The sewing machine is still a relatively new invention, but the act of sewing itself has been a part of human culture for thousands of years.
Long before the hum of the sewing machine, we used needles and our hands to sew things together, be it clothing or other things.
So what’s the history of the sewing machine? When was it invented and how?
Invention of the Sewing Machine
The sewing machine was invented in the first Industrial Revolution to streamline work in clothing companies.
The invention of the sewing machine is credited to Thomas Saint in 1790. Prior to Saint, Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German engineer working in England, was awarded a patent for the first sewing machine, which was a mechanical device that used double pointed needles.
But Thomas Saint was the first inventor to create the first sewing machine design, which was designed to work with canvas and leather material. The only problem was that Saint failed to market or promote his invention. It is believed that he had a working model, but to this day, we have yet to find evidence of one.
The device included practical features, such as a feed mechanism, an overhanging arm, a looper and a vertical needle bar.
Saint’s machine used the chain stitch method, which uses just a single thread to make a simple stitch into fabric. A stitching awl was used to pierce the material, and the forked point rod would then carry thread through a hole and hooked underneath into the next stitching place.
The machine invented by Saint was designed primarily to manufacture leather goods, like bridles and saddles, as well as canvas, such as ship sails.
While a great start, Saint’s invention would need some improvement before it could be used for the purpose we use it for today.
Skip ahead to 1874, William Newton Wilson improved on Saint’s drawings after discovering them in the London Patent Office. Wilson made improvements to the looper, and he built a working machine.
That machine is now owned by the London Science Museum.
Other Sewing Machine Inventors
Since the first introduction of the sewing machine, the concept of an automatic sewing device has been improved upon several times.
James Henderson and Thomas Stone in 1804 built a sewing machine. John Duncan in Scotland invented an embroidery machine shortly after.
In 1807, Josef Madersperger developed his own sewing machine, and in 1814, he presented his very first working machine.
The First Practical Sewing Machine
It wasn’t until 1829 that the first practical sewing machine was invented. French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier was the brainchild of this invention.
Thimonnier’s machine also sewed straight seams just like Saint’s model. The machine is constructed out of wood and used a barbed needle.
In 1830, he agreed to work with mining engineer Auguste Ferrand, who then made requisite drawings for the machine and submitted a patent application.
The patent for Thimonnier’s machine was submitted in 1830. That same year, he opened the first clothing manufacturing company that used sewing machines to create its clothing. Thimonnier’s company created the uniforms for the French Army.
Shortly after, the factory burned down. Reportedly, workers intentionally burned down the factory out of fear that they would lose their job after the patent was issued.
Thimonnier’s machine is also exhibited in the London Science Museum.
The First Lockstitch Sewing Machine in the U.S.
In 1832, Walter Hunt created the first lockstitch machine in the U.S. Hunt’s machine used an eye-pointed needle that carried the upper thread, and a falling shuttle that carried the lower thread.
The needle passed through the fabric horizontally to create a loop as it withdrew. The shuttle moved through the loop to interlock the thread. The machine required frequent stopping and resetting, which eventually caused Hunt to lose interest in his machine.
Hunt sold inividual machines and never patented his creation.
John Greenough in 1842 patented the first sewing machine in the U.S. In the previous year, business partners Archibold and Newton invented the eye-pointed needle and also created the use of two surfaces to keep fabric in an appropriate position.
John Fisher in 1844 was the first person to combine all of the elements introduced over nearly half a century into one sewing machine. His invention came shortly before Isaac Merritt Singer’s sewing machine in 1851 and Elias Howe’s machine in 1845.
Why isn’t Fisher known as the “father” of the modern sewing machine? His patent application was botched, which kept him from getting the credit he deserved.
Singer ultimately won the patent benefits.
In 1845, Elias Howe created his own sewing machine, which was very similar to Fisher’s. The primary difference was that Howe’s machine held the fabric vertically.
After a long stay in England in an attempt to attract buyers of his machine, Howe returned to the United States. Upon his return, he found many people infringing on his patent rights, including Isaac Merritt Singer.
Howe would eventually win the case for patent infringement and was awarded royalties from Singer’s manufacturing of his machines.
Isaac Merritt Singer
Singer decided to build a better sewing machine after seeing a rotary sewing machine being worked on in Boston.
Singer’s machine included a vertical needle, a presser foot that held the fabric in place, and a falling shuttle. A fixed arm kept the needle in place, and a basic tension system was built into the machine.
Singer’s creation combined elements from Howe’s and Thimonnier’s machines. An American patent was granted to Singer for his invention in 1851.
The Sewing Machine Combination
Around the time of Singer’s patent, several other people were trying to hop on the sewing machine bandwagon.
The Sewing Machine Combination was formed in 1856, which included Howe, Singer, Wilson, Wheeler, Baker and Grover. These companies pooled their patents, so future manufacturers would need to obtain a license and pay a $15 fee for each machine.
This arrangement continued until 1877 when the final patent expired.
The sewing machine has a long and rich history, and it’s still being improved upon today.