Thursday, November 26, 2015

A History of the Sewing Machine

Before the invention of the sewing machine, all clothing, home furnishings and even agricultural sacks were sewn by hand. The series of events and inventions that led to what we recognise today as a sewing machine were a very important part of history. Here is an overview of some the inventors, their contributions and how we finally made reality the dream of a machine that could take the labour out of sewing.

The first person to apply for a patent for a sewing machine was a British inventor named Thomas Saint in 1791, however his machine was not known to have ever been developed. The first actual working sewing machine to be presented as such to the world was in 1814 by an Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger, although no apparently working machine is thought to have come from his work.

In 1830 Barthlemy Thimonnier from France patented a working machine that was capable of sewing straight seams with a chain stitch. By 1841 he had a factory of these machines but it was allegedly sabotaged and burnt down by French tailors, they were reported to have seen the existence of these machines as a threat to their jobs rather than the invaluable work tool that the sewing machine came to be. Thimonnier eventually came to England with a machine and was apparently the first person to offer working machines for sale, he also ran a garment factory.

An American Walter Hunt invented the first lockstitch sewing machine in 1833. This machine used 2 spools of thread with an eye pointed needle similar to machines of today, however the machine needed resetting too often to be viable. Another American, John Greenough, produced a working machine in which the needle passed completely through the cloth but was unable to generate enough interest to produce the machine for resale.

Elias Howe created a machine similar to that made by Walter Hunt in 1845. There were a number of improvements which made his machine the most viable yet although he struggled to gain financial backing. After attempting to sell his machine in England he return to the US to find lots of people had taken his idea and producing similar machines that apparently infringed his patent.

Isaac Merritt Singer was an engineer who decided to redesign the rotary sewing machine. His machine used a flying shuttle instead of a rotary one; the needle was mounted vertically and included a presser foot to hold the cloth in place. It had a fixed arm to hold the needle and also included a basic tensioning system. Singer got an American patent for his machine in 1851, he developed a foot pedal or treadle, for use with his machines. Howe took Singer and a few others to court over patent breaches and was awarded some compensation.

An interesting fact, if you find these things interesting, is that the first hire-purchase type payment scheme is reported to have first been brought about by Singer and a lawyer named Edward Clark, and was brought about in order to allow people to afford to buy their sewing machines. The success of the Singer sewing machines tends to be attributed more to the sales techniques used by Singer and Clark, rather than anything outstandingly different with their machines.

Over the years other people and partnerships brought improvements and manufactured more machines. There were more than a few squabbles over patents and threats to sue. Allen B Wilson and Nathaniel Wheeler created a quieter smoother machine under the Wheeler and Wilson Company manufacturing machines in the 1850s and 60s. As more people entered the design and production of sewing machines 'The Sewing Machine War' came about as everyone tried to protect their own intellectual property, eventually Singer, Howe, Wheeler and Wilson and Grove and Baker came together with their patents forming 'The Sewing Machine Combination' in 1856. This forced the other manufacturers to do things their way and pay a license fee for the privilege.

Knitting machines were first seen in 1877 in the form of a crochet machine, this was invented by a Joseph Merrow. This machine was in fact the first 'overlock' sewing machine and The Merrow Machine Company still produce overlock machines today.

In 1885 Singer patented the 'Singer Vibrating Shuttle' sewing machine using Allen B Wilson vibrating shuttle, this machine was more adapt at lockstitching, replacing the oscillating shuttles and continuing use till the rotary shuttle machines replaced them.

Electric sewing machines were actually originally developed in 1889 by the Singer Sewing Co. Up until this point they had continued on the tried and tested design with just more decoration. Electric motors were stuck on the side of the old machines to start with, but found their way into the case becoming an intrinsic part of the machine.

Toyota produced their first electric sewing machine in 1946.

The 1980s saw the introduction of computer controlled machines to be used in all manner of industries including clothing, shoemaking and industrial manufacturing.

Embroidery machines no longer use cards to effect the stitching, they can now courtesy of new computerized systems, produce pretty much anything you like on fabric.


The invention of the sewing machine was a very important step in industrialisation and economic development. It also set free many women from the work of hand stitching clothes and linens. The contribution that these machines have made to art in all forms of fashion and interior design cannot be overlooked either, quite simply it is one of the most important machines of our time! (I'm trying to imagine what an apple 'i-sew' machine might actually look like and do!)