Sewing machine

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A vintage Singer sewing machine.

A sewing machine is used to stitch fabric together with thread. Sewing machines were an invention of the industrial revolution that made it possible to sew faster than people could sew by hand. Some sewing machines are also used for embroidery. Since the invention of the first working sewing machine, generally considered to have been the work of Englishman Thomas Saint in 1790, the sewing machine has greatly improved the efficiency and productivity of the clothing industry.

Home sewing machines are designed for one person to sew individual items while using a single stitch type. In a modern sewing machine the fabric easily glides in and out of the machine without the inconvenience of needles and thimbles and other such tools used in hand sewing, automating the process of stitching and saving time.

Industrial sewing machines, by contrast to domestic machines, are larger, faster, and more varied in their size, cost, appearance, and task.

History[change | change source]

Thomas Saint's chain stitch

Invention[change | change source]

Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German-born engineer working in England was awarded the first British patent for a mechanical device to aid the art of sewing, in 1755. His invention consisted of a double pointed needle with an eye at one end.

In 1790, the English inventor Thomas Saint invented the first sewing machine design, but he did not successfully advertise or market his invention. His machine was meant to be used on leather and canvas material. It is likely that Saint had a working model but there is no evidence of one; he was a skilled cabinet maker and his device included many practically functional features: an overhanging arm, a feed mechanism (adequate for short lengths of leather), a vertical needle bar, and a looper.

His sewing machine used the chain stitch method, in which the machine uses a single thread to make simple stitches in the fabric. A stitching awl would pierce the material and a forked point rod would carry the thread through the hole where it would be hooked underneath and moved to the next stitching place, where the cycle would be repeated, locking the stitch. Saint's machine was designed to aid the manufacture of various leather goods, including saddles and bridles, but it was also capable of working with canvas, and was used for sewing ship sails. Although his machine was very advanced for the era, the concept would need steady improvement over the coming decades before it could become a practical proposition. In 1874, a sewing machine manufacturer, William Newton Wilson, found Saint's drawings in the London Patent Office, made adjustments to the looper, and built a working machine, currently owned by the London Science Museum.

In 1804, a sewing machine was built by the Englishmen Thomas Stone and James Henderson, and a machine for embroidering was constructed by John Duncan in Scotland. An Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger, began developing his first sewing machine in 1807. He presented his first working machine in 1814.

The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829. His machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch like Saint's model, and in 1830, he signed a contract with Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, who made the requisite drawings and submitted a patent application. The patent for his machine was issued on 17 July 1830, and in the same year, he opened (with partners) the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create army uniforms for the French Army. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing their livelihood following the issuing of the patent.

A model of the machine is exhibited at the London Science Museum. The machine is made of wood and uses a barbed needle which passes downward through the cloth to grab the thread and pull it up to form a loop to be locked by the next loop. The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832. His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down, requiring the machine to be stopped frequently and reset up. Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold individual machines without bothering to patent his invention, and only patenting it at a late date of 1854. In 1842, John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States. The British partners Newton and Archibold introduced the eye-pointed needle and the use of two pressing surfaces to keep the pieces of fabric in position, in 1841.

The first machine to combine all the disparate elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844, thus a little earlier than the very similar machines built by the infamous Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851, and the lesser known Elias Howe, in 1845. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher's patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine in the legal disputations of priority with Singer, and it was Singer who won the benefits of the patent.

Elias Howe, born in Spencer, Massachusetts, created his sewing machine in 1845, using a similar method to Fisher's except that the fabric was held vertically. An important improvement on his machine was to have the needle running away from the point, starting from the eye. After a lengthy stay in England trying to attract interest in his machine, he returned to America to find various people infringing his patent, among them Isaac Merritt Singer. He eventually won a case for patent infringement in 1854, and was awarded the right to claim royalties from the manufacturers using ideas covered by his patent, including Singer.

Singer had seen a rotary sewing machine being repaired in a Boston shop. As an engineer, he thought it was clumsy and decided to design a better one. The machine he devised used a falling shuttle instead of a rotary one; the needle was mounted vertically and included a presser foot to hold the cloth in place. It had a fixed arm to hold the needle and included a basic tension system. This machine combined elements of Thimonnier, Hunt and Howe's machines. Singer was granted an American patent in 1851, and it was suggested[by whom?] he patent the foot pedal or treadle, used to power some of his machines; unfortunately, the foot pedal had been in use too long for a patent to be issued. When Howe learned of Singer's machine he took him to court, where Howe won and Singer was forced to pay a lump sum for all machines already produced. Singer then took out a license under Howe's patent and paid him $1.15 per machine before entering into a joint partnership with a lawyer named Edward Clark. They created the first hire-purchase arrangement to allow people to buy their machines through payments over time.

Meanwhile, Allen B. Wilson developed a shuttle that reciprocated in a short arc, which was an improvement over Singer and Howe's. However, John Bradshaw had patented a similar device and threatened to sue, so Wilson decided to try a new method. He went into partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler to produce a machine with a rotary hook instead of a shuttle. This was far quieter and smoother than other methods, with the result that the Wheeler & Wilson Company produced more machines in the 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer. Wilson also invented the four-motion feed mechanism that is still seen on every sewing machine today. This had a forward, down, back and up motion, which drew the cloth through in an even and smooth motion. Charles Miller patented the first machine to stitch buttonholes. Throughout the 1850s more and more companies were being formed, each trying to sue the others for patent infringement. This triggered a patent thicket known as the Sewing Machine War.

