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Happy 170 birthday to the Singer Sewing Machine!

It's hard to believe the sewing machine that we know and love has been around for 170 years but the story is not quite that simple!

The industrial revolution in the 18th century created a race to mechanise and commercialise processes that had previously been done by hand, such as sewing.

And where the stakes are high it is about survival of the fittest!

1851 - Isaac Singer's Sewing Machine Patent Model
1851 - Isaac Singer's Sewing Machine Patent Model

1755 - the needle

A German immigrant, Charles Weisenthal funded by the British nobility, invented an embroidery machine with a two-pointed needle.

Charles Weisenthal
Charles Weisenthal

Two pairs of pincers could shuttle the thread back and forth producing a crude stitch but the machine had various issues. In the end Weisenthal was issued with with a British patent (Patent No. 701) for a double pointed needle with an eye at one end that was designed to be used in a machine (the patent did not describe the rest of the machine).

1790 - the hand crank machine for bookbinding

Thomas Saint, an English inventor and cabinet maker, designed and patented the first hand crank sewing machine. The machine used an awl to make a hole in leather or canvas allowing a needle to pass through.

In those days patents were filed in bundles which might cover a variety of functions. As a result Saint's Patent No.1,764, was filed under glue and bookbinding.

1810 - 1818

Various machines were attempted but none of them really worked.

1830 - first commercial machines destroyed

The first truly functional mechanised sewing machine was invented by the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier.

1830 Thimonnier’s first sewing machine

Thimonnier's machine used only one thread and a hooked needle and made a chain stitch typically used in embroidery but it could join cloth together to form a seam.

Within 10 years 80 machines were built for his Paris factory ready to make uniforms for the French Army.

But before it opened local tailors, fearful that such machines would cost them their jobs, formed into a mob and burned the factory to the ground.

He tried to rebuild but eventually fled to England and died in the poor house in 1857.

1834 - two spools of thread forming a lockstitch

The American Walter Hunt machine was the first not to try to copy hand sewing.

His machine used two spools of thread and eye-pointed needle which made a lock stitch using two spools of thread and incorporated an eye-pointed needle.

but it could only produce short, straight, seams.

Unfortunately he didn't patent his ideas as he was worried it would lead to job loses.

Model of Walter Hunt’s sewing machine, based on his patent drawings.

1844 - lace machine

Englishman John Fisher invented a machine which although designed for the production of lace, was essentially a working sewing machine. It was again mis-filed at the patent office and the invention was overlooked.

1846 - patented two spools of thread forming a lockstitch

American Elias Howe's machine, based on the idea of a shuttle on a loom, also created a lockstitch and used a needle with an eye at the point.

1846 Elias Howe’s Lockstitch sewing machine

He patented the lockstitch idea as "a process that used thread from two different sources" but struggled to finance and market his machine, partly because the machine didn't work very well.

1874 - Saint's machine (see 1790) built

William Newton Wilson, an Englishman, found the drawings from Saint's 1790 patent (see earlier) and after a few tweaks managed to built a replica that worked setting up Newton Wilson & Co.

Newton Wilson’s model of Thomas Saint’s sewing machine design
Newton Wilson’s model of Thomas Saint’s 1790 sewing machine design


So the question is which of these

ACTUALLY invented the sewing machine?


Weirdly enough none of these are names we recognise.

As is typical many others developed these early ideas, setting up a number of firms producing sewing machines.

Isaac Singer

I always identified Singer as a British sewing machine but Isaac Merritt Singer was born in New York the child of poor German immigrants.

As a young man he worked as a mechanic and cabinetmaker.

He became intrigued by a sewing machine that was being built by his employers for Lerow and Blodgett and realised a way to solve it's flaws and build a better machine.

Isaac Merritt Singer
Isaac Merritt Singer

Singer Sewing Machines was set up in 1850 and on August 12, 1851 Singer patented his new machine (Patent No. 8,294).

His was the first machine where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side, and the hand crank was replaced by a foot pedal (treddle).

The patent claimed various improvements :

  • the additional forward motion of the shuttle to tighten the stitch

  • the use of a friction pad to control the tension of the thread from the spool

  • placing the spool of thread on an adjustable arm to permit thread to be used as needed.

This is the basis of the modern sewing machine we use today.

And then the lawsuits started!

Isaac Singer's machine (and many other sewing machines that were in production) used the same lockstitch that had been patented by Howe in 1846.

Elias Howe sued Isaac Singer for patent infringement and won in 1854, eventually getting a share of Singer's profits.

Howe died in 1864 a very wealthy man.

1856 - 1877 The Sewing Machine Combination

The four biggest sewing machine manufacturers Howe Machine Company, Singer Manufacturing Company, Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company, and Grover & Baker came together to form the Sewing Machine Combination.

The companies cross-licensed their patents and became a single, powerful monopoly. All other smaller firms were made to pay for every sewing machine sold.

But why was Singer so successful?

The key to Singer's success was the way he sold his machines.

He set up Singer shops in every town and employed a large number of salesmen.

You could take a machine home for a trial and pay for it gradually over time.

Until recently, the Singer company produced machines unrivalled by its competitors.

Post 1877

The Sewing Machine Combination’s last patent became obsolete in 1877 allowing smaller manufacturers flourish.

This paved the way for the spread and growth of the industry we see today.

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