Happy Birthday Modern Sewing Machine!

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in Sewing | Comments


Let’s dive into sewing history, as today marks a very special occasion: on this date, many years ago, the modern sewing machine was invented! On September 10, 1846, Elias Howe was awarded the first US patent for a lockstitch sewing machine. A lockstitch is formed by a single needle with two threads (one passed through the needle and one from a bobbin).

Invention of the Sewing Machine

The inventor Elias Howe

Elias Howe was born in 1819. He apprenticed in a textile factory in Lowell, Massachusets before apprenticing as a mechanic. He married in 1841 and the couple had three children. Howe invented his version of the sewing machine in 1845 (however, it was not the first sewing machine). He died in Brooklyn in 1867.

The history of the sewing machine

Sewing machines, in some form, have been around since the late 1700s. In the mid-1880s, A French tailor named Barthélemy Thimonnier patented a sewing machine that sewed straight seams using a chain stitch, and even had a small factory producing uniforms for the French Army. The factory was destroyed by a mob of French tailors afraid of losing their livelihoods (you can’t make this stuff up!).

Walter Hunt invented the first American version of a lockstitch sewing machine in 1832. However, he couldn’t work out all of the kinks and soon lost interest in his invention (he never filed a patent).

Elias Howe soon followed with a sewing machine that was similar to Hunt’s design, but much improved. His version had three key features that are still present on the sewing machines we use today:

  • A needle with an eye at the point (rather than at the heel, like a hand sewing needle)
  • A shuttle operating beneath the fabric to form a lockstitch
  • An automatic feed

Howe spent some time abroad in England promoting his invention and returned the United States to find several people infringing on his patent. Among them was Isaac Singer, the entrepreneur who founded the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Howe took Singer to court over patent infringement and was awarded the right to claim royalties on sales of his invention.

Singer, to his credit, did make some improvements of his own to Howe’s sewing machine, including the addition of a presser foot and a basic tensioning system (think about how sewing would be different without those two things!).

Close-up of Sewing Foot and Thread

The impact of the modern sewing machine

Clothing manufacturers were, of course, the first on the purchase of sewing machines. Sewing machines became common sights in middle class homes around the 1860s. The impact on middle-class housewives was huge. Without a sewing machine, it would take as long as 14 hours to make a man’s dress shirt and 10 hours to make a dress. No wonder people only owned a few items of clothing! A sewing machine reduced that time to a mere hour to make a dress shirt or dress. Personally, I can’t imagine spending 14 hours sewing one garment by hand!

So celebrate your sewing machine today! Try out a new sewing pattern, or sign up for a sewing class, like Sewing Texture, which walks you through specific techniques for adding interesting textural elements to your sewing projects.

What do you love about your sewing machine?

Comments

  1. Sheena Stubbs says:

    I love the articles written on sewing, in fact all of the Craftsy Blogs but this is not one I can let slip by. I have a daily love affair with my Serger and sewing machines and as a “European” member of Craftsy felt the article was somewhat biased

    In the late 1700s English inventor Thomas Saint was the first to patent a design for a sewing machine. A working machine of Saints was later upgraded by William Newton Wilson after he found Saints drawings in a London patent office. This can still be seen in the London Science Museum

    As you rightly say the first “American” lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832. But no mention of John Greenborough nor Josef Madersperger (Austrian)?

    There’s also no mention of how Singer, Howe, Wheeler, Wilson, Grover and Baker pooled their knowledge and patents which truly formed the basis of the machine we now know.

    Licensing their designs the rest is simply development history and where would we be without this great invention?

  2. Gloria J. Parker says:

    I am new at all that you can find on the internet about sewing and everything else for that matter. But what I see is great ; especially what I see on sewing!!! I am not new to sewing as like everyone else I learned as a child making doll dress’ from scrapes my Mother gave me to use. Then I went to hotpads and table scarfs and then Jr. High School Home ECT. and in High school SEWING or Cooking and I took sewing because I was already a COOK!!! Ha! Ha! Yes, I have learned somethings usefull as I have read all of your statements on different things you have done. I like those juicey tidbits! Thank you so much for all the good info… Gloria J. Parker Pensacola,Fl.