History of the Sewing Machine and Reasons to Sew.

In the past, children (primarily girls) were taught to sew by older female relatives. This was more out of necessity than for fun, because extending the life of a garment was just what everyone had to do.  This was particularly so during wartime when, for example, phrases like ‘make do and mend’ appeared on a World War II pamphlet from the British Ministry of Information. This provided housewives with practical ideas on thrifty way to repair and repurpose old garments. Lets discuss the history of the sewing machine and how it came to be. 

Before the sewing machine was invented, women spent much of their time making their family’s clothing by hand. This method had hardly changed since the Stone Age! Clothes were costly to produce and took a long time. Skilled seamstresses were in high demand, which meant it became one of the few work opportunities available to women at the time. Factories around the world were employing a predominantly female workforce to hand sew all day long. For many women though, sewing at home was hard work that added precious pennies to the family budget.

Alex Askaroff, a Master Craftsman, has spent his working life in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering sewing machines and their inventors. In his delightful little book “A Brief History of the Sewing Machine: Without the Boring Bits,” he explains why the sewing machine is one of the most useful inventions of the 19th century…’the humble sewing machine changed how we dressed, how we looked and how we acted.’ Mahatma Gandhi agrees with this by saying that the sewing machine was ‘one of the few useful things ever invented.’ In the 19th century, the Victorian press was quoted as saying, ‘In the history of the world the sewing machine has freed more women from the drudgery of manual work than any other invention to date.’

In 1901, James Gibbs, a sewing machine pioneer, provides some context around the invention of the sewing machine… ‘no useful sewing machine was ever invented by one man; and all first attempts to do work by machinery, previously done by hand, have been failures. It is only after several able investors have failed in attempt, that someone with the mental powers combine the efforts of others with his own, at last produces a practicable sewing machine.’ This explains why it took 50 years from 1846, for sewing machines to start being manufactured. Then, by 1900 over 20 million sewing machines a year were being produced by factories all over the world. Alex Askaroff hits the nail on the head when he says that, ‘until the mobile phone, no single invention was as eagerly accepted by people in all four corners of the planet as the humble sewing machine.’

A number of nations claim that they invented the sewing machine, including the Germans, French, British and Austrians! The first evidence is the invention of needle for mechanical sewing, patented in England in 1755, by a German, Charles Weisenthal. Following on from this, in 1790, again in England, Thomas Saint, a cabinetmaker, was awarded British Patent No. 1764, which included enough plans for a replica machine to be built. The patent was misfiled under ‘Glues and Varnishes,’ and was not rediscovered until 1873, when the British sewing machine pioneer, Newton Wilson, was researching the history of the sewing machine. Wilson was amazed by Saint’s ‘chain stitch,’ and built a working model modifying the patent drawings.

 1804 was a busy year, with Frenchman, Thomas Stone, patenting a machine, as well as a Scotsman, James Henderson. Mr Duncan also patented an embroidery machine. Then around 1810, Balthasar Krems, a German cardigan and cap maker, came up with a unique sewing machine which he used to sew the seams of his caps. Balthasar’s sewing machine was pedal operated and sewed a continuous- circular chain stitch with a basic wheel feed mechanism, which he also invented. Following on from this, in 1815, Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger, was granted patent rights on a complex sewing machine.

The American’s finally joined the line-up of European inventors when, in 1818, partners John Knowles and John Adams Doge made a sewing machine. Henry Lye followed, in 1826, with a patent on his sewing machine invention. 

Back in France, in 1829, Barthelemy Thimonnier, built a wooden sewing machine that produced a chain or tambour stitch that was finally patented in the United States in 1850 (patent 7622). During the French Revolution, the introduction of the sewing machine angered tailors, who had lost their jobs to the machine.

The list of sewing machine inventors continued to grow, with Newton and Archibald in England in 1841, John James Greenough in 1842 and Dr Frank Goulding in 1843. At this time, no one had invented a machine that worked consistently well. Alex Askaroff explains that ‘the big mistake was trying to copy the human hand movements that made a stitch’. The first machine that we recognise as a sewing machine that could be sold to every household was made by Walter Hunt – he started in 1834 with a machine that used two spools of thread to produce a lockstitch. His daughter complained that his invention would put people out of work, so he shelved the project, and then 20 years later he patented an improved model.

