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  • Writer's pictureLonda

Society-Changing Birth of the 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!!!)

A Brief History of the Sewing Machine

by Graham Forsdyke

Historians of the early days of the sewing machine can argue for hours over the simple matter of who invented what is, in many ways, one of the most important machines ever devised.

The story really starts in 1755 in London when a German immigrant, Charles Weisenthal, took out a patent for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing. There was no mention of a machine to go with it, and another 34 years were to pass before Englishman Thomas Saint invented what is generally considered to be the first real sewing machine.

In 1790 the cabinet maker patented a machine with which an awl made a hole in leather and then allowed a needle to pass through. Critics of Saint’s claim to fame point out that quite possibly Saint only patented an idea and that most likely the machine was never built. It is known that when an attempt was made in the 1880s to produce a machine from Saint’s drawings it would not work without considerable modification.

The story then moves to Germany where, in around 1810, inventor Balthasar Krems developed a machine for sewing caps. No exact dates can be given for the Krems models as no patents were taken out.

An Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger produced a series of machines during the early years of the 19th century and received a patent in 1814. He was still working on the invention in 1839, aided by grants from the Austrian government, but he failed to get all the elements together successfully in one machine and eventually died a pauper. Two more inventions were patented in 1804, one in France to a Thomas Stone and a James Henderson — a machine which attempted to emulate hand sewing — and another to a Scott John Duncan for an embroidery machine using a number of needles. Nothing is known of the fate of either invention.

America’s first real claim to fame came in 1818 when a Vermont churchman John Adams Doge and his partner John Knowles produced a device which, although making a reasonable stitch, could only sew a very short length of material before laborious re-setting up was necessary.

One of the more reasonable claimants for inventor of the sewing machine must be Barthelemy Thimonnier who, in 1830, was granted a patent by the French government. He used a barbed needle for his machine which was built almost entirely of wood. It is said that he originally designed the machine to do embroidery, but then saw its potential as a sewing machine.

Unlike any others who went before him, he was able to convince the authorities of the usefulness of his invention and he was eventually given a contract to build a batch of machines and use them to sew uniforms for the French army. In less than 10 years after the granting of his patent Thimonnier had a factory running with 80 machines, but then ran into trouble from Parisian tailors. They feared that, were his machines successful, they would soon take over from hand sewing, putting the craftsmen tailors out of work.

Late one night a group of tailors stormed the factory, destroying every machine, and causing Thimonnier to flee for his life. With a new partner he started again, produced a vastly- improved machine and looked set to go into full-scale production; but the tailors attacked again. With France in the grip of revolution, Thimonnier could expect little help from the police or army and fled to England with the one machine he was able to salvage.  Read more about Thimonnier at this link

Thimmonier first vertical needle sewing machine.

Thimonier first vertical needle sewing machine.

Further details regarding the photo above:  French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857). In 1830, first practical sewing machine(hook-tipped needle moved downward by a cord-connected foot treadle and returned by a spring)1841 eighty of his machines were being used to sew the French army uniforms.

He certainly produced the first practical sewing machine, was the first man to offer machines for sale on a commercial basis and ran the first garment factory. For all that, he died in the poor house in 1857.

Walter Hunt machine schematic drawing

Walter Hunt (1796-1860) of New York. In 1834, the earliest idea for a double-thread sewing machine (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. Walter Hunt (1796-1860) of New York. In 1834, the earliest idea for a double-thread sewing machine (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.

In America in 1833, a Quaker Walter Hunt invented  the first machine which did not try to emulate hand sewing. It made a lock stitch using two spools of thread and incorporated an eye-pointed needle as used today. But again it was unsuccessful for it could only produce short, straight, seams.

Nine years later Hunt’s countryman, John Greenough, produced a working machine in which the needle passed completely through the cloth. Although a model was made and exhibited in the hope of raising capital for its manufacture, there were no takers.

Perhaps all the essentials of a modern machine came together in early 1844 when Englishman John Fisher invented a machine which although designed for the production of lace, was essentially a working sewing machine. Probably because of miss-filing at the patent office, this invention was overlooked during the long legal arguments between Singer and  Howe as to the origins of the sewing machine.

Despite a further flurry of minor inventions in the 1840s, most Americans will claim that the sewing machine was invented by Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe who completed his first prototype in 1844 just a short time after Fisher.

A year later it was patented and Howe set about trying to interest the tailoring trade in his invention. He even arranged a competition with his machine set against the finest hand sewers in America. The machine won hands down but the world wasn’t ready for mechanised sewing and, despite months of demonstrations, he had still not made a single sale.

(Here ends the majority of this article from the aforementioned source.  The following information comes from the article by Ann Regal, Simplicity Machines in the Sewing and professional/Round Bobbin Magazine of May 2002.  Her sources will be listed at the very end of this post.) 

Elias Howe sewing machine.

