While the production of textile has been going on for at least 9,000 years, the mechanized stitching of fabric had not been possible until the invention of the sewing machine in the 18th century.
Before that time, sewing was only done by hand, a painstaking process that has been employed by ancient and prehistoric cultures for many millennia. Some 21,000 years ago, people from east-central France’s Solutrean industry crafted the earliest known tools that are identifiable as actual sewing needles. However, that the art of hand-sewing might be much older — more than 61,000 years old — as evidenced by possible bone needle relics recovered from South Africa’s Sibudo Cave.
The birth of the sewing machine
In the first half of the 18th century, Western Europe and the United States were on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, the development that would see the world transition to the age of manufacturing. It was really only a matter of time before the mechanization that transformed major industries like cotton production, transportation (through steam power), and iron making spilled over to the world of textile arts.
The first known patent for the invention of a mechanical device for sewing was acquired in 1755 by German engineer Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal. Thirty-five years later, in 1790, a sewing machine design was completed by Englishman Thomas Saint. The design featured the chain stitch style and was specifically intended to aid tradesmen in the crafting of heavy materials like leather saddles, shoes, leather bridles, nautical sails, and canvas goods. Some historical records suggest that Saint never actually built the machine but only patented his design.
The proliferation of sewing machine prototypes
The years after 1800 saw an increasing number of inventors creating their own versions of the sewing machine. From England and Scotland to Austria and France, enterprising individuals tried to cash in on the new age of mechanized sewing. The United States also saw its first dip into on the sewing machine industry when Vermont residents John Adams Doge and John Knowles invented a prototype in 1818. However, the machine was only able to sew short lengths of fabric, and repeated resetting was required to make the device work again.
In 1829, Frenchman Barthélemy Thimmonier invented a chain stitch sewing machine and had it patented in 1830. His product was very successful, allowing him and his business partners to establish the world’s first machine-based clothing factory, which even manufactured uniforms for the French Army.
The factory grew to a size that was able to accommodate 80 machines, but it later burned down. The fire was apparently instigated by a mob of Parisian tailors, who feared that Thimmonier’s machines will soon take their jobs away from them. Although Thimonnier tried to re-establish his business, the tailors attacked once more, causing the beleaguered entrepreneur to flee France and move to England.
Competition in the United States
In the United States, John Greenough patented America’s first sewing machine in 1842. Two years later, in 1944, Englishman John Fisher created a sewing machine that has since been regarded as the first that brought together the contrasting features of the prototypes that came before it.
Massachusetts native Elias Howe invented a new sewing machine in 1945, which gained some attention when he organized competitions that pitted his machine against some of the country’s best sewing artisans. While he was able to showcase the polished stitches that his machine created, the product proved to be difficult to market at that time. Howe moved to England in order to try to sell his product there, but he was met with the same lukewarm response from customers.
He returned to the United States later on only to find out that several other manufacturers have violated his patent and were already successfully selling sewing machines of their own. Chief among these were Isaac Meritt Singer, against whom Howe won a patent infringement case in 1854. Singer paid Howe’s claims to royalties before pioneering a hire-purchase system, which, for the first time, allowed buyers to pay for sewing machines in parts over a period of several months.
In the early 1850s, cabinetmaker Allen B. Wilson and businessman Nathaniel Wheeler entered into a partnership and developed a sewing machine with a rotary hook. They also invented a machine with a four-motion feed mechanism, a feature which is still used today in contemporary machines. The partnership resulted in the most profitable sewing machine enterprise of the 1950s.
In 1856, the four biggest sewing machine manufacturers — Howe Machine Company, Singer Manufacturing Company, Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company, and Grover & Baker — came together to form the Sewing Machine Combination, the first patent pool in American history. Under this arrangement, the companies cross-licensed their patents and became a single, powerful monopoly. All other smaller firms were made to pay the combination $15 for every sewing machine sold.
Beginning in the 1860s the sewing machine became increasingly popular among clothing manufacturers and domestic customers alike. In 1877, the Sewing Machine Combination’s last patent became obsolete, and the smaller manufacturers flourished as they no longer had to pay the cartel royalties. These factors paved the way for the spread and growth of the industry, which will reach new heights in the next century.