Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.
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A Brief History of the Sewing Machine
"One of the few useful things ever invented"
So, who invented the sewing machine! People are always asking me? It's a great story. Put the kettle on, make a nice cuppa and read all about it. I will take you on a brief and interesting history tour of one of the most useful inventions of the 19th century.
Here it is, eighteen oh one,
Me 'ousework now has all been done.
I'll drag out my piecework, to make a bob,
Sit me down, before the hob.
Turn the chair, to get the light,
Sew what I can, before the night!,
Here in the village, there's six of us,
Work needle and thread, our hands all callus!
We get brought the cloth, all cut out, in red,
We connects it all, by pulling thick thread.
The red dye, when the cloth is fresh, mind,
Stains our hands likewise, we find.
We don't get paid much, we all gripes,
But if I don't sew, me 'usband stripes
Me back wiv 'is belt! And , Oh, that 'urts,
I think I'd rather sew some shirts!
'E 'as no bleedin' pity in 'im, see?
Drinks all the money earned by me!
Copyright Rob Van De Laak 2013
By the middle of the Victorian Era sewing machines were taking hold but before that period all fabric would have been joined by hand, every single stitch. The method hardly changes since stone age times. Clothes were slow and timely to produce and cost a lot of money, even the thread cost a fortune. Factories around the world were employing people (mainly women because they were better at it) to sew all day long. I once heard that a factory in America employed over 3,000 women sewing by hand. As the population of our planet exploded and the Industrial revolution took hold someone had to come up with a solution of how to join two pieces of fabric quicker and cheaper than by hand. This in turn led to a fascinating trail of invention and failure. Some inventors died in poverty some became richer beyond all their dreams. One man, Isaac Singer, became famous. His name is still one of the most well known names all over the world.
So how did it all begin? First of all I want you to read a quote from one of the Sewing Machine Pioneers, James Edward Allen Gibbs. James was the son of a Shenandoah farmer born 1 August 1829. He witnessed the major development of the sewing machine. In 1901 he was interviewed about his inventions and patents. No other person alive was better qualified to quote on the subject. His words are absolutely crucial in understanding the development of the sewing machine.
"No useful sewing machine was ever invented by one man; and all first attempts to do work by machinery, previously done by hand, have been failures. It is only after several able inventors have failed in attempt, that someone with the mental powers to combine the efforts of others with his own, at last produces a practicable sewing machine."
That is the crux of it. Sewing machine manufacture started slowly and was constantly interrupted. However in the 50 years from 1846 the sewing machine went from a circus attraction to a necessity for every household. The Victorian era, with its massive expansion in industry and technology proved to be the fertile ground from which the sewing machine grew.
By the year 1900 over 20 million sewing machines a year were being produced from factories all over the world. It is true to say that no single invention was as eagerly accepted by people in all four corners of the planet as the humble sewing machine.
Stitch ! stitch ! stitch !
fingers weary and worn,
So who actually invented the sewing machine?
Was it the Germans who invented the sewing machine? They think they did. Was it the French? Yep, they know it was them. How about the British! We invented everything. Didn’t we? The Chinese? In their 5,000 plus-year history and all that silk, they must have invented it...No! How about the Egyptians and all their cotton! No hieroglyphics of sewing machines discovered yet!
The truth is many nations can claim that they invented the humble sewing machine, read on...
What we have to do is look at the facts that we know at present. There is no saying that the facts we have today are written in stone and that some Russian won’t crawl out of the Siberian wastelands clutching a wood and ivory sewing machine made by great Uncle Ivan.
Even back as early as the Elizabethan Period and later in the time of King Charles I, in the 1640's, people were applying for early patents or royal letters of protection and monopolies for weird and wonderful mechanisms. However we have no firm proof of the machines and as poor old Charlie came a croper we shall never know. In 1649 they removed his head! His hand stitched and blood stained shirt is on display at Longleat.
So we had better go by proven dates. The first inventor of the sewing machine that we can be sure of was patented in England in 1755. Yes! Come-on-England. Where did I put my flag!
One Charles Weisenthal (Ok, so he was German, but, he was in England) took out a patent for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing. Unfortunately, what sort of mechanical sewing we do not know for a description of the machine was not properly mentioned in the patent.
Back once more in England, in 1790, Sorry America, Thomas Saint really cracked it. Not only did he patent a sewing machine but also he provided enough plans that a replica could be built. British Patent No. 1764 was awarded to Thomas Saint, a London cabinetmaker.
