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November 2016 Meeting Report

A History of Sewing Machines by Ralph Carpenter

Prior to the 1840s, all sewing was done by hand, a slow and laborious process, and in the midst of an industrial revolution, it is small wonder that there was a great deal of activity to invent and produce a mechanical sewing machine. In fact there is in the Science Museum a machine patented by Thomas Saint in 1790. There is no record of him ever having made a machine, but this was made based on drawings found in the Patent Office.

The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829. His machine sewed straight seams using chain stitch like Saint's model. The patent for his machine was issued in 1830, and in the same year he opened the first machine-based clothing manufacturing company in the world to create army uniforms for the French Army. However, the factory was burned down, reportedly by workers fearful of losing their livelihood.

The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832. His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread and a falling shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread.

The first machine to combine all the elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine was built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844, thus a little earlier than the very similar machines built by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851, and the lesser known Elias Howe, in 1845. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher's patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine in the legal disputations of priority with Singer, and it was Singer who won the benefits of the patent. With a lawyer named Edward Clark, he created the first hire-purchase arrangement to allow people to buy their machines through payments over time.

In 1856, the Sewing Machine Combination was formed, consisting of Singer, Howe, Wheeler & Wilson, Grover and Baker. These four companies pooled their patents, with the result that all other manufacturers had to obtain a license and pay $15 per machine. This lasted until 1877, when the last patent expired.

James Gibbs patented the first chain stitch single-thread sewing machine in 1857 made by a rotating hook below the cloth plate. In partnership with James Willcox, Gibbs became a principal partner in Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company. Willcox & Gibbs commercial sewing machines are still used in the 21st century.

Clothing manufacturers were the first sewing machine customers, and used them to produce the first ready- to-wear clothing and shoes. In the 1860s consumers began purchasing them, and the machinesóranging in price from £6 to £15 in Britain depending on featuresóbecame very common in middle-class homes. Women's magazines and household guides such as Mrs Beeton's offered dress patterns and instructions. A sewing machine could produce a man's shirt in about one hour, compared to 14Ĺ hours by hand.

Isaac Merritt Singer, who plays such a big part in this story, had two wives and 18 children by four women. This, and the start of the American Civil war in 1861 may have been the cause of his flight to England. In 1865 he launched the New Family Machine, which reached a production level of two million by 1875 when his Improved Family Machine was launched.

In 1890 there were 66 manufacturers of sewing machines, including many English ones.

In 1970 Ralph Carpenter was an antique dealer and was given a Wilcox & Gibbs machine from which his collection grew to over 160 machines, but has since been much reduced. He brought a representative sample to show us, including machines for children, but which were fully working machines. We enjoyed a fascinating talk and demonstration of the machines in this collection.

Jim Butchart

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