In 1856, the Sewing Machine Combination was formed, consisting of Singer, Howe, Wheeler, Wilson, Grover and Baker. These four companies pooled their patents, with the result that all other manufacturers had to obtain a license and pay $15 per machine. This lasted until 1877, when the last patent expired. James Edward Allen Gibbs (1829–1902), a farmer from Raphine in Rockbridge County, Virginia patented the first chain stitch single-thread sewing machine on June 2, 1857. In partnership with James Willcox, Gibbs became a principal partner in Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company.

Willcox & Gibbs commercial sewing machines are still used in the 21st century.

Elias Howe, born in Spencer, Massachusetts, created his sewing machine in 1845, using a similar method to Fisher's except that the fabric was held vertically. An important improvement on his machine was to have the needle running away from the point, starting from the eye. After a lengthy stay in England trying to attract interest in his machine, he returned to America to find various people infringing his patent, among them Isaac Merritt Singer. He eventually won a case for patent infringement in 1854, and was awarded the right to claim royalties from the manufacturers using ideas covered by his patent, including Singer.

Singer had seen a rotary sewing machine being repaired in a Boston shop. As an engineer, he thought it was clumsy and decided to design a better one. The machine he devised used a falling shuttle instead of a rotary one; the needle was mounted vertically and included a presser foot to hold the cloth in place. It had a fixed arm to hold the needle and included a basic tension system. This machine combined elements of Thimonnier, Hunt and Howe's machines. Singer was granted an American patent in 1851, and it was suggested[by whom?] he patent the foot pedal or treadle, used to power some of his machines; unfortunately, the foot pedal had been in use too long for a patent to be issued. When Howe learned of Singer's machine he took him to court, where Howe won and Singer was forced to pay a lump sum for all machines already produced. Singer then took out a license under Howe's patent and paid him $1.15 per machine before entering into a joint partnership with a lawyer named Edward Clark. They created the first hire-purchase arrangement to allow people to buy their machines through payments over time.

Meanwhile, Allen B. Wilson developed a shuttle that reciprocated in a short arc, which was an improvement over Singer and Howe's. However, John Bradshaw had patented a similar device and threatened to sue, so Wilson decided to try a new method. He went into partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler to produce a machine with a rotary hook instead of a shuttle. This was far quieter and smoother than other methods, with the result that the Wheeler & Wilson Company produced more machines in the 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer. Wilson also invented the four-motion feed mechanism that is still seen on every sewing machine today. This had a forward, down, back and up motion, which drew the cloth through in an even and smooth motion. Charles Miller patented the first machine to stitch buttonholes. Throughout the 1850s more and more companies were being formed, each trying to sue the others for patent infringement. This triggered a patent thicket known as the Sewing Machine War.

In 1856, the Sewing Machine Combination was formed, consisting of Singer, Howe, Wheeler, Wilson, Grover and Baker. These four companies pooled their patents, with the result that all other manufacturers had to obtain a license and pay $15 per machine. This lasted until 1877, when the last patent expired. James Edward Allen Gibbs (1829–1902), a farmer from Raphine in Rockbridge County, Virginia patented the first chain stitch single-thread sewing machine on June 2, 1857. In partnership with James Willcox, Gibbs became a principal partner in Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company.

Willcox & Gibbs commercial sewing machines are still used in the 21st century.

Clothing manufacturers were the first sewing machine customers, and used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing and shoes. In the 1860s consumers began purchasing them, and the machines—ranging in price from £6 to £15 in Britain depending on features—became very common in middle-class homes. Owners were much more likely to spend free time with their machines to make and mend clothing for their families than to visit friends, and women's magazines and household guides such as Mrs Beeton's offered dress patterns and instructions. A sewing machine could produce a man's shirt in about one hour, compared to 14 1/2 hours by hand.

In 1877 the world's first crochet machine was invented and patented by Joseph M. Merrow, then-president of what had started in the 1840s as a machine shop to develop specialized machinery for the knitting operations. This crochet machine was the first production overlock sewing machine. The Merrow Machine Company went on to become one of the largest American Manufacturers of overlock sewing machines, and continues to be a global presence in the 21st century as the last American over-lock sewing machine manufacturer.

In 1885 Singer patented the Singer Vibrating Shuttle sewing machine, which used Allen B. Wilson's idea for a vibrating shuttle and was a better lockstitcher than the oscillating shuttles of the time. Millions of the machines, perhaps the world's first really practical sewing machine for domestic use, were produced until finally superseded by rotary shuttle machines in the 20th century. Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish decoration appearing until well into the 1900s.

The first electric machines were developed by Singer Sewing Co. and introduced in 1889. By the end of the First World War, Singer was offering hand, treadle and electric machines for sale. At first the electric machines were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side, but as more homes gained power, they became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.

Types of sewing machines[change | change source]

There are four main types of sewing machines:

  1. electric
  2. hand
  3. pedal/treadle
  4. Y33T

References[change | change source]