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.
Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of
his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway
to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer
will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all
built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century.
For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is
brought to you by Alex Askaroff.
Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.
Have you ever wondered how long sewing threads have been around?
The answer is almost as long as humans have walked on two legs. The first threads would have been little more than thin leather, animal tendons, sinew or twine. Many ancient tribes knew which local plant or tree gave the best thread such as honeysuckle, reed and cactus. In Europe Clematis or Old Man's Beard was used for millennia as twine, it has amazing strength.
From Costa Rica to the Philippines Abaca or Manila Hemp was grown for fibre, thread, rope and later paper. The Yucca plant, native to the Americas, has a wonderful gift, its sword shaped leaves end in a ferocious point. If you peel the point away carefully a thread comes with it that you can sew with.
Our early ancestors knew all about these gifts from nature.
As the centuries went by we learned advanced ways how to fashion natural materials for our own use, to twist materials into threads such as fine wool and silk and then cotton, History of Cotton. Finally we mastered nylon, polyester and other synthetic threads.
The first needles or bodkins were animal bone, flint and wood, later bronze and eventually steel so fine that they could pierce the most delicate silk without a mark.
Even today you can still cut a thorn from a blackthorn or hawthorn bush and make a perfect needle that will pierce leather! Holly was a favourite needle with sewers as it has supple strength and ideal for small needles. Net makers used them right up until the 20th Century.
I still know a couple of traditional net makers who use wooden needles made from the holly tree. It has remarkable abilities to keep its point and not break.
For centuries the centre of the needle industry for the entire world was Redditch producing the best needles on the market such as Milward's and Able Morrall's.
The Forge Mill next to Bordesley Abbey, Redditch, is well worth a visit. The museum provides a fascinating insight into the early working life of the industrial revolution where children as young as 4 worked for a living! Charles Dickens was delighted to see upon his visit that the age of children working at the Redditch Mill had risen to six!
The Redditch needle industry kept the secret of fine needle making closely guarded. There secret was in the endless grinding and polishing of the needles with fine grinding powders. The water powered machinery proved so successful that it was used for generations.
How did thread manufacturing start in Britain?
Firstly we must just mention Henna Wilkinson from Rhode Island, the first American woman to ever gain a patent in her country. In 1793 Henna was awarded a patent for a cotton sewing thread which she had twisted on her spinning wheel. The thread did not sew that well but she did go down in history as the first inventor.
However the real invention of the first super sewing thread (which led from a single mill to one of the largest companies in the world) all started in Scotland in the early part of the 19th Century.
We must just mention why cotton thread came about at the time it did.
Enter The Bogeyman
In 1806 nasty Napoleon Bonaparte (where the name 'Bogey Man' originally comes from, Bonepart--Boney--Bogey) was on the warpath. Children were scared with tales of 'the Bogey man is coming over the water to get them'. What horrible parents eh!
Napoleon had made a blockade around the coast of Britain which made trade almost impossible. Smugglers and convoys could break through the blockades but the goods they smuggled were expensive and silk thread was way down the list below alcohol and other commodities.
The defeat of his fleet at Trafalgar left him embittered and out for vengeance. This stopped almost all but the most ardent trader from bringing goods to England. All ships were prey to the French fleet and manufacturing was suffering.
In turn the silk threads, that had been used for sewing, became scarce and incredibly expensive. An alternative needed to be found if manufacturing was not to collapse.
Jonas, James & Joseph Brooks
Silk threads are highly collectible today and make a great display. They sewed better than cotton and had more flexibility. Another bonus to silk was that the shine reflected the fabric so it matched better and became almost invisible. However there was a huge drawback, the cost. One reel of silk was as much as one weeks wages in 1870!
While a few skilled smugglers managed to break through the blockades in the dead of night, their vessels often painted matt black and set with sails at both ends to move silently in and out of moonlit bays. Silk was smuggled from all major ports in Europe. Unlike skeins of silk fine Italian silk was often wrapped on straight wooden cards with wood end caps to stop it from unravelling. Then placed in partitioned packing boxes for travel.
