Industrial sewing machines have revolutionised the way that clothes and other stitched fabrics such as bedding and upholstery are produced. Modern sewing machines can carry out tasks in a few minutes or even seconds that would once have required hours of human labour. Here’s a brief look at how these machines have developed over the years.
The first sewing machine
There is no definitive answer to the question of who first invented the sewing machine, because a series of patents were made for sewing devices from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. These early inventions had varying degrees of success.
According to the British Library, the first patent for a mechanical sewing machine was received by Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, a German born physician based in London, in 1755. However there is not much information as to what became of his invention.
In 1790 Thomas Saint, an English cabinet maker, was granted five patents, one of which was for a ‘stitching, quilting, or sewing’ machine. The patent appears to have been allowed to gather dust until 1874, when it was happened upon by a manufacturer called William Newton Wilson.
Wilson had the machine built, and it was found to be operational after some minor adjustments. A model is on display at the Science Museum in South Kensington in London, and it has many of the features of a modern sewing machine, including an overhanging arm, a vertical needle bar, and a feed system for the fabric.
Another early example of the industrial sewing machine can be seen at the Science Museum. This was invented in 1830 by a French tailor called Barthélemy Thimonnier, and 80 models were made to produce uniforms for the French Army.
However, the machines were later destroyed by an angry mob of tailors who felt that their livelihoods were threatened by mechanisation. Thimonnier never benefited from his invention and died in poverty.
The first sewing machine that was capable of producing a lockstitch was invented by Elias Howe Jr. of Massachusetts, USA in 1846, The machine used a grooved and curved eye-pointed needle that was carried by a vibrating arm, and the needle was provided with thread from a spool.
Despite being granted a patent for his machine, Howe could not find enough financial backing to produce it.
Over the following years Howe, who earned a very modest income as a journeyman machinist, found that his patent was infringed on. In 1856 after years of legal challenges, he came to an agreement over patent rights with three companies, Wheeler & Wilson, Grover and Baker, and I.M. Singer.
Singer went on to become the dominant sewing machine manufacturer who produced the first commercially successful lockstitch machine. They remain a leading worldwide brand today, having adapted their model to the newer electrical and motorised machines of the early 20th century, and the computerised machines of the late 20th century and beyond.