Willcox & Gibbs
The Willcox & Gibbs chain stitch machines are
one of the most collected sewing machines of all time. Some say
the sewing machine represents the finest piece of '19th Century'
precision engineering in the world. This is hard to argue with
seeing that so many are still working on a daily basis 150 years
beautiful lines and superb stitching make
them a collectors dream. Today every collector and enthusiast has
at least one W&G in their collection. Sewing machine eye candy at
its very best.
tell you what I have learnt about this amazing machine and the men
who built it.
Askaroff Youtube clip on Willcox & Gibbs.
Edward Allen Gibbs
Edward Allen Gibbs was
the son of Richard Gibbs, a
from Rockbridge County, Virginia. He was born
three miles as the crow flies from Raphine on 1 August 1829. His
mum was Isabella Poague Gibbs from Connecticut. As James grew he
worked, like all children in those days, for his father on the
farm and in his father's carding business. Carding was a popular
business as wool and cotton had to be disentangled from clumps
of fibre into a continuous thread for cloth manufacture by the
use of cards which were basic brushes with wire pins that
stripped the wool into straight fibres.
In 1845 a fire broke out
in his father's carding business, which he ran from a mill on the
farm, and it completely destroyed everything. The business
ruined, James at the age of 16, decided to leave home and strike
out on his own. I can just imagine the arguments that happened
that year and the sorrow as a family and business was torn
Little could they imagine as their son walked away from
the farm with all his worldly goods over his shoulder that one
day he would own hundreds of acres of Rockbridge and live the
life of a lord of the manor.
Over the next few years
James tried his hand at what he knew best, the carding
business, but each attempt failed to make a living, it was a
highly competitive trade with many slave owners undercutting
prices. So James tried a bit of work
as a carpenter, machinist, millwright and even a bit of
surveying until he sliced a chunk out of his own kneecap while
clearing pines in West Virginia. Seven hard years pass in these
various trades and travels.
Over the winter of 1851-52
James, now 22, is found helping in the construction of a saw and grist
mill (grain grinding) for one Colonel S Given in Nicholas County. Here he used
his piercing blue eyes and easy manner to good use on the Colonels' daughter.
Catherine Given was smitten and in the late summer of 1852
Catherine and James were married. They went on to have four
No sooner were they a couple than he set of again to
Pocahontas County where he took up his old trade of carpentry.
So how did James get
started in the sewing machine business?
years, like most people, James rarely
saw the outside world except what arrived in
the papers of the day. In 1855 James came across a picture,
(a woodcut) of a
& Baker machine in a newspaper. The
Grover & Baker machine was being sold all across America and
advertised regularly. He was transfixed by this new gadget that
had the potential to change the world.
Over the next
few months in his spare time he tried to copy the construction
of the machine working out how each piece must work. He did this
with his carpentry tools, a
penknife, chisel, a few farm tools and some wood
and spare bits of metal. Keen
Because he had
only seen the top half of the
Grover & Baker sewing machine he had to imagine how the
bottom would work.
discovered that the needle was attached to the needle arm, and
consequently could not pass entirely through the material, but
must retreat through the same hole by which it had entered. From
this I saw that it could not make a stitch similar to handwork,
but must have some other mode of fastening the underside and,
among other possible ideas of doing this, the chain stitch
occurred to me."
early attempt at a sewing machine his models went on to be one of the best-selling sewing machines of
all time and certainly the longest production run of a single
model in the history of the world. This in turn made James Gibb
James later named the huge farm he bought 'Raphine Hall' from the Greek, Raphis,
"to sew." Legend tells, that he became so well known and
powerful that Raphine Community was named after him. In 1876,
when James had amassed a fortune he bought his eldest daughter,
Florence Gibb (who had married Benjamin Cason Rawlings) a farm
near Raphine which they called Las Vegas. Ben Rawlings had been
a gold prospector and Civil War Veteran.
James Edward Allen
Gibbs wooden patent model, nothing like the
model that finally went on sale. The innovation was the underneath
looper to catch and twist the thread.
Click here to date you machine...Dating
Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines
does James fit into the invention and the development of the
sewing machine? This is
where his stroke of genius came in.
Edward Allen Gibbs
manufactured a lower revolving hook to catch
the top thread and twist it into a loop to lock it into the
fabric with the following thread. His later hooks were much improved on this first method;
which tales say he carved from a piece of twisted mountain ivy.
It was this twist in the thread that gave the stitch flexibility
and strength, something no other chainstitch machine did.
assembling the top of my engine from descriptions and images I
used what came to hand to fashion the thread catcher or 'looper'
beneath. I could shape a piece of hard ivy into the different
contours needed to grasp the thread and hold it for the
necessary duration of the stitch formation. With the use of a
steam kettle and a blade, after 47 separate and exasperating
attempts, I found the ideal shape that performed the task. I
then set about fashioning this most intricate piece out of
metal. It was a hugely time consuming effort."
Early patent diagram describing the motion
of the hook which unlike other hooks held onto the thread until
the second stroke of the needle caught it again.
James Gibbs had not realised
yet was that he had
invented a completely new method of sewing. In
fact he did not even patent it for a while.
However by April of 1856 James had found that local sawmill
owner, John J Ruckman, saw the potential of his machine. James sold him half
the interest in his machine.
Using the income from selling half his idea, James Edward Allen
Gibbs decided that he would hop on the train
and head for Washington, the centre of new ideas in America at the
time. In Washington he ploughed the streets, shows and fairs looking to
see if anyone had a machine similar to his.
