Clothing Technology: The Sewing Machine

Figure 1.--The Singer sewing machine of 1969 was a far cry from 19th century models and included many labor saving innovations. Sewing was, however, becoming of less interest to modern mothers.

Some inventions have proven so important that we can scaresly imagine what life was like before its appearance. The sewing machine is one of the key inventions that have helped to shape our modern world. Not many inventions have proved as important as the sewing machine. It appears on virtually every list of great inventions and helped freed the homemaker from drudgery faced by 19th century mother. "Next to the plough" wrote Louis Antoine Godey in 1856, "this sewing machine is perhaps humanity's most blessed instrument."

Making Clothes

Before the sewing machine appeared, making clothes was the chief occupation of a substantial part of the labor force. It was no accident that the industrial revolutiion in Europe was initiated with the inovations in the manyfacture of cloth, first in the Low Countries and then in England and France. While cloth manufacture was largely mechanized by the mid-19th century, clothing was still made by hand. The 19th century was an age of invention. It is certainly not surprising given the labor expened in making clothes that inventors turned their attention to the development of devices for making stitches mechanically.

The Mid-Century Household

Since this work had to be done by hand, it was both time consuming and eyestraining. Mothers varied greatly in their abilities. The wealthy could afford to have it done. More modestly endowed families had to depend on mother's skills. The time involved was enormous. When one adds cooking, washing, keeping house, gardening, taking care of the children, and other chores, it is difficult to imaginr how mother made it through the day. This is especially true when one considers how much more arduous chores like washing clothes was in the 19th century.

First Machine

Elias Howe is often credited with inventing the sewing machine--utilizing an eye-pointed needle and shuttle. The machine in which he won fame, however, was hardly practical and many of the principals which it embodied had been in the inventions of others years earlier. It sewed only straight seams and only a few inches at a time. It was several years before a practical machine was perfected at an affordable price. Here the history is a little murky. American texts tend to focus on the work of English and Americans, especially Howe. The first true sewing machine appears to have been fashioned by a Frenchman--Barthelemy Thimmonier. Early machines, however, had many technical limitations, problems that were addressed by a strng of technical impriovements in the mid-19th century.

Sewing Machine Precursors

The sewing machine like most modern investments, did not result from one brilliant insight. In fact it contained a variety of developments made over time and finally combined to create a practical project. Certainly no single individual can take full credit for the invention of the sewing machine.

Experimental shoe machine: England (1790)

Perhaps the first device that could be described as anything approaching a sewing machine was designed by Englishman Thomas Saint, a cabinetmaker, who patented a machine in 1790. It was built to stitch shoes and boots. The materials to be stitched were attached to a traveling carriage while a forked needle worked in a perpendicular direction from an overhanging arm in conjunction with a looping instrument below to form a chain stitch. Unfortunately, Saint's patent drawings were filed with those covering adhesives used in uniting pieces of leather and hence escaped notice for many years. They included certain features, which are essential to sewing machines used today, but there is considerable doubt that Saint ever made more than a single experimental machine and his idea was never put to any practical use.

Elastic stitch: Germany (1790-1800)

Baltasar Krembs in Mayan, Germany, sometime after Saint in Engkand (sometine between 1790 and 1800) invented a machine which made an elastic stitch by means of an eye-pointed needle. He failed to patent his machine. Nevertheless it is still in existence, being on exhibition at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Chain stitch for embroidery: Scotland (1804)

John Duncan of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1804 devised a machine utilizing a barbed-eye needle which produced a chain stitch for use in embroidery, but he did not claim nor did he intend that it be used for making seams.

Seam stuch: Austria (1814)

Josef Madersperger, a master tailor of Kufstein in the Austrian Tyrol, in 1814 made the first sewing machine capable of stitching a seam. As is often the case with inovations, his fellow tailors looked askance at his handiwork and he lacked the resources to develop his invention himself. The Madersperger machine used a double pointed needle to produce a simple running stitch. Later he developed an improved machine which utilized a single eye pointed needle and a shuttle, but the arrangement for feeding the material under the needle was faulty. Had he combined the element of the two machines in one, he would have fully the principles on which later sewing machines cam to be based.

Early attempt: United States (1810)

The Rev. John Adams Dodge of Monkton, Vermont, with the help of John Knowles, the local blacksmith, in 1810 designed and built a sewing machine. The finished product was cumbersome, using a double pointed needle with the eye in the middle. It could produce a satisfactory backstitch for only short distances.

Wooden machine: France (1829-50)

Many French authors credit Barthelemy Thimmonier, a poor French tailor, of inventing the first true sewing machine. He was entirely ignorant of the principles of mechanics, but in 1829 he produced a workable machine made of wood and capable of making a chain stitch by means of a crochet or barbed needle in which the loops lay on the upper surface of the material being stitched. In 1830, Thimmonier was issued a patent by the French government, and by 1841 eighty of his machines were making uniforms for the French Army. Unfortunately an angry mob of tailors fell upon his machines and smashed them to pieces. In 1848, his second invention of the sewing machine, capable of making 200 stitches per minute, was destroyed by a mob. Riots in Paris in 1848 led to the establishment of the Second French Republic.

