Nobody knows when humans started sewing and making clothes, but the world’s oldest sewing needle dates back about 50,000 years. While it seems like a simple tool today, the sewing needle was at one time a modern miracle.
Many scientists believe humans started wearing clothes about 100,000 to 500,000 years ago. Early humans probably started wearing clothes by draping and tying furs, skins, and bark over themselves. Even after humans started sewing furs together with bone needles and sinew, it took thousands of years before advances in textiles made the invention of the sewing machine possible and necessary.
Compared to the long history of sewing needles, the sewing machine history is a blip in time, but it’s no less of a miracle. Since the invention of the sewing machine during the first Industrial Revolution about 250 years ago, there have been incredible advances. Humans have gone from making crude clothing to mass-producing high-quality garments relatively quickly.
The brief 250 years since the conception of the sewing machine is rich in history and fraught with drama. The development of the sewing machine changed the clothing and textile industries and affected patent laws, business practices, and industrial operations. Perhaps most importantly, the sewing machine's invention has changed millions of people's lives.
Sewing machines were invented during the first Industrial Revolution. The first Industrial Revolution occurred between about 1760 to 1840. It started in Great Britain and was the first major transition in human society to move industries from hand production to machine production.
This Industrial Revolution gave rise to the textile industry, which benefited greatly from the new machines invented. New power looms, and cotton spinning machines increased the output of a textile factory worker by about 500 times.
Suddenly, fabrics and textiles were abundant. As the production of materials continued to outpace the manufacture of clothing by seamstresses and tailors, stockpiles of fabrics grew. Since sewing everything by hand was labor intensive, and machines were the answer to production problems, the concept of the sewing machine was inevitable.
In 1755, Charles Weisenthal was the first person to get a patent related to a sewing machine. Weisenthal, a German inventor and physician, received a patent for a sewing machine needle, which implied that there was a machine to go with it. The fact that he got the patent for the needle shows that people still placed considerable importance on the needle, which humans had been using for so long.
While Weisenthal is often credited with the idea of a sewing machine, a cabinet maker from England named Thomas Saint designed the first sewing machine of its kind. Thomas Saint is more widely considered to be the sewing machine inventor, and he brought the sewing machine design closer to reality.
In 1790, Saint drew detailed patent drawings, though there isn’t any evidence that he built a prototype of his sewing machine design. It wasn’t until 1874, nearly a century later, that William Newton Wilson happened upon Saint’s patent drawings and used those designs to build the first hand crank sewing machine.
In the 84 years between the time that Thomas Saint drew the design of the sewing machine and when William Newton Wilson produced it, there were several attempts to invent a working sewing machine. Some of these attempts were unsuccessful, but these were the sewing machine origins that led to its invention in 1846.
In 1810, Balthasar Krems, a German stocking weaver, invented a machine for sewing caps. Krems never patented his invention, however, probably because it didn’t work very well.
Despite his failure, Balthasar Krems created the sewing machine needle that paved the way for modern sewing machines. Krems revolutionized the sewing machine needle by putting the eye of the needle at the same end as the point, which is how all modern sewing machine needles are made.
Josef Madersperger was granted a patent in 1815 for “the sewing hand.” Madersperger didn’t have the financial backing to produce his invention, and people rejected his idea, mainly due to technophobia. Technophobia, the fear that technology would take jobs away, continued to obstruct the design of the sewing machine for several decades.
John Knowles and Reverend John Adams Dodge invented the first American sewing machine in 1818. Reverend Dodge had experience designing machinery for producing horse collars, and even though they built a working sewing machine, Dodge could not take time away from his three churches. They did not pursue their sewing machine invention.
In 1830, a wooden sewing machine was designed and manufactured by Barthélemy Thimonnier of France. He was granted a patent for his sewing machine with his partner, Auguste Ferrand, and he is largely credited with having the first sewing machine factory in the world.
Along with other partners, Thimonnier went into business manufacturing clothing. According to reports, he had a contract to create French army uniforms. Thimonnier had about 80 machines working when a mob of 200 angry French tailors rioted and burned down his factory in 1831.