Singer model A
made by the pioneer and multi-wife holder Isaac Singer
in a shop and examined it carefully.
Some say he saw his first real sewing machine being used in a
tailors shop in Virginia. Anyway
realising that his idea was completely different to a
machine he knew he was on to a winner.
None of the machines he
encountered on his travels looked or operated exactly like his.
They were also heavy cumbersome beasts and amazingly expensive.
So he hit the Patent Office and after detailed research found
that he had two ideas that no one had patented, his looper
method and feed method. He
needed to get his machine patented as soon as humanly possibly.
Isaac Singer was busily patenting anything that could be used
in sewing (as were hundreds of others). The race was on. For both
of his unique ideas, he applied for patents.
Now all he had
to do when he got home was make a smaller, cheaper, metal, working model and he was in
The 1856 Gibbs sewing machine
This amazingly early Gibbs sewing
machine, courtesy of Mike from Wolfgang's, is one of only a
handful that exist pre-patent around 1856. There was no under-feed
mechanism and no bottom thread. See the slipper that pulled the
work through on top!
Made in metal the James Gibbs sewing machine
would be half the price and half the size and half the threading
of his competitors. All he had to do was
get his patents. He
had one minor patent granted but in 1857 he hit the
United States Patent Office
Jas E A Gibbs Application 17427 June 2 1857
To all whom it may concern:
Be it known that I, James E A Gibbs of Mill Point in the county of
Pocahontas and the State of Virginia, have invented certain new
and useful improvements to the sewing machine. The design is
intended to use a single upper thread caught caught by a lower
looper or revolving hook. The thread-loop having been caught and
twisted half a revolution, or one hundred and eighty degrees
between each stitch is then released into the next loop of thread.
This method is repeated to form the continuing stitch from the
single upper thread. The material to be moved forward by
pressurised wheel gears.
James Edward Allen
Gibbs, patented the
first practical and workable chain-stitch single-thread sewing machine on June 2, 1857.
This was after his earlier patent for part of a sewing machine
was awarded patent number 17,427 on his machine.
This is J E A Gibbs of Mill Point, Virginia
later 1858 patent showing a much closer similarity to the models
we collect today.
You can clearly see that his first Patent machine was nothing like the
actual machine that went into production. By the time the Willcox
& Gibbs chain stitch arrived on the sewing scene it had a standard
A B Wilson Four-Motion-feed rather than cloth-feeding wheels
or pulling slipper.
The 1860 Gibbs chainstitch
I have to say that on his
early machines there are at
least five patent dates that pre-date his. This
is because he had to use (an pay for) other peoples patents under licence. One
patent was as early as
1846! Probably one of the Howe patents.
Willcox & Gibbs formerly founded
Willcox & Gibbs
1857 The Partnership Begins
The partnership consisted of the
inventor, James Edward Allen Gibbs and his investor James Willcox
and James' son, Charles Henry Willcox.
now a businessman, carpenter, farmer, millwright, surveyor,
machinist, engineer and patent holder became an entrepreneur.
went into partnership with
James Willcox (and
also James Wilcoxs' son Charles Willcox
who was keen to get into a
Both the Willcox's were
entrepreneurs, investors and manufacturers of new fangled
ideas. James Willcox had made his money as a
hardware merchant and, as his businesses flourished, he looked
for new ideas to invest in. His son had an inventive streak and
the pair were instantly drawn to James Gibbs. He seemed to be
the perfect man with the perfect idea.
worked mainly with
Charles Willcox (who was only 17 when they first met), Charles
Willcox and James Gibbs became firm friends and worked together
for many years.
James Edward Allen Gibbs 1829-1902
J E A Gibbs a very 1860's look.
I Wouldn't like to meet him in a dark alley! Descriptions at the
time comment on his large nose and piercing blue eyes.
Gibbs later recounted,
in 1857 selling the first of my first two inventions in the office
of Emery, Houghton and Company, when James Willcox came in. He
remarked that he was a dealer in new inventions, and he asked me
to come to his shop in a Masonic Hall and build a model of my
machine for him".
People assume that it was Gibbs who was the
inventor but Charles Willcox took out loads of patents on the
Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine. It was C H Willcox who patented
the Automatic tension, patent 43819, feed improvements, patent
44490 and 44491 in 1864. Willcox also patented the method of
removing the twists in the thread that caused so many missed
stitches on the early models. Patent 43657 was for his hemming
feet and patent 42036 was for noise reduction on the feed.
basic design of the
W&G machines were based on the two main patents taken out by
Gibbs in 1856
and 1857. The patents related to the formation of a
twisted chain stitch
by a rotating hook and straight eye-pointed needle.
here you can see that Willcox & Carleton
Page on dating Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines.
This 1861 patent clearly shows Chas Willcox
as the inventor of the unique W&G needle with the grooved shank
that made sure all needles went into the exact same position on
the W&G machines. Another simple stroke of genius.
Charles Willcox, the son of James, became a prolific improver
and inventor on behalf of the W&G sewing machines. He made
countless improvements to the sewing machines including the big
one in 1875 when he invented the Automatic Tension for the W&G
machines that transformed their machine into a best seller
around the world.
The Willcox & Gibbs Trademark on all their
Brown & Sharpe
James Gibbs (now aged 29 years old) became a principal in
1858 in the new Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company.
He was on his way to becoming a rich man. I am guessing that
around this point he must have bought back his rights to his
invention from John J Ruckman as there is no mention of him to
be found later.
