Home Sewing 101History of Sewing20th Century Era Sewing History So, Who Invented the Sewing Machine Anyway?

Have you ever thought about who invented the sewing machine?  Maybe you think it was Singer?  Maybe it was Howe?  Did you know there was a battle of epic proportions over the invention of the sewing machine?  It would’ve made a great reality tv show if there was such a thing in 1830!

How It All Started…

The first patent related to a sewing machine was in 1755 and was for a sewing machine needle.  It was submitted by Charles Wiesenthal.  However, no patent was submitted for an actual machine.  Thirty-five years later, in 1790, an Englishman named Thomas Saint invented a sewing machine with a chain stitch.  This machine had a feed mechanism to pull the fabric through and was intended to use on leather and saddlery.  Poor Mr. Saint never did anything with his design though. He had all the drawings for this machine, stashed them away, and they weren’t found for 84 years!  No machine was ever found that was built by him.  When Mr. William Wilson found the drawings all those years later, he made a few minor adjustments and actually built a working machine.  That machine is now in a museum in London.

There Were Issues…

Next up came a machine invented by a French man named Barthelemy Thimonnier.  It was made of wood and formed a chain stitch with a barbed needle.  It had issues though.  The needle was constantly getting stuck in the fabric.  Even with this flaw, it was still faster than hand sewing.  Thimonnier patented his design in 1830 and then mass produced it.  He opened a garment factory with his 80 sewing machines and made army uniforms.  Poor Thimonnier didn’t know what was ahead though.  The area tailors were not happy about these new sewing machines.  They felt threatened and were just sure that these machines would take away all their jobs and put them out of work.  So, they huffed and they puffed and they blew the factory down.  Actually, they rioted and then burnt the factory down.  This caused Thimonnier to flee for his life. He abandoned his invention and returned to work as a tailor.  Eventually, he submitted new patents for sewing machines.  They never caught on and he died in poverty at the age of 63.

Elias Howe – Sewing Machine Inventor

Next Up to the Plate…

Then, along came an American by the name of Elias Howe.  In 1846, he patented the first practical sewing machine and improved the design significantly.  It featured a lock stitch, an automatic feed, and could sew 250 stitches per minute!  The problem was that it was very expensive to manufacture and he needed investors.  Having no luck in America, he headed to the other side of the pond to look for investors in England.  He spent several years abroad trying to gather enough money to successfully manufacture the machine.  When he eventually returned to the states, he found several people infringing on his patent.  One of them was Isaac Merritt Singer.  Have you heard of him?  His name sure sounds familiar.

Howe’s first sewing machine

He Did What??

So, Mr. Singer was manufacturing and selling a machine identical to Elias Howe’s.  The Singer machine was even faster but it was the exact same stitch and design as Howe’s.  Singer had added a foot pedal (thank you Mr. Singer!) but that was the only big difference.  Obviously, Howe was not happy so he did what any other inventor would do, he sued him.  He took Mr. Singer to court and sued the pants off of him.  And Howe won.  Mr. Singer was forced to pay money to Howe for every machine he had ever sold and for future machines he sold. 

Isaac Singer

It Keeps Getting Better!

A few other men entered the world of sewing machine invention over the years and each one made slight improvements to the Howe/Singer design.  Eventually, the Singer Sewing Company was leading the way in sales. By 1860, their machines were found all over the world and by the end of World War I, they were producing hand, treadle, and electric sewing machines.  Singer became a household name. 

Isaac Singer’s sewing machine (via Smithsonian)

Thankful for All of Their Contributions…

Who knew that there was so much drama with the invention of the sewing machine?  And they say women are dramatic!  It was a competitive market and without these men, the sewing machine wouldn’t be what it is today.  Let’s all give a big round of applause for their contributions.  And if you want to take a look at some amazing new models of sewing machines, check these out! From humble beginnings, come great things!

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Lois Hingorani
Lois Hingorani
8 months ago

Wonderful article – bravo to you. It’s a keeper!

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