Due to several other patents dealing with leather and products to treat leather, the patent was filed under "Glues & Varnishes" and was not discovered until 1873/4 when the British sewing machine pioneer, Newton Wilson, was researching his history of the sewing machine. He stumbled upon Thomas Saint's chain stitch machine and was amazed. He actually built a working model using Saint's patent drawings and a few modifications.
Though the exact replica of Saint's machine did not sew people often patent things with great urgency to protect their inventions. Also patents are rarely the exact final product that comes onto the market. In the case of Thomas Saint a few minor modifications were made to his machine and it sewed like a dream. There is no doubt he would have made these modifications.
Note the case of Elijah Grey! He should be a household name but I bet you have never heard of him? Let me tell you why. Elijah was beaten to the patent office by a few hours by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell went on to patent the talking wire, Elijah went home in tears and faded into oblivion.
In fact recent discoveries have shown that many people actually filed slightly altered patents to stop industrial espionage. Copies of patents were valuable and often sold to the highest bidder. Saint may have even deliberately filed a patent that he knew would not work to protect his main ideas while he perfected his machine!
So now we know that Saint's patent needed some modification to sew but I have no doubt he would have performed the modifications if he could have so we must give him brownie points for effort though no points for giving up early. Perhaps he had an urgent cabinet to finish?
The modified replica above does sew! Mind you weird looking or what! Can't see that catching on in a hurry. It looks more like some printing press or medieval instrument of torture.
But I have to say, yeehaaa… Another first for England, along with cricket, golf, rugby, soccer, snooker and my favourite…Afternoon tea—promptly at four with cucumber and salmon sandwiches.
In 1804 we go to France where Thomas Stone, (not a particularly French name) had patented a machine that we know nothing about…Yet!
That must have been a good year as we have two other gentlemen on the scene, a James Henderson and a canny Scot, and Mr Duncan, for an embroidery machine. Again, nothing has come to light about their machines but we live in hope.
Balthasar Krems was born on November 27th 1760 in Mayen, Rhineland and
died at the age of 53 on may 4th 1813 in the same town.
Because old Balt did not patent his design we cannot be sure of the exact dates or his exact designs, but we do know he was German, yavol!
Now across the border to the land of snitchzel, googlhump’s and leaderhosen...Austria.
The year is 1814, Napoleon is about to meet his Waterloo and Josef Madersperger, a humble tailor is building the first of several machines.
Although he had been working on his machine since 1807 it was not until 1815 that he was granted patent rights on his model.
He had tried in vain for years to get his machine right and in 1839 he almost cracked it and in 1841 his machine was awarded a bronze medal but could not find a manufacturer to take it on.
Josef had invested every penny in his invention and spent his whole life working on it. However he was still making the same old mistake trying to make his machines copy the hand movement of sewing girls.
Eventually Josef gave his model away and a few years later, in 1850, he died a pauper in the poor house in Vienna. Sounds tragic but dying rich ain’t no picnic either!
He is still held by the Germans as the inventor of the sewing machine. They even have a statue of him.
Hold on I hear you shouting! What about America! Well at last, we come to the home of the brave and the land of the free.
In 1818 John Knowles and his partner, Dodge, strap on your guns boys! Made a sewing machine. It really stitches! But there is a catch! Isn’t there always! The machine will only stitch a few inches of cloth before the cloth has to be taken out and reset. What a waste of time. Much faster to still carry on hand sewing, so chuck that in the bin!
At this rate it looks as if no one is going to figure out the first piece of engineering to enter the domestic household. But we have not finished, the wheels of the industrial revolution are turning and great minds are at work.
In 1826, Henry Lye of Philadelphia, PA, patented a sewing machine of sorts but fire destroyed the patent office and his invention. Don’t worry there is more fire coming up!
We now skip back over the ocean to France, home of frogs legs, brie and snail snacks. I bet their buffets are fun!
In 1829-30 the first real sewing machine that we know of was born. Barthelemy Thimonnier (I'm going to call him Bart now as it makes my head hurt spelling his name) took out a patent for a barbed needled to be used in his sewing machine.
Bart's wooden machine was not a hit with the French tailors.
The machine, made of wood, actually worked, producing a chain stitch, you know the sort of stitch you find across potato sacks. In fact it worked so well that he gained a contract to build loads of them. They were used to sew uniforms for the French army. Below is his American patent application many years later.
