The History of the Sewing Machine

An antique treadle sewing machine, still in working order.

You can tell you’re a history buff when the history of small machines fascinates you. I am a definite history buff (and a history major). The complete story of the machine that changed sewing history is too long to relate here, but I’ll give you a brief overview. Inventors in France and elsewhere in Europe were trying to invent a sewing machine in the late 1700s. Many made awkward-looking machines that could sew a few stitches. Most machines looked nothing like our modern sewing machines. The trouble was that everyone thought a machine had to make the motions that a human hand makes when sewing. They also had difficulty realizing that two threads were necessary.

In 1834, an American named Walter Hunt finally realized that two threads were needed. His machine successfully produced a lockstitch, but it could only make short lines of stitching. Hunt’s daughter persuaded him not to work at improving the machine, because she was afraid sewing machines would put thousands of women, who made their living sewing by hand, out of work.

In 1845, American farmer Elias Howe patented the first sewing machine to resemble our modern sewing machines. Howe had little success selling his invention in America and eventually sold the rights to the device to a London corset maker William Thomas who wanted Howe to come to England and refine the machine. The partnership did not succeed and by the time Howe returned to the States, he found several manufacturers, including Isaac Singer were making sewing machines, all somewhat based on his patented design. A number of lawsuits ensued. Singer and the other manufacturers won the right to keep on making the machines, but Howe made a fortune from lawsuits. Eventually, Howe, Singer, and some other manufacturers banned together in a Sewing Cartel. Singer’s machines became the most popular, especially after his company produced the treadle-operated machine which allowed sewers free hands to guide the material under the needle, while they worked the machine with their feet.