After his factory's destruction, Thimonnier returned to work as a tailor, but he kept working on sewing machine inventions. He received several patents in the 1840s and won prizes at World Fairs. Even though Thimmonier was given accolades for his sewing machine inventions, they did not take off, and he died a pauper. After his death, a sewing machine company named after him was created and stayed in business until the end of the century.
Walter Hunt was an American mechanical engineer from New York City. Hunt invented many useful items, such as the safety pin and fountain pens. In the 1830s, Hunt developed and sold a few sewing machines out of his shop in New York.
Hunt’s sewing machine was remarkable because it was the first to use an interlocking stitch with two threads. Previous machines had used a single thread and mimicked hand sewing. As the theme of technology versus manual labor continued to block the growth of the sewing industry, Hunt’s lockstitch machine was never patented because he was concerned about putting seamstresses out of work.
Elias Howe was born in Massachusetts and spent his early years apprenticing in the textile industry. Ten years after the lockstitch was born of Walter Hunt’s invention, Elias Howe patented a lockstitch sewing machine.
The Howe patent had three main characteristics common to modern sewing machines. First, the needle had an eye at the same end as the point. Second, there was a shuttle under the device that fed a loop to create the lock stitch, and third, it had an automatic feed to push the material into the path of the needle.
After Howe’s invention and patent of the first working sewing machine in 1846, he struggled to obtain the financing needed to bring his invention to reality. After failing to find funding in America, Howe sent his brother to England to market the sewing machine there.
Howe’s brother had some luck selling his machine in England, and soon after, Elias joined him. It wasn’t long before Elias was forced to return to America due to his wife’s failing health. Upon his return to the States, his wife passed away. He discovered that several manufacturers, including Isaac Singer and Walter Hunt, had reproduced and sold his machine. He filed a lawsuit and thus began the Sewing Machine Patent Wars.
The sewing machine was invented by Massachusetts farmer Elias Howe, but during the late 1840s, several corporations went into business producing sewing machines using the concepts he patented. One of the most prominent of these businesses was the I.M. Singer and Company corporation, started by Isaac Singer.
Isaac Singer was another American inventor, but he was also a businessman. He had started manufacturing and selling sewing machines in the late 1840s based on Elias Howe’s patent. When Elias Howe sued due to patent infringement, a long battle ensued. Howe’s lawsuits included several other companies, including Wheeler & Wilson and Grover & Baker.
In 1850, Singer improved upon the sewing machine invented by Elias Howe. He added a presser foot, tension control, and a device that allowed people to stitch in a curved line. He was the first person to market sewing machines for home use.
Until then, sewing machines had been manufactured only for industrial purposes. However, the price of $100 for a sewing machine, equal to a few thousand dollars today, kept many people from buying them.
Even though Isaac Singer is famous for the sewing machine, his partner Edward Cabot Clark was instrumental in developing the Singer brand. The prohibitive cost led Clark to start an installment purchasing plan, which was the first of its kind.
Singer also worked diligently to cut the price of his machines by using interchangeable parts. In the 1850s, the use of interchangeable parts revolutionized the firearms industry. People like Samuel Colt and Eli Whitney opened large factories and produced interchangeable parts using production lines. Using these same techniques, Singer reduced the price of his sewing machines by 50%.
The Sewing Machine Patent Wars of the 1850s was the first patent war caused by overlapping patents and technologies. Throughout this time, a lengthy court battle had been waged over who owned the rights to the sewing machine.
In 1854, the court battle ended when a federal commission ruled that Elias Howe’s sewing machine patent was valid. The commission ordered all other companies to pay royalties to Howe. As sewing machine sales exploded, due to the efforts of people like Isaac Singer, Elias Howe went quickly from poverty to wealth, earning up to $4,000 per month before his death, which was the equivalent of about $45,000 today.
Then, in 1856, the Sewing Machine Combination, also known as the Sewing Machine Trust, became the first patent pool in United States history. Since then, patent wars have erupted whenever disruptive technologies have become widely popular, such as the telephone patent wars in the 1870s and 1880s and the more recent smartphone patent wars in the early 2000s. Patent pools have also been used in the automobile, radio, and movie industries.