States Patent Office
Be it known that I, Barthélemy Thimonnier, Aine, of Amplepuis, Department of Du Rhone, in the Republic of France, a citizen of France. Have invented or discovered new and useful improvement to the sewing machine for the forming of stitches in fabrics.
Before long Bart was sewing away with dozens of machines taking work from the hungry tailors of Paris. We all know what Frenchmen are like when their blood is up. Madame Guillotine was still warm from their revolution. In 1831it all came to a ahead at his workshop in Rue de Sevres where 80 of his wooden machines were busily sewing away.
The angry tailors, now out of work because of the modern machine gathered outside Bart's premises and stormed in.
At first they threw garlic at the machines but to their amazement they bounced off!
They decided to have a booze up and torch Bart’s workshop. The crowd watched as poor old Bart headed for the hills, his business in flames.
Bart, unperturbed and with that usual French resilience, started all over again with an even better model. Nevertheless, those sneaky tailors knew what he was up to and set about the poor fellow, this time with far more powerful weapons, strings of onions!
Bart fled to England just like the many aristocrats that had feared for their lives during the French Revolution years earlier. Where was the Scarlet Pimpernel when he was needed eh!
Bart flogged his patents to a company in Manchester but never regained his former success and although he had made the first reasonable sewing machine it did not stop the poor old tailor ending up like his Austrian counter part. Poor old Bart died in poverty in Amplepuis on the 5th of August 1857.
I have a much fuller or in-depth history of Barthelemy Thimonnier on his own page.
We have to step back a little and ask ourselves why were so many workmen afraid of machines. Well it all boiled down to jobs. They had no idea that the industry they were destroying would actually end up employing untold numbers of workmen across the globe. The fact is, like many of us today, they feared change.
To make things worse for poor old Bart he probably witnessed the birth of the real sewing machine industry as when he died in 1857 many of the major inventors had produced practical sewing machines and made loads of dosh from them.
However, we are jumping ahead. I do hope you are enjoying the history so far.
Newton and Archibold
In 1841 Newton and Archibold, in England, designed a chain-stitch machine employing an eye-pointed needle, little else is known of their invention. No fun there, I am missing those French tailors already!
So where do we go now, Japan, no, India…Could be! No, we are off to America, la-la-la-laa-America. Where’s my hotdog and mayo!
John James Greenough
In 1842 John James Greenough, patented a sewing machine with a stitch forming mechanism. It had a device for presenting work onto a double pointed needle with an eye in the middle! How weird is that! I bet he pricked his fingers a few times!
In 1843, Dr Frank Goulding of Macon, Georgia also created a sewing device but once again he failed to develop it, as did Walter Hunt.You'll read a little about him later and he has his own page.
What a lot of failures we have in our story! No wonder no one trusted Singer's invention when he tried to sell it…Oop’s now I given the story away!
We are getting close to the real inventors so stay with us…
The problem is that no one has yet invented a machine that was much good and they all looked like medieval torture instruments until Walter Hunt.
On the right is a machine from 1850, you can see what I mean, who could use such a monster!
It looks like the machine has eaten its operator with just her petticoat showing.
But times are-a-changing and below is a picture of Walter's machine.
For the first time we see a machine that we can recognise as a sewing machine. One that can be sold to every household.
Things are looking, up especially in America where the inventor of the Safety Pin was hard at work in his basement.
The first American inventor of a sewing machine that actually works! But they are still trying to copy the movement of the human hand.
Walter Hunt is in his basement. He is arguing with his daughter. Walter has made a sewing machine that produces a lockstitch. What is more it is not the old fangled type that tried to copy the movements of the human hand. It is a brand new design that really works. It even had two spools of thread. The year is 1834.
Don’t forget threads had been around for centuries before the sewing machine. Have you not read my history of thread? Shame on you! Even sewing threads had to be modified to be used on sewing machines.
His machine took two spools of thread and a needle that looks similar to the ones we use today. It produces a lockstitch. It’s only drawback was short seams. Look on the positive side, it would have been great for dolls clothes!
Walter’s daughter is giving him an ear bashing in the basement. Does he not realise how many women will be put out of work if he patents his sewing monster! People will starve in the streets!
Eventually Walter gives in and leaves his invention to gather dust. Little did he realise that firstly, he would actually create endless jobs for workers as sewing machines made clothes cheaper and more available to the masses. But also, he would have become rich in the process. Then he would have been able to send his aggravating daughter to Swiss finishing school.
