The question of when the sewing machine was invented or who invented it is a subject of debate because there were a few machines invented during the industrial revolution which may or may not fit the description. Do you accredit the first person to create a sewing machine at all or the first person who created a commercially successful sewing machine?
Sewing, i.e. the craft of stitching fabrics together, has been used to create clothes and other items since the prehistoric times. The origins of sewing are estimated to have begun during the Paleolithic Age (sometimes referred to as the stone age) during which early humans used sewing to stitch animal skins together to use as clothes and/or shelter. Early sewing needles were made out of animal bone and horns.
Sewing was a popular occupation and pastime for women during the middle ages. Sewing was mainly used to mend clothes as clothes were pretty expensive back then and when they got worn out you would want to stitch them back together rather than paying for another tailor-made outfit. Embroidery was also a popular skill at that time and it was used to create many beautiful works of art.
Sewing had mostly been confined to the home (or the homes of others), but that all changed with the industrial revolution. In 1755 a German immigrant to London called Charles Weisenthal had a patent to create a needle for mechanical sewing, but he did not create a machine to go along with his needle.
The first ever sewing machine is typically accredited to Thomas Saint in 1790, but he only issued a patent and we don’t know if he actually built the machine or not. Someone tried to use his patent drawings to build a sewing machine in the 1880s and it wouldn’t work unless the design was extensively modified, which suggests that Saint may not have actually built the machine.
A German guy called Balthasar Krems invented a machine for sewing caps, but it was never patented and it wasn’t particularly functional. A French patent was given to James Henderson and Thomas Stone who were going to attempt to create a machine that ‘emulated hand sewing’, but their machine was a failure.
In 1814 an Austrian tailor called Josef Madersperger has issued a patent to invent the sewing machine, but he was unsuccessful. Americans John Adam Dog and John Knowles invented a sewing machine in 1818, but it malfunctioned before actually sewing anything of note.
The Price Of Success
The first successful sewing machine was invented in 1830 by a French tailor called Barthelemy Thiomonnier. This machine was fairly basic in design and it only used one thread, but he was still given a contract which allowed him to build a bunch of machines and use them to sew army uniforms for the French army. Thirmonnier’s invention was a success and in less than ten years he had his own factory with 80 machines, but this wasn’t good news for everyone.
A group of French tailors started to conspire against him because they feared that his sewing machines would put hem out of work, so one night they destroyed his factory and forced him to flee the scene. He was able to get a new partner and build even better machines, but the tailors attacked him again. At that time France was in revolution and the police and army had more pressing concerns than Thimonnier’s machines, so he ended up running away to England with the only machine he was able to save.
Perhaps Thirmonnier should be accredited with the invention of the first sewing machine and the first garment factory. Unfortunately, he was not able to reap the rewards of his success and, with almost everything he had built destroyed by the tailors, he died in a poor house.
19th Century Inventors
Then in 1834, an American inventor called Walter Hunt built a semi-successful sewing machine, but he never patented it because he shared the fears of the French tailors and thought it would destroy trade and create unemployment.
John Greenough created a working machine with a needle, but he was unable to raise money for its manufacture. Then an English guy called John Fisher invented the sewing machine in 1844 which was specially designed for lace, but he doesn’t seem to have patented his invention.
The first American patent for a machine which ‘used thread from two different sources’ was given to Elias Howe in 1846. His machine could create a lockstitch, but it was difficult for him to get people interested in his invention. Howe tried to show people that his machine was worth investing in (he even arranged a competition which set his machine up against professional sewers) but no one seemed interested.
Finally, a corset maker called William Thomas expressed an interest in backing the machine, but he and Elias didn’t get on well. When Elias, who had lost a lot of money by now, went home to America he discovered that not only had the sewing machine finally become popular but people had essentially copied his idea and were making their own machines.
Isaac Singer & Elias Howe
Isaac Singer was the first person to really benefit from patenting a sewing machine in 1850. His machine had the needle go up and down whilst it was powered by a foot treadle. ‘Singer sewing machines remain popular to this day and are readily available to buy.
It was a pretty spectacular invention, but it used Elias Howe’s lock stitch. Howe sued Singer for patent infringement and won the patent rights to machines which used the eye-pointed needle. Singer now had to pay Howe patent royalties. In 1856 Howe, Singer and others formed the ‘Sewing Machine Combination’ in which four companies pooled their patents together and made all other manufacturers buy a license and pay them to create machines.
The industrial revolution meant that mass-produced ready-made clothes became more prominent and textile workshops started popping up in the larger cities of England and the USA. In the later part of the 19th century, the sewing machine started to become popular with homes as well as factories. Women’s magazines started publishing dress patterns and instructions which women could use to sew their own clothes. The first electric machines were introduced in 1889.
So when was the sewing machine invented? As you can see, there was not one special ‘eureka’ moment where someone built the perfect sewing machine, they achieved success and factories started to spring up everywhere.
The invention of the sewing machine was a long process which included many different people, and not everyone benefited from their innovation. Should Thirmonnier get credit even though the sewing machine only really took off twenty years after his invention? Is Howe the father of the sewing machine? Or does it matter less who invented it and rather who manage to market it successfully?