Happy December! I’ve been out of the office for a little bit so, here’s a guest post on the history of sewing machines from Emma Reeves. Sewing is an art and pastime I’m very passionate about. We’re always drumming up the most darling outfits and sewing projects for Classic Sewing magazine. Find a comfy seat, and discover the history of this amazing craft below.
Sewing is an age-old art form that has been mastered and modernized like never before. Many of the advancements in sewing can be attributed to an invention that sewists rely on frequently: the sewing machine. Mahatma Gandhi called the sewing machine “one of the few useful things ever invented.” The sewing machines of today are portable, easy to use, and available worldwide, but this was not always the case. Sewists are indebted to those who have made this marvelous invention a reality.
People have been sewing by hand for thousands of years, often just with a simple needle and thread. The tide of sewing began to turn in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is dispute about exactly who deserves the credit for the sewing machine because the work of many individuals has made the sewing machine into what it is today.
Although there had been several efforts to create mechanical aids to sewing, in 1790 London cabinetmaker Thomas Saint patented a sewing machine designed for stitching leather together like when making saddles and bridles. Saint’s invention used an awl that punched a hole in the leather for the needle to pass through; it was patented, but apparently never developed.
Nearly a century later, when the blueprint for Saint’s machine was rediscovered and followed, the resulting product was impractical and needed drastic improvements. In the meantime, enterprising inventors worked to refine the basic design, but several met opposition because of a widespread fear that such an invention would take jobs from tailors and seamstresses.
One of the first commercially successful—albeit brief—efforts came from Frenchman Barthélemy Thimonnier, who patented his sewing machine in 1830. His invention, which used a hooked needle and made a chain stitch, was so effective his machines were used to produce uniforms for the French army. Unfortunately, his workshop was destroyed by a group of tailors who were incensed by his machines putting them out of work.
Walter Hunt was an inventor from New York who designed a double-thread sewing machine in the 1830s. Unlike Thimonnier, he abandoned the project because he feared it would take jobs from tailors and seamstresses.
Elias Howe patented one of the first practical sewing machines on September 10, 1846, using a needle with an eye at the point and an automatic feed. Unlike today, the needle in Howe’s machine worked horizontally and used a shuttle to make a lockstitch design. To promote his machine, he held a competition between his machine and five seamstresses. The sewing machine was faster and produced higher quality work, but it was still controversial.
Because his sewing machine was not selling in the United States, Howe took his efforts across the pond. He spent two unfruitful years in London and returned to the United States a poor man. In his absence, many sewing machine companies had been founded and were selling machines that infringed on his patent rights. Howe won many lawsuits because of this, but the Howe Machine Company was soon overshadowed by Isaac Singer and I.M. Singer & Co.
Isaac Singer was one of the businessmen who had based his machines off Howe’s design. He was sued by Howe but was able to keep producing his machines. The machine Singer patented in 1851 was even more practical than Howe’s design. Singer’s sewing machine was the first to use a rigid arm and a foot treadle, allowing greater speed. He continually made improvements to his design and Singer has been a prominent name in the sewing industry ever since.
The sewing machine continued to increase in popularity throughout the 20th century, even after a slight set back. After World War I, home sewing declined as manufactured clothes became more readily available. But by 1926, the United States Patent Office was overrun with different patents related to the sewing machine.
In the mid 1930s, a new lightweight and portable electric machine helped home sewing make a resurgence. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, sewing machines became automatic and programmable, allowing sewists to do more complicated designs and stitches.
Today, sewing machines come in countless varieties to meet every possible need a sewist might have. These machines represent hundreds of years of technological advances and have truly transformed the industry of sewing. Each time a sewing machine is used, the sewist is adding another thread to the rich history of sewing, one stitch at a time.
What’s your favorite sewing memory? Order Classic Sewing magazine’s Holiday Issue for beautiful smocking designs and festive garments.