Walter Hunt was a prolific inventor and must have had mixed feeling about people because he also invented a repeating rifle!
Still, Walter disappears from our story. He does reappear patenting an improved model of his earlier invention in 1854 (some 20 years after he first developed it) but it is all way too late by then. He also appeared in many court cases between several of the larger sewing machine characters all bluffing their way through court, but that’s a long way off. If you read my history on Isaac Singer you can see what part he played and the devious tricks Isaac got up to.
Walter Hunt will always be remembered not for the sewing machine but for another point in history. He invented the safety pin! See what I did there!
Mind you, he also invented a sort of cure all life preserver tonic. Probably early Wild West snake oil. Best forget about that. So let us finish with this colourful character and get back to business.
In 1844, back in England, John Fisher patented a lace-making machine that sewed. However, the patent was misfiled and John did not pursue his invention.
The year 1844 was a good year for in America a young farmer was about to shake the sewing world.
Elias Howe finished his machine in 1844 and patented it a year or so later. A Massachusetts farmer, Elias went on to become one of the richest men in the world and then his wealth disappeared as quick as snow in summer.
Howe's 1846 patent. It does not look
much like a sewing machine!
Elias tried in vain to sell his contraption, it had no takers in America. The poor farmer had spent months perfecting a machine that once again copied a hand movement. However he had several good ideas that were similar to Hunt's and took the precaution of patenting them.
He travelled to England where his brother, Amasa, had found a possible purchaser and backer. All this ended in tears and a disappointment, Elias headed home.
On arriving back in America he found things had changed. Much like the computer industry today, a year can be a long time, with new developments taking place almost weekly.
Elias found that in his absence sewing machines had hit the big time. Dozens of sewing machine companies had sprung up and many of them were using his patents! Especially his clever needle with the long groove in it to protect the sewing thread that kept unravelling and snapping.
Elias went ballistic, suing everyone he could, including our most famous sewing machine entrepreneur, Isaac Singer. Isaac, in 1850, had won a bet, So he say's, to make a better sewing machine than what was available on the market. It was patented in 1851 and changed the world.
Have you read my work of art? The brief history of Isaac Singer? Well why not? Do it this instant! He was as bad as Leroy Brown the baddest man in whole damn town.
Elias Howe was poor at selling his sewing machine but brill in court he must have had good lawyers. He made a fortune. He made two fortunes, not from producing sewing machines but suing everyone that did.
In addition, those he did not sue he charged a ridiculous licence fee, just like the BBC does to us here in England.
Eventually, Elias and the other big boys in the sewing industry got fed up with fighting and got together. They formed the Sewing Machine Cartel. Then they fought everyone else. What fun! It was totally illegal and was brought to an end years later by a change in the law. However they all made a mint out of it while it lasted.
Howe then went on to write a rather dubious history of his side of events. This painted him as the only real inventor of the sewing machine. A rather far-fetched picture by all accounts. His monster machine would never have caught on. It could only sew in short straight lengths. Mind you he made a good needle, better than almost anyone at the time.
Just for your records or school project the cartel were, Mr Wheeler and Mr Wilson, Isaac Singer, Mr Grover and his partner Mr Baker and of course Elias Howe and a few small fry that we won’t mention. If you click on the links of each individual you can go and read about their stories.
It was Wilson that really helped with his method of feeding the work through the machine with a set of teeth. It was called the four-motion-feed and is still used today.
Elias could not have been all bad as he used some of his enormous wealth to equip a whole Union infantry regiment in the American Civil War then enlisted himself, as a private.
Out of all these manufacturers, by 1851 Isaac Singer had the best machine. It incorporated many features that we still see today. He really won hands down with his treadle which allowed both hands free for sewing.
Although Isaac cannot be credited with any major invention, (he allegedly copied just about everything) he did make a blinder of a sewing machine and had a few patents to boot. You just have to read my story on him, loads of scandals. It’s better than Sex in the City. Isaac Singer.
Of course the answer was there in front of us all the time. Isaac's machine bears a startling resemblance to the gearing and shafts on water mills that had been grinding flour for over 2,000 years! His genius lay in copying and then improving on what was around at the time. Was there a little bit of Japanese blood in him?
At least Singer's model A looked like a sewing machine!
