To figure out what the oldest sewing machine brand is, we need to understand the history of sewing machines. Sewing is a craft that is over 20 decades old. The first sewing needles were products of bones while the thread was made from animal sinew. It was not until the late 18th century, that there were several attempts to mechanize the sewing industry.
First was John Heathcoat, a British inventor credited with the construction of the wrap-loom. A fellow countryman, Thomas Saint, followed with a patented design, whose reproduction failed. Several failures by other patent-seeking inventors followed, until French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier, produced the first functional sewing machine.
Afterward, came the golden age of sewing machines with brands such as Howe, Singer, Jones, Wheeler and Wilson, Willox & Gibbs, Pfaff, Phoenix, Viking, White, and New Home. All these were in the 19th century.
Howe sewing machine
The first patented American brand sewing machine was under the inventor Elias Howe in 1846. His sewing machine employed a process that used thread from two sources, and the needle featured the eye near the tip. Following patent battles that he successfully won, his elder brother, after obtaining a license from him, began producing the first Howe Sewing Machines in 1854. With an increase in production in 1860, the brand expanded to Europe.
Singer sewing machine
Singer is probably the most successful and popular sewing machine brand. Invented by American actor and inventor Issac Singer, the Singer sewing machine is still in production. Issac Singer produced the first machine where the needle oscillated up and down and was treadle powered (machines before then were hand-cranked).
His machine, however, used the Howe-patented lockstitch system leading to patent litigation. Elias Howe won, leading to the first patent-pooling case where he earned royalties from anyone using his patent through licensing, making him very rich.
The Singer sewing machine went on to become the most successful brand. Its most popular antique models such, as the Singer 15k model, Singer 66k model, and Singer 99k model became worldwide successes.
Wheeler and Wilson sewing machine
Wheeler and Wilson’s sewing machine was a product of the partnership between Nathaniel Wheeler and Allen Wilson, who’s accredited for the rotating hook and four motion feed. In 1853, the company began mass production of sewing machines. However, it was not until 1880 that the company maintained serial number records.
It successfully churned out antique models, such as 1, 2, 5, 8, and the D9. Following the demise of the founders, in the late 19th century, the company was acquired by Singer Corporation. Production continued under its brand name until the first world war.
Willox and Gibbs sewing machine
Following the successes of the Singer sewing machine, James Edward Allen Gibbs felt it was too expensive and not user-friendly. He came up with his own patented sewing machine in 1857.
In 1858, he partnered with James Willcox and commenced production of the Willcox and Gibbs sewing machines. Their revolutionary model, the silent automatic, was a best-seller, thanks to an automatic tension device. The device allowed the tension to adapt to different thicknesses of fabric and not get out of adjustment.
As the century drew towards its close, the company produced industrial machines and finally closed down in 1973.
Pfaff sewing machine
Pfaff sewing machine was a German family-owned brand that initially sewed leather. It was started in 1862 by Georg Micheal Pfaff and ran by the Pfaff family till its acquisition by the Hursqvurna Viking company in the late 20th century. Antique models A, B, C, D, and E made the company a household name in the European scene. The most popular antique model is the Pfaff 11 model, a boat shuttle machine.
Phoenix sewing machine
The Phoenix sewing machine is a product of another German company as well. The Baer and Rempel company was based in Bielefeld in 1866 used a lockstitch and an unusual two-spool arrangement.
Simon Wardwell patented the two spool machines. He also patented the flat-packed treadle that cut down shipping costs. Wardwell machine came to Germany under Baer and Rempel, and the rest was history. It led to popular sewing machines models 1 through 5.
The Phoenix series was so successful that it led to the adoption of the brand name, the Phoenix. Phoenix models A through to J ushered the brand into the 20th century in style.
Husqvarna Viking sewing machine
Viking sewing machines are the products of the Husqvarna company that initially manufactured firearms. In 1872, they diversified into sewing machines. Antique Viking models are easily recognizable. The company adopted this name as it was more relatable to English speakers.
The earliest antique, The North Star, was developed in 1874, and due to operational issues, it was not a success. This did not stop the company. It acquired the rights to reproduce the American weed model that became an instant success.
The Viking American weed model has a delicate iron-cast arm and paw feet stand to support it. It was hand-operated by a hand crank and stood out. It sold well for a few years until it became outdated and was phased out.
The most successful model is the Viking Freja sewing machine. Branded Freja, this antique model is beautiful and finely engineered. In recent years, the brand has merged with Singer into SVP worldwide.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where can I get an antique sewing machine?
Antique sewing machines are a collector’s dream depending on the condition and circumstances. They can be very pricey. Sites like eBay, Craigslist and other online websites may contain listings of antiques for sale. Once you do your research and have an antique of interest, learn how to validate the model identity through its serial number.
How can I date an antique sewing machine?
If you have a brand name and a serial number, then the International Sewing Machine Collector’s Society (ISMACS) has readily available information on their website. They will give you an idea of when and who manufactured the sewing machine. The serial number is on the base, side, or underneath the sewing machine in most cases.
Where can I get information on an antique sewing machine?
This is a good place to start! Some popular brands like Singer and Viking also have active platforms where people interact and acquire information on various models. The International Sewing Machine Collector’s Society (ISMACS) is a good resource center with links for additional information.
A few firsts
It’s hard to pinpoint the oldest sewing machine brand as most sprouted up in the same timeframe. However, it is significant to note that the brands employed similar sewing systems following the Howe-patent wars. This opened up the sewing machine industry leading to the development of various brands.