Willcox & Gibbs
then engaged the firm of J. R. Brown
Sharpe of Providence, Rhode Island, to produce their sewing
machines. This was a stroke of brilliance as
B&S worked to super fine tolerances. B&S continued making W&G machines
until after the Second World War, finishing in 1948 when they
returned to their engineering roots. They are still
one of the premier precision engineers in America, though the
last of the family connections finished in the 1990's. In 2001,
Hexagon, a Swiss based company, bought the Brown & Sharpe
assets. Brown & Sharpe (in name only now) still employ around
200 staff in Rhode Island.
Charles Henry Willcox
15 December 1857
in the beginning David Brown and his son
Joseph Richard Brown opened
a shop in Providence under the name David Brown & Son
in 1833, for making and repairing
clocks, watches and
undertaking other precision work.
Lucien Sharpe joined the business as an apprentice in 1848
and became a full partner in J.R. Brown & Sharpe in 1853.
Lucien Sharpe also went on to join the W&G company.
they were a small company, working out of little more that large
sheds to begin with, they were about to expand at a phenomenal
rate. Originally working out of small buildings
by the 1870's they had expanded into a purpose built
manufacturing factory in
Brown & Sharpe,
Rhode Island 1865
You can just see the W&G machines on the
front table. This is the birth of mass production at the company
as orders rocketed.
Sharpe grew into one of the finest precision engineering
America. To begin with the castings were made down the road by
The New England Butt Company (their premises still
survive) but as the company expanded
B&S built their own new in-house foundries.
Willcox and James Gibbs helped with setting up Brown & Sharpe for sewing
machine production. They spent 26 months painstakingly
collecting and building
specialised machinery to enable them to mass produce the W&G
sewing machines. They visited several small arms manufacturers
to get ideas of mass production and used them in their setting
The cost of specialist metal lathes were the biggest outlay but that soon
became irrelevant as orders exploded.
biggest problem that they encountered was producing and
perfecting the hook mechanism that James had originally carved
out of mountain ivy. However this, like all the other problems,
were eventually overcome.
By the 1870's Brown & Sharpe had grown into
their own purpose built units in Providence, Rhode Island. in
1964 the plant moved to North Kingstown.
You can say that
the W&G sewing machine was the first truly mass
produced sewing machine with every single part easily
interchangeable. This meant extraordinary production figures
could be met as each sewing machine could be assembled in less
than half an hour.
sewing machines were
started in the spring of 1858 and
finally finished in November 1858 and by the
outbreak of the American Civil War they were producing thousands
of sewing machines a year.
initial order to B&S was for just 50 sewing machines but after their
successful completion, a further order for another 100 machines
was placed with the company. This helped take away some of the
losses of the huge set up costs that had spiralled to ten times
their original figures. The orders then went up to 1,000, then
10,000. Profits soon started to roll in.
In the same
year Willcox & Gibbs opened their New York sales offices to
promote their machines.
1859 Scientific American.
One cannot but admire the beauty and accuracy
of the machine's movements, and the entire absence of all noise,
even when it is running at the rate of two-thousand stitches and
upwards per minute.
New York City
Charles Willcox, who,
along with Sharpe, oversaw
few major production problems
& Sharpe because they
were such excellent engineers, makers of clocks, watches and
measuring instruments so they were used to
working with super-fine tolerances and to a high quality. It was
these points that were later to produce the wonderful machine
collectors seek today. Also their training schemes were so good
that unskilled apprentices were enrolled and slowly taught their
skills over a training period of five years.
Patent 29448 July 1860
Be it known that I, Chas H Willcox, Assignor to
James Willcox, of New York of the County of New York and the State
of New York have invented a means of securing the correct position
of the needle in the needlebar. The adjustment of the needle is an
important feature and often falls to untrained women and children
employed as machinists to try and accomplish this. It has long be
desired to accomplish this by an automatic action, without failure
and with no need of skill.
Among those who
worked on Willcox and Gibbs machines at the Brown and Sharpe
factory was one Henry Leland who was in charge of the
sewing-machine assembly department from 1878 until 1890.
(See a little note
of interest I have added at the bottom about
And so in 1858, the company had finally began the manufacture of a chainstitch sewing
machine which gained popularity at once. Half
the price, half the size and half the threading.
While Grover & Baker
and Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines were selling for around
$100, the Willcox & Gibbs machine sold for $50.Incidentally
that was double what
Richard Mott Wanzer would later sell his Little Wanzer lockstitch
for. A considerable sum in 1858 when the average wage was $4 a
Don't forget the weekly wage was
little more than a few dollars in 1858. This
would make todays price of a W&G machine the equivalent of around $3,000.
The machines were a
great success as they were cheaper than the competitors and
generally regarded as the most reliable of any single thread or chainstitch
machines. Gibbs advertised his machines as having an elastic
chain stitch and they certainly handled many different
fabrics with ease.
Machines have a wealth of patent info on them. This one is very unusual
as having an 1846 date. In fact there are five pre-1857 dates!These
were patents that they used under licence by W&G for a fee (like
the Elias Howe patent of September 10th 1846 shown above). Once all
these patents expired it was no longer necessary to have them on
the plates. It is a handy way of dating your W&G besides its
Note how, if
you look at the back of a W&G machine, the profile
or outline of the machine
is a perfect G, a clever little idea apparently
patented by Gibbs had so that you
could instantly recognise his machine.