In the case of the Sewing Machine Wars of the 1840s and 50s, the patent pool involved 24 manufacturers and nine patents. They agreed that every company would pay Elias Howe $5 for every machine they sold in the U.S. and $1 for every device exported. They pooled their patents together, making the technology much more universal.
The Sewing Machine Combination lasted until 1877, and twenty years later, only two of the original companies involved existed. While both Isaac Singer and Elias Howe died multi-millionaires, Singer is a household name. Today, Singer is the clear winner of the Sewing Machine Wars, and the name is synonymous with sewing machines.
The Singer sewing machine brand is easily the most widely known, and in the early days of sewing machines, the company continued to grow and innovate with the times.
As early as the 1860s, women started developing social sewing circles to discuss sewing with machines. Printed patterns became widely available, making it easy for people to make clothes. The Singer sewing machine brand grew with the rise in popularity of home sewing.
As the Civil War wound to a close later that decade, the Singer brand delivered lightweight domestic machines, like the Grasshopper and the New Family Sewing Machine. In 1870, Singer introduced the red “S,” which became an iconic symbol that’s one of the world’s most easily recognized trademarks.
In 1889, Singer introduced the first electric sewing machine practical for home use. The following year, the company gained 90% of the global market share of sewing machines.
Even though Thomas Edison’s invention of electricity brought electric lights to Manhattan as early as 1882, only half of America’s homes had electricity by 1925. By that time, Singer sewing machines had continued to innovate. They introduced their popular Portable Electric model in 1921.
By 1945, thanks to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the number of homes with electricity had grown to about 85 percent. Even though Singer stopped production of sewing machines during World War II, by the 1950s, when SInger celebrated 100 years of manufacturing sewing machines, America had reached the golden age of sewing.
Post-war prosperity and consumerism created the perfect climate for sewing, which can be seen in the fashions of the 1950s. It was an age when women were still at home, textiles were in abundance, and almost everyone had electricity.
With the popularity of sewing machines continuing to rise after World War II, there were plenty of innovations to be made in the sewing machine industry. Advances in portability and innovations in stitches were making waves in the sewing machine manufacturing industry.
One of these advances was the ability of common home sewing machines to sew a zig-zag stitch. Zig-zag stitches were necessary to work with stretchy fabrics, make buttonholes, and reinforce seams. In 1936, Singer developed a machine that used cams and attachments to sew zig zags, but in 1947, the popular German brand, Necchi, developed the zig-zag stitch machine for home use.
In the 1950s, the Swiss company Elna produced a lightweight machine that used cams. This machine allowed users to sew with decorative switches, as well as sew forwards and backward and from side to side. It was light enough to be considered more portable than many of the machines made up to that point.
In 1975, the Singer Company brought the world its first electronic sewing machine, the Athena 2000. The Athena 2000s was touted as an all-metal machine that could sew 15 different stitch patterns. It was quickly followed by the Touchtronic 2001 in 1978.
The Touchtronic was the first memory sewing machine, and its user manual promoted the device as having an electric “brain” that could remember 27 stitches, including decorative stitches and buttonholes. The Athena 2000 and the Touchtronic 2001 gave rise to the modern machines that are around today, but there was still a long way to go from the sewing machines of the 1970s to present-day machines.
In keeping with a long history of bringing the newest sewing technology into the homes of everyday people, Singer introduced state-of-the-art machines in the 1980s that could sew and embroider monograms at the touch of a button. These were inexpensive enough that almost anyone could buy them.
Modern-day sewing machines are packed with unique features that make them an excellent choice for both beginner and seasoned sewers. Sewing machines have come a long way from their early predecessors and include features like automatic threading, LCD screens, and built-in stitches.
One of the most unique features of new sewing machines is their ability to connect to a computer or laptop. Connecting to computer programs with user interfaces allows you to access an extensive library of embroidery designs and stitches and your own design patterns.
LCD screens on new sewing machines provide an improved user experience and enhance the machine's functionality. They often display stitch selection, length, width, and thread tension. The screen may also show the selected stitch's recommended presser foot and needle size and display errors when something goes wrong.
