The other I walked past a storefront displaying modern sewing machine models and the price was … high. Surprising for a machine that was so common since… Yes, since when and:
Who Invented the Sewing Machine?
For those who are a bit young, a sewing machine is a machine used to sew fabric and materials together with thread. Before that, sewing was manual work, and you can still do it that way, but in the clothing industry, it was a revolution.
More than 20 thousand years ago, the first needles were made from bones and the thread came from animal tendons. Things changed a lot since then, but it took a long time to get to the machine. During that time, sewing techniques evolved, becoming more and more complex.
In 1755, the first British patent for a machine used for sewing was awarded to a German immigrant living in London named Charles Weisenthal. His creation didn’t lead to a revolution. In fact, his machine was equipped with a two-pointed needle that only produced a crude stitch, nothing as tight as a manual stitch. The world went on without noticing it.
A few years later, in 1790, an Englishman named, Thomas Saint—a cabinet maker and sometime inventor—designed the first sewing machine of its kind. The keyword here is “designed,” because he didn’t build one, for what we know. That didn’t stop him from gaining a patent for his idea. His machine was using the chain stitch method (a series of looped stitches forming a chain-like pattern) and was destined to help in the manufacture of leather goods. It was even capable of working with canvas. Almost a century later, William Newton Wilson found Saint’s schematics and built a replica of the machine. It didn’t work as well as planned, and a lot of modifications were needed.
At the beginning of the 19th century, things started to move seriously. Thomas Stone and James Henderson patented in France, in 1804, a sewing machine that emulated hand sewing. The same year, Scottish weaver John Duncan patented a tambouring machine that is now described as the first embroidering machine. Three years later, an Austrian tailor names Josef Madersperger started working on his first sewing machine but didn’t present a working one before 1814. Nevertheless, he received financial support from his government and continued to work on his creation until 1839. America’s first sewing machine came from John Adams Doge and John Knowles. They invented it in 1818, but it didn’t work really well and could only sew a few bits of fabric before breaking.
In 1829, a French tailor and inventor named Barthélemy Thimonnier reinvented the sewing machine and made it work, this time. He teamed up with a mining engineer, Auguste Ferrand, who helped get a patent for the invention. The machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch, like Saint’s was supposed to do, but Thimonnier’s went into production. In fact, Thimonnier and his partners open the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in order to produce army uniforms for the French Army. This didn’t sit well with the Parisian tailors. Fearing that the machine would lead to the end of their usefulness, they organized a riot that concluded with the burn-down of the factory and the destruction of the 80 sewing machines Thimonnier built. The French inventor didn’t stop there, he improved on its design, but all his efforts were met with violent pushbacks from other tailors. Even after trying his chance in England, Thimonnier failed to cash in on his invention and died poor in 1857. Still, ultimately, Barthélemy Thimonnier is the one that can be credited for the invention of the sewing machine.
The First Commercially Successful Sewing Machine
Even if Thimonnier failed to make a fortune, progress can’t be stopped. New sewing machines were designed. In 1844, English inventor John Fisher design a really good one, but a problem with the filing at the Patent Office robbed him of the recognition he deserved for the improvements he added. A year later, a similar machine coming from American Elias Howe introduced what is called the lockstitch (the machine uses two threads, an upper and a lower). His creation was brilliant, but he failed to market it. Isaac Merritt Singer didn’t.
In 1851, Singer built a different sewing machine, one where the needle moved up and down rather than the side-to-side. Also, the needle was powered by a foot treadle. He was inspired by the works of his predecessors but improved on them. Elias Howe didn’t like that and sued Singer for patent infringement. He won and Singer was forced to pay him to produce more machines—Singer finally partnered with a lawyer to find a way out, that’s how they created the first hire-purchase arrangement, allowing people to buy their machines through payments over time.
Singer was not the only one with patent infringement problems. Allen B. Wilson designed a machine too similar to a device already patented and decided to just try another approach instead. He partnered with Nathaniel Wheeler with whom he designed and produced a quieter and smoother machine using a rotary hook instead of a shuttle. With it, the Wheeler & Wilson Company found unprecedented commercial success. Wilson continued to improve his machine and introduced the four-motion feed mechanism that modern machines still use today.
In 1856, the American constructors—Singer, Howe, Wheeler, and others—formed the Sewing Machine Combination, the first patent pool in US history. The idea was to end the Sewing Machine War. They pooled nine patents together and every manufacturer had to be licensed, paying a fee for each machine sold. The market was then open and each company was free to work without the fear of more litigation. It lasted until the last patent expired in 1877.
Others introduced new ideas and different stitching approaches, but only Singer really became synonymous with the sewing machine.