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Stitching Across Time
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Stitching Across Time
The need for clothing has been around since as far back as 20,000 years ago during the
Ice Age. Archaeologists discovered needles with eyes made from bone that was used to stitch
together fur and skin garments. The process of sewing garments for wear was a tedious task. It
took an enormous amount of time to complete a single garment. It has been estimated that before
the invention of the sewing machine it took approximately 14 hours to sew a man’s shirt and 10
hours to sew a simple dress (Museum of Art and History, 2010). Thomas Hood, a British poet
and humorist, in 1843 wrote a ditty that women sang as they sewed; “The Song of the Shirt”. The
invention of the sewing machine influenced culture by opening up the door to a faster, easier
way of life for sewing garments and life’s necessities, however; the invention had positive and
negative results as well.
Many attempts to invent the sewing machine failed. In 1790, British patent No. 1764 was
awarded to a London cabinet maker named Thomas Saint for a sewing machine and plans to
build a replica. Although the machine was built it did not work properly and required a few
modifications. Unfortunately because of the wording used the patentt was misfiled under “Glues
& Varnishes” and was not discovered until 1873 (Askaroff, 2009). In 1818, John Knowles
invented a machine that actually worked but it would only sew a few inches then the cloth would
have to be taken out and the machine reset.
In 1830, a French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier, from the village of Lyon,
invented the first functional sewing machine. After observing that it took less time to weave
cloth on a loom than it took to sew a garment, he wanted to make a machine that would shorten
the sewing time. His village was also known for a certain type of embroidery called point de
chainette where a hooked needle, much like a crochet needle, is used to create a chain stitch. His
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design employed the same method; a machine with a hooked needle to emulate the chainstitch.
He received a patent in 1830 and by 1841 he had a shop with 80 machines sewing military
uniforms. A group of angry French tailors became fearful of being unemployed and burnt down
his factory. Thimonnier was forced to flee and lived out the remainder of his life destitute.
Walter Hunt, the inventor of the safety pin, was next to actually invent a working
machine. This machine had two spools of thread and a needle like the ones in use today. After
much badgering and bashing from his daughter on how the machine would put people out of
jobs, Hunt abandoned the machine and left it to gather dust in his basement. If only he had been
able to foresee the future, he would have seen how his machine would actually create jobs
Elias Howe in 1846 patented a machine that used thread from two different sources and
had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle would push through the cloth creating a loop on
the other side then a shuttle on a track slipped through the second thread and made the lockstitch.
Elias had a difficult time selling his machine in America and eventually traveled to England in an
attempt to sell it there but his attempt was fruitless. When he returned to America he discovered
that others had created machines much like his and most of them used his patent. He filed and
won several lawsuits for patent infringement. He was awarded $25.00 for each competitors
machine sold. His income went from $300 to more than $200,000 a year.
Isaac Singer was born in 1811, an eighth child of German immigrants from New York.
His first invention was a mechanical excavator; he sold it for $2000. Next he patented a machine
for book printing and put it on display in a steam powered workshop of Orson Phelps. Phelps
designed sewing machines however; people kept returning them because of their faulty design.
Singer looked at the machine and realized that the shuttle, which was moving in a circle, should
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move in a straight line in a to and fro motion. Also, where Phelps machine utilized a curved
needle that moved in a horizontal motion, Singer suggested he use a straight needled in a vertical
motion. Singer was urged by Phelps to put his interest and design into sewing machines.
Singer took the main idea for the sewing machine and improved upon it. Not only did he
replace the needle with one that moved up and down, he also replaced the hand crank with a foot
treadle to power the needle. Thus making it easier to operate. He sat the machine inside of a
cabinet with a long shelf for the material to rest on while being sewn. The machine could stitch
approximately one thousand stitches an hour. Isaac saw a chance for success; his family had been
surviving on $10 a week. Because of the past failures of other sewing machines, people were
skeptical about this one. Singer found a business partner and they set up sewing contests between
the machine and the fastest stitchers. People were impressed with the new machine and a
magazine called it the Queen of Inventions (Larson, 2003).
The cost of manufacturing the machine was very expensive and there were few people
that could afford them. Singer realized he would not make a profit unless he could manufacture
the machine faster and cheaper. Sales were slow and he thought he would have to go out of
business and needed to come up with a plan to sell more machines. The installment plan was
born. People would send in five dollars as a down payment, the machine was shipped to them,
and they paid off the balance in installments. Singer also saw the need to teach people how to use
the machine and sent salespeople out to the plains, prairies, west, and wherever they were
Now that the sewing machine had been invented the amount of time it took for sewing
clothing and other articles was greatly reduced. Children would no longer be required to have
daily sewing lessons on making strong tiny stitches. Women’s dresses could have as many
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flounces and ruffles as the customer wanted. Women could take in sewing in their home for pay.
