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The fascinating history of the sewing machine

The fascinating history of the sewing machine

From its unclear origins to the recent rise of sewing again, this is the story of the sewing machine

In this highly digitalised world, more and more people are getting into sewing and vintage clothing. Just as through the Second World War, people are returning to the ethos of sustainability and “Make Do and Mend.” Shows like The Great British Sewing Bee are as popular as ever. Who can forget the sewing scene in the film, Pretty in Pink, where Molly Ringwald creates a new prom dress out of two vintage dresses?  

We asked Michelle Rowley, former editor of Love Sewing magazine and a dressmaking tutor, for her thoughts. “From my perspective, sewing is definitely on the rise. I think it’s because of the growing awareness of the damage of fast fashion and people's desire to be more sustainable. Also, lockdown saw an increase in people taking up the hobby, as it's great for taking your mind off other things. Finally, the trend on social media platforms, such as TikTok and Instagram, to share their makes and connect with fellow sewists, is a wonderful way to make the hobby more sociable.” 

But let’s have a brief look back at the chequered history of the sewing machine! 

The history of the sewing machine

Hand sewing dates back over 20,000 years, where the first needles and thread were made from animal horns and sinew. With the advent of the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, the need for manufactured sewing became more prevalent.  

Charles Weisenthal 

There are a lot of disputes as to who invented the first sewing machine. Its origin is seated in quarrels and controversy.

"The sewing machine's origin is seated in quarrels and controversy"

In 1755, Charles Weisenthal, a German immigrant in London, was issued a British patent for a sewing needle designed to use with a machine. Unfortunately, no record of such a machine exists.   

Thomas Saint 

Thomas Saint, a cabinet-maker in 1790, designed the first sewing machine of its kind. It was used to sew canvas and leather and powered by a hand crank. Again, there is no evidence of a prototype being built. Then in 1874, Manchester-born William Newton Wilson found and used Saint’s drawings to build the machine to see if it would work. It did, with a few alterations.  

"Thomas Saint, a cabinet-maker in 1790, designed the first sewing machine of its kind"

There were various other early incarnations and inventors of machines that did not seem to take off (or kept breaking), such as by John Adams Doge and John Knowles in 1818. 

Barthelemy Thimonnier 

What was classed as the first successful working machine came about in 1830 by Barthelemy Thimonnier. He was a French tailor who invented a machine with a hooked needle and thread, thus creating a chain stitch!  

Isaac Merritt Singer 

But in 1850, the first modern sewing machine came along. Isaac Merritt Singer, an American, although not the inventor, identified how they could become more practical and easier to use.

Singer sewing machine

To this day, Singer sewing machines remain iconic

In 1851, the patent for the first Singer machine came about. The rest, as they say, is history! 

Sewing today

So why is sewing so deeply ingrained into our lives and memories? I asked a few people for their stories.

Carole Edrich remembers, “My mum made all the bedclothes, curtains and tablecloths in her house. She even went to upholstery classes and used her Singer for that. She passed away recently and I'm keeping most of it. It's way better quality, both in terms of workmanship and the actual materials, than anything I've found, and of course there are memories with much of it.” 

"Why is sewing so deeply ingrained into our lives and memories?"

Alison Alexander also recalls, “My mum was a talented dressmaker and used to make my sister and I loads of clothes when we were growing up. She even made my wedding dress (and those of two of her sisters). She once made herself some lovely summer dresses for a holiday in Italy, and promptly left them hanging on the back of the airing cupboard door! I think post-war and in the early 1960s she saw it as a way to save money. One of my earliest memories was sitting in the windows of the then department store Dickens & Jones on Marlborough Street, watching the Liberty clock while she chose new material in the fabric department.” 

Fabric department

Alison remembers watching her mother pick out fabric as a child

Smriti Joshi, Lead Psychologist, Wysa (www.wysa.io) reflects, “Many people find sewing and craft activities good for their mental health for a number of reasons. The repetitive motions of sewing and the focus required can help to distract from negative thoughts and reduce feelings of stress. It’s a great way to get a sense of achievement, whether you cross stitch a letter or create a blanket.” 

In this post-pandemic world, sewing has further solidified its place in the modern world. SVP Worldwide, home to Singer, has recently joined forces with another brand, Supreme, to create “the coolest sewing machine ever.” The red sewing machine is computerised and offers 548 stitch applications. The “simple” machine has come a long way from those early days.  

If you're interested in more insights into history of the sewing machine, A Brief History Of The Sewing Machine: Without The Boring Bits is available on Amazon.

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