Few inventions have changed the course of history as much as the sewing machine. Imagine if it was still up to women in factories to hand-sew everything to meet the needs of 7.5 billion people on this earth. It would be true to say that the sewing machine singlehandedly advanced the will of mass production and industrialization.
It’s hard to point a finger at one person and say they deserve the credit for coming up with the idea—the manufacturing of sewing machines started slowly and was interrupted constantly. Starting in 1846, for 50 years, the novel apparatus went from circus attraction to household staple. As the world’s population started to multiply more rapidly, and the Industrial Revolution hit, someone had to come up with a way of joining two pieces of fabric much faster and cheaper than by hand. This endeavour led to an emotional rollercoaster in sewing achievements, if you will.
Inventor James Gibbs (1829–1902) may have said it best:
“No useful sewing machine was ever invented by one man; and all first attempts to do work by machinery, previously done by hand, have been failures. It is only after several able inventors have failed in attempt, that someone with the mental powers to combine the efforts of others with his own, at last produces a practicable sewing machine.”
The man he refers to here, is the well-known Isaac Singer (1811-1875), who, in 1851, made important improvements to the invention—he concluded that the machine would be more reliable if the shuttle moved in a straight line rather than a circle, with a straight rather than a curved needle. Sounds simple right? Singer’s prototype sewing machine was the first to work in a practical way. It could sew 900 stitches per minute, while a skilled seamstress could do about 40.
But long before Singer, there were a few other notable innovators along the way that deserve some recognition: Thomas Saint takes credit for the first working machine in 1790. Barthelemy Thimonnier’s 1831 version replicated hand sewing. Walter Hunt’s 1834 model used a locksmith and two pieces of thread. Elias Howe attempted to improve on Hunt’s efforts in 1845. And Allen Benjamin Wilson invented the rotary bobbin and four motion feed in 1851. Which brings us back to Isaac Singer, who starting selling his refreshingly reliable model like little hot cakes about a year later.
By 1900 over 20 million sewing machines a year were being produced in factories worldwide, and today there are over 36 different brands of sewing machines.