ANTIQUE SEWING MACHINES
The idea for a sewing machine was around for a long time before a good working model was launched; within 50 years it went from being a status symbol to a workaday
The first sewing machine appeared in about 1790, patented by Thomas Saint of London. Although intended for fabric stitching and quilting, the machine was primarily used for leather work. It proved inefficient and was abandoned.
In 1829 Barthelemy Thimonnier, a tailor from St Fienne in France, began using cumbersome wooden sewing machines for making army uniforms. His factory flourished and he patented an all-metal version in both France and Britain in 1848. However, the idea failed to catch on and Thimonnier went bust.
Other inventors had been at work. In about 1832, Walter Hunt of New York brought out the eye-pointed needle. Around 1845, Elias Howe of Massachusetts patented a lockstitch machine with an
under thread shuttle.
It was not until about 1850 that the first domestic sewing machine as we know it came into being. German-born Isaac Merrit Singer of New York began production of a heavy semi-industrial machine which was set on a supporting table and was operated by means of a treadle. His 'Singer's Perpendicular Action Sewing Machine' was advertised widely and he employed attractive girls to sit in shop windows sewing away to entice the public to buy.
Singer's was the first machine which could cope with angled, curved and straight seams in a continuous fashion; the treadle left the user's hands free to guide the fabric.
In 1855, the 'Turtleback' or 'Family' machine made its appearance and around 1859 he developed his 'Transverse Shuttle Letter A' machine. In 1865 the 'Singer New Family' machine was introduced. Singer produced the oscillating shuttle in 1890 to make his machines faster and smoother.
By 1900, huge numbers of sewing machines were being produced. Hand-operated and/or treadle machines were produced by companies such as Jones, Frister & Rossman, Willcox & Gibbs, Empress and
Around three million machines were being made every year. Roughly two-thirds were made in the USA and Germany. Singer set up a factory in Clydebank to supply Britain.
Hand-operated machines from the turn of the century were widely used, and the design changed relatively little until the advent of electric machines. Though few people would want to go back to using one, an old sewing machine and its accessories can form an interesting conversation piece, as almost everyone remembers a mother or grandmother working at one.
The first sewing machines were very expensive to buy and were well made. Cabinets were in polished wood and the stand and treadle were generally of ornate cast iron in scrolling or foliage designs, sometimes gilded. Singer's machines had a prominent shuttle-and-thread logo. The machine itself was japanned in black and decorated with gilding or mother-of-pearl inlay.
As sewing machines became more widely available, around 1900, they dropped in price and were correspondingly plainer. These machines are less collectable.
The most desirable machines appeared between 1860 and 1890. Especially collectable are those produced by small British firms. Early lockstitch machines by Newton & Wilson had elaborate cast-iron stands; J G Weir's 'Globe' machines were characterized by curving art nouveau lines to the framework and base. Look out, too, for the 'Shakespear' manufactured by Birmingham's Royal Sewing Machine Company, and the 'Wellington' produced by Bradbury & Co of Oldham.
The most commonly found English machine is the very pretty Jones, produced from 1879 to 1909. The base was shaped like a figure eight and the arm was snake-like, covered with leafy gold transfers.
Machines by Willcox & Gibbs of the USA are easy to recognize - the design of the head forms the letter G. Early models were decorated with a grape and vine leaf motif around the arm; later models had 'Willcox & Gibbs S.M. Co' painted in gold on the arm. Machines by other American manufacturers are rare outside the States, but look for classics such as the Howe, the Wheeler & Wilson, and the Grover & Baker.
Miniature sewing machines were made for children, as instructive toys to help them learn needlework. They are rarely found in good working order. Novelty sewing machines are keenly collected. The 'Lady' has a seamstress at a sewing machine. One arm holds the fabric and the other rises and falls as she stitches.
History of the Sewing Machine
Prior to the invention of the
sewing machine, everything was sewn by hand - an art form that is over
20,000 years old. Archaeologists have discovered bone needles with eyes,
used to sew together skins and furs, dating back to this time. This proved
that the first sewing needles were made of bones or animal horns and the
first thread was made of animal sinew. Iron needles were invented in
Germany, dating to the third century BC and the first eyed needles appeared
in the 15th century.
Karl Weisenthal, a German inventor, in 1755,
devised the first sewing machine needle, but did not produce a complete
Thomas Saint, a British, invented and patented the first
workable sewing machine in 1790. It was designed to sew leather and canvas,
mainly on boots, using only a single thread and forming a chain stitch.
Thimonnier, a French tailor, patented the first practical sewing machine.
This machine produced a chain stitch, employing a hook-tipped needle, that
was moved downward by a cord-connected foot treadle and returned by a
spring. By 1841, eighty of his machines were being used to sew uniforms for
the French army. Unfortunately, his factory was destroyed by a mob of
tailors, who saw the new machines as threat to their livelihood. Thimonnier
died in England of bankruptcy
The idea for a double-thread sewing machine was devised by Walter
Hunt of New York in 1834. The machine used a reciprocating eye-pointed
needle that worked in combination with a shuttle carrying a second needle,
making an interlocked stitch. Hunt, later, abandoned the project
Howe was the inventor of the first American-patented sewing machine in 1846.
It was a lockstitch mechanism with a grooved, eye-pointed needle and shuttle
that sew 250 stitches a minute, outstitching the output of five hand sewers.
Between 1854 and 1867, Howe, from three hundred dollars at the early patent
stage, earned close to two million dollars from his invention
Issac M. Singer, an American mechanic, patented the first rigid-arm
sewing machine in 1851. It was based partly on Elias Howe's concept and
Singer was sued by Howe for infringing his patent, but a compromise was
reached where Singer paid a royalty. Singer's machine included a table to
support the cloth horizontally, instead of a feed bar; a vertical presser
foot to hold the cloth down against the upward stroke of the needle, and an
arm to hold the presser foot and the vertical needle-holding bar in position
over the table. His milestone was his invention of a foot treadle instead of
a hand crank. By 1867, Singer became very rich and had 18 children to
various wives and mistresses; he died in 1875 leaving behind 24 children
The rotary bobbin was incorporated in 1850 into a machine patented
by Allen Benjamin Wilson, an American. Later an intermittent four-motion
feed for advancing the material between stitches, was also incorporated in
the same patent
By 1920s, the electric motor was added, which revolutionized the history of
the sewing machine. It decreased the cost of the machine as well as cost of
stitching, thus expanding the range of an infinite number of clothing
manufacturers and stores.