What would happen with if we could not join fabric together? A thread substitute was needed to keep the sewing ladies of Britain supplied and the sooner the better.
The cost of threads rocketed as did tobacco and booze. Great years for the smugglers! Brandy for the parson and silk for the lady!
The booming silk trade had found its way to Britain with the arrival of the Huguenots (and one of my first French ancestors) when they fled from persecution. Many focused themselves around the Brick Lane area of London.
By 1851 Britain had over 100,000 silk weavers. Today there is only one fully working silk mill left in England at Whitchurch. Whitchurch Silk Mill, Sussex
A saying emerged around that time.
However we are jumping ahead, stay with me now! It is now 1812 and Britain is being blockaded and silk, the best sewing thread is a silly price. Hanks of silk from China and Asia could not get to England and an alternative was needed, fast! Everything was being reused even old tarred ship ropes were teased apart and rewoven.
With no hanks and skeins of silk, business was suffering all over the country. Now we travel to Paisley in Scotland. In fact with jobs suffering in the capital many of the old London silk weavers also travelled North in search of work, taking their silk weaving skills with them. So now we turn to Paisley.
Initially the local Paisley weavers had found a market making and supplying the larger cities with woven shawls, a 'must have' item and still popular today. These cottage industries around Paisley needed regular supplies of threads.
Plants produced Hemp, Hessian and Cotton and Paisley had become a centre for hand woven linen manufacture, with over 30,000 people being involved in this growing cottage industry. From the 1700's Mills were popping up like mushrooms on a damp August evening in Scotland and by 1760 there were over 100 mills twisting linen thread, but the times were a changing and cotton was coming to the town.
Clark & Co
in 1812, James and Patrick Clark were running a mill supply business in Paisley and the business was suffering badly from the lack of supplies. Napoleon's economic sanctions were crippling a country used to its luxury goods.
Patrick Clark came to our rescue inventing a method to twist cotton threads together to produce an excellent sewing thread for most applications. Patrick had been experimenting for years with different yarns for thread, flax proved too rough, wool to thick, Heddle twine to variable but with cotton Patrick Clark (sometimes referred to as Peter Clark) hit the nail on the head working out a new method of twisting and teasing cotton into a sewing thread.
The best cotton was from America and colonies of The Empire. Cotton could also be recycled from fabric so there was not so much of a shortage. The Clark Family, already supplying other threads from their mills started to supply the cotton sewing thread that old man Patrick had perfected.
The Clark Family were probably the first business in the world to mass produce cotton thread for sewing.
Invention of the wooden thread spool or bobbin
Right, we have to have a quick history lesson here to lay the foundation of how thread came about. To hand weave a small bale of cotton or weft into thread could take weeks of hard work by hand. For most of history cotton and other material was hand woven for use in the manufacture of cloth and from early civilisation right up until the 17th century things had not changed that much but then BINGO. Cotton was first spun on machinery in England in 1730.
You can just see the spools of thread on this Spinning Jenny. From this you can see how the smaller wooden spools evolved into the thread spools we know today.
James Hargreaves invention of The Spinning Jenny in 1764, changed all that as it sped up the process of cotton thread manufacture. This was basically a response to keep up with John Kay's Flying Shuttle of 1733 which had sped up cloth manufacture which in turn had increased yarn and thread demand by the weavers (by doubling their productivity). The Spinning Jenny could supply that demand.
Next, The Spinning Mule, invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779, spun fibres into yarn and thread even faster. It was a similar type of machine that spun the cotton thread onto cotton spools for hand sewing and later sewing machine use.
Engine or Cotton-Gin
A Massachusetts man, Eli Whitney, secured a patent on the cotton gin in 1793. Though patent records show that the first cotton gin could have been built by Noah Homes two years before Whitney’s patent.
cotton gin, where we get the abbreviation of en--gine, could work 10 times faster than
hand.The modern world had arrived.
The First Wooden Cotton Reels or Bobbins
It was sometime around 1820 that another invention came about that lasted right up until the 1960's. Wooden cotton reels.
