The history of the sewing machine is full of tension. Not the tension you associate with sewing, but a tension of burning factories and riots, as the sewing machine evolved. When the mechanics of the machine grew more efficient, patent infringements, copycat stealing of ideas, and lawsuits followed the development of the sewing machine. Following the history of the sewing machine makes interesting reading across continents and ultimately leading to what was known as a ‘Sewing Machine War’ with Singer, the brand we know today as one of the leading contenders for international fame.
The History of the Sewing Machine
1755 - Charles Weisenthal
As early as 1755 there was an attempt at designing a needle with an eye suited for a sewing machine. This was designed by a German called Charles Weisenthal. There is no mention at that time of a machine, but since the design was for a needle, it was obvious a machine existed.
1790 - Thomas Saint
In 1790 a machine designed to be driven with a hand crank was invented by Thomas Saint who was a cabinet maker. It was made for use on leather and canvas. Although he must have had a working sewing machine, there is only limited evidence of it. His machine used a single thread to create a chain stitch.
1830 - Barthelemy Thimonnier
In 1830 a French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier invented the first sewing machine which was widely used. Like Saint's, the machine used a single thread and a hooked needle to make a chain stitch.
Unfortunately, the machine was met with resistance from the French tailors. They mobbed the factory owned by Barthelemy Thimonnier and set fire to it as they were afraid the machine would rob them of their jobs.
Thimonnier managed to escape the fire that would have killed him as his factory burnt to the ground. An American inventor, Walter Hunt abandoned his invention for the same reason. However, in years to come it was the sewing machine that actually created jobs for both men and women.
1844 - John Fisher
In 1844 an Englishman named John Fisher invented a machine to make lace. Unfortunately, the patents for the machine were lost and he got no recognition for his invention. Fisher could not get any interest in the machine so he left America and went to England. Two years later he returned to America to find his machine had been copied.
1845 - Ellis Howe
In 1845, a year later, an American called Ellis Howe invented a sewing machine that used two threads. This machine produced the lock stitch and was different from the chain stitch.
Ellis Howe’s machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle and thread went through the fabric to loop with a thread in a shuttle on the underside of the fabric.
1851 Singer Machines
In 1851 Isaac Merritt Singer began manufacturing sewing machines. Singer sewing machines soon became the most popular sewing machines on the market. This machine was the beginning of modern machines with a foot pedal and up and down needle action.
The manufacturers of the Singer sewing machines took ideas from Fisher’s machine and from Howe, Hunt and Thimonnie’s machines.
1854 The Sewing Machine Wars
In 1854 Howe took Singer to court for patent infringement and Howe won the case. This was a shock for all inventors of sewing machines and caused what became known as a ‘Sewing Machine War.’ Lawyers saw the different patents exposed and termed this situation as a ‘patent thicket.’
It was decided by a lawyer, Orlando Brunson Potter, that the different factions of the sewing machine war should come together and design a patent pool. This idea was accepted and all patents at that time were merged into a pool known as ‘The Sewing Machine Combination.’
This sensible move allowed further development of sewing machines to go forward.
1860 Sewing Machine Manufacturing
Although Isaac Merritt Singer did not invent the sewing machine he manufactured sewing machines. His brand of machines, the Singer, was the world’s most popular brand by 1860.
One of the reasons for this great success was the introduction of the hire to purchase concept introduced by Isaac Merritt Singer. This method of purchase enabled more people to buy machines and have them in their homes. Singer himself was a flamboyant character and was very good at promoting his machine. He opened the doors to affordable machines and with the accessibility of these machines, more jobs were in fact created. Factories could commit to mass production and machine sewn clothes.
In the 1860’s women started forming sewing circles and discussing the use of the home sewing machine.
1900s Electric Machines
In the early 1900’s the machine was beginning to be modernized with electricity and the hand machine was getting replaced with a foot pedal. Unfortunately due to the World being at war the further development of the sewing machine took a back seat.
1947 First Zig-Zag Stitches
After the war in 1947 an Italian company, called Necchi, introduced the first zig-zag stitch with the needle being able to move from side to side.
This was followed in 1950 with a lighter weight portable machine made by a Swiss company, Elna. The body of the machine was made out of a lightweight alloy and not the heavy cast iron used previously. Elna continued to add value to their machines and in 1952 Elna added cams or discs that were interchangeable and could make different decorative stitches. The cams enabled the machine to sew forward and backward and from side to side.
1970s - Today
Sewing machines and their different brands continued to evolve through the 1970s and 1980s. From there sewing machines looked and performed much as we know them today.
History of the Sewing Machine - In Conclusion
The real history of the sewing machine spans 150 years from the first functioning machine in 1830 to the fully motorized sewing machines in the 1980’s.
Today’s machines are a credit to the home industry and avid seamstress’ are using computerized machines and sergers too.
Did you know that September is actually celebrated as National Sewing Machine month? President Ronald Regan declared September National Sewing Machine month in 1982 to honor the sewing machine. This month is marked with sewing fairs and festivities to commemorate this worthy machine that transformed the lives of so many women and designers throughout the world. Sewing machines are affordable and accessible on the domestic market. Have a happy National Sewing machine month!