Charles & James Willcox and Allen Gibbs one of the most famous
sewing machines in the world had been put into
mass production. Most of the
patents were taken out by Willcox & Gibbs but in 1871 more patents
(June & July) were taken out by Willcox & Carleton.
then in 1875, the brainwave of all sewing machine brainwaves, an
sewing machine in the world without a tension
All parts interchangeable
of the best things about the W&G machines is that all the
components were checked with very accurate watch and clock gauges to ensure that all parts were
easily interchangeable. This was truly mass production on a superb
quality and scale.
Their machines were much lighter and smoother
than the competitions and were ideal for such difficult tasks as
With sales flourishing
from Willcox &
offices on Broadway in New York,
W&G were establishing themselves as major players in
the sewing field.
Free trials at home was another stroke of genius as no one would
want to give a machine back once they had used it.
The Automatic No Tension Sewing Machine
possesses features and advantages which make it the most
valuable sewing machine in the world. It is superior and in
advance of every other machine. It is the only sewing machine
in the world without a tension.
Ladies careful of health should have no other.
Willcox & Gibbs 658 Broadway New York.
Let us go back a little and look at exports in the early years
of the company.
Willcox & Gibbs Hand Cranks
Due to the weight of shipping the
machines to Europe and England, the firm had special hand wheels cast,
(been there it's great).
These hand wheel
or hand carank versions were
completely different to the large cast iron treadle ones that sold
in the States and have proved a great favourite with collectors.
Coalbrookdale has been referred to
as the one of the most extraordinary places in the world. It was
where the industrial revolution all started in the 18th century. A
steep valley with the fast flowing River Severn cutting through
its middle it was the perfect place.
It had all the mineral
resources in abundance and pioneers like Abraham Darby and Thomas
Telford concocted their magical potions. They made miracles come
true and changed our world forever. If you ever have the chance to
visit this beautiful place you will be inspired. Early
Coalbrookdale iron and steel is highly collectible today.
They say that only 1% of hand wheels were
manufactured at Coalbrookdale.
spending a few weeks at the seaside
or in the country, or when travelling
find the compact hand machine a great convenience.
An early Coalbrookdale Willcox & Gibbs Hand
crank assembly. Only the Coalbrookdale hand cranks had these
special markings. 99% of all W&G hand cranks machines were not
cast in Coalbrookdale, making these ones particularly rare.
went on to advertise their superb machines in many ways.
one thread will do, why bother with two,
To break, to confuse, and to tangle?
There is not a sound when my looper goes round,
No shuttles or bobbins to jangle.
I am quick, yet I make not a single mistake,
You have only to keep me a-going.
And never will I shirk the least bit of work.
But do all the family sewing.
All have confessed, that I am best
For fine robes for dear baby I prepare;
While the boisterous boy will fail to destroy
My work with the roughest of Wear.
And when the fair maid is for bridal arrayed
I make with the neatest of seams,
The elegant trousseau, that gratifies you so,
And fills the fond lover with sweat dreams.
the machine was a hit and sold like hot cakes.
Britain, orders we initially taken by a Miss Headdon of Fleet
Street as can be seen from the advert below.
Willcox & Gibbs European arm was set up in the late 1850's at 37 Moorgate Street.
In 1859 they moved to larger more prominent premises at 135 Regent's Street, London.
& Gibbs later had their European
head offices at 150 Cheapside
and 20 Fore Street, London. The
same road incidentally as Frister & Rossmann and several other major
manufacturers and importers like The American Sewing Machine
Co. They must have all known each other and been in
competition with each other.
protected their machines as well as possible and advertised
strenuously to stop people
from buying similar
Back to America...
When Civil War broke out
in 1861 James Gibbs, a passionate Southerner, journeyed from his
New York home to join up in the Confederate Army. Unfortunately
after just a few weeks into service (in the cavalry) he contracted
typhoid and then pneumonia and was sent home to recover.
After recovering James
bought up his old home and acres surrounding it in Rockbridge
County and rejoined the Confederate Army, this time as a
lieutenant in the Ordinance Department. In Virginia Valley he
oversaw the manufacture of Saltpetre, but as the war spread to
valley, his home, and his works were laid waste by the Union
James and his men escaped
and on 5 June 1864 they fought as a unit in the battle of
Piedmont in Augusta County. Here he once again came up against his
old foe Major General David Hunter, the very same man who had
laid waste to his Saltpetre Works and his home.
The battle was a disaster
for the Confederates.
The Confederate leader, Brigadier General William "Grumble"
Jones was killed in a charge during the engagement and the
Confederates were routed with appalling casualties, which only
came to an end with a spirited rearguard action by the
retreating Confederates near the Village of New Hope.
As the war finally came to
a close, James Gibbs was a ruined man, his Confederate uniform
was in tatters and his home a wasteland. All he owned was his
burnt land and the clothes he was standing in. He borrowed fresh clothes and
money and made his way to New York to see if there was anything
left of his sewing machine business that he could sell to feed
James and Catherine had
four girls at the time. They were, Florence Gibbs, Cornelia Gibbs, Ellabel Gibbs and
James made his way through
the hustle and bustle of New York City to his old premises at 658
Broadway. To his astonishment the business was still there and
more amazing still, open! He walked in only to be
greeted by startled James and Charles Willcox who both had
assumed he had been killed in the war. To James' amazement they
went on to tell him that they had deposited all his commission
into a bank accounts for him and the total now exceeded over
$10,000. A huge fortune in 1865. During the war they had made
and sold over 60,000 machines!