Within a few years wooden cotton reels were being produced all over Europe but the very first consistent wooden reels that held lengths of thread were produced by the Clark Family in Paisley.
The Clark family turned birch wood spools from the Scottish forests and the smaller wooden spools were perfect for holding sewing thread. Basically a smaller version of the spindles used in the Flying Shuttle.
I would love to be corrected on this point so do please mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
On these spools you could have your thread supplied. The spools had a deposit on them (initially half-a-penny) so when you ran out of thread, if you brought the spool back, you could have it refilled. This was a stroke of marketing genius by the Clark Family as most people, finding how good the spools worked, took them back to the factory and naturally bought their cotton thread there at the same time.
The thread was wound onto the wooden reels with a spooling machine (some say invented by John Clark of Mile End Glasgow, though Barbour Thread also have a claim). So from this period the thinner cotton thread was stored for sale on specially fabricated wooden spools and the cotton reel was born.
The Belding Corticelli
The making of wooden spools became automated with industrial expansion and consequently cheaper. The spools could always be returned for the deposit on them, refundable on return of the spool. It was only when larger customers started ordering cotton reels in bulk that Clarks started putting labels on them. The first spools from the 1820's were just plain old Birch wood.
Cotton Reels, penny a bucket!
Mass production put an end to deposits on cotton reels and they became cheap enough to give away with the thread. I remember meeting a Paisley girl who as a child would hear the bell of the 'Paisley Cart' ringing along her street. Every Monday the horse drawn cart, containing all the broken and mis-formed or damaged wooden spools from the factories, were sold for a penny-a-bucket to locals for fire kindling. When production was at its peak the chimney stacks belched out black smoke and the whole town took on a the cloak of an industrial powerhouse. Apparently the locals could always tell what colour thread was being made by the colour of the river as the excess dye stained the river all the shades of the rainbow.
Master Bobbin Maker
Great mills grew in Cumbria around the lakes using Ash for bobbins. They fed the hungry Lancashire mills with their bobbins. As mechanisation flourished in the mid 19th Century bobbins became easier and cheaper to produce. the Master Bobbin Maker, using semi-automated machines became such a high speed craftsman that on a good day he could produce up to 3,000 ash bobbins. being paid piece work this allowed him a great wage and he often lived in one of the finer cottages in the area.
The Bobbin Borer
Bobbin boring was usually undertaken by women who were faster and more accurate than the men at the job. Once again it was piecework and the Cumbrian Mills around the lakes kept the cotton industry well fed all over Britain, whether it was for small cotton reels for home sewing, industrial bobbins for factories or loom bobbins for cotton weaving.
the end of the wooden bobbin
By the 1950's plastic was coming online and the last of the wooden bobbin factories slowly ground to a halt. Plastic became king until its welcome persecution in the 21st Century starting in 2018. I believe the Stott Park Bobbin Mill, on the shores of Lake Windermere, is the last mill up in The Lake District that still shows how the early Victorian bobbins were made. Run by English Heritage, it is on my list of places to visit.
J & P Coats
Now back to our thread history after that very interesting diversion into wooden bobbins.
I believe that we also have James Coats from the same area. James was from a family of weavers and seeing the success of Clark's opened his factory near his home in 1826 at Ferguslie Mill, Paisley, Scotland, and never looked back. In fact by the 1820's there were at least 15 mills manufacturing cotton in Paisley.
New Lanark Cotton Mills on the banks of the great river Clyde employed thousands of workers including 500 children from the age of six upwards! The largest cotton mill in the country was a massive employer for the area and when Welshman Robert Owen took the reigns he strived to make working conditions better for all.
Cotton Mills & factories Act
In 1819 Sir Robert Peel introduced The Cotton Mills & factories Act to regulate the use of children in the cotton mills and other industries. It forbade children under the age of nine from working in the cotton mills, however families tried to get around this law and children were taught to lie about their age to get work. It was a poorly enforced law.
