Who invented the sewing machine? There’s no simple answer, for many inventors contributed elements to the finally successful product. How was the stitch to be made? What would the needle be like? One thread, or two? How would the cloth be moved through the machine? Most importantly of all, how would all the moving parts be coordinated?
The sewing machine is also noteworthy for the marketing advances used to sell it. It was the first home appliance to be sold on installment credit. It was the first to be widely advertised and mass-marketed. It was the first to be covered by inventors’ patent pooling.
This new technology was both boon and bane; it eased the housewife’s workday by allowing her to sew more efficiently or to buy the increasingly-available ready-made clothing for her family. But it also turned the garment industry into one of harsh conditions, even sweat shops.
The Museum of American Heritage is proud to present many facets of the sewing machine in this exhibit: Stitches in Time: 100 Years of Machines and Sewing.
Sewing Machine History
People started sewing as long as 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Archaeologists have discovered bone needles with eyes, used to sew together skins and furs, dating back to this time. The earliest known sewing needles made of iron come from the Celtic hill fort at Manching, Germany, and date to the third century BC. The tomb of a minor official of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) has been reported by Chinese archaeologists as containing a sewing set complete with thimble. This would be the oldest known example of a thimble, which originated as a device to help push crude needles through resistant materials such as animal skins.
It was over 1500 years later in 1790, that the first workable sewing machine was invented and patented by the British inventor Thomas Saint. Earlier, in 1755, Karl Weisenthal, a German inventor, devised the first sewing machine needle, but did not produce a complete machine. Saint’s machine, which was designed to sew leather and canvas, mainly on boots, used only a single thread and formed a chain stitch. Instead of a needle, an awl was employed to pierce a hole through the material being sewed. Another mechanism placed the thread over the hole, and then a needlelike rod with a forked point carried the thread through to the underside of the work, where a hook caught the thread and moved it forward for the next stitch. When the cycle was repeated, a second loop was formed on the underside of the cloth with the first loop, thus forming a chain and locking the stitch. Saint’s machine, however, never progressed beyond the patent model stage. And it overlooked the Weisenthal needle design.
In 1830 a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857), patented the first practical sewing machine. It employed a hook-tipped needle, much like an embroidery needle, that was moved downward by a cord-connected foot treadle and returned by a spring. Like Thomas Saint’s machine, it produced a chain stitch. By 1841, eighty of his machines were being used to sew uniforms for the French army. However, his factory was destroyed by a mob of tailors, who saw the new machines as a threat to their livelihood. Thimonnier died bankrupt in England.
The earliest idea for a double-thread sewing machine came from Walter Hunt (1796-1860) of New York in 1834. Often called a Yankee mechanical genius (he also invented the safety pin), Hunt devised a machine that used a reciprocating eye-pointed needle. It worked in combination with a shuttle carrying a second needle, making an interlocked stitch comparable to that of the modem machine. He abandoned the project, however, convinced that his invention would throw impoverished seamstresses out of work.
None of these machines presented any real competition to hand-sewing, though; that was accomplished by Elias Howe (1819-67) of Massachusetts. In 1846 Howe patented a sewing machine with a grooved, eye-pointed needle and shuttle. This lock stitch machine could sew nothing but straight seams, which could not be longer than the basing plate. Unsuccessful in marketing the device in America, Howe went to England to adapt his machine for an English corset-maker. He returned penniless to find that sewing machines were being sold by many manufacturers, all infringing on some part of his 1846 patent. In 1856, after favorable litigation, Howe entered into the world’s first patent pool.
In 1851, Issac M. Singer (1811-75) patented the first rigid-arm sewing machine. Before this, all machines employed an overhanging arm that held the needle directly and vibrated with it. Singer’s machine also included a table to support the cloth horizontally, instead of a feed bar; a vertical presser foot to hold the cloth down against the upward stroke of the needle, and an arm to hold the presser foot and the vertical needle-holding bar in position over the table. A real breakthrough was his invention of a foot treadle instead of a hand crank. Parts of Singer’s new machine were based on Howe’s work. In fact, Singer was sued by Howe for infringement of the latter’s patent rights, but a compromise was reached where Singer paid a royalty.