Some machines also have on-screen tutorials and may show a graphical representation of the stitch as it is being sewn. The use of an LCD screen allows for more precise stitch selection and more straightforward navigation through machine settings, making the modern sewing process more convenient and efficient.
While classic models like Singer and Bernina remain popular, dozens of new brands have recently gained popularity because of their excellent features. Well-known brands include Janome, Brother, Husqvarna Viking, Pfaff, and Juki. These brands come in various models, from basic to advanced computerized machines.
Janome is a Japanese company that has been making sewing machines since 1921. Janome produces reliable, high-quality sewing machines known for their ease of use, decent stitch quality, and excellent warranty coverage.
Brother is another Japanese company that has been making sewing machines for over 100 years. Brother machines are known for being durable. They are a good choice for beginner sewers and those on a tight budget. Some popular models from Brother include the Brother CS6000i, Brother SE600, and Brother XR9500PRW.
Husqvarna Viking is another well-known brand of sewing machines known for their quality and reliability. They offer a variety of accessories, allowing users to customize their devices for their specific needs.
Basic Pfaff sewing machines are perfect for simple repairs and mending, while more advanced machines have features like needle threaders, multiple stitch patterns, and automatic thread cutting. Pfaff also makes quilting-specific machines with features like a drop feed for free-motion quilting and a stitch regulator for consistent length.
Juki sewing machines are some of the most iconic and reliable sewing machines on the market. They offer an array of accessories and add-ons, such as specialty feet and bobbins, to make it easy to customize your machine for any project.
Modern-day sewing machines are a fun and excellent tool in any home. They are powerful, easy to use, and a great way to get creative and express yourself through fabrication. Whether you are a beginner or a professional seamstress, modern-day sewing machines have something to offer everyone. With the vast array of features and options available, it is easy to find one perfect for your needs.
The invention of the sewing machine has had a significant impact on society. It revolutionized the manufacture, production, and distribution of clothing and allowed women to enter the workforce and earn independence.
The importance of the sewing machine in the textile and fashion industry can most easily be seen in the amount of time it takes to produce quality garments. Before the invention of the sewing machine, a shirt took about 15 hours to sew. Using Isaac Singer’s 1850 sewing machine, a tailor could sew the same shirt in about an hour.
Before sewing machines, all clothing was made by local tailors and seamstresses or crudely fashioned at home. Most people didn’t own more than two to four outfits, and many women spent hours sewing for their families.
Ironically, even though tailors and seamstresses blocked the development of the sewing machine for many years, Elias Howe’s invention led to a revolution in the sewing industry and freed millions of women worldwide from daily drudge work. In fact, more people worldwide have been employed in the clothing industry after the invention of the sewing machine. Instead of taking jobs away, the sewing machine created jobs.
Primarily due to the mass production efforts of Isaac Singer and his partner Edward Clark, brands like Singer brought the sewing machine into the home of ordinary people everywhere. With the invention of the sewing machine, women had more free time. They also had the opportunity to work at a clothing factory and earn wages. It’s not a coincidence that the Women’s Suffrage Movement quickly followed the industrialization of clothing.
In the 1800s, when the famous Brooks Brothers tailor company in New York City started using machines to produce garments, the time it took to make tailored coats dropped dramatically. Instead of taking three weeks, you could order a tailored shirt and have it within six days. As a result, the price of these products was reduced, and everyone started to be able to dress better.
Today, it’s difficult for many people to imagine owning only a few outfits. Many people have walk-in closets, and entire stores are overflowing with clothing. And it’s not just clothes. Modern industrial sewing machines provide purses, backpacks, furniture, luggage, sails, blankets, and much more.
The varied and rich history of the sewing machine isn’t that long compared to the thousands of years that humans have been putting fabric together with sinew and thread using a needle, but a lot has happened. In the 250 years since the first people dreamed of using a machine to sew, advances in sewing have continued to roll out.
Are there more advances coming into the world of sewing? There may be entirely new frontiers in putting fabrics and textiles together. All it takes is for one person to envision a better way to sew.