In 1846, a young American farmer, Elias Howe, patented a sewing machine and went on to become one of the richest men in the world. Lots of sewing machine companies started in business and were using Howe’s patents. He either sued them, or starting charging a license fee. This included the American sewing machine entrepreneur Isaac Singer, who patented his own sewing machine in 1851. This machine was the best of the bunch with its treadle, which allowed both hands free for sewing. Further advancements were made in 1860 with the long arm Grover & Baker, which patented the method of feeding the work through the machine with a set of teeth. This was called the four-motion-feed and it is still used today.

Although Isaac Singer cannot be credited with any major invention, the Singer Sewing Company did develop the first electric sewing machine, introduced in 1889. Alex Askaroff explains that ‘his genius lay in copying and then improving on what was around at the time’. The Singer Sewing Company went on to perfect the sewing machine and dominated world production for the next century. The sewing machine was the first mass produced domestic appliance in history, and the Singer Sewing Company were excellent marketers. Alex Askaroff says that ‘there is no doubt that Isaac Singer put together the first marketable sewing machine that was reliable, did what it was designed to do, and came with a guarantee that was worth the paper it was written on.’

By the end of World War I, sewing machines were available to everyone. As prices became affordable, nearly every home had one. It now took only one or two hours to make a man’s shirt or a woman’s dress. Even today in America, 48% of US households have a sewing machine and 26% of adults sew. A further 16% do mending.

By the early 2000s, fast fashion and a new era of consumerism meant the skills of yesteryear were slowing dying out. However, in recent years, sewing has again increased in popularity, with an estimated seven million people in the UK sewing their own clothes and a further 30 million in the US. The humble sewing machine is making a comeback! Despite this, 60% of people can’t sew, and 25% can’t sew on button or undertake simple mending.

Although COVID-19 has negatively impacted our normal lives, it has redirected many people to think about spending their time to learn a new hobby; particularly one, like sewing, that has a productive outcome. People on furlough, or made redundant, have had more time on their hands, so it makes sense to make, mend or upcycle clothes instead of spending money replacing them. Popular television shows like The Great British Sewing Bee, have amassed a following of people who become more inclined to give it a go themselves. This is particularly so for Gen X and Millennials who are more aware of sustainability and are thoughtful about adding to the masses of clothes that are destined for landfill each year.

Reasons to Learn to Sew

Sewing is good for your well-being

COVID-19 has encouraged many people to pick up hobbies that are both productive and creative. Using your hands (and mind) to make something has been a therapeutic and calming way for many of us during what has been a stressful time. Sewing allows us to switch off from the world and escape to a place where creativity can flow. This process is known to reduce stress hormones in the body as when we make something with our own hands we are connected to both the process and product, which is really beneficial for our mental health.

 Sewing helps you to express your individuality

 Even if you follow a pattern, sewing provides limitless opportunity to express your individuality through creativity. You can make something that you know is truly a ‘one-off

Sewing can save you money

Although there are some garments that aren’t very economical to sew, there are certainly some that are! I like to re-create expensive designer outfits for a fraction of the cost. Here are a couple of examples of dresses I have made for my daughters. Along with saving money, it’s a great challenge. I use (‘hack together’) a combination of patterns to get-the-look.

You can also save money, and the environment, by converting garments into something that will give them a new lease of life! This is a Rebecca Page Dress to Jumpsuit Conversion.

Sewing for the perfect fit

The majority of women find it difficult to buy clothes on the high street that fit them perfectly. I’ve discovered that once I find a pattern, like the well-fitting Rebecca Page Trench Coat, I can then modify it to get different looks. In the photos below I’ve made a winter trench coat, a shorter mid-season jacket and a summer dress – all from the same pattern!

You can stitch unique one-of-a-kind gifts

This is the fun stuff! Making something for someone else is a true feel-good moment – both for you, and for the person you have made something for. On the left, I made Lucia a Truly Scrumptious outfit using the Rebecca Page Sofia pattern (her favourite from the movie ‘Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang). When Lucia opened the box, she said ‘I’m the luckiest girl in the world – beat that! On the right, I made a pizza apron for my son to wear when he’s in charge of the pizza oven!

Learning to sew teaches you to value handmade

There is a quiet dignity in working with your hands to produce beautiful labours of love. It’s a bonus when you can make your own matching mask for any outfit!

Learning to sew can reduce your environmental impact

The fast fashion industry is wasteful, environmentally disastrous, and impersonal. Women today want clothes that are well-made, well-fitting, and unique. Sewing reduces reliance on fast-fashion and encourages recycling. It offers a strong solution to fashion industry problems, such as supply chain waste and landfill disposal of barely used garments.