♥ September is National Sewing Month ♥
The History of the Sewing Machine
Although I was taught by the best seamstress, I did not have the love of sewing that was second nature to my mother, Dollie. She could sew something simple like an apron to an elaborate bridal gown…with or without a pattern! She attributed that gift to her job working in the garment industry in Downtown Los Angeles, California. Starting off on one machine, she self-taught herself the many complex, industrial sewing machines and eventually became the shop forewoman! We always had a sewing machine in our home and she maintained it immaculately!
Which brings me to the history of the sewing machine. As you will see, there were many different sewing machines invented and patents issued, but it took a long time, and many failures, to produce the working sewing machine as we know it today.
While hand sewing is over 20,000 years old, the first patent connected to mechanical sewing, was issued in England to Charles Weisenthal in 1755. However, this patent was actually for only a needle that was designed for a machine, but the patent did not describe the rest of the machine!
Thomas Saint’s patent issued in England in 1790 was for a complete machine for sewing, which used a chain stitch and lock stitch method, and was designed to aid in the manufacture of leather goods (including saddles and bridles) and canvas items like ship sails.
In 1804, a French patent was granted to Thomas Stone and James Henderson for “a machine that emulated hand sewing.” That same year a patent was granted to Scotland’s John Duncan for an “embroidery machine with multiple needles.” Both inventions failed.
In 1818, the first American sewing machine was invented by John Adams Doge and John Knowles. Their machine failed to sew any useful amount of fabric before malfunctioning.
The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier. Thimonnier’s machine used only one thread and a hooked needle that made the same chain stitch used in embroidery. The patent for his machine was issued in 1830, and, in the same year, he opened (with partners) the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create uniforms for the French Army. However, Thimonnier was almost killed by an enraged group of French tailors who burnt down his garment factory because they feared unemployment would be a result of his new invention. They had no idea that the industry they were destroying would actually end up employing untold numbers of workers across the globe. The fact is, like many of us today, they feared change.
In 1834, Walter Hunt built America’s first, semi-successful sewing machine which only sewed straight steams. He later lost interest in patenting because his daughter believed his invention would also cause the unemployment of women. However, Hunt did invent the safety pin!
The first machine to combine all the different elements into one was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher’s patent, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine.
In 1846, the first American patent was issued to Elias Howe. Howe’s machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating what is called the lockstitch. Howe encountered problems defending his patent and marketing his invention. Although he made a good needle, his monster machine would never have caught on. It could only sew in short straight lengths. However, Howe made several fortunes. Not from producing sewing machines, but by suing everyone that did! In addition, those he did not sue he charged a ridiculous license fee! Ironically, Elias Howe’s death in 1867 was also the year his needle patent expired.
This brings us to a name synonymous with sewing machines…Singer! The road to Isaac Merritt Singer’s sewing machine invention was a rocky one, too, filled with lots of litigation over patent infringements. One such court case was brought by Elias Howe against Isaac Singer. Isaac Singer attempted to invalidate Howe’s patent, to show that the invention was already some 20 years old and that Howe should not have been able to claim the royalties from anyone using his designs. Since Walter Hunt had abandoned his sewing machine and had not filed for a patent, Elias Howe’s patent was upheld by a court decision in 1854, conclusively giving Howe the patent rights to the eye pointed needle. If Hunt had patented his invention, Elias Howe would have lost his case and Isaac Singer would have won. Since Singer lost, he had to pay Elias Howe patent royalties.
Singer went on to build the first sewing machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side and the needle was powered by a foot treadle. Previous machines were hand-cranked! However, Isaac Singer’s machine did use the same lockstitch process that Howe had patented and a similar needle, plus other elements of Thimonnier’s and Hunt’s inventions. Singer also developed the continuous stitch machine and he founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of personal sewing machines. By the end of World War I, Singer was offering hand, treadle, and electric machines for sale.
But men weren’t the only sewing machine inventors! In 1873, Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland, Maine (1840-1922) patented the first zig-zag stitch machine! Helen Blanchard also patented 28 other inventions including a hat-sewing machine, various improvements to sewing machines, and surgical needles!
While the first mechanical sewing machines were used in garment factory production lines, it was not until 1889 that an electric sewing machine was mass produced for use in the home. By 1905, Americans all over the country were beginning to sew with electrically powered machines. This resulted in women having a reduced role in household chores, and allowed more hours for their own leisure as well as the ability to seek outside employment, thus increasing the income for their family. More income allowed for families to be able to afford more sets of clothing, too!
The sewing machine’s effects on the clothing industry resulted in major changes for other industries as well. Cotton production needed to increase in order to match the demand of the new clothing factories. Other industries benefited as well, such as metal companies who provided for parts of the machines and shippers who moved the increased amounts of goods. In addition to being important for clothing production, sewing machines also became important in the manufacturing of furniture with upholstery, curtains and towels, toys, books, and many other products. Wow! Amazing how the invention of the sewing machine has impacted our history, our lives and the world around us!
To celebrate the invention of the sewing machine this September, invite a few like-minded sewing enthusiasts over for a delightful breakfast. I’m sure they’ll be “sew” delighted!
© Kathleen R. McKissick