No sooner had James settled
in the best hotel in town, men took him to the finest tailors in
New York and had him clothed and bathed and they all dined together
as old friends. His partners had cleverly salted away his money
under different names and accounts, as if it had become public
knowledge that the money was for a Confederate, it would have
immediately been confiscated.
money to Catherine for her and the girls. The worst of times
were at last over and the slow recovery of one man and one
In 1866 James cleverly
refused to to become an officer in Willcox & Gibbs when it
was incorporated as a Company and issued shares. This may have
been a wise decision because of his Confederate roots, which were
still being persecuted. The company continued under the control
of directors Sharpe (from Brown & Sharpe), Willcox & Willcox, though still trading as
Willcox & Gibbs to the public.
Even so when James Gibbs
went to get his patents extended (as everyone was doing because
of the loss of profits during the war), his was refused because
as the court put it, He had engaged in rebellion, and thus his
patents were invalid.
However the firm engaged in such a
forceful attack that by 1872 the patents were extended for "the
good of all and the world." James made sure that his fellow
Southerners were able to purchase his sewing machines.
machine for the
Willcox & Gibbs
28th North Ninth Street
Stockwell brothers (Howe) also had dealings with W&G now run
by Sharpe & Willcox. These dealings came to a head in 1874 when
Alden Stockwell tried to enforce his claim of 1,500 shares of
the W&G company that he had secretly procured. If successful this would have given him control
of the W&G company and his competitors.
It all ended up in
Supreme Court Chambers with judge Lawrence presiding. It appears
that it was an aggressive take over bid to which Sharpe and
Willcox sought an injunction on the grounds that the purchasing
of the shares had not proceeded 'clearly or correctly'.
They were successful
with their claim and W&G continued trading under Sharpe and
James Gibbs continued to
live quietly with his wife, under the radar, building a beautiful
house on his old wasted farmlands with money earned from his
As he aged he pottered around in his purpose
built workshops inventing and patenting dozens of new sewing
machine ideas and even bicycles. His new home was called
'Raphine' Hall after his old friend that that started it all,
the needle. In 1883 Raphine Station was opened by the railroad
on his land.
James Gibbs retired in
1886 after his wife fell ill, she never fully recovered and the
following year in 1887 Catherine Gibbs died of typhoid Fever.
Heartbroken James struggled on until in 1893. At the age of 64
James married a girl from Augusta County called Margaret Craig.
They never had any children.
of an era
In 1902, suffering from
prolonged bouts of illness and paralysis, James Edward Allen
Gibbs, one of the pioneers of the sewing machine industry died.
He was 73. James had lived a full and amazing life, one of
adventure and invention. He will always be remembered as the
young man who saw a simple drawing of a sewing machine and went
on to invent not only a unique and beautiful sewing
machine but to see it through from beginning to end, to conquer
every difficulty thrown in his path and pull through. One of the
true Sewing Machine Kings.
I hope you liked my
research. What do you think of it so far?
The following below is
useful information that I have gathered over the years for
Willcox & Gibbs enthusiasts, I hope you find it helpful.
Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines
By clicking on the link above you will be taken to
the page with Willcox & Gibbs serial numbers but as many of the later
machines were not recorded there has been several methods to try and
help with dating your Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine.
To work out an
approximate date of for the A series (only
for machines with the
letter A, Automatic, before the number) try this formula.
This is by no means perfect but does work in many cases.
the A and remove 279638 from your number. Divide the number you have
left by 17500. Then add the first two digits of the number you have to
1877. This should give you an approximate year of manufacture.
If your number comes out below 1, for example .78888888 then your
machine was made between 1876 and 1879.
Example of letter A, Automatic, prefix Willcox &
Gibbs chain stitch sewing machine made after 1875.
Take the number
above, ignore the A, (545351),
minus 279638 from it. Divide by 17500. Answer,
15.1836. Ignore everything but the first two digits
(15). Add this
to 1877. 1877 + 15, bingo. Approximate year of manufacture 1892.
Also Courtney Willis has kindly worked out
another even easier method of dating the Willcox & Gibbs machines
with the A, Automatic prefix. Thanks Courtney.
Divide the serial number by 8,000 and then
By averaging the two dates in the middle,
using both methods, you may get close to your manufacturing date.
I do hope that helps
you work out a rough age of your little W&G machine.
If anyone out there has worked out a better dating system for the missing W&G dates do let me know:
Willcox & Gibbs Models
Now let us talk about his
amazing machines crafted in the letter G after his initial.
Willcox & Gibbs started at
No 1 with their patent model and from then on any alteration that
went into a model was denoted by a model change, however small.
Although there were literally hundreds of different chain stitch
models they were all very similar.
The Model B Willcox & Gibbs had
a scrolled base but little else was different. No one has yet come
up with why it had this base? Some say it was when castings were
damaged in the foundry the workmen scalloped the base to
remove/hide the damage. This however does not explain the
uniformity of the scallops, unless all the damage occurred in
the same places each time!
For example a simple
change to the tension denoted another number. The incorporation of
the new Willcox needlebar, another number. The grooved needle
another. So Willcox & Gibbs model numbers quickly shot up although
to the normal eye little difference was seen.
Willcox & Gibbs model 64
The most popular model
that we all know is the model 64 chain stitch above, post 1876
which is the stable mate of many a collection around the world.
Nearly every important development in the W&G was in this machine.
class agents sought for Jamaica and the West Indies. Apply in
writing to Turnbull & Lees, Harbour Street, Kingston, Jamaica.
sewing machines supplied from our own houses. Special Agent for
Willcox & Gibbs, Care of Middleton, Freer & Co.
