Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sew 'n Sew

There are some inventions you marvel over, and wonder why someone didn't invent it earlier: Velcro, Scotch tape, rollers on suitcases, Chapstick. . . But there are other inventions that were invented early on, as if humanity made them a priority. One such necessity that spans the ages and all geography are sewing needles. By varying accounts, they’ve been around 20,000 years. I consider that pretty much forever.

People have needed to sew since Adam and Eve first wanted to get dressed. The first needles were made from animal bone and didn’t have an eye, but a slit in the top to hold the thread (which was made from animal sinew.) Metal needles followed, but were often made by the town blacksmith, which means they were often crude in design. England was one of the first places to mass produce them, and the town of Redditch became known for its manufacturing. In 1866 Redditch produced 100 million needles! There's a museum you can visit there:  Forge Mill 

In 1755 the first sewing machine was invented by the German inventor, Karl Weisenthal, who created the first sewing machine needle, but never finished the invention of the machine. The first machine that was usable was invented in 1790, by British Inventor, Thomas Saint. It only used one thread to form a chain stitch, and was mostly used on shoes. It didn’t have a needle, but used an awl to get through the heavy leather fabric. And it never was produced beyond the patent model.

The next inventor was French. In 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the first sewing machine that actually was sold. It also produced a chain stitch and was used to sew uniforms for the French army. But tailors voiciferously—and violently—objected to this machine, believing it would hurt their business. They mobbed Thimmonnier’s factory, and destroyed it. He fled to England and died bankrupt.

The man who figured out the two-thread system we use today was American Walter Hunt in 1834—he also invented the safety pin. But he gave up the invention when he became convinced that his sewing machine would cause too many seamstresses to be out of work.

Elias Howe Jr. lived on the edge of poverty and watched his wife as she worked as a seamstress. He got the idea to copy the movement of the human arm and created a machine that made a lock-stitch. He had a public contest against women sewing by hand and finished five seams before any of them had finished even one. But no one bought a machine. He went to England to try to sell some, but when he returned, he found more than one sewing machine on the American market, many using his patented mechanisms. He sued and agreed on taking royalties. He made nearly $2 million by getting a cut in the sale of other people’s machines

The inventor who finally got it right has a familiar name: Singer.

In 1851, Isaac Singer patented his version, the first rigid-arm sewing machine. Previous to this, the arm vibrated with the needle. Singer’s machine included a presser foot to hold the cloth steady. And sales really popped when he figured out how to let the sewer power the machine with their feet, via a treadle vs. a hand crank.

Singer brought the sewing machine to the people. He advertised, and provided service-after-the-sale. He sold the machines for $75-$125 in fancy showrooms, and let people pay in installments. This was essential for sales, as the normal annual income was $500 and as such, people would have to pool their money to buy a single machine for an entire small town.

 But then a young farmer, James Gibbs, saw a picture of a Singer machine and made his own. He teamed up with James Willcox to sell a lighter, cheaper model than the expensive Singer (he sold his for $50.) Willcox & Gibbs sold machines until the 1970’s.

Helen Blanchard patent drawings
 Women made improvements to the machines too, and many patents were given to women. Helen Blanchard of Maine invented the zigzag sewing machine and in 1881 started the Blanchard Over-seam Company. Very mechanically inclined (and self-taught) she was awarded 28 patents.

In my new novel An Unlikely Suitor, my two immigrant seamstresses go from working in a sweatshop making ready-to-wear, to working for a private dressmaker, sewing custom-made designs for a rich clientele.  Knowing how to use a sewing machine was invaluable.

As is the normal cycle of any “new” machine on the market, the price eventually went down so they were more affordable. The fact many women could have their own machine changed their lives drastically. Before machines (according to Godey's Lady's Book) it took fourteen hours to make a man’s shirt and ten to make a simple dress. So women spent a lot of their day mending and sewing for their families. But with a sewing machine . . . suddenly a woman could sew a shirt and dress in about an hour.

What to do with all that free time?  Women were able to think beyond the home . . . and the world has never been the same.//Nancy


  1. I love reading this history. As a quilter and a someone who loves historical fiction, it's always interesting to find out more about these times in history. Thanks for sharing them with us. Hugs

  2. Hi Nancy:

    ”What to do with all that free time? Women were able to think beyond the home . . . and the world has never been the same.

    “Free Time?” – I wonder. I once told my real estate class in frustration that I did not want ‘them’ to invent another time-saving device!

    Every time there is a new time-saving invention, they dump more work on you! Now your boss can reach you 24 hours a day – even on vacation. Who has a secretary anymore? Even publishers now expect you to do most of the marketing for your book.

    What do you think? Did women from 1870 do more work than women do today? Did they have as much time to themselves? It took longer to cook a meal but you didn’t have to take the kids to practice and a million other things.

    Now with multitasking, you have to do three or four different things in the same time you used to do one. I’ve read that women are more tired today than at any time in history.

    Do you feel you have a lot of free time given all the time-saving devices available?

    This is my law: The more times-saving devices you have, the less free time you have.


    P.S. My 'word verification' is the Italian word for 'perhaps'. Editorial commnet?

  3. As women's traditional work has become more mechanized and less time consuming, I believe that the meaning of "womanhood" has transformed. The expectations have risen. "Only" raising children and keeping house are no longer considered worthy occupations by most. women are expected to have dual careers ... homemaker/mother plus something else. I don't know if it is harder or if women are more tired (given our better nutrition and health care), but I do believe that women are just as stressed. Maybe we don't have to make our child's clothing, but we are expected to take him/her to several extra-curricular activities a week and attend all his/her games and help with homework and the science fair. The kinds of demands on us are different, but I've come to believe life is no less easier.

  4. Good comments! And questions. The good/bad thing regarding life today and 1870 is that there are still only 24 hours in a day. And we still need eight hours of sleep. It's how we spend the other sixteen hours that's in question. Actually, nowadays we probably have less free time because of electricity and proper light. We can be up at all hours, working as if it was bright as day. And the world doesn't shut down at sunset. We don't have to hunker down and wait for morning, we can simply get in our car and go, or hop on the internet and visit the world.

    Hours in a day are like square footage in a house. We fill up what we've got.

    Actually, the best advice for modern women (and men) is to remind ourselves to take a breath. And smell the roses.