Even the most capable persons today will surely have a hard time repairing on a small tear on their shirt or sewing on a lost button. But, years ago, housewives are responsible for sewing clothes. As a man’s shirt alone requires 14 hours to be completed, sewing is no doubt an activity that required considerable effort and time for the females in a household. When the sewing machine was invented, it paved way for social and economical movement which gave freedom from the usually time consuming activity of creating clothes for every member of the family.
Early historians tend to argue hours after hours about who really invented the sewing machine which is many ways considered as among the most important machines that were ever made. Let’s take a quick look at the timeline of sewing machine’s interesting history.
The story of the sewing machine started in London in 1755 when Charles Weisenthal, a German immigrant, took out the patent for the needle meant for mechanical sewing. No machine was mentioned to accompany the needle.
Thomas Saint, an Englishman cabinet maker, created what was generally considered as the world’s first ever real sewing machine. The machine which earned a patent has an awl made a hole in the leather allowing the needle to pass through. Saint’s critics claimed that there is a chance that Saint merely patented the idea and it was likely that there was no machine built at all. It was not a secret that during an attempt in the 1880s to come up with a machine using Saint’s drawings, it failed to work with no considerable modification.
Balthasar Krems, a German inventor, created a machine meant for sewing caps. There were no exact dates as the models did not earn any patent.
Josef Madersperger, a tailor from Austria, developed a series of machines in the early years of 19th century and earned a patent in year 1814.
The first actual claim to fame from America took place in 1818 when John Adams Doge, a Vermont churchman, together with his partner John Knowles came with a device which, despite creating a reasonable stitch, could merely sew an extremely short length of material before it requires a laborious set up all over again.
1830: Barthelemy Thimonnier Sewing Machine Breakthrough
Barthelemy Thimonnier is probably among the more reasonable claimants of being the sewing machine’s inventor. The French government granted him a patent in 1830. Thimonnier used barbed needle for the machine built completely out of wood. Claims state that the machine was originally designed for doing embroider but it held the potential of being a sewing machine.
Not like the ones who went before him, Thimonnier succeeded in convincing the authorities about the usefulness of the invention. He eventually received the contract for building a batch of the machines to be used for sewing the French army’s uniforms. In less than a decade after his patent was granted, Thimonnier had 80 machines in a factory. However, trouble arose with the Parisian tailors who feared that if the machines will become a success, these will soon dominate hand sewing and put craftsmen tailors out of work.
One night, a group of tailors went to the factory and destroyed all the machines. Thimonnier managed to run for his life. He started all over again with a new partner and came up with extensively improved machine and planned to go to full scale production. But once again, the tailors attacked him. As France was then on the brink of revolution, Thimonnier was not able to get any help from the army or police, leaving him with no choice but to flee to England carrying with him the single machine he salvaged from the attack.
Thimonnier was definitely the first person to produce a practical sewing machine. He was also the first man to put these machines up for sale on commercial basis and was the one who ran the very first garment factory. But despite all these achievements, he died in 1857 in a poor house.
Walter Hunt created the first machine which didn’t imitate hand sewing. This made lock stitch with the use of two thread spools and came with the eye-pointed needle used up to this day. However, it was also unsuccessful, producing only straight short seams.
John Greenhough created a working machine wherein the needled passed totally through the cloth. While there was a model made which showed hopes of increasing the capital for the manufacture, no takers took the risk.
It was probably in early 1844 when the essentials of the contemporary sewing machine finally came together when John Fisher, an Englishman, came up with the machine which, despite being made for lace production, was essentially a sewing machine that really worked. Possibly as a result of misfiling at the patent office, the invention was ignored during the lengthy legal arguments between Howe and Singer about the sewing machine’s origins.
1844: Elias Howe’s Sewing Machine Invention
Even with the rise of minor inventions during the 1840s, many Americans claim that the first sewing machine was made by Elias Howe from Massachusetts. Howe completed the first prototype by 1844, a short time right after Fisher.
It earned a patent after a year and Howe tried to earn the interest of tailoring trade for his invention. He went as much as arranging a competition wherein he set his machine against America’s best hand sewers. As expected, the machine won but then, the world was not yet prepared for the idea of mechanized sewing and even after months of demonstrations, Howe failed to make a single sale.
Facing a mountain of debt, Howe sent Amasa, his brother, to England with the machine, hoping that that side of the Atlantic will have more interest. Amasa managed to find just one backer, William Thomas, a corset maker. He eventually purchased the rights to the machine’s invention and arrange for Howe to travel to London to develop it further.
Howe and Thomas did not have a good working relationship, with one accusing the other about failing to honor the agreements. Soon after, the almost penniless Howe went back to America. Upon arriving, he learned that his sewing machine finally caught on, with dozens of manufacturers, with Singer included, had their hands full in manufacturing the machines, and all of them breached Howe’s patents.
It was followed by tons of law suits which were only settled when big companies Grover & Baker and Wheeler & Wilson came together, pooled the patents and fought as one in order to protect the monopoly.
As for Singer, he failed to invent notable advances for the sewing machine but he pioneered the hire-purchase system as well as the aggressive sales strategies. Howe and Singer both became multi-millionaires.
While it remains unclear as to who really invented the sewing machine, there is no denying that without the effort and work of the long-dead pioneers, there is no way that mechanized sewing will become possible.