Below is the hat machine
model 200. Really very similar to the 64 but with a free-arm
sleeve, different tensioner, threading and far larger feed to help
the hats through. A rare machine today since the decline in hat
Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine for straw
hats, they also had machines modified for pleating and ruffling,
binding and hemming.
This is the real deal, Willcox & Gibbs model
200 free-arm hat machine serial No S1689 sent in by Dr Manfred
Once all the main patents ran out manufacturers
were entitled to copy the best idea on the market. These ran from
7 to 14 years maximum.
It is well known that
Frister & Rossmann bought out an
almost identical chainstitch to the W&G.
They in turn sold these models to The American Sewing Machine Co
(A British firm funnily connected in some way with the importers
Eldredge Automatic sewing machine was a straight copy of the W&G
Eldredge Chain Stitch Sewing Machine
The New Home Chain Stitch copy of the W&G's
Krus & Murphy clone of the W&G,
still a beauty and super rare today. I missed this one at auction
and still kick myself.
The Edredge Sewing Machine
Company was formed by its founder Barnabas Eldredge in 1865/6.
Later he combined with the June Sewing Machine Company founded by
F T June. The June company were busy manufacturing Jennie June's a
Singer 12 New Family clone.
Manufacturing moved to
Belvedere Illinois where a huge factory grew employing hundreds of
skilled workmen. They made a large range of machines supplying all
the usual stores and outlets.
Upon the death of June in
1890 Barnabas Eldredge consolidated the two companies into the
National Sewing Machine Company. He remained in charge until his
death in 1911 though the company continued on for many years.
While trading as the
National Sewing Machine Company they continued
with the W&G clone and in Europe they had offices at Fetter Lane, London.
Eldredge Automatic Sewing
Machine, later to become the National Sewing Machine.
Other copies of the W&G were also Meyers of Leipzig and Clemens Muller
who had similar machines.
There were at least 30 Willcox & Gibbs clones around the world.
Some of them very rare today.
Frister & Rossmann
Chain-stitch sewing machine
A super rare W&G copy, Frister & Rossmann's Berlin
now in my Sewalot collection
Due to the superb engineering of the
Willcox & Gibbs
chain stitch machines they were popular for many decades and remained almost
unchanged except for minor feed modifications since the introduction of the Automatic Tension in 1874-1876.
The pre 1874 models had a
glass tensioner models and are now extremely rare.
Standard threading, oiling and parts for the Willcox &
Simplicity, Speed and Silence
The pre-1875 non-automatic
tensioned W&G machines are pretty similar
in build. Actually I prefer the early machines with the
adjustable tension, oh, and they are worth a lot more.
The most perfect regularity and beauty of any
Gold medal winners Vienna 1873.
is a picture from one in my collection. They rarely survive in
this condition and it is worth looking at your normal machine and comparing
the differences, there are many.
Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines
The Willcox & Gibbs machines were available
on free trial they were so sure that you would love them!
Civil War enthusiasts love
this model as the stitch it makes is the real thing that men in
uniform would have had there clothes made on. Below is the early
pre 1875 Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine. It is worth noting the
An early 1866 model Glass-tensioned Willcox &
sewing machine. Some came on deeper wooden bases.
1887 a Willcox & Gibbs Automatic machine was selling in the UK
for £6 with its box and bits.
Now, with the average wage at under
ten shillings a week in Britain this represented a sum of 12 weeks wages!
What would that be today. Average wage £300 a week times that by
12. Now you see why they are such good buys on Ebay. Grab one
while you can before they rocket again!
can understand why these beauties have survived, they were built
with no expense spared and were little masterpieces of Victorian
engineering. Today technology has marched on but you will never
beat this model for sheer quality.
1862 Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine
As I have said the main or
Chief Office was at 20 Fore Street, London but they had agents in
most cities in the UK. Here are the Willcox & Gibbs shops and
offices that I am aware of...
Willcox & Gibbs
Manchester.................. 83 Mosley Street
Leeds............................ 87 & 89 Park Lane
Leicester.......................94 High Street
Birmingham..................Bright Buildings, John Bright Street
Glasgow........................75 Renfield Street
Main European Agents
Belfast...........................12 Dublin Road
Paris...............................20 Rue Des Petits-Champs
Milan.............................5 Viale Piave
Brussels.........................51 Quai Au Bois A Bruler.
agent was possibly Otto Carl Goltz who also had premises in
The James Gibbs sewing
James Gibbs sewing
machine. James did not only make the
usual models, this is from an 1877 patent application.
The Willcox & Gibbs
Company carried on trading for decades and had manufacturing
plants all over the world making all sorts of machines and
attachments. Later they merged with MEC and became MEC-Willcox.
Principle Offices in England
were 94-96 Wigmore Street, London. 135 Regents Street London. 150
Cheapside London. In New York the address became 214, West
James Gibbs died on
November 25 1902 and is buried at Mount Carmel Presbyterian
Church cemetery, Rockbridge County, Virginia. The impressive
monument simply states, James E A Gibbs, inventor of the Willcox
& Gibbs sewing machine.
Branch offices were all
around the world.
Belfast, 12 Dublin
Glasgow 80 West Nile
Leeds, 68-72 New
Brussels, 233 Rue
Leicester, 94 High
Manchester, 83 Mosley
Manchester, 16 Cross
Nottingham, 25 Castle
Paris, 20 Rue des
Some Depots in England
Oxton & Co, Liverpool.