Thimmonier managed to take one of the machines, which had escaped destruction, to England where obtained a patent in 1849. He obtained a U.S. Patent in 1850, but by this time other inventors had entered the field with more practical machines. Thimmonier perfected the first sewing machines made in commercial quantities and put them to practical use, but reaped no reward for his genius.

Patentented sewing device: United States (1829)

Henry Lye of Philadelphia, PA. In 1826 obtained the first US. Patent on a sewing device. However, his model was destroyed in a fire that swept the Patent Office leaving the description too meager for the determination of exactly how it worked. It apparently was never manufactured.

Interlocked stitch: United States: 1830s-50s

About the same time Thimmonier was perfecting his machine in France, a 39 year old Quaker genius named Walter Hunt created a machine which used an eye-pointed needle moved by a vibrating arm, working in combination with a shuttle carrying a second thread. It made an interlocked stitch fully as well as it is done by our present improved machines. Only in the manner of feeding cloth under the needle was Hunt's machine imperfect. Hunt started to manufacture his machine but abandoned his project after the urging of his 15-year old daughter who convinced him that it would throw seamstresses out of work. Hunt failed to apply for a patented until 1854 when he belatedly realized his oversight: it was refused him on the grounds of abandonment. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that Hunt perfected the first sewing machine that contained all the elements of practicability.

Chain stitch machine: England (1841)

Two gentlemen in England named Newton and Archbold during 1841 designed a chain stitch machine employing an eye-pointed needle, but aside from this bare fact little else is known of their invention.

Stitch forming mechanism: United States (1842)

An American, John James Greenough, patented a sewing machine which combined a stitch forming mechanism with a device for presenting work to a double pointed needle with an eye in the middle, but it was not practical in any broad sense and thus was never developed.

Sewing device: United States (1843)

Dr. Frank R. Goulding of Macon, Georgia in 1843 also created a sewing device but he failed to develop it.

Sewing machine: United States (1839-46)

Elias Howe, Jr., a youth of 20, in Boston, Massachusetts in 1839, gravely listened to an argument between his employer and a well-dressed visitor. The visitor had contended a sewing machine would be much more practical than the knitting machine. Howe remembered the words of the visitor and devoted all of his spare time to the invention of such a device. He wasted many months endeavoring to copy the motions of his wifes arm when sewing. Then the idea came to him of using two threads and forming a stitch with the aid of a shuttle. There is no reason to believe that Howe was aware of Walter Hunt's previous work along the same lines. On September 10th, 1846 a patent was issued on Howe's machine embodying a curve eye-pointed needle carrying an upper thread and operating in a horizontal plane in conjunction with a shuttle for the lower thread to form a lock stitch. However, Howe found no market for his machine in the United States at the time so he went to England to set up manufacture, only to return to the States three years later to find the sewing machine had become celebrated, though his part in its invention was seemingly forgotten.

Lock stitch machine: United States (1848)

John A. Bradshaw of Boston, invented and patented in 1848 a lock stitch machine with a reciprocating shuttle. The following year Charles Morey and J.B. Johnson patented a chain stitch machine of limited practicality. Its only real contribution was that it handled the material on a horizontal bed instead of suspending it in a perpendicular plane as most of its predecessors.

Two thread chain stitch: United States (1849)

John Bachelder in 1849 secured a patent on a two-thread chain stitch machine which, because of its continuous feed and vertical moving needle above a horizontal plate, was destined to be one of the most important sewing machine patents issued.

Moving shuttle: United States (1849)

SC. Blodgett, layer in 1849 with the assistance of John A. Lerow, perfected and patented an ingenious lock stitch machine that featured the first continuously moving shuttle that traveled horizontally in an endless rotating baster plate.

Singer Sewing Machine

Isaac Merrit Singer is generally credited with invented the first truly practical sewing machine in 1850. Many invntors were working on a practical machine, so there is some debate over the true inventor. HBC is primarily interested in the time line and impact of these and other inventions thus the debate over the precise odentity of the inventor is not a major concern. Singer's machine was cumbersome in appearance and heavy to operate. It did embody, however, the basic principles found in all modern sewing machines. Most important, it could sew continuously any kind of seam, straight, circular or angular, and unlike previous machines, was so simple that the user did not have to be an expert machinist to operate it. Some are not impressed with Singer's technical innovations. Howe took him to court for patent infriongement. But what is undeniable is that Singer was a marketing genius and began selling workable sewing machines to American housewives, eager to have a machine that would herlp them create fashionable, sturdily constructed clothing fr themselves and their families. It was a huge success, coming at a time that rising income levels were providing an increasing number of consumers who could afford these machines.


The appearance of the Singer sewing machine in 1851, however, was revolutionize the manufacture of clothing. This is much more important than it may first appear. Remember that the industry around which the industrial revolution developed was the clothing industry. The clothing industry even by the mid-19th century was a much more important sector of a country's industrial production than is the case today. Even just within the realm of clothing, the sewing mavchine had huge consequences for the commercial clothing industry. The sewing machine was the final step in the process began in the 18th century. The industrial revolution developed more efficint means of producung cloth. The process of gturning that clolth into actual garments was not significantly improved until the invention of the sewing machine. The development of the sewing machine made possible the mass production of ready-made clothing that substantially reduced the cost of clothing to the general public. It also affected home sewing, especially beginning in the 1860s with the appearance of the first Butterick graded patterns.


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Created: November 4, 2000
Last updated: April 30, 2003