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Where Would We Be?!

Updated: Jun 17

This past week, we celebrated my favorite invention with National Sewing Machine Day on June 13th. You have to marvel at this amazing little machine that completely changed history! When you walk into your sewing room, do you ever think about how it was before we had sewing machines? Crystal King, our resident historian, takes us on a journey through sewing machine history. I know you'll enjoy this :)

The White Rotary machines were manufactured from 1890 to 1930.

Can you imagine everything was sewn by hand until the invention of the sewing machine in about 1850? Until then, a seamstress or tailor was the only sewing machine. Sewing wasn't just a hobby, it was a necessity. Occupations for women were limited, and dressmaking or piecework were considered respectable jobs for women.

Being a seamstress was hard on your hands, back, and eyes, and the money was pathetic. Women often chose "night work" over sewing because it paid better. Thomas Hood's poem, Song of the Shirt, 1843, described the work:

With fingers weary and worn,

With eyelids heavy and red,

Plying her needle and thread—

Stitch! stitch! stitch!

A solution was desperately needed and when it finally arrived, it was welcomed by all.

Those Amazing Inventors

So how was the sewing machine finally developed, and how did it change people's lives? It was a long struggle of trial and error, and dogged persistence, sometimes resulting in poverty. There doesn't seem to be a consensus on who the true Inventor was! Many patents and machine developments went into the machines we use today.

Here are some of the contributors to this truly life-changing invention!

In 1755, a German engineer, Charles Weisenthal received a patent for a needle designed to be used in a machine, but it never progressed to a usable property.

Thomas Saint submitted a successful patent, in 1790:

An Entire New Method of Making and Completing Shoes, Boots, Spatterdashes, Clogs, and Other Articles, by Means of Tools and Machines also Invented by Me for that Purpose, and of Certain Compositions of the Nature of Japan or Varnish, which will be very advantageous in many useful Appliances".

(I'm sure.) But, the patent was filed under apparel and lost. The patent wasn't rediscovered until 1874.

Josef Madersperger, an Austrian tailor-1814

Josef Madersperger, an Austrian, developed a sewing machine that imitated a human hand and sewed straight seams in 1814. But, he spent his last dime and died in the poor house trying to perfect his machine. In Austria, he is considered the inventor of the sewing machine.

In 1830, a French tailor named Barthélemy Thimonnier used a hooked or barbed needle in his machine to achieve a chain stitch. His machine was successful and was put into service making uniforms for the French Army. But, torch-wielding tailors destroyed his machines fearing loss of their livelihoods. (You can't make this stuff up.) He tried again, but he too ended up in the poorhouse.

American Walter Hunt was a genius who designed a nail-making machine, the safety pin, and other marvels. In 1834, he developed a machine with a locked stitch using two spools of thread and a needle with an eye. Fearing he'd put too many seamstresses out of work, he never patented it.

Elias Howe lock stitch machine

A poor tailor's apprentice had an idea. Elias Howe was born with a physical disability that made regular labor difficult. He realized a sewing machine could support his family. Within two years, he produced a machine with an automatic feed, a needle with a hole, and a shuttle operating beneath the cloth to form a lockstitch. He received a US patent for the first lockstitch sewing machine in 1846.

It was Isaac Singer who designed the machine that most resembles the one we use today. When inspiration struck, he was working as a sewing machine repairman on a Lerow and Blodgett machine. He designed a far superior machine with a suspended arm and encased the needle within a horizontal bar. It was the first machine that could sew continuously on any part of an object including curves. His design also included a presser foot with an unprecedented speed of 900 stitches per minute. It was truly a game-changer! However, his design included elements from Elias Howe's patent. Howe sued him for patent infringement and won. The road to success was not an easy one. It was littered with patent lawsuits, fires, and a near escape from death. You can read more about the struggle for sewing machine supremacy in A Story Stitched in Scandal.

The lawsuit didn't stop Isaac Singer. He developed a machine with moveable parts using mass production techniques. Because he drastically cut his production costs, he could offer his machine to the average housewife for $10.00. By 1860, the company was the largest sewing machine manufacturer worldwide.

As early as 1831, the first ready-to-wear clothing factory opened in the US, but all the work was done by hand. With the invention of the sewing machine manufacturing took off!

Soon, factories began to mass-produce clothing. "Brooks Brothers reduced their production time to make overcoats from three weeks to 6 days. Hats could be made ten times faster on a sewing machine and the prices dropped accordingly. The average shirt made by hand required 20,620 stitches; at a rate of thirty-five stitches a minute, it would take ten to fourteen hours to complete. A sewing machine could do 3,000 stitches a minute, and a shirt could be made in 1 hour!

With the advent of the Civil War, thousands of factories were making uniforms, coats, and trousers for the Union Army. By 1880, the cost of shoes which could now be made on a sewing machine, dropped from 75 cents to 3 cents a pair. By 1895, 1,250,000 pairs of shoes had been produced by machine.

The sewing machine affected all aspects of society with new opportunities, changes in labor wages and conditions, and access to ready-made clothing. Women who had spent tedious hours hand-sewing had more time to be involved in their community. They had more opportunities for leisure, to pursue hobbies, and to develop a personal style.

In 1867, an American tailor and manufacturer, Ebenezer Butterick, created paper patterns that home sewers could trace and use. After 1900, prices began to drop making the sewing machine affordable for even poor women to buy on credit. Home sewing enjoyed a major resurgence during WW2, and has only continued to grow.

Sewing through the Decades

Advertising increased with mass factory production of goods. Isaac Singer became the first man to spend more than 1 million dollars annually on advertising. His ads showcasing different sewing machine models started as early as 1928. Here are some of his ads that show the evolution of the sewing machine and our love affair with it.



1950: As low as $89.50!
My first sewing machine, given to me by my Mother-in-law, was a 1957 Slantomatic.
1958: How to Hint for your Singer. Hint, hint!
1960: Sing out for a Singer!

Singer sponsors the Donna Reed show. 1964: What's 's New for Christmas!

Future of the Sewing Machine

You never know what you'll find when you research a topic. I found this blog where they used AI to make a futuristic sewing machine. Check this out, it's super fun!

I hope you enjoyed this ramble through sewing machine history.

Happy Sunday everyone, and Happy Father's Day too!

Crystal King

Follow all my quilty adventures on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest. Visit my YouTube channel for free tutorials and tips. If you like my patterns, you can buy them on Etsy, and here on the website.


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