B. G Boom, Bristol.
J. Parkinson, Bradford.
D. Wheeler, Newbury.
Lindley, Taylor & Co,
W&G's continued right up to the 1970's
and some parts of the business even longer. In
the UK, Willcox & Gibbs had a
factory manufacturing sewing machines in High Wycombe,
In 1978 the
High Wycombe W&G factory was an
engineering plant with around 100
staff. They imported
castings from their foundry in the USA.
With Beaver computer controlled
machines the castings were machined
and then built into industrial sewing
machines were sent to America and
supplied to retailers around Europe. The rest of the work
was precision engineering for MOD and
Seagull marine engines.
At one point MEC-Willcox
was the largest distributors for sewing machine parts in the
world. They had come a long way from their roots in New York.
This special Willcox & Gibbs
was for making a curved or shell-edge on the fabric. Tricky
little blighter to operate.
Willcox & Gibbs sewing machines
Marketing was everything
with the sewing machine pioneers and W&G were amongst the best.
They advertised relentlessly bombarding the public with their
version of the chainstitch.
The Simple Truth
W7G advert from 1867
It is a
misconception put about by unscrupulous suppliers is that only a
shuttle machine produces a lock stitch. Shuttle machines produce a
stitch so devoid of elasticity that they cannot produce the
strength, beauty and permanence of the Willcox & Gibbs machines.
Chain Stitch machines produce a stitch so deficient in principle
that it can never be relied on.
loop stitch machines like the Grover & Baker produce a large ridge
of thread beneath the work that it is impossible to make a flat
produced by our machines has none of the defects mentioned. The
Willcox & Gibbs machines are of the highest degree and simplicity
in use. They produce a stitch so reliable, so perfectly effective
and so under control that a child may manage our machines
This advert was to show how the W&G machine
stitch held out while the lock stitch simply failed.
And now for
a little fact
Leland, one of the men at the Bowne and Sharpe factory went on to
devote the skills that he had learned on sewing machines to good
use, forming the prestigious Cadillac Car Company. How about that
for a cracker!
Crinkle finish electric Willcox & Gibbs
sewing machine 1910
By the end of the Victorian era
electricity was becoming more available and the Willcox & Gibbs sewing
machines worked flawlessly with an electric motor.
This is an amazing badge sent in by one owner
showing that Willcox & Gibbs may have also been made in France.
I have not tracked down the factory yet but the search is on! I
need my cape, magnifying glass and pipe.
Gibbs back in England
WILLCOX & GIBBS SEWING MACHINE CO, Ltd.,
94-96 WIGMORE STREET,
A superb addition to this page was supplied by David Clark in
January 2010. Thanks Dave.
David was factory foreman for Willcox and Gibbs at
their Poole factory in Dorset for several years.
Right up to the 1970's, in the UK, Willcox &
Gibbs had a factory, manufacturing sewing machines, in High
Wycombe, Buckinghamshire and another smaller factory in Poole
Dorset which concentrated on loopers, the looper holders, feed
bars, the feeders, the tiny segregating plate that separated the
cotton between the needles, in fact, most of the tiny high
precision components that went at the working face of the
Close up of the 1864 glass tensioner
Willcox & Gibbs that ran up until 1875 when it was replaced
with the automatic tensioner.
They also made pulleys for the flatlock and also
loopers for the overlock machines. The components were made to
very close tolerances, typically the thickness of the loopers
was tied down to 6 tenths of a thousandth of an inch over 4
components. As an example, a human hair is about 3 thousandth of
an inch thick.
The blade of a looper was about 32 thousandth of
an inch thick and we had to hang a 7lb weight from the end and
the looper must not take a permanent set or bend.
The Poole factory also made the rotating hook for
the earlier machines. These were made from investment castings.
The shaft was ground to size and had a flat milled on to it. A
washer was soldered onto the shaft to but up against the end of
the shaft running under the machine. The hook was polished all
over and machined and polished so the hook was in the correct
position. We were still making these hooks in the early 1970s.
I was told that although old, these machines were
in daily use making straw hats for the locals. I believe Taiwan
may have been mentioned.
Division of Willcox & Gibbs
In 1978 the High Wycombe W&G factory was an
engineering plant with around 100 staff. They imported castings
from their foundry in the USA. With Beaver computer controlled
machines the castings were machined and then built into
industrial sewing machines. They were flatlocks and overlockers.
The stitch from the flatlock had, I believe nine
threads, four under the feed bar fed through the four loopers,
four fed through the top via the needles and one thread that
went backwards and forwards through the threads by using a
swinging cross hook. This stitch would stretch and go back and
was widely used in babies and toddlers clothing.
The finished sewing machines were sent to America
and supplied to retailers around Europe. The rest of the work
was sub contract engineering work, precision engineering for the
MOD and crankshafts for Seagull outboard motors. At one point
MEC-Willcox was the largest distributor of sewing machine parts
in the world. They had come a long way from their roots in New
Work in the Poole factory varied depending on the
state of the pound versus the dollar. This meant the order book
would range from 3 years to 3 months depending whether it was
cheaper to manufacture in the UK or the states.
I am not sure when the flatlock was first built
but certainly some of the drawings we were working from were
drawn by Bowne and Sharpe and I seem to remember a date of around
1923 on some of them.
about Amelia Earhart
Company legend was that (after the brilliantly
successful G design by Gibbs) the very first flat-lock Willcox &
Gibbs sewing machine shape was designed by Amelia Earheart (the pilot).
