How the sewing machine changed the world

How the sewing machine changed the world

Image by Paolo Monti

Of my artistic hobbies, painting remains my favorite. Yet, in speaking with a friend, she waxed poetic about her sewing machine. While I come from a line of talented seamstresses and craftswomen, the sewing bug never bit me. My interest was piqued as I listened to her explain how this machine is actually a beloved tool for creativity (much like a paintbrush is to me). Turns out this magnificent machine has quite the history, filled with an interesting cast of characters. Join me as we learn how the sewing machine changed the world (and continues to empower artisans to this day)!

Before the Industrial Revolution was even a twinkle in the eye of a few intrepid entrepreneurs, mankind has sewed. In the early days the animal kingdom provided the equipment for clothes making. Bones were made into needles and tendons became thread. Sewing was a messy and time-consuming business. It continued to be laborious for generations, but by the 1800s the art of sewing went from a manual effort to something mechanized. The Industrial Revolution promised to usher in progress and a level of unprecedented productivity for all manner of activity.

The first sewing machines were built for industry. Thomas Saint, a British cabinetmaker, forayed into the realm of textiles and created a detailed design in 1790. The drawings were so specific and clear, an engineer by the name of William Newton Wilson went on to build a full-fledged, working prototype nearly 90 years later. While I can understand the allure for Mr. Wilson (translating schematics to something tangible is a prize for any engineer),  I’m curious as to why a woodworker would dedicate so much time to a material previously outside of his palette. My initial theory, since this first machine focused on the sturdier textures of leather or canvas, was that Mr. Saint had upholstery in mind. Perhaps he was going to expand his business beyond cabinets and into furniture. In fact, his focus was footwear. Interesting for a cabinetmaker to become the cobbler,  but as you’ll see – this won’t be the first time the idea of mechanical sewing inspired a career change or was passed between enterprising men. (Indeed, this baton hand-off will get more scandalous as we travel closer to modern time!)

Before Wilson breathed life into Saint’s sketches, many different men tried their hand at the task. Indeed, for one man in Vienna it became a lifelong obsession. The growing textile industry no doubt inspired them to find a way to automate more of the consumer supply chain, but turns out sewing machine technology was a tough nut to crack! A tailor in France, a Mr. Barthelemy Thimonnier, is credited with the next major break-through. You see, while Saint’s design worked, it could double for gym equipment. The entire mechanism hinged on a hand crank. (Can you imagine the arm muscles you’d develop after a day spent sewing the Thomas Saint way?!) Thimonnier’s vision included a foot pedal and his patent caught the attention of the French Army. Getting a fat, government contract incensed his colleagues. They say the world of fashion can be cut-throat and the history of the sewing machine gives validity to this adage. You see, his peers were convinced that this machine would negatively disrupt their industry, causing unemployment. Their revenge: setting fire to Thimonnier’s warehouse while he was working inside. The setback only served to fuel his passion and his second edition was stronger than his first. He was, however, destined to not have a third act. Following another attempt on his life, he left his native land and wasn’t able to recreate his initial success.

How the sewing machine changed the world

Image from Scientific American

The sewing machine, like other iconic inventions, caused existential crises. While Thimonnier may have seen his creation as a tool for good – especially when used for the noble cause of protecting one’s country (i.e. sewing military uniforms) – other sewing machine inventors felt a different kind of moral responsibility. They asked themselves a question that’s just as relevant today as it was in the 1800s: what is the human cost of increased efficiency and enhanced technology? Humanity continues to struggle with defining the true cost of advancement (just check the recent headlines regarding “big tech”).

Philosophical concerns aside, the desire to bring sewing into the fold of revolution forged onward. In the 1840s an intrepid man by the name of John Fisher (another Brit) created a machine that streamlined the mechanisms. His approach was ground-breaking for the time, yet something happened with his patent and his work was stymied (another cut-throat situation perhaps?). The following year, American Elias Howe created an eerily similar model. Seemed that Howe would be the one to turn the tide, yet for all his technical prowess he wasn’t well-versed at publicity. Disappointed that he couldn’t cash in on his work, he left for England.

Fun fact: The Wright Brothers sewed their airplane wing coverings on their reliable Singer!

When he finally decided to come home, Howe was met with a shock – his machine was the toast of America! Thanks can be given to a gentleman who is now a household name, Isaac Singer. Singer is perhaps one of the most interesting actors in this play of ours as he was the least connected with the craft of sewing. He was a career nomad – an actor, ditch digger, woodworker – but above all, Singer was clever. Taking elements from previous designs, he built an elaborate and sturdy machine. This machine, which was sold at a price that would be equivalent to a luxury car today, was so successful that nearly every family in America scrimped and saved to have one of their very own. Singer understood that the forefront of industry was in the home. He knew that by building something inherently useful to many, the possibilities were endless. Yes, factories leveraged these contraptions, but housewives saw the immediate value of having a sewing machine. The brilliance was it allowed clothes to be constructed easily, but never intruded on the freedom of individual artistic expression. For example, you could sew a dress in a fraction of the time, leaving you with even more time to personalize your frock with detailed embroidery and embellishments. Here was an invention that didn’t overshadow, but enhanced the creative process. (In my view, this is how the sewing machine changed the world by showing that tech could live in harmony with personal expression!)

But let’s return to the juicy origin story of this beloved tool. We left off with Singer raking in record-setting profits (nearly a half a billion dollars in today’s money!) while a frustrated Howe looked on. Howe didn’t stand on the sidelines for long, a few years later he formally filed a lawsuit aimed at Singer. Howe won the case and the argument for intellectual property was formed! In the settlement, Howe became part of a generous profit-sharing scheme and he was able to recoup some of those early losses. Thinking of all the men who sought fortune (with some only finding misfortune) in their quest to mechanize sewing, it’s interesting that this technology isn’t commonly known as a masculine invention at all. For most of us the sewing machine is personal – defined by the family members who would be up at night sewing a special outfit for us or mending a beloved toy. For all Singer’s personal faults (he was quite the cad in real life), he did get one thing right: the sewing machine became an integral part of American domestic life. It became an extension of the person using it! Just go into any fabric store, attend a craft fair, or talk to a friend to see proof that the bond with the sewing machine is just as strong in 2019 as it was in 1919…

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