Men could tote the machine on their backs to their jobs at the factories. The sewing machine
could earn a person more money than a seamstress or tailor could make stitching by hand. Up
until this point everything had been made by hand but now could be stitched fast and strong by
the machine. Machines were used to stitch everything from clothing to horse harnesses.
Eventually sewing factories appeared in record numbers turning out thousands of items a
day. Stores opened where customers could try on clothing prior to purchase. Even mail order
catalogs made it easier for people to get clothing from around the world. Because of the success
of Singer many others began manufacturing sewing machines. Following the years after Singer
introduced his machine there were 3,500 patents filed for ideas on how to improve the machine.
The invention of electricity contributed greatly to the advancement of the sewing
machine. It allowed the sewing machine worked faster than the foot treadle. Flags, shoes,
household articles, etc., could be produced at record speed. Women found jobs in factories,
where there were rows and rows of machines set up; the factory workers often working into the
night. Now that sewing was not taking up all their time more girls could attend school. More and
more schools were teaching home economics; part of the class was learning how to sew on the
Isaac Singers factory for manufacturing sewing machines grew until it covered 72 acres
and employed approximately 9,000 workers. Agents were sent all over the world to sell the
machines. His factories started up in Canada, Scotland, Germany, Austria, and Russia. By selling
his machines worldwide he became the most successful sewing machine makers in history
(Carlson, 2003). His family went from living off of $10 a week to living in a mansion in
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England with all the necessities they needed. He even built a stage in the mansion so he could
live his dream of acting.
Although the invention of the sewing machine was a positive influence on humanities
because it made life easier on diverse people by speeding up the amount of time it took to sew a
garment or article. The industrial clothing revolution was born, manufacturing in mass
production made it possible for people to have more than one set of clothing. Also it created
jobs, in the manufacturing of the machine, the sewing factories, the retail stores for selling ready
made clothing and shoes, and the availability of mass produced articles world wide. Mass
production resulted in lower purchase prices for clothing and ready made articles.
The invention also created a negative effect in that it put most seamstresses and tailors
out of business or greatly reduced their business. The start up of the sewing factories created
somewhat long hours and deplorable working conditions. Sweatshops that employed young
teenaged non-English speaking immigrants that worked 12 hour days, every day, were popping
up everywhere. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New
York City where 145 people lost their lives because the owners ignored safety features and
locked doors to prevent theft. The locked doors and non-working elevator trapped the workers
and prevented their escape. Because of numerous fires and awful working conditions labor
unions were organized to stand up for the workers to improve working conditions, and set limits
The advancement of the sewing not only opened doors for America but also other
countries as well. A wealth of manufacturers and distributors, of not only clothing but other
articles as well, were opened providing job opportunities to citizens of poorer countries. Citizens
would now have the ability to support their families. Future advancements of the sewing
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machine could speed up the process and provide easier means of the portability of the machines.
Some machines currently use the computer or a computer chip for designing and sewing. It’s
possible in the future that a machine will be powered by a computer or battery. The style and size
may be reduced to a manageable and lighter version that could be used virtually anywhere,
The invention of the sewing machine did have a great impact on culture. Women would
no longer have the need to sing the first verse ditty from “The Song of the Shirt.” The machine
had a positive effect on the industrial revolution by replacing hand sewing with a machine and
creating jobs. Sewing machines have advanced over the years and can do multiple functions.
Along with sewing they can also embroidery and quilt. On the other hand one of the negative
influences was the sweat shop factories that were born and are prevalent today in America as
well as third world countries where some of the factories use child labor to produce the product.
I know that the sewing machine has been a necessity in my life, not only as a way to save
money on clothing but to earn a living. The first time I used a sewing machine I was 9 years old
and needed a skirt for a school play. My mother went to the cloth store and returned with a yard
of red material and a spool of red thread. She handed it to me and said if you need a skirt then
you will have to make it yourself. It wasn’t sewn correctly but I did my best and had a skirt for
the play. After that I began making my clothes and then got into quilting. When my daughters
were growing up I saved a lot of money by sewing their clothes. When all the other mothers
were paying huge prices for prom dresses I spent less than $50 on material. After being laid off
of my job in 2003 I began taking in sewing to earn extra cash. Now I have granddaughters to sew
for and look forward to all the things I will create for them.
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Except from “The Song of the Shirt”
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread—
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt”
Thomas Hood (1843)
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Askaroff, A. (2009). A brief history of the sewing machine. Retrieved on October 25, 2011 from
Bellis, M. (2011). Stitches-the history of sewing machines. Retrieved on October 28, 2011 from
Carlson, Laurie. (2003). Queen of inventions: How the sewing machine changed the world.
Millbrook Press c2003
History Channel. (2011). Triangle shirtwaist factory fire. Retrieved on 11/02/2011 from
Hood, T. (1843). The song of the shirt. Retrieved on 11/02/2011 from
Hanson, B. (2011). Sewing machines-future developments. Retrieved on November 3, 2011 from
Museum of America Heritage. (2010). Sewing machines. Retrieved on October 28, 2011 from