The Development of the Sewing Machine

Liz Land

The sewing machine was one of the two great laborsaving devices of the nineteenth century perfected and manufactured in the United States (the other being the typewriter). It was the first widely advertised consumer appliance, the first to introduce installment buying and patent pooling, and it revolutionized the ready-made clothing industry.

The sewing machine was developed over a long period of time in many stages. A French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, was the first to put a sewing device into commercial operation in an attempt to mechanize embroidery. He patented his device in 1830 and by 1841 he had a factory with eighty machines. Unfortunately, a mob of tailors, worried about their livelihood, broke in and destroyed them. A few years later, he was able to start up again but the Revolution of 1848 ended his endeavors.

Other European inventors added elements that contributed to the eventual development of a successful sewing machine but none of them was immediately successful. The first American to make a significant contribution was an inventor, Walter Hunt, who developed a machine around 1832 that made a lock stitch. This required two threads; by placing the eye of the needle near the pointed end it worked in combination with a shuttle carrying the second thread. The machine could sew only straight seams but on the whole, it represented a major breakthrough. Hunt and his family were Quakers, though, and his daughter convinced him that he shouldn' t market his invention because it would throw seamstresses out of work. He abandoned it without taking out a patent. Among some of the other items invented by Walter Hunt were the safety pin and the breech-loading rifle.

The next important inventor developed the first workable sewing machine. His name was Elias Howe, and he grew up on a farm where his mother wove cloth and made all the family clothes while his father sewed the shoes and boots. Feeling that there was no future in farming for him, Howe dropped out of school and went to work in a machine shop in Boston. There, intrigued with the idea of developing a sewing machine, he gave up his job and moved his family in with his parents. Although he didn't have to worry about food and shelter and had the time to work on his invention, he had no money for supplies. A friend, George Fisher, who was a successful merchant, offered to board Howe and his family, giving him the tools and materials he needed in exchange for half the patent of the machine. Howe worked for a year before he discovered that a successful machine didn't have to imitate hand sewing. This enabled him to take a fresh approach to his endeavors. In his first machine, the cloth hung vertically from a row of pins that projected from a baster plate. This plate moved under a curved needle that was operated by a toothed wheel. The length of each operation depended on the length of the plate and when the end of the baster plate reached the needle, the machine had to be stopped, the cloth moved forward on the pins, and the operation repeated. The machine did work, but Howe had a difficult time marketing it. There were several obstacles in his way. First, the machine was expensive and factory owners felt they could get more from seamstresses for the same money. Secondly, seamstresses and tailors considered the machine a threat to their jobs. In 1846, in New York City alone, ten thousand women earned their living through needlework. Although they worked twelve to fourteen hours a day for very little, sewing was one of the few jobs a woman could do that was considered respectable. Many seamstresses and tailors were itinerant. They went out to small towns and stayed often in wealthy homes while they sewed for the families. In those days, everything had to been handsewn, even such items as shoes, tents and sails.

After encountering so much difficulty marketing his machine in the United States, Howe went to England, hoping for better luck in a more industrialized country. Unfortunately, he had no success there, either. To make matters worse, when he returned home he found that, in his absence, others had been making sewing machines and improving on his design. All but Isaac Singer settled for a royalty; Howe brought Singer to court and won his case. The court ruled that he was to receive a large sum on back royalties and a royalty on every new machine that was made and sold in the United States for the duration of his patent. Eventually, these arrangements made him a very wealthy man.

