A machine for sewing fabric, leather, etc. Specifically, one that uses two threads (an upper and a lower, or bobbin thread) and is best at sewing woven materials. (Another machine, a serger, is specially designed for sewing knit fabrics.)

It's hard to imagine now how revolutionary the sewing machine is. Before its invention, everything was sewn by hand. Every massive hoopskirt from the antebellum American South, every lacy shirt and brocaded coat from the court of the Sun King, every curtain in every palace, every flag, represented hours of painstaking labor. Most people had two outfits - one for working in, one for Sunday best. Now, with our closets stuffed with clothing, we take machine sewing for granted. Lucky us.

How it came about

As with most innovations, the sewing machine was invented in stages.

  • In 1755, Charles T. Wiesenthal of the United States patented a double-pointed sewing needle, which did not need to be turned around between stitches.
  • In 1830, a Frenchman, Barthelemy Thimonnier, attached Wiesenthal's needle to a connecting rod to make a sewing machine. (I can't see how this would have worked, and I haven't been able to find more detail.)
  • In 1846, Elias Howe (an American) created the lock-stitch sewing machine. This used the modern mechanism, as described below. Because the lock-stitch mechanism is the core of the function of the modern sewing machine, Howe is generally credited with its invention. However, his machine was difficult to use well, and too expensive for home use.
  • In 1849, the American Benjamin Wilson introduced an automatic feeding mechanism, which solved the main usability problem with Howe's machine.
  • In 1851, Bostonian Isaac Meritt Singer patented two refinements to the sewing machine: a fixed arm structure still used today, and the presser foot. He began manufacturing a sewing machine priced for home use. His company, Singer, is still the largest sewing machine manufacturer in the world.

The sewing machine predates electricity. Early machines used a hand crank or a treadle to drive them. These turned out to be easily electrified, and many are still in use today.

Later innovations (apart from electricity) include the ability to zigzag and to make more sophisticated stitching patterns. The latest machines have LCD screens, microprocessors, and pre-programmed fonts for monogramming. (All cute, but unnecessary).

How it works

To describe machine sewing, we should start with a review of hand sewing. Hand sewing, of course, uses a needle with the eye at the back to draw a thread through fabric. This requires the needle to be pulled entirely through the fabric, turned around, and pulled through in the other direction.

Machine sewing does none of that.

Here's a diagram to help you visualize.

                ___________|_  <- spindle for the spool of thread
              /              |-
 fixed arm -> |    ______    | | <- manual advance 
              |___|     |    |-
   needle* ->  _|_      |    |
base plate -> __________|    |
             |  O            | <- the O is the bobbin assembly
             |_______________| 
* note the presser foot on either side of the end of the needle

The needle has its eye at the sharp end. The other end is attached to a rod that goes up and down inside a fixed arm. The arm also holds a presser foot, which can be raised or lowered manually, but which is kept down when sewing. Its role is to press the fabric against a base plate. The needle plunges into the fabric from the top, through a hole in the presser foot. There is a thread which goes from a spool, through a thread tensioning mechanism, and through the eye of the needle.

There is another thread, which comes up from under the fabric being sewn. This is the bobbin thread, which was wound onto its bobbin before sewing. The bobbin sits in a bobbin case, which is not fixed to the sewing machine case. It floats in its own casing (this is important).

To begin sewing, the needle plunges through the fabric, taking a loop of the top thread with it. Here's the clever bit. A small hook on the bobbin case catches the needle thread. The bobbin case rotates, effectively passing the entire bobbin through the loop of top thread. This twists the bobbin thread with the top thread, making the stitch. The needle is then pulled back up. If your thread tension is correct, the twist between the top and bobbin threads is pulled into the fabric you're sewing as it goes.

Close-up of a finished stitch:
       \        /    <- upper thread
________\______/____ top layer of fabric
        -\-----
       /  ---/ \
______/_________\___ bottom layer of fabric
     /           \   <- bobbin thread

Once the needle is out of the way, the feed dogs, which are located in the base plate, push the fabric up against the smooth underside of the presser foot. As they then slide backward, they push the fabric with them to make a visible stitch.

There is also a backstitch lever on the machine. When that is pressed, everything happens as described above except that the feed dogs push the fabric toward you rather than pulling it away from you.

How to use one

Thread the bobbin (RTFM - bobbin winding varies too much to describe here). Put it in the bobbin casing, and thread the machine. Place the fabric in under the needle, and lower the presser foot. Push the pedal or the knee control.

Of course, it isn't really that simple. It takes practice, like any manual skill. Here are a few top tips.

  • Thread it correctly. Different makes of machine have different threading patterns. RTFM, or get someone who knows to show you. Most of the people who work in fabric stores know a lot about sewing, and would be able to advise you.
  • Adjust your thread tension, stitch length, and stitch width correctly.
  • Practice on scrap fabric before you do any serious sewing. Learn to control the path of the stitching, and the speed of the machine (it can really run away with you)
  • Backstitch at the beginning and end of each seam.
  • Never, never turn the manual advance (the knob in the upper right) clockwise. It always goes counter-clockwise.
  • Never force the machine.
  • Don't pull the fabric through the machine - let the feed dogs do the work.

The sewing machine, now often forgotten by families who can obtain cheaply made clothing far more easily than they could make their own, was once one of the main machines in the household. They were regarded with respect as they allowed the mother to fashion clothes far grander than she could afford to purchase. These machines carried lifetime guarantees and were often part exchanged before they failed. There are various names, which are synonymous with the sewing machine; however, there were many others whose inventiveness allowed the continued progress needed in its early development.

