Before 1900, women spent many of their daylight hours sewing clothes for themselves and their families by hand. Women also formed the majority of the labor force that sewed clothes in factories and wove fabrics in mills. The invention and proliferation of the sewing machine freed women of this chore, liberated workers from poorly paid long hours in factories, and produced a wide variety of less expensive clothing. The industrial sewing machine made a range of products possible and affordable. The home and portable sewing machines also introduced amateur seamstresses to the delights of sewing as a craft.
The pioneers in the development of the sewing machine were hard at work at the end of the eighteenth century in England, France, and the United States. The English cabinetmaker Thomas Saint garnered the first patent for a sewing machine in 1790. Leather and canvas could be stitched by this heavy machine, which used a notched needle and awl to create a chain stitch. Like many early machines, it copied the motions of hand sewing. In 1807, a critical innovation was patented by William and Edward Chapman in England. Their sewing machine used a needle with an eye in the point of the needle instead of at the top.
In France, Bartheleémy Thimmonier's machine patented in 1830 literally caused a riot. A French tailor, Thimmonier developed a machine that stitched fabric together by chain stitching with a curved needle. His factory produced uniforms for the French Army and had 80 machines at work by 1841. A mob of tailors displaced by the factory rioted, destroyed the machines, and nearly killed Thimmonier.
Across the Atlantic, Walter Hunt made a machine with an eye-pointed needle that created a locked stitch with a second thread from underneath. Hunt's machine, devised in 1834, was never patented. Elias Howe, credited as the inventor of the sewing machine, designed and patented his creation in 1846. Howe was employed at a machine shop in Boston and was trying to support his family. A friend helped him financially while he perfected his invention, which also produced a lock stitch by using an eye-pointed needle and a bobbin that carried the second thread. Howe tried to market his machine in England, but, while he was overseas, others copied his invention. When he returned in 1849, he was again backed financially while he sued the other companies for patent infringement. By 1854, he had won the suits, thus also establishing the sewing machine as a landmark device in the evolution of patent law.
Chief among Howe's competitors was Isaac M. Singer, an inventor, actor, and mechanic who modified a poor design developed by others and obtained his own patent in 1851. His design featured an overhanging arm that positioned the needle over a flat table so the cloth could be worked under the bar in any direction. So many patents for assorted features of sewing machines had been issued by the early 1850s that a "patent pool" was established by four manufacturers so the rights of the pooled patents could be purchased. Howe benefited from this by earning royalties on his patents; Singer, in partnership with Edward Clark, merged the best of the pooled inventions and became the largest producer of sewing machines in the world by 1860. Massive orders for Civil War uniforms created a huge demand for the machines in the 1860s, and the patent pool made Howe and Singer the first millionaire inventors in the world.
Improvements to the sewing machine continued into the 1850s. Allen B. Wilson, an American cabinetmaker, devised two significant features, the rotary hook shuttle and four-motion (up, down, back, and forward) feed of fabric through the machine. Singer modified his invention until his death in 1875 and obtained many other patents for improvements and new features. As Howe revolutionized the patent world, Singer made great strides in merchandising. Through installment purchase plans, credit, a repair service, and a trade-in policy, Singer introduced the sewing machine to many homes and established sales techniques that were adopted by salesmen from other industries.
The sewing machine changed the face of industry by creating the new field of ready-to-wear clothing. Improvements to the carpeting industry, bookbinding, the boot and shoe trade, hosiery manufacture, and upholstery and furniture making multiplied with the application of the industrial sewing machine. Industrial machines used the swing-needle or zigzag stitch before 1900, although it took many years for this stitch to be adapted to the home machine. Electric sewing machines were first introduced by Singer in 1889. Modern electronic devices use computer technology to create buttonholes, embroidery, overcast seams, blind stitching, and an array of decorative stitches.
Industrial sewing machines require cast iron for their frames and a variety of metals for their fittings. Steel, brass, and a number of alloys are needed to make specialized parts that are durable enough for long hours of use in factory conditions. Some manufacturers cast, machine, and tool their own metal parts; but vendors also supply these parts as well as pneumatic, electric, and electronic elements.
Home sewing machine
Unlike the industrial machine, the home sewing machine is prized for its versatility, flexibility, and portability. Lightweight housings are important, and most home machines have casings made of plastics and polymers that are light, easy to mold, easy to clean, and resistant to chipping and cracking. The frame of the home machine is made of injection-molded aluminum, again for weight considerations. Other metals, such as copper, chrome, and nickel are used to plate specific parts.
The home machine also requires an electric motor, a variety of precision-machined metal parts including feed gears, cam mechanisms, hooks, needles, and the needle bar, presser feet, and the main drive shaft. Bobbins can be made of metal or plastic but must be precisely shaped to feed the second thread properly. Circuit boards are also required specific to the main controls of the machine, the pattern and stitch selections, and a range of other features. Motors, machined metal parts, and circuit boards can be supplied by vendors or made by the manufacturers.
After the automobile, the sewing machine is the most precisely made machine in the world. Industrial sewing machines are larger and heavier than home machines and are designed to perform only one function. Manufacturers of clothing, for example, use a series of machines with distinct functions that, in succession, create a finished garment. Industrial machines also tend to apply chain or zigzag stitch rather than lock stitch, but machines may be fitted for up to nine threads for strength.