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The History of the Sewing Machine

Updated on December 1, 2016

The sewing machine is a mechanical stitching device for sewing fabric and other materials. Thne sewing machine was the first home appliance and has become one of the most popular. Sewing machines are also widely used in clothing manufacturing and other industries.

The sewing machine is so much a piece of home equipment that we forget both its industrial and social importance, and also the degree to which it has delivered women from work in the home and from the endless, enervating drudgery of the sweat-shops. Spinning, which had occupied so much of women's time, was mechanized in the eighteenth century. Mechanization of sewing and of the making-up of clothes freed women still more for other occupations and interests, led to the mass production of cheap clothing; and was in several ways a factor of social revolution.

Thomas Saint in London in 1790 patented a machine for sewing leather - 'for stitching, quilting or sewing', to be worked 'by hand, by a Mill, Steam Engine or other power'. Nothing came of it, and the machine was forgotten until the patent was discovered accidentally in 1874, by which time the sewing-machine had been re-invented and established by others, chiefly in America. Ill fortune was also to attend the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimmonier, of Saint-Etienne, who invented a chain-stitch sewing-machine in 1829. A chain-stitch is formed from a single thread, the stitches being linked by passing each stitch through a loop in the previous stitch; it can very easily be pulled out, a property with advantages and disadvantages.

Thimmonier's machine was practical, though the barbed needle tended to tear the fabric. His Parisian clothing factory in which eighty machines made army clothing was wrecked by fearful and indignant tailors. Thimmonier persisted, improved his machine, but failed to impress it upon the world.

In 1832 or thereabouts the New Yorker William Hunt invented a more important machine, using a needle with an eye at the point. This carried an upper thread through the cloth, forming a loop. A second thread was carried through the loop by a shuttle, so that the two layers of cloth to be sewn together were securely united by an efficient lock-stitch. Hunt met with opposition, and his machine dropped out of sight. In 1845 - independently, so it appears, the New Englander Elias Howe devised another lock-stitching machine with a curved needle moving through the cloth at the end of a swinging arm; he demonstrated that his machine could work five times as fast as a skilled seamstress. It was rather complicated, though, and expensive, and it had one serious defect: the cloth was held on pins projecting from a metal strip, which moved along with each stitch. After a short length of seam had been sewn the operator had to remove the cloth and place the next length on the pins.

A more famous name now appeared - Isaac Merrit Singer (1811-1875), able mechanic and able business-man. This New Yorker in 1851 patented a machine which is recognizably the ancestor of the sewing-machine, whether hand-driven, treadle-driven or electric, which is so familiar today in every home. The needle moved up and down in a straight line; the cloth lay on a cloth plate, and was held by a presser foot from above against a wooden wheel which moved intermittently under a hole in the plate, so thrusting the cloth forward after each stitch. Howe promptly challenged Singer for infringing his patent on the shuttle and the eye-pointed needle. The defence that these inventions had been anticipated by William Hunt did not succeed, since Hunt had failed to protect them by patent.

Invention followed invention. Between 1849 and 1854 Allen Benjamin Wilson improved sewing-machines by a number of skilful devices, which are embodied in most of the modern lock-stitchers. He replaced the shuttle by the stationary disc bobbin which supplies the under thread. The upper thread, brought through the cloth by the needle, was carried by a rotary hook round the disc, interlocking the threads. Also he devised the four-motion feed, in which a claw rises through a hole in the cloth plate pushing the cloth along.

Wilson's machine was small, neat, and much lighter than the Singer. However, Singer, Howe, Wilson and others combined and exploited their patents with the greatest success until the patents expired in 1877. Between them, they had given women in the homes of the world one of the most valuable of all labour-saving instruments, and one which was quickly adopted and appreciated.


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      Tracy Monroy 8 years ago

      Nice look at the history of this extremely important invention! Where would we be today without it?