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Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machines
A brief history by Alex Askaroff

Willcox & Gibbs chain stitch needles

 

 

 

  Alex I Askaroff

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.

See Alex Askaroff on Youtube

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-NVWFkm0sA&list=UL

Books by Alex Askaroff

 

    
the classic W&G machine circa 1890

 

 

 

  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 Victorian precision engineering in the sewing world.

Their 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.

Let me tell you what I have learnt about this amazing machine and the men who built it.

I have a short Youtube clip on the machine as well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdeINfVy8pM&feature=youtu.be

James Edward Allen Gibbs 1829-1902

James Edward Allen Gibbs was the son of Richard Gibbs, a Shenandoah farmer 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.

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 apart. 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 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 daughters. 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?

During these years, like most people, he 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 Grover & 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 or what!

Because he had only seen the top half of the Grover & Baker sewing machine he had to imagine how the bottom would work.

"I first 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."

From this early attempt at a sewing machine his models went on to be one of the best-selling sewing machines of all time.

They say he later named his farm Raphine Hall from the Greek, Raphis, "to sew." Eventually he became so well known and powerful that Raphine Community was named after him. It is only a tale.


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

This is where his stroke of genius came in. James 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.


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.

What 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.

James Gibbs spotted a 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 normal sewing 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 business.

 

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 big time.

 

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, known by many Chas or 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 feed in 1856. He 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 in 1859

 

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.

Anyway, James Gibbs, now a businessman, carpenter, farmer, millwright, surveyor, machinist, engineer and patent holder became an entrepreneur.

James Gibbs went into partnership with James Willcox (and also James Wilcoxs' son Charles Willcox who was keen to get into a trade).

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.

James Gibbs 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,

"I was in Philadelphia 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.

The 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 patented together.

By the way I still have some unique W&G chainstitch needles if you would like them just mail me: alexsussex@aol.com

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

Charles Willcox 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.

Link to: Willcox & Gibbs chainstitch needles


The Willcox & Gibbs Trademark on all their machines

Brown & Sharpe

Precision Engineers

Manufacturers

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.

Way back 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.

Although 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 Providence.

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.

Brown & Sharpe grew into one of the finest precision engineering companies in 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.

Charles 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 up.

The cost of specialist metal lathes were the biggest outlay but that soon became irrelevant as orders exploded.

The 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.

The first 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.

The 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.

Willcox & Gibbs
658 Broadway
New York City


Charles Willcox, who, along with Sharpe, oversaw manufacture, had few major production problems with Brown & 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 Henry Leland).

 

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 week.

 

 

Don't forget the weekly wage was little more than a few dollars in 1858. This would make today's 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. 


Early 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 serial number.

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.

Between 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. And then in 1875, the brainwave of all sewing machine brainwaves, an automatic tension.  

The only sewing machine in the world without a tension
All parts interchangeable

One 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 hat making. 

 

With sales flourishing from Willcox & Gibbs main offices on Broadway in New York, W&G were establishing themselves as major players in the sewing field.

Offering 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.

Due to the weight of shipping the machines to Europe and England, the firm had special hand wheels cast, originally in Coalbrookdale, England, (been there it's great).

These hand wheel 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

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. The4y say only 1% of hand wheels were manufactured at Coalbrookdale.


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.

Willcox &Gibbs went on to advertise their superb machines in many ways.

If 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.

In Britain, orders we initially taken by a Miss Headdon of Fleet Street as can be seen from the advert below.

London 1860

 The 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.

Willcox & 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.

W&G protected their machines as well as possible and advertised strenuously to stop people from buying similar competitors models.

 

 

Back to America...

Civil War

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 Ordenance Department. In Virginia Valley he oversaw the manufacture of Saltpetre, but as the war spread to his valley, his home, and his works were laid waste by the Union Army.

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 his family.

James and Catherine had four girls at the time. They were, Florence Gibbs, Cornelia Gibbs, Ellabel Gibbs and Ethel Gibbs.

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 and earnings 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.

James wired 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 nation started.

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.

A sewing machine for the
Sothern People
Willcox & Gibbs
28th North Ninth Street
Richmond

 

Attack Attack

The 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 Willcox.

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 sewing machines.

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.

The end 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? alexsussex@aol.com

 

The following below is useful information that I have gathered over the years for Willcox & Gibbs enthusiasts, I hope you find it helpful.

