five hundred female tailors, and another for twelve hundred "plain sewers."
Such manufacturers embraced mechanical sewing rapidly, as it increased productivity by up to 500 percent. From 1853 to 1860 the number of machines sold in the United States rose from 1,609 to 31,105, reaching 353,592 by 1875. But domestic applications soon overtook industrial uses. Isaac Singer, a former actor, pioneered a national and international sales campaign to introduce his machine into the home. Singer's associate, the attorney Edward Clark, developed the first national sales organization and the first widely accepted hire-purchase plan, successful even among buyers who could have paid cash. Since women of all social classes were expected to sew and repair women's and children's clothing, it appeared to offer a great savings in time. Its high price actually helped make it a prestigious purchase, usually on prominent display—one of the first manifestations of an industrial aesthetic in the home. (The Singer machine contained over one hundred pounds of cast iron, among other materials.) Yet working-class women who could afford payments also saw it as a means of self-sufficiency; for young women it was an attractive alternative to domestic service.
Clark and Singer established luxurious sales rooms for displaying machines and their use, spent millions in advertising, and established global sales and service organizations, the first of their kind. Economic historians have suggested that the vigorous marketing by Singer and other firms spread information that, in turn, stimulated new improvements of the machine in a virtuous circle. They have also noted that the Singer Company continued to use conservative, European-style craft production systems after its rivals had adopted interchangeable parts, making the change only when sales volume demanded it. Despite this delay, the sewing machine industry became a new foundation of productive techniques that helped U.S. industry challenge Britain's dominance in mechanical engineering.
The sewing machine reached maturity relatively quickly. The 1865 Singer New Family machine was sold into the twentieth century, and some home sewers still swear by the robustness of related surviving models. After the original patents expired in 1877 and the combination of patent holders was dissolved, prices continued to drop. Sears, Roebuck and other new merchandisers aggressively promoted well-built and relatively inexpensive private-brand machines. While this strategy helped maintain real-dollar sales and widespread home sewing machine use, it also hastened the decline of the sewing machine's status. Meanwhile technicians and inventors who worked in sewing machine production were turning design and production skills to new generations of devices, including typewriters (which offered similar challenges in precise alignment) and phonographs (which also used rotary motion and the needle).
Motor-powered machines began to appear in the 1910s, but until the 1930s many potential customers out-side major cities still lacked home electricity. The great change in the early twentieth century was in attitudes toward home sewing and the machine. The increased availability, improved styling, and higher quality of ready-made women's clothing turned the sewing machine from a time-saver to a money-saver. Homemade clothing began to be stigmatized. In the 1920s, domestic management shifted from making to selecting things. Electrification of factory sewing machines reinforced this trend by increasing productivity and reducing the prices of ready-made clothing. And the expense of materials wasted by mistakes discouraged neophyte home sewers. Ironically, electrification was welcome in part because it made it easier to hide the machine on a closet shelf between uses.
Expanding career opportunities for women after World War II made the domestic sewing machine a niche appliance, sometimes used as a fallback during price inflation and for mending. With the rise of sold-state control, using programmable integrated circuits instead of or in addition to mechanical controls like cams and with the globalization of the apparel and footwear industries, sewing machine production moved in the later twentieth century first to Japan and then to China. The division of labor in industry encouraged the multiplication of special-purpose machines, of which Japanese firms in the 1990s offered over one thousand models. High-speed production is posing a new range of technical challenges; needles, threads, and fabrics must be designed to work with advanced equipment. (Some economists believe that stronger thread for machine sewing was one of the twentieth century's most productive innovations.)
In home sewing, computerization has encouraged not output but creative control, in that a new variety of stitches and functions are available. High-end home machines can exceed the cost of some industrial machines in price. The attraction is no longer saving time or money, but creating apparel and home furnishings with designs unavailable in the marketplace. In the global economy pioneered by the sewing machine, household and industrial sewing have parted ways again.
Burman, Barbara, ed. The Culture of Sewing: Gender, Consumption, and Home Dressmaking. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1999.
Connolly, Marguerite. "The Disappearance of the Domestic Sewing Machine, 1890–1925." Winterthur Portfolio (1999): 31–48.
Cooper, Grace Rogers. The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1976.
Godfrey, Frank P. An International History of the Sewing Machine. London: Robert Hale, 1982.
Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800–1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Jensen, Joan M., and Sue Davidson. A Needle, a Bobbin, a Strike: Women Needleworkers in America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984.