Elias Howe (1819-1867) of Massachusetts. In 1846, sewing machine presented any real competition to hand-sewing (eye-pointed needle and shuttle with a grooved). This lock stitch machine could only sew straight seams.

Desperately in debt, Howe sent his brother Amasa to England with the machine in the hope that it would receive more interest on the other side of the Atlantic. Amasa could find only one backer, a corset maker William Thomas (a corset maker who employed over 5,000 workers), who eventually bought the rights to the invention and arranged for Elias to come to London to further develop the machine.  Thomas agreed to pay Howe a royalty for each machine sold.  After 2 years, arguments between Howe and Thomas ended their relationship.  Howe returned penniless to the U.S .four years after receiving his U.S. patent to find that sewing machines were being sold by many manufacturers (including Singer), all infringing on some part of his 1846 patent. 

A long series of law suits followed and were only settled when the big companies, including Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker, joined together, pooled their patents, and fought as a unit to protect their monopoly.

“John A. Bradshaw had patented a sewing machine in 1848 that improved on Howe’s machine with a better shuttle system.  John Bachelder had developed a machine with an endless feed belt for the cloth, eliminating the time-consuming need to reset the cloth. (Now I’ll revere those little feed dogs with new understanding!) Allen B. Wilson devised a shuttle pointed at both ends that carried a second thread that made a stitch when it went forward and backward and a four-motion feed which moved the cloth forward more effectively than ever before. 

Wilson also produced the first lightweight machine for home use.  (HORRAH!)  James A. Gibbs made the first chain stitch machine with an affordable $50 price tag.  William O. Grover produced a machine in 1851 that made a two-thread chain stitch. 

The true turn of events for the production of sewing machines came when Isaac Merritt Singer invented the first practical sewing machine.  In 1851 he designed a sewing machine that embodied most of the basic features that are still used on modern machines.  Singer also devised such modern business methods as installment buying and the advertising campaign.  (Do we thank him???)

“Singer was a man whose dream was to be an actor.  Before marrying Catherine Haly at the age of 19, he traveled form town to town, earning a living as a mechanic, cabinetmaker, theater manager, and actor.  The sewing machine was not Singer’s first invention.  He had patented and put into operation a successful invention for a mechanical excavator for construction.  He had also patented a woodcarving machine.  His first introduction to a sewing machine was when one was brought to him for repair.  In the process of repairing it, he redesigned the machine.  Seeing the practical need for this labor-saving machine, Singer concentrated on the task of developing a new sewing machine, and in 11 days he had built a model machine for the garment and leather good industries.  Singer’s improvements over the previously designed sewing machines included 10 essential features for a practical sewing machine.  These included a table that held cloth horizontally instead of hanging down vertically from a feed bar, a wheel for continuous fabric feeding, and a shuttle that moved back and forth in a straight line.”

Isaac Merritt Singer

Isaac Merritt Singer

Singer sewing machine

Issac M. Singer (1811-75). In 1851, first rigid-arm sewing machine. He invented a foot treadle instead of a hand crank. (a table to support the cloth horizontally, 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). Parts of Singer’s machine were based on Howe’s work.

Figures prepared by Wheeler & Wilson show the following:

Man’s shirt:  14 hours 26 minutes by hand vs 1 hour 16 minutes by machine (Wow – I couldn’t make a man’s shirt in 1 hour 16 minutes!)

Frock Coat:  16.5 hours by hand vs 2.5 hours by machine 

That left major concerns of massive unemployment for sewing women, an estimated 4,000 in New York alone. 

Singer used his enigmatic style and showmanship developed from years as a traveling actor to sell his machines at church socials, circuses, and carnivals. 

(As a past machine dealer, this makes me smile remembering setting up at fairs, and even advertising on a hot air balloon!)

He devised a packing case for the machine that doubled as a table and treadle base. 

“Because Singer had incorporated Howe’s eye-pointed needle and the lock stitch, Elias Howe brought Singer to court for patent infringement.  Howe had successfully challenged other sewing machine inventors for patent infringement, settling out of court with the agreement to pay Howe a royalty of $25 on each machine sold.  Singer, however, was prepared to defend his invention and refused to pay Howe.  Thus began what newspapers called the “Sewing Machine War”

The war was waged on 2 battlefronts, the newspapers and the courts.  Slanderous advertisements and bitter accusations were printed in the press by both parties.  In the courtroom, Singer’s attorney, Edward Clark, devised a strategy to discredit Howe as the originator of the sewing machine.  Clark located Walter Hunt and his original sewing machine model, developed years earlier, using the eye-pointed needle and lockstitch, the same method Howe used.  Since Hunt had neglected to patent his invention the courts ruled in Elias Howe’s favor, claiming him as the original inventory of the sewing machine.

This did not end the ‘sewing machine war’ but encouraged all the other sewing machine companies to bring lawsuits against each other.  (Nothing is new under the sun, eh?) No one machine had been built without parts which had been invented and patented by others.  The mounting lawsuits threatened to destroy the sewing machine industry.

