Sewing machines over time – where would we be without them

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Milica Sterjova
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A double pointed needle with an eye at one end, designed by German-born Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal in 1755 in England, is considered to be the first significant step in the changes that occurred across the entire textile industry in the 18th century.

It opened a number of possibilities for further developments in the industry. Animal bones and horns were replaced with the metal device, and by the end of 1700s hand sewing was on its way to being completely transformed.

In 1790, an English cabinet maker Thomas Saint designed a machine with an overhead arm for the needle, which was based on a chain-stitch method and used only for leather and canvas. It had its drawbacks and needed some substantial improvements, which were made by Mr. Newton Wilson in 1873. His upgraded version of Saint’s sewing machine is now owned by London Science Museum.

Newton Wilson’s copy of Saints sewing machine. Photo Credit

The mid-19th century brought French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier’s innovation, which was a huge step for the sewing business, when he opened the first machine-based clothing factory. He sped up the entire sewing process with 80 sewing machines, made almost entirely of wood, based on a chain stitch just like Saint’s.

He was the first man who offered wooden sewing machines with a barbed needle for commercial sale. Although his factory was only sewing military clothes for the French army, it was destroyed by hand sewers who were frightened of losing their jobs.

Close up of a copy of Barthélemy Thimonnier’s sewing machine from about 1830. Photo Credit

The first sewing machine in America was invented by Walter Hunt In 1832. It was based on the lockstitch, and it used two spools of thread and an eye-pointed needle, like the one we use today. Although his machine did not imitate hand sewing, he didn’t care too much for his invention and sold it cheaply.

Probably all the essentials of the modern sewing machine were put together by English inventor John Fisher in early 1844, just a bit earlier than the very similar machine created by Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe in 1845.

Elias Howe Sewing Machine, Museum Sommerfeld, Kremmen. Photo Credit

Howe’s lockstitch-based machine had a needle with the eye at the point and an automatic feed, but he was unable to make it viable commercially. Instead, American inventor Isaac Merritt Singer used Howe’s invention, and although he was violating various copyrights he was granted an American patent in New York in 1851. Shortly after that, the disreputable businessman started to produce Singer sewing machines for commercial use and soon became the largest manufacturer and distributor in North America.

Singer sewing machines advertising poster 1892.

Meanwhile, Allen B. Wilson made great strides in perfecting the sewing machine. Two brilliant innovations that he patented are the rotary hook and the four-motion feed mechanism. What used to be a slow and tough process was now much easier and faster. Wilson partnered with Nathaniel Wheeler and, as a result, Wheeler & Wilson Company became the top manufacturer of sewing machines in the 1850s and 1860s.

The Wheeler & Wilson Company Bridgeport factory.

At the beginning of 20th century, domestic non-electric treadle sewing machines became frequently used devices in households. They were slowly replaced with lightweight portable electric sewing machines in the 1920s and 1930s. Until the introduction of the Zig-zag machines in the 1940s and 1950s, home sewers were familiar only with a straight stitch. By the 1980s the trade was full of sewing machines with a variety of different decorative stitches. For over a century companies have been making improvements in the sewing industry, all of which has allowed people to develop their custom designs on any type of fabric they want to play with.

Old sewing machine. Photo Credit

Nowadays, sewing machines have been fully modernised using computer technology and have been simplified so anyone can make any adjustments with just a few clicks or the touch of a button. This evolution is likely to continue rapidly with each new innovation. Sewing machines, especially the domestic variety, are no longer the artistic creation they once were, and have lost their decorative purpose over time, but it is a small price to pay for the user friendly and convenient machines we have come to value.