Dating 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.

Ignore 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 add 1838.

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: alexsussex@aol.com

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?

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.

1866

First class agents sought for Jamaica and the West Indies. Apply in writing to Turnbull & Lees, Harbour Street, Kingston, Jamaica.

E Vernon, 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 sales.


Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine for straw hats

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 E. Todd). 

Willcox & Gibbs clones

The Eldredge Automatic sewing machine was a straight copy of the W&G


Eldredge Chain Stitch Sewing Machine W&G's clone

 


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 chain stitch 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 & Gibbs machine

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 sewing machine.

Gold medal winners Vienna 1873.

Below 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. 

Dating 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 differences.

W&G The difference


An early 1866 model Glass-tensioned Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine. Some came on deeper wooden bases.

 

In 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!

 

You 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 Agents

Nottingham...................11 Market Street
Manchester.................. 83 Mosley Street
Leeds............................ 87 & 89 Park Lane
Leicester.......................94 High Street
Birmingham..................Bright Buildings, John Bright Street
Luton.............................Silver 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.

(The agent was possibly Otto Carl Goltz who also had premises in Antwerp.)

The James Gibbs sewing machine


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 39th Street.

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 Street.

Glasgow 80 West Nile Street.

Leeds, 68-72 New Briggate.

Brussels, 233 Rue Royale.

Leicester, 94 High Street.

Manchester, 83 Mosley Street.

Manchester, 16 Cross Street.

Nottingham, 25 Castle Gate.

Paris, 20 Rue des Petits Champs.

Some Depots in England

Oxton & Co, Liverpool.

B. G Boom, Bristol.

J. Parkinson, Bradford.

D. Wheeler, Newbury.

Lindley, Taylor & Co, Nottingham.

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, Buckinghamshire.

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.

The finished 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.

Later MEC Willcox concentrated on supplying industrial parts to the trade then in the UK merged with Bogod of London and then Eastman's.

I often placed orders with them from their W&G Braintree industrial unit, then Holmewood in Derbyshire. Which is why I still have some original W&G needles for the chain stitch machines.

Willcox & Gibbs chainstitch needles

Dating 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.

Old Chain Stitch machines produce a stitch so deficient in principle that it can never be relied on.

Double loop stitch machines like the Grover & Baker produce a large ridge of thread beneath the work that it is impossible to make a flat seam.

The Seams 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 successfully.

 


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.

WILLCOX & GIBBS SEWING MACHINE CO, Ltd., 94-96 WIGMORE STREET, LONDON, W.1 (1943)

Willcox & Gibbs back in England
 

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 machine.


Close up of the 1864 glass tensioner Willcox & Gibbs

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.

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 York.

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.

*****

One final legend

Company legend was that the flatlock Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine shape was designed by Amelia Earheart (the pilot). Possibly via Brown and Sharpe. (Oh how I would love that to be true).

Well that's all I know about the Willcox & Gibbs early sewing mahcines. 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: alexsussex@aol.com


The James Gibbs wooden & metal sewing machine of the early 1850's with unique hook mechanism to make a chain stitch.


I have a few Willcox & Gibbs needles left. Mail me for details: alexsussex@aol.com

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658 Broadway NY 1911


1931 Willcox & Gibbs electric sewing machine, one of the last.

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Hi Alex
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.

Best wishes,

Joel Zautner
 

Alex,
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 machines.
Dorothy 12-25-2012

Alex

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
 

Alex

Your article on the Willcox & Gibbs chain-stitch treadle fascinates 
me. Thanks for a great read!
D.C     USA


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 one.

Hi Alex,
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.
 
Many thanks,
 
Rob
RGarwood@millenniumglobal.com

 

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.
Joanne Oldham England

 

Alex

I was very impressed with the information you have assembled on the Willcox & Gibbs. Thank you.

J C USA

Alex.
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 clutter.
I recall seeing this being done in the 1963-63 era.
Warmest regards,
David Furr

Hi Alex,
 
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.

  
Best Regards,
Randy Collier
Collier Equipment Co.
www.SewTrain.com

Alex,
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. 

Jeanne Alexander

Hi Alex,
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 research. What a story Gibbs is!
Thanks for putting that together. Take care,
Gerald “Ged” Carbone

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