Sewing is an art that dates back at least twenty thousand years. Originally, sewing was a bone needle and animal sinew affair. It was not until the 14th century that iron needles came onto the scene.
For centuries, sewing was a manual activity. Various attempts to come up with a sewing machine first appeared in the late 18th century. However, sewing machines didn’t become widely used until the 1800s when several major inventions occured.
Sewing machines of the 1800s
In 1830, a French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier produced the first functional sewing machine. Walter Hunt followed with the first lockstitch machine in 1832. John Fisher, an English inventor, attempted to combine crucial innovations in 1844, but had a patent issue.
Elias Howe revolutionized the scene with a needle with an eye at the tip and thread from two sources. Later on, in 1851, Issac Singer combined Hunt and Howe’s innovations with his improvements leading to a patent infringement battle and the first patent pool in the 1850s.
What led to the popularity of sewing machines?
All these crucial innovations improved the sewing industry. Initially, sewing was manual. Manually meant sewing was at 50 stitches a minute. Elias Howe’s machine was five times better. Coupled with Hunt’s lockstitch and Singer’s vertical needle and treadle system, sewing machines became much more efficient.
At first, sewing machines were industrial. However, in 1856, Singer domesticated sewing machines, making them used widely. These factors, coupled with the following, led to the widespread use of sewing machines.
Manual sewing was a chore. At 50 stitches a minute, the fastest manual time, it could take hours to sew a garment. Sewing machines initially were five times better, which improved to twenty times faster in the late 19th century.
This meant that they were efficient enough for industrial use. Barthelemy Thimonnier’s machine produced uniforms for the French army. By the mid-1800s, sewing machines were churning out garments, shoes, and bridles for tailors to sell commercially.
Up to the mid-1800s, sewing machines were big, cumbersome, and hand-cranked devices. They were only used industrially, due to the technical operations required. However, in 1856, Singer came up with a smaller treadle (or hand-cranked) version targeted for domestic use. He invested heavily in interchangeable parts, causing revenues to soar.
Family-friendly models such as the Turtleback, were cheaper, reliable, and easily operated. They began dominating the market.
Locals and women, in particular, we’re able to venture into the tailoring industry, creating jobs for themselves. Self-help groups, societies, and associations began teaching tailoring as a social-economic skill. Tailoring helped women, in particular, to acquire self-help skills and improve their standard of living.
Older variants of the sewing machines were inefficient. Initially, sewing machines used needles with hooks until Howe’s eye needle invention came about. His two-thread source shuttle improved the sewing machine.
However, before Singer, sewing was horizontal and hand-cranked. Singer’s vertical needle and treadle operation system changed all this. Sewing machines became easy to learn to use and highly efficient.
Pooling of patents of innovations by significant inventors calmed patent wars of the 1850s. These allowed crucial developments in the sewing industry that are still in use today. Allen Wilson’s rotating hook and four feed motions and James Gibb’s automatic tension device in the late 1850s certainly improved sewing machines.
With the revolution of the sewing industry in America in the 1850s, manufacturing industries spurred targeting domestic use. This led to the wide use of the machines domestically, which quickly spread internationally.
Large companies such as Chadwick and Jones, Howe, and eventually Singer expanded into the European markets. They established factories in the United Kingdom, and their sewing machines were an instant hit. Some European sewing machine companies, such as Husqvarna, acquired rights to reproduce the American weed model, becoming an instant success.
At first, sewing machines were made for targeted industrial use. However, following the eruption of demand for domestic sewing machines, efforts spurred to make sales due to competition. Brands competed against one another and focused on revenues. Sewing machines were durable, built to last a lifetime, and highly innovative. That meant they cost a fortune back then.
The Singer brand was ingenious in the promotion of sewing machines. They came up with a hire purchase plan that increased sales. They also encouraged the use of sewing machines by women as a socio-economic activity. That led to a spur of charity organizations and associations vested in empowerment through tailoring.
Antique sewing machines were hand-cranked. This made them slow and hard to operate. However, with the invention of the treadle machine in the 1850s, sewing machines became faster. Sewing machines could produce almost a thousand stitches a minute, unlike some hand-cranked counterparts. Although with further improvements, hand-cranking improved and sold as a variant to the treadle version for different models.
In the late 19th century, the first electric sewing machine entered the market. However, it was not portable. That is because it needed a source of power to power its motor. It was in the 1920s when the first practical portable electrical sewing machines came onto the scene.
Frequently Asked Questions
When was the first sewing machine built?
Foremost was John Heathcoat, a British inventor credited with the construction of a wrap-loom in the 1700s. Charles Weisenthal followed Thomas Saint, 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. John Fisher, Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Issac Singer in the 1800s all made massive innovations that led to the current sewing machines of today.
What was the first sewing machine brand?
Originally, sewing machines were not commercially made, save for Barthelemy Thimonnier, but that was not associated with a brand name. After innovations and the patent wars of the 1850s, sewing machine brand names began to sprout up.
Singer, Howe, Wheeler & Wilson, and Willcox & Gibbs all came up on the sewing machine market at this point. They formed the infamous patent pool of the 1850s and built big manufacturing companies then.
What made sewing machines more popular?
The popularity of sewing machines rose with their efficiency of sewing. By the late 1800s, sewing machines were doing 900 stitches a minute. However, what spurred the use was domestication in the 1850s.
Sewing machines initially were highly industrialized. Sewing machines built for local use were smaller and easy to use and operate. This meant people could acquire and use them on a smaller scale level. Promotion amplified this.
An impactful invention
It is worthy to say sewing machines are one of the inventions of the millennium. They have completely revolutionized the sewing industry. It is currently impossible to imagine anyone doing manual sewing. Further innovations like embroidery and computerized stitching are now an art form. What started as a quest to ease manual sewing is now a respectable profession worldwide. We owe all this to all the outstanding innovators who together contributed to this beautiful craft.