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The History Of The Sewing Machine

Info: 1936 words (8 pages) Essay
Published: 11th May 2017 in History

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The art of sewing was invented in the Paleolithic era, where early men used sharp pointed tools called awls to poke holes in pieces of leather and then thread a strip of leather or sinew through the leather to make coverings for cold weather. Then, the idea to make a notch at the end of the awl came about and it allowed the thread to be attached to the awl, this made sewing a lot easier and more efficient. [1] Since then, implements for sewing have been tremendously enhanced and refined, but the most significant improvement made to the process of sewing is the invention of the sewing machine.

For this essay, I will focus on the introduction and the proliferation of the sewing machine for use in the household in 19th to early 20th century in Europe and America. I will also examine the role that it played in society and the various issues related to the sewing machine in this period of time.


Up to the early and mid 19th century in Europe, sewing was all done by hand, everything from clothing to bed linen and curtains had to be sewn by hand, usually by the women of the family, including girls. It constituted a large part of women’s labour in the home. The skills of sewing and embroidery were taught to girls from a young age, and they were expected to be proficient at it. Even girls from rich families which could afford to hire seamstresses were expected to proficient in sewing. The sewing machine was significant enough such that in 1855, the influential and powerful magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book hailed the sewing machine as the “The Queen of Inventions” for the time and labour that it would save women. [2] 

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The first viable, working sewing machine was invented by French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1830. By 1841, he has produced eighty machines for use by the French military to sew uniforms. A group of tailors, being fearful of the new technology, broke into the factory and destroyed the machines as they were afraid that the machines would ruin their livelihoods. In 1846, America, a mechanic Elias Howe came up with another design for the sewing machine, using the lockstitch instead of Thimonnier’s chain stitch method. However, the machine was not well received in America and Howe travelled to England to seek financing for the production for his machine. Upon his return to America, he discovered that the inventors Isaac Singer and Walter Hunter had improved on his design, with a rigid instead of a vibrating arm, similar to the sewing machines that we have today. The machine they made had become a commercial success. After that, many sewing machine companies were set up and many people made improvements to the design of the sewing machine. To resolve patent issues, some of these companies came together to form the Sewing Machine Corporation. The next major improvement in the design of sewing machines with Singer Manufacturing Company’s introduction of the electricity powered sewing machine. [3] 

Marketing the sewing machine

One thing about the sewing machine which I found interesting was the way in which it was marketed and how the marketing of the sewing machine changes as people’s perception of the sewing machine changed. Some of the earliest French advertising material for sewing machines were targeted at men and showed a soldier at the sewing machine. From its introduction until the 1850s, the sewing machine was targeted at men and for industrial use, until it was suggested to Singer Sewing Company that they create a machine for domestic use. Henceforth, the advertising of the sewing machine was targeted at women. [4] 

The marketing strategy was altered to react to the changes of women’s view on the increasingly common sewing machine. When the sewing machine was first made available, it was expensive and unaffordable and hence became a status symbol for the wealthier families. The time saved could be used for teaching their children or simply resting. From the 1850s to the 1870s, the sewing machine was also marketed as a piece of furniture, which led to some of the higher end sewing machines coming with cabinet cases that were rather elaborate and fanciful. The sewing machine continued to gain in popularity and by the 1890s, it was common enough for it to lose its association as a status symbol. This led to a change in the perception of the sewing machine. Instead of being something meant to be displayed, it was now a tool that was best hidden from view, even though it was still frequently used. This led to modifications in the new types of machines being introduced, such as the drop head model, where the machine could be folded into a table and out of sight after use. [5] , [6] 

Another event that altered the role of the sewing machine was the rise of the ready-to-wear clothing industry in the 1920s. Unlike today, readymade clothing were of better quality but more costly compared to home sewn clothing as they were made by professional dressmakers. At this period of time, the sewing machine was marketed as a money saving tool, allowing women to save some money by sewing their own clothing and look as polished as if they were wearing ready to wear clothing. Advertising from a sewing machine company then claimed that with “the help of Greist attachments, the items sewn at home have a finished look instead of a home-made look” [7] 

Pioneering new forms of technology

An idea in the marketing of the sewing machine which I found worthy of exploration was the idea of hire purchase that began in the 1890s. Clothing manufacturers were unwilling to invest in sewing machines as labour was both cheap and plentiful. Due to the abundance of labour, the wages of the working women were low and their work undervalued. [8] The working class women were the group of people that would benefit the most from owning a sewing machine of their own. However, few people from this class of society could afford to buy one, as a sewing machine could cost anywhere from a fifth to half of their yearly income. Owning a sewing machine would allow them to take on more pieces of work and possibly improve their standard of living, making the sewing machine a very attractive piece of equipment. Through the installment plans, women could possibly afford to purchase a machine [9] . Though the idea of hire-purchase did not originate from the sewing machine industry, it was one of the early pioneers of this method of purchase and the first industry to extend direct credit to the consumer. It was ingenious of the industry to recognize the potential of installment schemes back when such methods of payment were unheard. This is in contrast to today’s world where there are hire purchase schemes available for most major purchases.

The Sewing Machine and the Industrial Revolution

One of the trademarks of the Industrial Revolution was the idea of standardized and interchangeable parts. This process was first utilized by the ammunitions manufacturing industry to produce multiple parts with great precision to produce weapons like muskets. The same level of precision was required in the manufacturing of sewing machines. Isaac Singer saw the potential in this process and his company was one of the first to take advantage of this manufacturing process. [10] Production by this method ensured that any two machines of the same type were identical and the quality of the machines remained constant [11] . This allowed the sewing machine to be produced on the assembly line, and in turn caused the cost of production to be dramatically decreased, allowing the company to pass the savings on to the consumers. Also, interchangeable parts allowed repairs to be made effortlessly should a part of the machine be broken as the manufacturer could simply send over another piece similar to the one that was broken. [12] This made the sewing machine more appealing to the customers especially when coupled together with the decrease in price.

The sewing machine was one of the inventions among others that were created during the Industrial Revolution and led to changes in the role that women play in society. The introduction of machines such as the sewing machine, washing machines, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners saved women in the household much time and effort. [13] This allowed women to receive more educational opportunities and the ability to become a skilled worker and be engaged in occupations such as teaching or nursing where their labour is of value. Women were no longer tied up in the household carrying out household chores.

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To conclude, I feel that the sewing machine is one of the more significant inventions to be made during the years of the Industrial Revolution. The the study of the sewing machines can help us understand world events and issues that took place during that period of time such as the Industrial Revolution, and the changes in the lives of women.

Also, when compared to today’s world, the role that the sewing machine plays in the society is vastly different than the role that it played back in the late 1800s. The domestic sewing machine is now something of a novelty. This is just another example to show that as society changes, the needs of the people changes with it. What was regarded as a necessity in the household back then is no longer a necessity today.

Beaudry, Mary C. Findings. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Coffin, Judith G. The Politics of Women’s work. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Connolly, Marguerite. “The Disappearance of the Domestic Sewing Machine, 1890-1925.” Winterthur Portfolio, 1999: 31-48.

McClellan, James E.,and Dorn, Harold. Science and technology in world history:An Introduction. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Zakreski, Patricia. Representing Female Artistic Labour, 1848-1890. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006.


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