Isaac Singer was an interesting character. His childhood was an unhappy one and he left home at the age of 12. When he was 19, he apprenticed at a machine shop. Although he appeared to have a natural gift for it, he didn't stay there long, preferring to drifti from job to job as a machinist. This may have been because his real was to be an actor. His manual jobs didn't interest him; he felt they were just stopgaps until he could realize his true vocation. However, acting didn't work out for him and since he many family obligations, he finally settled down in Chicago working as a laborer building the Lockport and Illinois Canal. While there, he invented his first machine for drilling rock. He patented it and was able to sell the rights for $2000, a large sum in those days. Spurred on by this success, his next-invention was a type-carving machine that he hoped would make his fortune. He went to NY to search for a backer and, after several mishaps, met George Zieber who agreed to lend him money. The two men decided to go to Boston because at that time it was the center of the book manufacturing trade as well as being an important manufacturing center. They rented space on the ground floor of a sewing machine factory and waited for the orders to come. Many people came and looked but no one was interested in purchasing his invention. In the meantime, the sewing machine factory was having its own troubles. It was manufacturing a machine patented by Lerow and Blodgett which machine didn't work very well and needed constant repair. Its owner, Orson Phelps, asked Singer to abandon his carving device and go in with him to try to improve the sewing machine. Singer was very reluctant to get involved with this enterprise, saying, "You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet, their sewing!" He did make some crucial improvements, however. The main fault of the Lerow and Blodgett machine was that the circular motion of the shuttle took the twist out of the thread making it weak and susceptible to breakage. Singer solved this problem by having the shuttle go back and forth in a straight line and making a straight needle that moved up and down. He was then able to develop a marketable machine with his original partners, Zieber and Phelps.

The development of machine twist thread in 1852 revived the silk industry in Florence, Massachusetts, after Samuel Hill, one of the developers of the Nonotuck mill, sent samples of the thread to Singer. He was eager to buy it as it was stronger and less liable to break than anything he had used previously. Hill, then, became interested in the sewing machine itself after seeing one at the Crystal Palace in NY in 1855, and decided to manufacture them. The Florence Sewing Machine Company was the first large steam-run factory in the area and operated between 1860 to 1885 after which it was purchased by a Midwestern company and subsequently manufactured lamp and heating stoves.

Frequent suits from patent infringements plagued the fledgling sewing machine industry. For self-protection, three of the major companies and Howe formed a "Sewing Machine Combination" in 1856 and pooled their patents, allowing them issue licenses and establish royalty rights without destroying each other in litigation. This was a big step in sewing machine manufacture, setting the companies free to invest in the expensive machinery they needed to make their products.

In the first Singer factory, parts were handmade. This had two drawbacks: only skilled craftsmen could make them, which made production slow and resulted in expensive costs for time and labor. Then, since no two machines were alike, broken parts couldn't be replaced because there was no guarantee that " spares" would fit. The introduction of interchangeable parts made with accurate machine tools and gauges made all the difference. By 1870, there was a significant reduction in the price of a sewing machine.

Clothing factory owners soon realized that sewing machines were labor saving and that the large demand for ready-made, low priced clothing would not eliminate jobs but would increase the need for workers. It was as different situation, though, when the sewing machine was first made for home use: it was hard to convince the public that it was a labor saving device that could eliminate hours of drudgery. There was particular resistance from the middle class. Men were afraid that women would have too much leisure time to devote to other pursuits and also thought they were fundamentally unsuited to work complex machinery.

Singer was a great showman and used his theatrical talents to counter these negative perceptions. His showrooms were well-appointed and carpeted, and well-groomed women demonstrated his machines. He gave a grand Invitational Ball for three thousand people during which five attractive women stitched on machines throughout the evening. In order to stress that the machines were suitable for respectable women, Singer offered to sell them at half price to ministers for use in the churchs' sewing circles. Great efforts were made to have the sewing machines and their cabinets resemble a desirable piece of furniture and some companies offered machines with unique shapes like a squirrel, a horse or a cherub. He emphasized, also, the cultural advantages of leisure time.

The high price of a machine presented still another obstacle to its widespread adoption. Louis Godey, editor of "Godey's Lady's Book" suggested that ten families in a village should go together to purchase one machine. This was not a good idea from the manufacturer's point of view; he would much rather sell ten machines to ten families. Singer noted that when McCormick began to market his reaper, he allowed payments to be in two parts; one when the reaper was delivered and one when the harvest was in. This idea of a split payment led Singer to develop a hire–purchase plan which he instituted with great success.

Some of the men's concerns about home use of the sewing machine did turn out to be valid. With more leisure time, women developed other interests, both political and economic. They began to speak out for women's rights and demanded the vote, college educations, and many social reforms.

This page was last modified on Friday, April 12, 2002.