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  • Writer's pictureLonda

Society-Changing Birth of the Sewing Machine

A History of our Beloved Sewing Machine

Continuing with our ‘Back-to-School’ history lessons related to our beloved needle arts/sewing hobbies...

It surprises me that I’ve never really stopped to delve into the history of sewing.  But, when you stop to think about it – WOW and Double WOW!  Our need for protection from the elements consumed tremendous amounts of time through the years as hand sewing cloth and leather into shoes, boots, tents, coats, shirts, dresses, blankets and more was NECESSARY!


Let’s venture WAY back – to the Paleolithic period.  Leaves and skins were stitched together to fashion protective wear.  Awls made of bone were used to punch holes into animal skins, carrying sinew or fiber to hold things together.

The invention of the sewing machine  contributed significantly to the economic and social development of the 19th century America and beyond.  Just think about it:  before the sewing machine, all over the world, women, men, and children spent half their time hand sewing their own clothes!   Seamstresses worked 12 and 14 hour days for a weekly wage of a mere weekly wage of $1.50 to $2.00.  Men tailors, on the other hand, are said to have made $1.50 to $2/ DAY!

first bone sewing needles

Set of bone needles from the Cave of Courbet in the Aveyron Valley

The plight of these hard-working women prompted Thomas Hood to write the poem:  “Song of the Shirt”.

With fingers weary and worn, with eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat, in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread.  Stitch!  Stitch!  Stitch!  In poverty, hunger, and dirt, And still with a voice of dolorous pitch – Would that its tone could reach the rich! She sang this “Song of the Shirt!”. 

The skilled artisans traveled form town to town sewing for wealthy families.  Stop to think of ALL THE WORK it was to stitch uniforms, boots, saddles for war efforts through the years!!!

By the early 1800’s, a market gradually grew for cheap, new, ready-to-wear clothing.  Need far exceeded demand.  Cutting was done in shops, while the sewing was jobbed out to seamstresses and tailors who still did their work completely by hand.  The industrialization of the world was fast exceeding the time-consuming task of hand sewing.  Cotton gins and water-powered cotton mills revolutionized the production of textiles.  Fabric could be produced faster than it could be sewn.  This dilemma inspired inventors to come up with a solution.

The best, most concise history of our beloved sewing machines that I was able to locate comes from the International Sewing Machine Collector’s Society.  Link:

Oh my, oh my, wouldn’t these gentleman be awe-struck at what the machines do today!?!

Some additional facts I found that I think are quite interesting are interspersed below and come from an article by Ann Regal, Simplicity Machines in the Sewing and professional/Round Bobbin Magazine of May 2002.  (Good finds of mine while cleaning out my files!!!)