Before the invention of a useable machine for sewing, everything was sewn by hand. Most early attempts tried to replicate this hand sewing method and were generally a failure. Some looked to embroidery, where the needle was used to produce decorative, not joining stitches. This needle was altered to create a fine steel hook – called an aguja in Spain. This was called a crochet in France and could be used to create a form of chain stitch. This was possible because when the needle was pushed partly through fabric, and withdrawn; it left a loop of thread. The following stitch would pass through this first loop whilst creating a loop of its own for the next stitch, this resembled a chain – hence the name.

The first known attempt at a mechanical device for sewing was by the German born Charles Fredrick Weisenthal, who was working in England. He was awarded British Patent No. 701 in 1755 for a double pointed needle with an eye at one end. This needle was designed to be passed through the cloth by a pair of mechanical fingers and grasped on the other side by a second pair. This method of recreating the hand sewing method suffered from the problem of the needle going right through the fabric, meaning the full length of the thread had to do so as well. The mechanical limitations meant that the thread had to be kept short, needing frequent stops to renew the supply.

In 1790 British Patent No. 1764 was awarded to Thomas Saint, a cabinetmaker of London. Due to several other patents dealing with leather and products to treat leather, the patent was filed under “Glues & Varnishes” and was not discovered until 1873 by Mr. Newton Wilson. Wilson built a replica to the patents specifications and it had to be heavily modified before the machine would stitch – suggesting that Saint never actually made a machine of his own. Saints design had the overhead arm for the needle and a form of tensioning system, which was to become a common feature of later machines.

There were various attempts and patents awarded for chain stitch machines of varying types from 1795-1830, none of which were used to any degree of success – many of which didn’t work correctly at all. A French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier made the next major breakthrough. He did not try and replicate the human hand stitch, looking instead for a way of finding a stitch, which could be made quickly and easily by machine. His machine worked by using a horizontal arm mounted on a vertical reciprocating bar, the needle-bar projected from the end of the horizontal arm. The cloth was supported on a hollow, horizontal fixed arm, with a hole on the topside, which the needle projected through at the lowest part of its stroke. Inside the arm was a hook, which partly rotated at each stroke in order to wrap the thread (fed from the bobbin onto the hook) around the needle at each stroke. The needle then carried the thread back through the cloth with the upward motion of its stroke. This formed the chain stitch, which held the cloth together. The machine was powered by means of a foot pedal. The easiest way to describe this is to picture the machine working the wrong way round – the stitch was formed on the top of the cloth, not the bottom as with most other chain stitch machine made since. Thimonnier was awarded a French patent in 1830 and 80 of these machines were installed in a factory in Paris to stitch Soldiers clothing. Unfortunately, other tailors, concerned for their livelihood invaded the factory and smashed the machines.

Chain stitch has one major drawback – it is very weak, the stitch can easily be pulled apart. A stitch more suited to machine production was needed, it was found in the lock stitch. A lock stitch is created by two separate threads interlocking through the two layers of fabric, resulting in a stitch, which looks the same from both sides of the fabric. Although the credit for the lock stitch machine is generally given to Elias Howe, Walter Hunt first developed it over ten years before in 1834. His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread, and a 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 to set up again. Hunt grew bored with his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it.

Elias Howe patented his machine in 1846; using a similar method to Hunts, except the fabric was held vertically. The major improvement he made was to put a groove in the needle running away from the point, starting from the eye. After a lengthy stint in England trying to attract interest for his machine he returned to America to find various people infringing his patent. He eventually won his case in 1854 and was awarded the right to claim loyalties from the manufacturers using ideas covered in his patent.

Isaac Merritt Singer has become synonymous with the sewing machine. Trained as an engineer, he saw a rotary sewing machine being repaired in a Boston shop. He thought it to be clumsy and promptly set out to design a better one. His machine used a flying 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 tensioning system. This machine combined elements of Thimonnier’s, Hunts and Howe’s machines. He was granted an American Patent in 1851 and it was suggested he patent the foot pedal (or Treadle) used to power some of his machines, however it had been in use for too long for a patent to be issued. When Howe learned of Singer’s machine he took him to court. Howe won and Singer was forced to pay a lump some for all machines already produced. He then took out a license under Howe’s patent and paid him $15 per machine. Singer teamed up with a lawyer named Edward Clark (Singer’s joint partner in the company) and they formed the first Hire Purchase scheme to allow people to afford their machines.

Meanwhile Mr. Allen Wilson had developed a reciprocating shuttle, which was an improvement over Singer’s and Howe’s. However, John Bradshaw had patented a similar device and was threatening to sue. Wilson decided to change tack and 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 the other methods and the Wheeler and Wilson Company produced more machines in 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer. Wilson also invented the four-motion feed mechanism; this is still seen on every machine today. This had a forward, down, back, and up motion, which drew the cloth through in an even and smooth motion.

Through the 1850s more and more companies were being formed and were trying to sue each other. In 1856 the Sewing Machine Combination was formed, consisting of Singer, Howe, Wheeler and Wilson, and Grover and Baker. These four companies pooled their patents, meaning that all the other manufacturers had to obtain a license and pay $15 per machine. This lasted until 1877 when the last patent expired.

Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish decoration appearing until well into the 1900s when the first electric machines started to appear. At first these were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side. As more homes gained power, these became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.

Modern machines are computer controlled and use stepper motors or sequential cams to achieve very complex patterns. Most of these are now made in Asia and the market is becoming more specialized, as fewer families own a sewing machine. Many old cast iron machines can be found and most will still work with little repair, these are becoming more collectable among certain groups (such as ISMACS – the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society).

Sources: ISMACS news magazines. Old Sewing Machines – Carol Head. An International History of the Sewing Machine – Frank P. Godfrey. The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development – Grace Rogers Cooper. The Encyclopedia of Early American Sewing Machines – Carter Bays.

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