Monday, February 26, 2024

And Sew it Goes

 By Cindy Regnier

 Any seamstresses out there (sorry guys but I didn’t want to call you sewers!). If you sew, you probably have use of a sewing machine and may not begin to know how to construct a garment without one. I know I wouldn’t. It did make me wonder about the invention of the sewing machine. It was Singer – right? Not necessarily so. In fact, the history of this time saving device is somewhat convoluted. Let’s check it out.

Hand sewing has been around for centuries. The first needles were made from animal bones or horns and thread was animal sinew. Then things began to get interesting during the Industrial Revolution in 18th century Europe. Factories found it unprofitable to hire hand sewing and something needed to change.

A German immigrant living in 1755 London, Charles Weisenthal,
first took out a patent for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing. No machine to go with it, but maybe he had some foresight. 34 years later, Englishman Thomas Saint invented a use for the needle. He patented a machine that made a hole in leather with an awl and then allowed a needle to go through. Some say Saint only had the idea and never came up with a real machine. When someone tried to produce a machine from his drawings in the 1880s, it didn’t work well. So maybe we can’t credit Saint with this invention. What happened next?

Model from Saint's plan

In America during 1818, John Adams Doge and John Knowles produced a device that made a e stitch, but it could only sew a short piece before a time consuming re-setting process.

In 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier was granted a patent by the French government. His contraption used a barbed needle and was built of wood. Supposedly, he designed the machine for embroidery, but then saw sewing potential. He was eventually given a contract to build  machines used to sew uniforms for the French army. 10 years later, Thimonnier ran a factory with 80 machines. But apparently the French tailors were envious and afraid their craft would disappear. Late one night a group of tailors broke into the factory and destroyed all the machines. Thimonnier fled to England with one machine he was able to salvage. He died in the poor house in 1857. 

Hunt's model

It’s worth mentioning that all attempts of designing a sewing machine before the first successful one, all moved the needle side to side and were powered with a winding handle. In 1833 American quaker Walter Hunt invented the first machine which did not try to reproduce hand sewing. It made a lock stitch using two spools of thread and incorporated an eye-pointed needle. But it was unsuccessful as it could only produce short, straight, seams. Furthermore, Hunt thought such a machine would cause unemployment for many, so he didn’t bother to patent the design.

 Nine years later John Greenough, produced a  machine in which the needle passed completely through the cloth. Although a model was made and exhibited in the hope of raising capital for its manufacture, there were no takers. Another failed invention. In 1844, Englishman John Fisher invented a machine designed for producing lace, but it worked like a sewing machine. But an error at the patent office caused his idea to be lost. No patent or invention credit for Mr. Fisher.
Howe's model


 Then, Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe completed his first prototype sewing machine not long after Fisher. It resembled Fisher’s with some minor adjustments. He had trouble marketing his design, so he left for England. By the time he returned to America, others had copied his lockstitch design and began producing the machines. One of those was Isaac Merritt Singer.


Isaac Singer
 Singer developed the first version of our modern-day sewing machine,   with a foot pedal and the up-and-down needle. Elias Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement, where he defended his case and won. Interestingly enough, if John Fisher’s patent hadn’t been lost, he would also have been involved in the lawsuits as Singer’s designs were almost identical to Fisher’s. As it was, Singer had to pay patent royalties to Howe, as well as giving him a share in the Singer Co. profits.

Singer's model

  It turned out okay for both men, though, since Howe and Singer both died multimillionaires. And so the argument continues over who invented the sewing machine. Whether you vote for Fisher, Howe, Singer or someone else, I am thankful that we can now sew without sinew and bones.

How about you? Do you sew? Do you do any hand sewing or is it a lost art?

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I am a bit surprised that it took so long to make the machine. I do own a sewing machine and in my younger days I enjoyed sewing. I took sewing classes through my local 4H club. I made my children pajamas and simple things, and made a scrap quilt. I also hand sew...mending or small seams. I always thought I would take up quilting in my retirement but nowadays the sewing machine does not bring me joy, it is stressful. I guess I should have kept up with using it over the years.