After his retirement in 1830 his son's James (another James) and Peter Coats continued the Coats enterprise and from this point on all their threads were marked J & P Coats and so two of the biggest names in thread were established in Paisley and all because of the Bogey Man.
An early advertising card showing Gulliver taking thread to the Lilliputians.
The sewing machines are coming!
With the invention of the sewing machine threads had to change. Initially in 1846 Elias Howe had invented a sewing machine that worked but it was really Isaac Singer who changed the world with his amazing machine of 1851. As his machines spread across the world (and made him rich) a thread was needed that worked reliably on them.
If you make a mark on the thread on your sewing machine about an inch above the needle then carefully sew a piece of fabric by hand you will notice that the thread travels through the needle eye, up and down, many times before it is locked into the fabric.
The original two, three and four cord hand sewing thread was not strong enough for sewing machines and unravelled as it sewed. This was a nightmare for the new sewing machine industry of the 1840's but George A Clark, one of the grandson's, invented a six cord thread specially designed for these new fangled gadgets. Other manufacturers soon followed and a huge industry grew in supplying sewing machine thread.
George had somehow found a way to add a little elasticity to his reels of cotton thread (a closely guarded secret not used today) that allowed the thread to slide through the sewing machine thread guides with ease. Until the invention of the superior polyester threads, Clark's cotton threads were simply the best available all around the world.
The six-cord soft thread sewed very well and helped the sewing machine industry flourish compared to the wiry old hand-sewing stuff. The new 'extra quality' thread sewed on hand or sewing machine! One problem that was not overcome until the thinner stronger polyester threads was sewing very fine fabric with thick cotton. The extra added knots (from the lockstitch) in the fabric (when the fabric was already tight) caused puckering that could not be overcome. Besides that it was a practical thread.
This thread was labelled and each reel was marked with the initials "ONT" Our New Thread. Simple eh! I would love to find one of these reels as it would date it to around 1850.
By 1860 the Clark's factory at Paisley was booming. They won awards for their six cord threads at London and Brussels. They won gold at the Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Clark & Co became the unrivalled sewing thread for machines and smoke from the great factory darkened the Paisley sky. It was called Anchor Mills.
Silk threads were around years before Clark and Coats so look carefully in your sewing box, you may have an ancient reel or skein of thread in there.
1855 Clark's ONT Our New Thread
The Spool Cotton Company
By the 1890's the two Paisley thread companies joined and become one company, Coats & Clark became the Spool Cotton Company though both industries kept their separate identities when selling threads (to corner the expanding markets of the world). They traded as separately as Clark Thread Company J & P Coats.
By the outbreak of The First World War Coats had become one of the largest industrial companies in the entire world and all because of Napoleon!
In 1931 John B Clark was elected president of the combined companies as it expanded globally until in 1952 the companies merged completely becoming Coats & Clark Incorporated.
Dewhurst Sylko History
The Dewhurst Cotton company started with Thomas Dewhurst who bought a corn mill at Elslack, near Skipton, in 1789. He converted it into a cotton mill and spun cotton, using the river running by the factory to power his machines. More mills followed as the business expanded, the most famous being Belle Vue Mills in Skipton, built by John Dewhurst in 1828. From Belle Vue Mills the threads were shipped by canal across the country to docks and then exported across The Empire. The most important reason for the British Empire was worldwide trade all centered around our small island. Now let's step back a little.
John and Isaac Dewhurst, son's of Thomas Dewhurst, carried on the family business and became famous for their sewing cotton.
Dewhurst's enormous mill at Skipton with its 225 ft Chimney set the pace of time in the town with its 'mill buzzer' roaring out over the houses. The company perfected a wet twist cotton using three balanced cords. The thread was then 'gas shaved' before mercerisation to remove the fine whiskers of thread that made normal threads so fluffy. Sylko Three Shells Thread earned a superb reputation and many reels survive to this day.
Right up until the 1950's Dewhurst's employed over 500 people in the Skipton area but once again cheap imports and rising production costs slowly caused the decline of the business in Britain.