A sewing machine is a mechanical or electromechanical device equipped with a needle (or needles) threaded at the point-end, which puncture the fabric periodically as it moves under the needle. Each stitch is created as the thread loops onto itself (chain stitch) or locks around a second strand of thread (lock stitch), sewing the fabrics together. Sewing machines are used in both the home and industry, but are designed differently for each setting. Those for the home tend to be more versatile in terms of the number and kinds of stitches they can perform, but they operate more slowly than industrial machines, and have a shorter life span. Industrial machines are heavier, have a much longer life span, are capable of thousands of stitches per inch, and may be designed for very specialized tasks.
Near the end of the eighteenth century, London cabinetmaker Thomas Saint patented the design of a primitive machine for chain-stitch sewing that used a forked needle, which passed through a hole made by the sewer using an awl. In the 1870s, Newton Wilson discovered Saint’s patient (which had been lost in the patent office). He built a sewing machine based on Saint’s design. Wilson found that Saint’s design had to be modified in order to actually build a functioning sewing machine. Wilson concluded that Saint had designed but never built a sewing machine. During these years between Saint’s patent and Wilson” construction, inventors in Europe and the United Stated advanced the sewing machine concept. Early machine-sewers operated their machines by turning a hand wheel that moved the needle up and down, and in and out of the fabric. By the early 1830s, with the introduction of New Yorker Walter Hunt’s lock stitch machine, and with the addition of the feed mechanism that moved the fabric automatically beneath the needle, the mechanics of the sewing machine as it is known today had been worked out. But it was not until American inventor Isaac Merritt Singer (1811–1875)—the first manufacturer to make sewing machines widely available—that sewing machines became a fixture in the average household. Singer introduced a lock-stitch machine in 1851, the first powered by a foot treadle, a pump or lever device that turned a flywheel and belt drive.
As clothing manufacture moved into factories at the beginning of the twentieth century, sewing machine design branched out as well. Sewing machines designed for home use have remained versatile, capable of performing different kinds of stitching for a variety of tasks such as making buttonholes, or sewing stretchy fabrics using the zig-zag stitch, in which the needle moves back and forth horizontally. More recently, manufacturers of home machines have incorporated computerized controls that can be programmed to create a multitude of decorative stitches as well as the basics.
Sewing machines intended for industrial use evolved along a different track. In the factory setting, where time and efficiency are at a premium, machines have to be very fast, capable of producing thousands stitches per second. Clothing manufacturers also realized that sewing machines designed to perform just one task, such as making a collar, attaching buttons, making buttonholes, setting in pockets, and attaching belt loops, could perform these tasks much more quickly than a less specialized machines.
Sewing machines are designed to create one of two basic types of stitches. The chainstitch is created as a single thread loops through itself on the underside or edge of the fabric, and is used for such purposes as button holes and edgings. The lock stitch is created as two separate threads—one below the fabric in a bobbin, the other above on a spool, lock together from the top and the bottom of the fabric at each stitch. The lock stitch is used most widely in both industrial and home sewing, and is stronger than the chain stitch, but because it puts more tension on the thread, cannot be created as quickly. (Industrial lockstitch machines can sew up to 6,000 stitches per minute, while the fastest chainstitch machines can sew 10,000 stitches per minute.) In the early 1970s, manufacturers of industrial machines began to incorporate computerized technology into their products. Because these machines could be programmed to perform a number of the steps previously done by the operator, the new technology halved the number of steps (from 16 to 8) in a labor-intensive task such as stitching together the various parts of a collar (top ply [outer collar], interlining, lower ply, two-piece collarband, and collarband interlining).
Innovations in the 1970s led to the design of three types of machines. Dedicated machines incorporate microprocessors capable of controlling the assembly of apparel parts such as collars, and the operator simply loads the pre-cut clothing parts into these machines. Programmable convertible machines can be converted to perform a number of different tasks, and in this case, too, the operator just loads the pre-cut fabrics. Operator-programmable machines can be taught new sewing procedures as the operator performs the task with the machine in “teach” mode, and the machine “learns” the various parts of a task. The machine can then perform most of the functions except placing the material.
In both industrial and domestic machines, computer technology is the driving force for improvement and change. Computer-controlled sewing machines use specialized sequential cams (sometimes called,
Chainstitch —Stitch usually created with a single thread that loops through itself on the underside of the fabric, which is used for such purposes as button holes and edging.
Lockstitch —A stitch created as two separate threadsone below the fabric in a bobbin, the other above, lock together from the top and the bottom of the fabric at each stitch. The lock stitch is stronger but cannot be created as quickly as the chain stitch, because it puts more tension on the thread.
stepper motors) to produce complicated sewing patterns and other sewing techniques. In the industrial setting, this change has three goals: to speed up operation of the sewing machines; to make the operator’s job easier as materials move through their station more quickly; and to make the assembly of small parts of a garment easier with the design of more specialized sewing machines. In the industrial setting, where the pressure toward innovation is highest, machines are likely to move toward higher levels of automation.
