First sewing machine. Who invented it and how it worked?
We live in the times when the cost of producing clothes has reached such a low level that the cost of some jacket or trousers is estimated as low as a cheap meal. One can hardly imagine that once a coat or a dress would cost as much as an annual salary of an average worker.
Today’s comfort of playing with fashion and the possibility of exchanging clothes with each coming trend or season is due to the invention of a sewing machine. At present, the machinery park of a clothing factory resembles a NASA laboratory with computers, plotters for patterns and sewing machines. However, only about 250 years ago the clothes were all hand-made.
First sewing machines
Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal was a German inventor who was awarded the patent for the first known mechanical device for sewing in 1755. Yet, this solution was not very practical. The problem was that the inventor too literally imitated the way of hand sewing and the needle went through the fabric. This made the sewing process somewhat useless. French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier patented a device in 1830 that mechanized the typical hand-sewing motions to create a simple chain stitch. His device did not copy human movements. His approach to the problem was a bit more inventive and he introduced innovative sewing solutions. To a large extent he focused on the development of the needle itself, better adapted to the machine. Its construction strongly resembled today’s ones but the difference was that the seam was created from the bottom and not on the top of the fabric, as it is today. In addition, a single stitch was not very durable. Thimonnier also opened a sewing room by installing 80 sewing machines. This caused the fury of other French tailors, whose position was seriously threatened. Thimonnier quickly gained lucrative contracts for manufacturing army uniforms. Slightly later two engineers: Elias Howe and Walter Hunt invented a two-track machine. This made the sewing effect more durable, mostly due to using thread from two different sources. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating what is called the lockstitch
The seams were strong and looked the same on both sides. The prototype of the machine was made in 1834. However, the thread still came out of the eye of the needle, so the machine had to be stopped all the time and threaded again. That discouraged inventors from developing it further on.
Mass-produced machines Isaac Merritt Singer is the one who developed and brought into general use the first practical domestic sewing machine. Because Singer had embodied in his machine the basic eye-pointed needle and the lock stitch developed by Elias Howe of the United States, Howe won a patent-infringement suit against him in 1854. The suit did not prevent Singer from manufacturing his machine. Singer’s machine factory was in full swing; however, he formed a partnership with Edward Clark. By 1860 their company had become the largest producer of sewing machines in the world. Singer was also a marketing innovator and was a pioneer in promoting the use of installment payment plans, a system similar to that of today’s leasing. In this way, Singer paved the way for the less wealthy to buy their own sewing machines. Even today, in many old houses somewhere in the attic, you can still find a Singer sewing machine. Meanwhile, Allen B. Wilson developed a shuttle that reciprocated in a short arc, which was an improvement over Singer and Howe’s
However, all the machines they developed were so similar that they had to find their way into court to settle the patent rights and ownership rights. Finally, in 1856, he went into partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler to produce a machine with a rotary hook instead of a shuttle. This was far quieter and smoother than other methods, with the result that the Wheeler & Wilson Company produced more machines in the 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer. They also granted licenses for their production. This lasted until 1877, when the last patent expired and the technology became available to all. By that time, however, Singer’s company had already become a giant on the market. In 1882 George McKenzie by then President-elect of the Singer Manufacturing Company, undertook the ground breaking ceremony on 46 acres (19 ha) of farmland at Kilbowie, Clydebank. With nearly a million square feet of space and almost 7,000 employees, it was possible to produce on average 13,000 machines a week, making it the largest sewing machine factory in the world. This further strengthened the Singer brand, which at that time was the market leader. Singer’s plants at that time produced more than a million machines a year. That’s more than all the competing companies put together. The 1950s brought about a crisis in the industry, which forced the plants to reduce their capacity, and in the following years to cease production completely. Financial problems and lack of orders forced the world’s largest sewing machine factory to close in June 1980, bringing to an end over 100 years of sewing machine production in Scotland. The complex of buildings was demolished in 1998 and this extraordinary history ended. What remained is sentiment and antique machines with the famous ‘presser foot’ to hold the cloth in place.
It is worth mentioning that in a modern sewing machine the fabric easily glides in and out of the machine. Many of them can move the fabric in a direction almost perpendicular to the cloth feed direction or make a transverse movement with a needle. After starting the drive, the machine uses two thread sources, a top thread and a lower thread, and tightening the knot against the fabric. Sewing parameters are extremely precise , so that fabrics with extreme parameters, such as delicate silk or thick covering fabrics, can be sawn. Over the time, sewing machines have expanded their range to include a variety of home and pro- sewing machines that are able to perfectly sew multilayer thick fabrics, such as airbags or car upholstery. We will get back to this topic, as it is Vorster’s strength to build machines and production lines for airbags in the automotive industry.