Thursday, November 24, 2011

The short history of sewing machines

The first sewing machine was invented in 1790 and patented by the British inventor Thomas Saint. Some time earlier, in 1755, Karl Weisenthal, a German inventor, devised the first sewing macine needle, but did not produce a complete machine. Saint's machine, which was designed to sew leather and canvas, mainly on boots, used only a single thread and formed a chain stitch. Instead of a needle, an awl was employed to pierce a hole through the material being sewed. Another mechanism placed the thread over the hole, and then a needlelike rod with a forked point carried the thread through to the underside of the work, where a hook caught the thread and moved it forward for the next stitch.When the cycle was repeated, a second loop was formed on the underside of the cloth with the first loop, thus forming a chain and locking the stitch. Saint's machine, however, never progressed beyond the patent model stage. And it overlooked the Weisenthal needle design.
In 1830 a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857), patented the first practical sewing machine. It employed a hook-tipped needle, much like an embroidery needle, that was moved downward by a cord-connected foot treadle and returned by a spring. Like Thomas Saint's machine, it produced a chain stitch. By 1841, eighty of his machines were being used to sew uniforms for the French army. However, his factory was destroyed by a mob of tailors, who saw the new machines as a threat to their livelihood. Thimonnier died bankrupt in England.

The earliest idea for a double-thread sewing machine came from Walter Hunt (1796-1860) of New York in 1834. Often called a Yankee mechanical genius, (Hunt also invented the safety pin) Hunt devised a machine that used a reciprocating eye-pointed needle. It worked in combination with a shuttle carrying a second needle, making an interlocked stitch comparable to that of the modem machine. He abandoned the project, however,convinced that his invention would throw impoverished seamstresses out of work.

In 1851, Issac M. Singer patented the first rigid-arm sewing machine. Before this, all machines employed an overhanging arm that held the needle directly and vibrated with it. Singer's machine also included a table to support the cloth horizontally, instead of a feed bar; a vertical presser foot to hold the cloth down against the upward stroke of the needle, and an arm to hold the presser foot and the vertical needle-holding bar in position over the table. A real breakthrough was his invention of a foot treadle instead of a hand crank. Parts of Singer's new machine were based on Howe's work. In fact,Singer was sued by Howe for infringement of the latter's patent rights, but a compromise was reached where Singer paid a royalty.

In spite of this, Singer went on to found a company that became the world's largest manufacturer of sewing machines by 1860. He was awarded 20 additional patents, spent millions of dollars advertising his machine, and initiated a system of providing service with sales. By the 1850s, Singer sewing machines were being sold in opulent showrooms; although the $75 price was high for its time, Singer introduced the installment plan to America and sold thousands of his machines in this way.

Other important inventions in the field included the rotary bobbin that was incorporated (1850) into a machine patented by the American inventor Allen Benjamin Wilson (1824-88) and the intermittent four-motion feed for advancing the material between stitches, which was part of the same patent.

Isaac Merritt Singer (1811-1875)

Isaac Singer, whose name is synonymous with sewing machines, was the eighth child of poor German immigrants from New York. He started work as a mechanic and cabinetmaker at the age of twelve but his first love was the theater. He became an actor without much financial success. In 1839 he completed his first invention, a mechanical excavator, which he sold for $2000.

Singer patented a type-casting machine for book printing and displayed it in a steam-powered workshop run by Orson Phelps. Phelps was involved in designing sewing machines; however, customers kept returning them because of faulty design. Singer examined the machines with the eye of a practical machinist. Phelps's shuttle passed around a circle; Singer suggested that the shuttle move to and fro in a straight path. Phelps' machine had a curved needle that moved horizontally; Singer proposed a straight needle to be used vertically. Phelps encouraged Singer to give up the type-casting machine and concentrate on the sewing machine.

Singer made his fortune in the sewing machine business. He had an acute business mind and initiated a number of merchandising practices of major importance, such as installment buying, advertising campaigns, and the provision of service along with sales. He retired in 1863 to live in Paris and England.

Early home sewing machines

The sewing machine promised a revolution in household labor. Dubbed 'The Queen of Inventions" by Gody's magazine in 1860, the sewing machine offered women a relief from the countless hours and tedium of hand sewing. Early sewing machine manufacturers recognized this market potential and promoted their machines accordingly. The exorbitant cost of these early machines meant that they were well beyond the means of most American families. A sewing machine cost about $125 at a time when the average yearly income was about $500. Many communities and organizations pooled their money to purchase a single machine for members to share. Since this curtailed manufacturer's potential profits, various schemes were devised to expand the market. In 1856 the I. M. Singer Company offered a hire/purchase plan where machines could be bought on monthly installments. Sales of Singer machines tripled in the first year of this offer.

The lease/purchase option soon became the most popular way of buying a sewing machine. Some unscrupulous manufacturers took advantage of the mania to acquire a machine. Stories of foreclosure and financial ruin, exploitation, and abuse of women sewing for credit (in lieu of paying cash) are also part of the early history of the home sewing machine.

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