See also Textiles.
Godfrey, Frank P. International History of the Sewing Machine. International History of the Sewing Machine London, UK: R. Hale 1967, 1982.
Hoffman and Rush. Microelectronics and Clothing: The Impact of Technical Change on a Global Industry. New York: Praeger, 1988.
Johnson, Hildegarde. The Sewing Machine. Boston, MA: Ginn and Company 1967, 1967.
A sewing machine is a mechanical device equipped with a needle (or needles) threaded at the point-end, which puncture the fabric periodically as it moves under the needle; each stitch is created as the thread loops onto itself (chain stitch) or locks around a second strand of thread (lock stitch), sewing the fabrics together. Sewing machines are used in both the home and industry, but are designed differently for each setting. Those for the home tend to be more versatile in terms of the number and kinds of stitches they can perform, but they operate more slowly than industrial machines, and have a shorter life span. Industrial machines are heavier, have a much longer life span, are capable of thousands of stitches per inch, and may be designed for very specialized tasks.
Near the end of the eighteenth century, a London cabinetmaker patented the design of a primitive machine for chain-stitch sewing that used a forked needle, which passed through a hole made by the sewer using an awl. Over the next several decades, inventors in Europe and the United Stated advanced the sewing machine concept. Early machine-sewers operated their machines by turning a hand wheel that moved the needle up and down, and in and out of the fabric. By the early 1830s, with the introduction of New Yorker Walter Hunt's lock stitch machine, and with the addition of the feed mechanism that moved the fabric automatically beneath the needle, the mechanics of the sewing machine as we know it today had been worked out. But it wasn't until Isaac Singer—the first manufacturer to make sewing machines widely available—that sewing machines became a fixture in the average household. Singer introduced a lock-stitch machine in 1851, the first powered by a foot treadle, a pump or lever device that turned a flywheel and belt drive.
As clothing manufacture moved into factories at the turn of the century, sewing machine design branched out as well. Sewing machines designed for home use have remained versatile, capable of performing different kinds of stitching for a variety of tasks such as making buttonholes, or sewing stretchy fabrics using the zig-zag stitch, in which the needle moves back and forth horizontally. More recently, manufacturers of home machines are have incorporated computerized controls that can be programmed to create a multitude of decorative stitches as well as the basics.
Sewing machines intended for industrial use evolved along a different track. In the factory setting, where time and efficiency are at a premium, machines have to be very fast, capable of producing thousands stitches per second. Clothing manufacturers also realized that sewing machines designed to do just one task, such as making a collar, attaching buttons, making buttonholes, setting in pockets, and attaching belt loops, could perform these tasks much more quickly than a less specialized machines.
Types of sewing machines
Sewing machines are designed to create one of two basic types of stitches. The chainstitch is created as a single thread loops through itself on the underside or edge of the fabric, and is used for such purposes as button holes and edgings. The lock stitch is created as two separate threads—one below the fabric in a bobbin, the other above on a spool, lock together from the top and the bottom of the fabric at each stitch. The lock stitch is used most widely in both industrial and home sewing, and is stronger than the chain stitch, but because it puts more tension on the thread, cannot be created as quickly. (Industrial lockstitch machines can sew up to 6,000 stitches per minute, while the fastest chainstitch machines can sew 10,000 stitches per minute.) In the early 1970s, manufacturers of industrial machines began to incorporate computerized technology into their products. Because these machines could be programmed to perform a number of the steps previously done by the operator, the new technology halved the number of steps (from 16-8) in a labor-intensive task such as stitching together the various parts of a collar (top ply [outer collar], inter-lining, lower ply, two-piece collarband, and collarband interlining).
Innovations in the 1970s led to the design of three types of machines. Dedicated machines incorporate microprocessors capable of controlling the assembly of apparel parts such as collars, and the operator simply loads the pre-cut clothing parts into these machines. Programmable convertible machines can be converted to perform a number of different tasks, and in this case, too, the operator just loads the pre-cut fabrics. Operator-programmable machines can be taught new sewing procedures as the operator performs the task with the machine in "teach" mode, and the machine "learns" the various parts of a task. The machine can then perform most of the functions except placing the material.
In both industrial and domestic machines, computer technology is the driving force for change. In the industrial setting, this change has three goals: to speed up operation of the sewing machines; to make the operator's job easier as materials move through their station more quickly; and to make the assembly of small parts of a garment easier with the design of more specialized sewing machines. In the industrial setting, where the pressure toward innovation is highest, machines are likely to move toward higher levels of automation .
