History of the Sewing Machine

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The sewing machine is so commonplace that we take it for granted, but can you imagine life before this machine? In this lesson, we'll explore the development of this important machine and see how it changed the world.

The Sewing Machine

There are some inventions that are so remarkable that we are constantly in awe of them- like rocket ships which can break from Earth's gravity and travel to the Moon. That's cool stuff. However, in the big scheme of things, these aren't necessarily the most significant inventions in our history. That honor goes to the inventions that become so ubiquitous, or widespread, as to become unremarkable. They don't just impact our lives; they redefine them to the point where we can't remember life without them. There have been several such inventions, but few were as significant as the sewing machine. With it, life went from just so-so, to sew, sew, and sew some more.

Early 20th century ad for a sewing machine
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First Attempts

The sewing machine has its roots back in Europe's first Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th century. People started trying to find new ways to improve upon old tasks, and no task was older than sewing. The ultimate goal became the creation of a machine that could sew more quickly than humans, thus letting manufacturers create more textiles in less time. In today's terms, we may say that people were beginning to consider the possibilities of mass production.

The very first example we see of an effort to create such a machine came around 1790. English inventor Thomas Saint patented an idea for a machine that would punch holes in leather, then run a needle through them. It was an intriguing idea, but never anything more than that. Other people would also introduce their own ideas. A German man invented a machine for sewing caps but never patented it or expanded its use. American inventors of the early 19th century developed machines that could sew a few stitches, but only over a short span. None of these machines were very efficient, but the idea of a functional sewing machine was there, and people were determined to figure it out.

Early Successes

The first major breakthrough came around 1830. French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier patented a machine which used a hooked needle to produce a consistent stitch. Unlike others, Thimonnier was able to demonstrate the usefulness of his design and he got a nice contract from the French army, who bought his machines in order to help sew military uniforms.

The problem with Thimonnier's design wasn't that it worked too well. The tailors of Paris, devoted to protecting the traditions of their craft, saw the machine as a threat. They stormed his factory and destroyed all 80 of his machines. Thimmonier was nearly killed by the Parisian tailors, but survived and created an even better sewing machine. The tailors struck again, and Thimmonier was forced to flee France. He smuggled a single one of his machines out of France to England, but was never able to rebuild his former success.

The Sewing Machine in the USA

By the 1830s, Americans were fully in the swing of their own industrial revolution, and the prospect of a sewing machine was appealing to many. Amongst those to see potential in this device was Walter Hunt, who also invented the safety pin (among other things). Hunt was the first to create a sewing machine that didn't try to emulate the process of hand sewing but instead used a needle with an eye at the point. His machine worked, but he worried that it would put American tailors out of work and abandoned it.

The sewing machine design of Elias Howe
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