Basically, the human mind rarely makes huge leaps in technology. In fact I think it is just about impossible. If it was we would have evolved much faster than we did.
I think people see an idea and improve on it. Which, I believe, is what happened with the sewing machine.
The perfect example is James Edward Allen Gibb. He saw a picture of a sewing machine, the top half, and went to work. He made a perfect sewing machine. Unable to see the bottom half he invented an entirely new method of stitching. What we ended up with was the stunning Wilcox & Gibbs Chainstitch machine.
Just one more before it all gets messy.
In 1851 C T Judkins was already exhibiting and selling his weird box-shaped sewing machines. At the Great Exhibition in 1851 Charled Judkins demonstrated his power driven machine by sewing nearly 500 stitches into fabric in one minute. As a point of note his was the only British sewing machine exhibited. How that changed in a few short years. The world was ready for the sewing machine.
From the early 1850’s, the handful of inventors turned into hundreds, then thousands and tens-of-thousands.
The most useful invention of the Victorian era
The Singer Company went on to perfect the sewing machine and dominated world production for the next century. A century of Singer's
To begin with the press were not very positive about sewing machines.
The general impression has sprung up that the invention on the whole is a failure.
Illustrated London News 1854.
The first mass produced domestic appliance in history had arrived in the household. However it was not so simple as you may think. The first reliable sewing machines were here at last but because we had been plagued by countless poor and faulty machines before so no one trusted these new sewing machines. However once the factories got their production right sewing machines were on a roll.
They say that gun makers like Winchester and Samuel Colt toured the sewing machine factories perfecting their mass production techniques for arms.
Many of the factories that had tried the first machines had their fingers burnt and were reluctant to waste more money, especially while labour was so cheap.
Isaac Singer went into overdrive and his early acting skills came into their own as he paraded his machines around like a fairground attraction.
Slowly Slowly sewing machines started to sell in numbers.
Holloway, Crowe & Holloway, Stroud, Gloucestershire, England
From our new machines we can produce hundreds of pairs of men's working trousers a week. The days of the poor needlewoman are over.
By the middle of the 1850's everyone could see the light and from then on it was all down to good marketing. Some, like Singer and Pfaff were marketing experts and their machines flourished. Many, like poor old Josef & Bart mentioned earlier, died in poverty.
By the late Victorian period the sewing machine had been hailed as the most useful invention of the century releasing women from the drudgery of endless hours of sewing by hand. Factories sprung up in almost every country in the world to feed the insatiable demand for the sewing machine. Germany had over 300 factories some working 24 hours a day producing countless numbers of sewing machines.
By 1926 the American patent office had over 150,000 different patent models. Tricky dusting those!
Within decades, millions of sewing machines were being sold to every corner of the world and all our clothes looked much better!
Today, there are some sewing machines that are so advanced they can scan a pattern, duplicate it, then store the pattern in case it is needed again and maintain themselves. In addition, if that is not enough, they actually speak to you when there is a problem. Boy do they drive me mad when I am fixing them!
So there we have it, a brief history of the first sewing machine inventors. As clear as mud! Like I said at the beginning, many countries can claim to have given birth to the first sewing machine, but like Elias Howe and Isaac Singer found out, it would be hard to prove in court.
Not as boring as you thought eh! Scroll down...
When you next look at the humble sewing machine stop for a second and wonder how the world would be without it. I will leave you with one final quote from the Victorian press.
" In the history of the world the sewing machine has freed more women from the drudgery of manual labour than any invention to date!"
A brief history of the invention of the sewing machine, without the boring bits.
Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work. I spend countless hours researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought: email@example.com
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Sussex Born and Bred, and Corner of the Kingdom
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Please forgive any inaccuracies I do try by best. Do let me know if you spot anything.
A great read: Ena Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires
I loved your article about the invention of the sewing machine.
for the wonderful story of how the sewing machine came into being.
And for the wonderful way in which you write.
from Chilliwack BC CanadaMr. Alex,
your articles for sewing machines are perfect!
I don't know the published day of the article about sewing machine's invention history, but It was very helpful for my paper I 'm working on, for university!
Easy and enjoyable to read!
Your extended and detailed research work about sewing machine and its history, shows your true love for it!
Thanx Again for your contribution to sewing history!
I loved your website!
University of Crete, Economics Department
Oh, Alex! I love your site already, but this page is just wonderful! I
While I have your attention have a
quick glimpse of Singer machines in their first century.
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