Brown and Sharpe. (Oh how I would love that to be
What was left of the Willcox
& Gibbs Company traded as MEC Willcox
in Britain and concentrated on supplying industrial parts to the
trade. I loved the company as they always delivered next day so
I could ring for a part and get it by 7.00am when the postman
delivered (the good old days eh).
In 1999 MEC Willcox merged with Bogod of London and
by 2005 were trading as
Eastman Bogod. Eastman Bogod became a division of Eastman
Staples Limited with their head office in Huddersfield.
placed orders with them for the last parts of the once famous W&G
chainstitch. As the company faded from history, like a shout
dying in the wind, I bought up the final parts that were
Eastman's and Bogod are still trading but
Willcox & Gibbs chain stitch machines have been resigned to the
history books and to collectors shelves. Once they were such a
power house of manufacturing that the great Isaac Singer could
only dream of matching them.
The James Gibbs wooden & metal sewing
machine of the early 1850's with unique hook mechanism to make a chain stitch.
Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of
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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.
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658 Broadway NY 1911
1931 Willcox & Gibbs electric sewing machine,
one of the later machines.
Books by Alex Askaroff: Books
Well that's all I know
about the Willcox & Gibbs. I spend
endless nurd-hours (that's a phrase I made up) researching and writing
these pages so do let me know what you
thought or if you have any information to add or spot the spelling
mistakes which I am always making:
I have enjoyed reading your research about Willcox and Gibbs
also about the American civil war. My Granddad at one time in
his life lived in Aberford a small village in Yorkshire his
address was Bunkers Hill which is the name of a famous battle in
the American Civil War The Gentry owners of the estate were
Southern sympathizers and had funded the Southern Army they
named the street after the battle.
Kind regards Ken
Fancy a funny read:
Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
A brilliant slice of 1940's life:
Alex's stories are now available to keep.
Click on the picture for more information.
for a great true story:
I was thrilled to find your Willcox and Gibbs site. You spent so
much time on your site and your efforts were not wasted I am
sure many people appreciate your work as I do.
Your info on the Willcox & Gibbs chainstitch machine has by far
been the most informative information i've found on this
I recently found your site and youtube videos. Your site very
informative and getting all this history was wonderful. Thank
you very much for the obvious passion you have for your
I have gone through your website, again and again and it has
been a joy. I have a Willcox and Gibbs which I find amazing and
your article seems to support what a special machine this in the
history of sewing.
The Rev. Dale L. Cranston
Your article on the Willcox & Gibbs chain-stitch
me. Thanks for a great read!
Note how the first picture shows a Wheeler &
Wilson that obviously damages her health. No sooner has she
switched to a W&G she has made a miraculous recovery. WOW I want
I read your article on the W&G company with interest. My great,
great grandfather was William Wonnacott, President of the Wilcox
and Gibbs Sewing machine company. William was English and based
in London. I know very little of his life story but
I am aware from the gold pens that he
was awarded that he worked for the company for an amazing
82 years! It’s not quite a world record unfortunately.
Hi Alex , my name is Joanne
I have been browsing
your fabulous website regarding the Wilcox
and Gibbs chainstitch sewing machine.
I bought mine for 100 pounds. It sews
fabulous and going from your diagrams
I was able to thread it and sew first time. I did the dating off
your site and my machine is dated 1883. Your website has been
invaluable and think it's fabulous I really do.
I just read your superbly researched article on the Willcox &
Gibbs sewing machines.
I have just started my second history blog, Rockbridge Memory,
in which I will publish articles about people and events in that
region that interest me. With your permission, I would like to
include a couple of images from your website, with attribution.
I would also like to include a brief synopsis of Gibbs' bio
based on your work, with credit to you and a link to your
All the best,
I was very impressed with the
information you have assembled on the Willcox & Gibbs. Thank
J C USA
I recall the use of chain stitch sewing machines used at State
Farm Insurance (here in Monroe, La) to sew new pages to existing
client folder pages. When needed, the page was removed by
clipping the “unravel” end of the chain stitch and zipping it
out. When pages were added to the folder, they were simply
stitched back. The real advantage was no staples and staple
I recall seeing this being done in the 1963-63 era.
I’ve really enjoyed reading your site about Willcox & Gibbs.
I share your obvious passion for the industry. I’ve been in
the business since I was an early teen when my father worked
for Sunbrand (a Division of Willcox & Gibbs) in the sewing
machine business. So the W&G symbol will always shine a
bright light in my warehouse and offices where me and 4 of
my 5 brothers and sisters are still pounding out machines,
parts & supplies for the U.S. apparel industry every day.
I have recently heard that a German fellow bought the
Willcox & Gibbs name. Gird Lesmeister, (spelling maybe
out) owns Pfaff USA.
Collier Equipment Co.
I have a W&G machine I live near Raphine in Rockbridge Co and
had no idea Mr. Gibbs was from here. We are steeped in the Civil
War in these parts. On September 11 there is going to be a
re-enactment and the troops will be marching from this area to
Lexington. Our little Brownsburg Museum
has a terrific exhibit on the war in Rockbridge.
Thank you so much for your great research on Gibbs.
Henry Sharpe, the retired director of Brown & Sharpe, has hired
me to write a book about his family’s former company. In
researching the early days of the company I came across your
work. What a story Gibbs is!
Thanks for putting that together. Take care,
Gerald “Ged” Carbone
Books by Alex Askaroff
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