English Cotton Company
British Sewing Cotton Company
Marketed under the Dewhurst Sylko brand, it eventually became part of the The English Cotton Company. An amalgamation of over 14 companies in 1897 was headed by Algernon Dewhurst (John's Grandson).
Sylko, available in over 500 shades, became internationally famous but Coats, who eventually held the valuable Sylko name, (that had become so renowned) decided to discontinue it. No one has understood why such a valuable trade name was abruptly removed. It must have been for a really important reason.
It all gets a bit messy from here on, Dewhurst, part of the Ingham-Dewhurst-Illingworth Group was sucked up by Coats (Coats Viyella) after English Sewing Cotton or English Cotton Company or The British Sewing Cotton Company, sold out to Calico Printers who became Tootal in 1973.
Someone probably still has the rights to the Sylko brand they and are missing a marketing trick. An explanation would also be invaluable.
If you know why Sylko stopped being used as a brand name please do mail me: email@example.com
Sylko Crochet Thread
Barbour Campbell Threads Ltd
The earliest real of thread I have come across so far is a Barbour linen thread of 1784. Incidentally the same year that John Barbour (amazingly another Scotsman from Paisley) founded his business at The Lisburn Thread Mill, County Antrim, Ireland. Barbour's home-spun Irish yarn gained a huge reputation for quality for decades and was used for just about everything from stitching up humans on the operating tables to parachute cord. Barbour's Finest Cat Gut was in regular use in most hospitals.
There is a wonderful letter from Nancy, a descendant of the Barbour family, at the bottom of this article and well worth a read.
The American Civil War
The American Civil war created a worldwide cotton shortage, but also opportunities. In Ireland, linen production was already well established. Flax crops loved the cool wet conditions of Ireland and flourished there. Belfast factories were ideally situated to fill the sudden gap created by the civil war raging on the other side of the world in America.
Belfast became a boomtown doubling in size every few decades. During the Victorian Era Belfast became known as 'Linenopolis' with some factories employing over 5,000 workers. A few factories had over 1,000 looms powered by the latest steam engines. Belfast became the largest linen producers on Earth producing material and threads for a hungry market starved of cotton. People tell me that an old linen cloth is still the best window cleaner there is.
To stretch or not to stretch, THAT is the question!
There are the purists out there who still preach silk for silk, cotton for cotton, nylon for nylon and so on. These views do not take into account the stunning improvements in technology over the last four decades, especially when it comes to sewing threads. A good quality spun polyester will knock spots of almost any other sewing thread. See for yourself, run two seams on the same fabric and look at the difference. Polyester is stronger, more flexible, reflects the colour better, slips in-between the warp and weft better, reduces puckering better. In fact it is superior in every way (unless you are allergic to it of course!).
Why does your lovely quilt look so puckered, a thousand large cotton knots. that's why! Why does your dress not move properly. However stretchy your fabric if you 'lock' it in with a cotton thread it cannot move.
Some teachers preach that polyester cannot shrink like cotton does, however as it lays into the fabric it gives both ways so even if your cotton quilt does shrink you should still have a lovely stitch (unless your machine is at fault). Industry mainly switched to spun polyester over 30 years ago, giving reliability, durability and flexibility.
Advances in cotton threads have allowed them to improve slightly, but, that has been at the cost of strength. Yes of course sew with a cotton thread but remember what I said.
Here is a little Youtube clip I did explaining the difference between cotton and polyester threads.
When did polyester thread come into general use?
Polyester fabric was invented by two British scientists, James Dickson and John Whinfield in 1941 and from that point in history some fabrics were made with it. DuPont had the production rights from about 1950.
As polyester gained popularity more
and more fabrics and threads were made with it. The great thing
with polyester was that it had give in it and allowed the fabric to move
with the body. Thread that contained polyester stretched with the seams
rather than snap like cotton. It was like a minor
miracle, not since the use of silk had a thread performed so well,
looked so great and all at a fraction of the cost.
In my opinion the finest polyester threads
today are made by Gutterman and out perform cotton threads in everyway.