In spite of this, Singer went on to found a company that became the world’s largest manufacturer of sewing machines by 1860. He was awarded 20 additional patents, spent millions of dollars advertising his machine, and initiated a system of providing service with sales. By the 1850s, Singer sewing machines were being sold in opulent showrooms; although the $75 price was high for its time, Singer introduced the installment plan to America and sold thousands of his machines in this way.
Other important inventions in the field included the rotary bobbin that was incorporated (1850) into a machine patented by the American inventor Allen Benjamin Wilson (1824-88) and the intermittent four-motion feed for advancing the material between stitches, which was part of the same patent.
The “Sewing Machine Combination”
With basic elements of a successful sewing machine invented, the various manufacturers should have been able to produce good machines. This proved to be difficult because of numerous patent disputes that led to frequent lawsuits.
The first attempt at circumventing this difficulty occurred in 1856 when Elias Howe and Isaac Singer pooled their patents. That same year Orlando B. Potts, president of the Grover and Baker Company, advanced the idea of a “Combination” of sewing machine manufacturers. The organization was called the Sewing-Machine Trust and/or the Sewing-Machine Combination.
The three members of the “Combination” each continued to manufacture, improve and perfect its own machine. Other than joint control of the patents there was no pooling of interests and each company attempted to attract people to its particular machine. By 1877, as the patents expired, the fundamental features of the sewing machine were no longer controlled by anyone. Open competition was now possible.
Sewing Machines in the 20th Century
At the beginning of the 20th century technical development slowed but marketing saw many changes.
Mail-order houses, such as Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck, created new competition. A full-size drop-head treadle machine sold in 1902 for $10 in a Sears catalog. Singer, White, and Wilson & Wheeler machines ranged from $40 to $75.
Singer bought Wheeler & Wilson in 1905. It used company-owned stores in cities and commission men in small towns and rural areas to promote its products. In 1913 Singer sold two and a half million machines.
After WWI ready-made clothes were available inexpensively and home sewing declined. Singer began to sell at a discount to schools and to provide free sewing manuals. The philosophy was “If a girl learned to sew on a Singer, she would eventually buy one.”
“Portable” electric sewing machines were first produced in the 1920s but were very heavy and relatively expensive.
The crash of 1929 and the following years of depression changed the sewing machine industry. Sewing machines again became important but the housewife had to be a shrewd buyer. She expected more machine for her money. A new portable, lightweight, electric machine was introduced in the mid 1930s. This, together with the spread of electric power to rural areas, WPA sewing projects and pattern promotions, helped popularize home sewing.
Domestic sewing machine production stopped during WWII as experienced machinists and tool and die makers were switched to war production. After the war the rebuilding of Europe and Japan opened the doors to imported sewing machines and eventually led to the demise of all domestic manufacturing.
The Necchi, first imported from Italy in 1947, introduced the zig-zag machine to domestic sewing. Invented in the late 19th century, zig-zag machines had previously been used only for industrial sewing.
The Elna, introduced from Switzerland in 1950, was made from a lightweight alloy rather than from cast iron and, at 18 pounds, was easily portable compared to the 40-pound Necchi. A zig-zag machine with free arm, the Elna was quiet, free-running and a new color: green.
In 1952 the Elna Supermatic became the first machine to use interchangeable cams or discs to produce a variety of stitches by controlling the forward and reverse feeding of the fabric and side-to-side swing of the needle.
In the late 1970’s and early ’80’s freely programmable automatic sewing machines appeared. The home seamstress can now easily make fancy seams and designs, opening up a world of possibilities the sewing machine’s inventors never could have envisioned.