In 1856, the first patent pool was devised.  It was simple.  All parties were to pool any patents they held.  For a foe of $15 on every machine sold, they agreed to license any number of the ‘Sewing Machine Combination’ as they called themselves, to use any device or devices belonging to them.  They would each share equally int he profits of the Combination.

This agreement made it possible for manufacturers to put the legal battles behind them and get on with the business of making sewing machines.  Although the Combination ceased to exist in 1877, patent pools were used later on in the manufacture of automobiles, radios and other goods.

Both Singer and Howe ended their days as multi-millionaires.  There’s some persistence for you!

The sewing machine had revolutionized the home, factory, and industry.  Factory owners discovered the machines were labor-saving devices that could increase profits, but the concept of domestic labor-saving devices was a new one.  The sewing machines as the first in a line of domestic appliances.  The public had to be convinced that this device that could save hours of laborious hand sewing was a justifiable purchase.  (Sew…all women who love their refrigerators, washing machines, vacuums, etc etc have us sewists to thank!)

Advertising campaigns were launched.  Sewing demonstrations were conducted by neatly groomed women showing how easy it was to use the machine.  These campaigns were successful in creating interest, but there was still the matter of purchase price.  The average cost of a machine was $125, while the average family income at that time was no more than $500/year. 

To combat the price objections, Singer was the first to introduce an installment payment plan Families could purchase a machine with $5 down and make monthly installments of $3-$5 with interest.  Other manufacturers followed suit and sales rose dramatically. (So do we have Singer to thank for our credit cards???)

Singer also introduced  another new selling method, the Trade-In.  In the Gazette he announced, “The price we propose to allow for old machines in exchange for new ones is $50 each.” His motive was to prevent secondhand machine sales that would infringe upon his sales of new machines.  Singer was so adamant in this endeavor that he vowed to break and destroy every used machine that came into their office.

Another underlying issue that led to the resistance of purchase of machines for the home was that women were expected to hand sew the family’s clothing just their mothers and grandmothers had done.  The prevailing attitude was that women wouldn’t be able to operate a mechanical device such as the sewing machine.  Perhaps the most threatening issue, at least for some, was if women no longer spent half their day making clothes for the family, they would then have more time to think about and participate in the new women’s rights movement that had begun in New York in 1884. 

This social readjustment of the lives of women who were relieved of the time-consuming task of hand sewing chores was not initially considered by the inventors of the sewing machine, but the implication and realities became apparent as more machines were placed in homes.  Middle class women now had time to develop interests in the political, social and economic arenas.  They began to speak out, to demand the right to vote, take part in social reform, enter colleges to become doctors and lawyers.   (So consider that just perhaps us modern women need  to thank the lowly sewing machine for their opportunities!)  The sewing machine became more widely accepted and sales rose.  Inadvertently, the sewing machine industry had helped advance the women’s movement. 

Realize too that the Civil War of 1861-1866 and its needs for uniforms, blankets, tents, etc. boosted sewing machine sales.  Much of the clothing made during the 19th century was produced in the tenement houses of large cities: bundles of cut pieces of garments were given to entire families of workers who sewed them together at home.  The sewing machine was a fixed product of the industrial age.  For thousands of immigrants who arrived in New York between 1890 and 1910, the most readily available work was at a sewing machine. “

Sewing machines kept pace with technology:

*By 1882 machines could produce 60 varieties of stitches.

*In 1890, machines were powered by electricity.

*By the end of the 19th century, there were 125 companies producing sewing machines!!!

*By the mid to later 1900s, Japan and Western Europe challenged the U.S. market with competitive pricing and innovation.

And I don’t need to explain to you all where computerization has taken the machines and machine embroidery!  I even marvel at the changes since 2003 when I closed my machine dealership.   I must almost laugh when I think that part of the reason I closed was that women came in wanting to do all the embroidery, use the computer, etc. and they didn’t know what a ‘mouse’ was!   In my book, I was open to teach SEWING and CREATIVITY, and I just didn’t get the ‘zing’ out of the computer aspect.  Where do I sit right now?  AT MY COMPUTER!!!

PLEASE Comment with any fond memories/ model numbers and names of YOUR sewing history!  


Brandon, Ruth.  A Capitalist Romance – Singer and the Sewing Machine, Philadelphia and New York:  J.B. Lippencott Company, 1977.

Cooper, Grace Rogers.  The Sewing Machine:  Its invention and Development, Washington D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968.

Hobhouse, Henry.  Forces of Change:  An Unorthodox View of History.  New york:  Arcade Publishing, 1989.

Sigel, Beatrice.  The sewing Machine.  New Yorrok:  Walker and Company, 1984,

Wilson, Kax.  History of Textiles, Boulder, Colorado:  Westview Press, 1979.

AND…. I’ve also located this interesting 150 year Singer Dealer Newsletter from my files that lends even some more information for your perusal.  Click on this link:  

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