Another bonus is that polyester reflects the fabric it is sewn into and
can be two shades out each way but once in the fabric will look perfect.
Go on try it. Sew a white polyester into a cream fabric and see for
In the cloth manufacturing industry the yarn winder was called a weasel and to measure the amount of yarn wound a simple device on the weasel made a 'popping' sound at regular intervals so that the person winding could keep track of how much thread had been wound. There are many versions of the old rhyme but it is generally believed that it originated from the cloth industry in the north of England where children were regularly paid to wind the skeins of thread on the weasel. Here is one version from Skipton, circa 1830.
Half a pound of tuppeny rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
That's the way the money goes,
'Pop' goes the weasel.
A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle,
That's the way the money goes,
'Pop' goes the weasel.
Mummy taught me how to sew,
And how to count the cot-ton,
That's the way the money goes,
'Pop' goes the weasel.
Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff. Email me for details.
Well, that's it folks, I hope you enjoyed our little journey through the history of thread. Do let me know if you have found this useful, want to add something, or just enjoyed it: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sussex Born and Bred, Corner of the Kingdom
Fancy a funny free read: Ena, Wilf, & The One-Armed Machinist.
A brilliant slice of 1940's life: Spies & Spitfires
Well, that's it folks, I hope you enjoyed our little journey through the history of thread. Do let me know if you have found this useful, want to add something, or just enjoyed it: email@example.com
His great, great grandfather was George Clark who married Ann Henry in Paisley 12 Jun 1802 at Low Church Paisley. Their eldest son George born about 1823 in Paisley married Catherine Dunlop Ballantyne 13 Jun 1855 in Edinburgh.
His father was listed as George Clark, Designer and Thread Manufacturer, deceased. I know he was not a direct descendant of the original owner of the factory. Family history has it that the eldest son in this family is always called George with no second name. This makes tracing George Clark's line further very difficult. He called his eldest son George and his second daughter Jane Rae Clark.
Using Scottish naming history this should give his parents but there are so many George Clarks in that period I have had no luck. He named his second son John and eldest daughter Rachel Barclay Clark and this exactly matches Ann Henry's parents.
George Clark born 1823 was a manufacturer of sewed muslins, George Clark & Co. in Glasgow. I have records from 1851 up to 1872 when he died leaving three young sons.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The History of Thread. I bought a lot of old wooden spools at garage sales and wondered if any of them had any value. While googling...I came across your blog. The story of how Pop Goes the Weasel was so great! Thanks for the history lesson!
By the way, the Belding Cortecelli (sp?) thread company was located in Belding, Michigan, which is very close to where I live, in Grand Rapids. The tall smoke stack is still there, and I believe the mill is now protected.
Thanks again, Marcia
Barbour threads continued
I loved your article about thread. I am a descendent
of the Barbour family that had the big mill in Lisburn, Northern
Ireland. It was on 13 acres of land and was of brick, three stories
tall. The Barbours built a village of homes, community hall and
schools for the workers. At one time there were about two thousand
workers in this mill.
My 3 x great Grandmother came over from Scotland (Letisha Barbour and two
of her sisters) in 1765. They were accompanied by their Uncle James
Wilson (also a Scot) and settled in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
James Wilson went on to become a signer of the American "Declaration of
Independence." The Grandsons of the original John Barbour were sent to
New Jersey to open textile and thread mills.......Barbour and Sons. A
Barbour thread mill opened in Manchester, England and also in Hamburg,
Letisha Barbour bought an island in the middle of the Susquehanna river,
three miles long......and had a home, farm, orchard and fishing
business. She raised two sets of children, and had two
husbands.......Vanart and Lemmon. Long after her death the island
became a nuclear power plant......called three mile island and is
notorious for a nuclear leak.
Genealogy can be fascinating. Thank you for sharing your thread story.
Sincerely Yours, Nancy Clemens
I loved coming across this information. I have family History connected to this family.
Thanks for publishing it.
See Alex Askaroff on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mJYS44Vc8c&list=UL
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