Invention of the Sewing Machine

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Invention of the Sewing Machine


When the first cave dwellers attempted to keep warm by covering themselves with animal skins, they likely recognized the advantage of joining several pelts together to form larger "garments." Eventually, one of them may have noticed a sliver of bone on the ground and thought to use it as an tool to string together multiple pelts.

Despite such speculation, the important fact is that from the dawn of humanity until the present day all fabric attachment processes have had the same thing in common: the needle. It has undergone many changes, not only in appearance, but through all the stages of iron, steel, and other metals that lend themselves to high levels of refinement.


The needle is an indispensable tool that enables the production of highly sophisticated clothing for much of the civilized (no longer naked) world. However, its facility was long limited to the skill of the individual using it. We have only to look at the surviving articles of embroidery and needlework from centuries ago to recognize the abilities of the people who used their needles to such advantage.

With population increases and more and more clothing needed for daily use, it was only a matter of time until someone would try to find a way to move the needle mechanically—thus much faster and consistently.

The earliest mention of a sewing machine is in a 1790 patent issued to British inventor Thomas Saint. Actually, Saint didn't use a needle per se, but an awl that pierced a hole over which a needlelike rod hooked the thread through to the underside of the fabric and moved it forward to repeat the operation. When the cycle was repeated, a second loop was created that formed a chain and effectively locked the stitch in place. Its use was mainly for leather and canvas and could not be adapted for clothing fabric weights. Even though the basic idea was good, Saint's machine never went beyond what we presently refer to as a prototype.

The next important step toward a machine that would sew fabrics mechanically was taken in 1830 by French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier. He was encouraged to develop his machine by the French army, which needed new uniforms and ordered 80 machines to help produce them. Factory workers were so frightened that the sewing machines would put them out of work that an angry mob of tailors destroyed all 80 of the units, which effectively delayed further research on mechanical sewing for some years.

The next major innovator of the sewing machine was an American named Walter Hunt (1796-1859), who in 1834 devised a machine that utilized both an eye-pointed needle and a moving shuttle. He failed to patent it at that time and when he tried later to get it registered, he was rejected on the basis of "product abandonment."

This activity was followed by another American named Elias Howe (1819-1867), who put together a unit that contained many of the mechanisms that Hunt had used earlier. Although Howe patented his device, the machine was not accepted in the United States. He took it across the Atlantic, where it had a better reception and where he was persuaded to sell some of his patent rights to British investors for the paltry sum of 250 pounds sterling ($1,250).

Howe moved to England and worked toward adapting his machine for use on leather and other heavier materials. Personal misfortunes beset him and, when he returned home, he found his wife dying. He endured years of financial hardship and was shocked to find that in his absence, other people in the United States were manufacturing and selling sewing machines in violation of his patent. After many years in court, he prevailed and in 1854 began receiving royalties on his invention. Until his patent expired in 1867, he received royalties on all sewing machines produced in the United States.

Throughout the years of litigation, there were numerous manufacturers (some of them inventors) who added refinements to Howe's basic model. The largest and most successful name in the patent pool was Isaac Merrit Singer (1811-1875). After more than 10 years of working as a machinist, Singer had secured employment at a machine shop in Boston in 1851. One day, he was asked to repair a sewing machine that had been manufactured by Lerow and Blodgett. Eleven days later, he came up with a much improved machine that he patented and sold through his own company then called I. M. Singer & Company. The business was incorporated in 1863 and was then called the Singer Manufacturing Company.


During this productive era, many other sewing machine manufacturers emerged, but none as prominent and successful as Singer. His treadle-operated unit was the first practical sewing machine for domestic use, and he soon bundled his various patents to build the machines on a mass-production basis.

To further his cause, he went on to demonstrate the first electric-powered machine at the Philadelphia electric exhibition in 1885. This created an unprecedented market for his product and Singer was the first major manufacturer to make it available to every home in America by what would become a widespread consumer practice: Buy on credit, pay by the month.

The sewing machine saga involves the names of many now relegated to obscurity, but who nonetheless produced most of the "add-ons" that have made the machines so successful. Allen Benjamin Wilson patented the rotary bobbin in 1850. Reece Machinery Company of the United States pioneered buttonhole machines before the end of the nineteenth century. John Barran of England developed a multi-layered cloth cutter that was an important adjunct to the factory machines, as was the Hoffman press, which provided machine pressing of sewn fabrics instead of the time-consuming hand operations.

For those who have not looked closely at an electric sewing machine, the operation may appear complicated. However, in actual practice, it is a relatively simple progression of steps. The basic nineteenth-century format has been embellished and refined, but the results are readily apparent. Generally, sewing machines use two sources of thread: one for the needle which pierces the fabric; the other, from the bobbin beneath, which secures the thread in a straight line of locked stitches.

Here's how it works. The needle carrying the upper thread moves down through the material and below a metal plate that looks like a small platform with one or more holes milled for specific penetration. Under this plate is a cylindrical bobbin around which is wound the same ply of thread as the needle carries. When the needle moves below the plate, it picks up the thread from the bobbin and forms a loop. The size of this loop is determined by a tension device on the visible (upper) part of the machine. The loops are repeated and form what is aptly called a lockstitch.

In the early days of mass-produced articles of clothing, most machine sewing was augmented by hand-finishing work. In the more expensive "design" clothing, hand sewing was still much in demand and there was always a market for skilled seamstresses and men's tailors. However, as years passed, the United States became a dominant supplier in the ready-to-wear industry and consequently, many Europeans came to this country to work in the factories (and sometimes sweatshops) centered mainly in New York City. They brought their willingness to work in exchange for the religious and economic freedoms they could not find in their native countries.

Along with their conscientious work habits, they contributed a healthy spirit of enterprise, which engendered numerous improvements in the sewing machine industry as a whole. The machines were made more effective with refinements such as automatic buttonhole makers, machine-sewn hems and collars, machine embroideries, mechanical pleat-folders, and patterns which could be mass-produced by blades that cut through multiple layers of cloth. This latter development led to a spreading machine, which spread fabric from long bolts into layers that could contain hundreds of plies of fabric, depending on the thickness and density of the weave.

As the sewing machine was further improved, another major industry developed to keep pace with the machines—weaving. With the increased demands for longer and longer lengths of fabrics, mills were built—particularly in the British Isles—to spin, dye, treat, and weave more and more cloth. However, the supply of wool and cottons in Britain was soon diluted by the construction of American mills on the east coast, where imports of cotton, woolens, and silks increased as the shipping industry took giant steps forward. The New England region of America soon challenged the Old England market in the production of fabrics for commercial and consumer use.

By the end of the nineteenth century electric sewing machines were used wherever electric power was available. However, a large portion of the world's population was still without even electric light for their homes, farms, or remote villages. For this substantial market, the original hand-or treadle-operated sewing machines were a viable product. In places where electric power is still lacking or unavailable, the foot-treadle machine remain in use today.


Further Reading

Brandon, Ruth. Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance. Kodansha International, 1996.