See also Textiles.
Hoffman and Rush. Microelectronics and Clothing: The Impact of Technical Change on a Global Industry. New York: Praeger, 1988.
KEY TERMS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
—Stitch usually created with a single thread that loops through itself on the underside of the fabric, which is used for such purposes as button holes and edging.
—A stitch created as two separate threadsone below the fabric in a bobbin, the other above, lock together from the top and the bottom of the fabric at each stitch. The lock stitch is stronger but cannot be created as quickly as the chain stitch, because it puts more tension on the thread.
SEWING MACHINE. After almost one hundred years of trials, failures, and partial successes in Europe, the sewing machine in its practical form evolved as a mid-nineteenth-century American invention. Elias Howe, Jr., usually credited as the inventor, was not the first person to patent an American sewing machine. John J. Greenough, Benjamin W. Bean, and several others patented ideas for sewing machines in the early 1840s, before Howe was granted the first patent for the two-thread, lockstitch sewing machine in 1846. Howe's machine was far from adaptable for commercial production, and he met with little success in America at the time. The machine stitched only straight seams for the length of the baster plate, which then had to be reset. Taking his machine to England, Howe was unable to adapt it to British manufacturing needs, and he finally sold the patent rights in that country to William Thomas, a corset manufacturer.
When Howe returned home, he found that several other inventors had entered the field. John Bachelder had patented a continuous-feed, vertical-needle machine in 1849; Isaac M. Singer had used earlier ideas with his heart-shaped cam to move the needle and received a patent
in 1851; and A. B. Wilson patented the stationary rotary bobbin in 1852 and the four-motion feed in 1854. The principal technical problems had been solved, but no single manufacturer could make a practical machine without being sued for infringement of patent by another. In 1856, Orlando B. Potter, lawyer and president of the Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company, suggested the idea of pooling the patents. This was accomplished, but each company maintained itself separately, and there was competition in the manufacturing and improving of the various machines. The four members of the "sewing-machine combination" were Elias Howe, Jr.; Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Company; I. M. Singer and Company; and Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company. All four members had to agree on which companies would be licensed to build sewing machines, and a fee of fifteen per machine was charged. Howe received five dollars of this amount, a portion was held in reserve for possible litigation costs, and the money left was divided equally among the four parties. In 1860, the fee was dropped to seven and Howe's share to one dollar. In 1867 Howe's renewed patent expired, and only the three companies were left. The combination remained active until 1877, when all the major patents expired. Although the combination had been accused of retarding the development of the sewing machine, hundreds of thousands of good machines were produced in the 1850s and 1860s.
The sewing machines were used by manufacturers for shirts, dresses, aprons, cloaks, collars, and many other items. Details such as pleating and tucking could be produced by machine very quickly and were popularly added to many costumes. While the sewing machine revolutionized the ready-made garment industry, it produced mixed results for workers. It initially reduced the number of laborers required, and it attracted unskilled men into sectors of the garment industry formerly reserved for women. Already poorly paid, women who subcontracted piece work at home now bore the additional expense of purchasing or renting equipment, and unscrupulous subcontractors often deducted payments on machines from meager wages, causing women to default. Contractors would then repossess the machine and "sell" it to the next job applicant. Those who could not afford a machine sought work in large shops where their work habits and productivity could be tightly controlled. By 1900 tents, awnings, sails, books, umbrellas, mattresses, hose, trunks, shoes, and flags were all stitched by machine.
The sewing machine was the first widely advertised consumer product. Because of the high initial cost of the machine, the Singer company introduced the hire-purchase plan, and installment buying placed a sewing machine in almost every home. Competition for this ready market encouraged more and more manufacturers to enter the field. At the height of this competition in the 1870s, there were well over two hundred American sewing-machine
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companies. But foreign competition began to invade the field in the twentieth century. The high cost of skilled labor in America made it difficult to compete. Nevertheless, ingenious sewing machines are still in production, including those that "sew" without thread, but most of the machines produced in the United States are highly specialized manufacturing machines.
Bissell, Don. The First Conglomerate: 145 Years of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Brunswick, Maine: Audenreed Press, 1999.
Brandon, Ruth. Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1977.
Brewer, Priscilla J. The Queen of Inventions. Pawtucket, R.I.: Slater Mill Historic Site, 1986.
Cooper, Grace R. The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1976.
Godfrey, Frank P. An International History of the Sewing Machine. London: R. Hale, 1982.
Grace R.Cooper/l. t.