OK – so drawing on a variety of resources – here are some fun and interesting facts……….. about SEWING MACHINES.
Hand sewing is an art form that has been traced back in history to over 20,000 years ago………. as just at the time as the Columbian Mammoth was becoming extinct, our ancestors were stitching clothing and blanketing from bones and animal horns. Carved, shaved and ground by hand to primitive point, the first threads used were made of animal sinew and reeds and fed by hand thru the puncture in the textile. It was not until the 14th century that the Iron Needle was invented and late yet – in the 15th century that the first “eyed” needles appeared.
Interestingly, in the year 1755 a patent was issued in Great Britain to a German inventor by the name Charles Weisenthal. While the “needle” element was indeed patented, a description of the machine that operated it (if indeed it was mechanically driven) was not patented or published.
It was an English inventor some 35 years later in 1790 that was issued the first patent for a complete mechanically driven sewing machine. It is unknown if a working model ever existed – or if the patent was passed solely on a design. A later reproduction of the automated awl and needle design by Thomas Saint indeed did not work….
Various inventors, craftsman, cabinetmakers and tailors in years to follow also developed and patented a variety of different machines – all of them considered unsuccessful – or at least unreliable. In most cases the machines were unable to sew any useful amount of material before snagging or malfunctioning. Even a machine for “multiple needle embroidery” was patented in the early 1800’s – but the too invention failed and was soon forgotten by the public.
It is believed that the first successful American built sewing machine was that designed in 1834 by Walter Hunt. Capable of stitching in a straight line only, it could be considered an early predecessor to those machines which we today still use – in that it was a mechanical process “which drew thread from two different sources.” The needle was pushed thru the cloth, creating a loop on the backside, and then a secondary thread-shuttle slipped a second thread through the loop – creating what is called a “lock stitch”.. Hunt never patented the design, claiming difficulty in marketing his invention………. it is said that his main concern and that of the marketplace was that his invention would cause unemployment. In 1846 a patent for a like design was issued to Elias Howe. Interestingly, despite being issued a patent for the lock-stitch process, he gave up on trying to maintain and defend the patent.
Drawing on and improving upon this working model inventor Isaac Singer (ah! – now a name you recognize!) successfully mass produced the first trade ready commercial machine in 1850. Singer’s design incorporated an up-and-down motion with the needle (rather than side to side) and was powered by a foot operated treadle. Singer’s model used the same “lock-stitch” as had been developed by Hunt and patented by Howe…. with patent infringement law suits ensuing. After successfully defending his right to a share in the profits of his invention, it is rumored that Howe earned close to two million dollars which a portion of was donated to equip a Union Army infantry regiment during the Civil War. Elias Howe died in 1867 – which was coincidentally the same year in which his patent expired.
Some interesting side notes on the subject – the zig-zag stitch machine was patented first by a woman….. Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland Maine. (she in fact patented 28 inventions! Clever lady….!)
Bear in mind that electrically powered machines did not become the norm until around 1905 – prior to that machinery was all treadle or wheel driven.
Amazing to think that the electically powered industrial sewing machines – Consews, Jukis, and the like – that we use here at Sew What? to manufacture custom stage curtains, digitally printed band backdrops, and scrims all originated from this early design.