Let’s talk about sewing machines.
According to Craft Industry Alliance 2021 survey, the average quilter owns four sewing machines (this does not include long arms or embroidery machines which are exclusively for embroidery and do not sew seams at all). Ask any group of quilters what their favorite brand is, and you’ll hear enthusiastic replies of Brother, Juki, Janome, Bernina, Pfaff, or Husqvarna – as well as at least a half a dozen other name brands.
As avid quilters, it’s hard to imagine our worlds without sewing machines in them, but we know at some point, our quilting foremothers hand pieced and hand quilted all of their quilts. Because while the patent for a sewing machine was issued in 1755, it wasn’t until 1830 – some 75 years later – that an actual, working sewing machine was made.
And it caused a riot. Seriously.
Before we jump into the deep dive of sewing machines, let’s take a brief look at their history and the legendary Howe/Singer feud.
All The Sewing Machine Men
In 1755, a British patent was issued to a German named Charles Weisenthal. And while Weisenthal went into great specifics about the type of needle the machine used, he was more than a bit sketchy about the rest of the details about his invention. The patent mentions nothing at all about it. It’s unclear whether or not the machine was ever actually made.
In 1790, an English inventor and cabinet maker, Thomas Saint, was issued the first patent for a complete sewing machine. The patent describes an awl which punched a hole in leather and then passed a needle through the hole. We don’t know if Saint ever actually made one of these machines himself, but a later reproduction of his invention based on his patent drawings didn’t work.
In 1810, German Balthasar Krems invented an automatic machine for sewing caps. Krems didn’t bother to patent his invention and it never functioned well.
Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger tried several times to make a workable sewing machine. He was finally awarded a patent in 1814, but the machine was unsuccessful.
In 1804, all fingers were crossed, because it looked as if a patent for a workable sewing machine would happen. Thomas Stone and James Henderson were granted a French patent for a machine that mimicked hand sewing. Scott John Duncan was also granted a patent for an embroidery machine with multiple needles. Both of these inventions failed and were soon forgotten.
However, things began looking up in 1830. A French tailer named Barthelemy Thimonnier developed a “real” sewing machine that worked. It used one thread and a hooked needle, and it only made a chain stitch used with embroidery. But all was not well in France with the introduction of the machine. Barthelemy was nearly killed when an enraged group of French tailors burned down his garment factory because they feared the machine would cost them their jobs. Needless to say Barthelemy tossed his machine in an effort to keep peace (and his head on his neck).
But Barthelemy’s machine worked. While it only produced a chain stitch, it worked well enough that tailors were in fear they’d lose their jobs. Word spread, even to America, about this invention and in 1834, Walter Hunt built America’s first almost-successful sewing machine. His machine sewed only straight seams, but taking a page from Barthelemy’s history, Hunt feared the machine would cause large numbers of tailors and seamstresses to lose their jobs (as well as his factory may end up in ashes). As a result, Hunt never even bothered to patent his invention.
Then a gentleman named Elias Howe entered the sewing machine arena. Unlike the other machines’ needles which had an eye at the top or in the middle of the shaft, Howe’s needle had its eye at the point. 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 we know as a lockstitch. It worked! However, Howe encountered problems defending his patent and marketing his invention. So for the next nine years Elias Howe struggled to garner interest in his machine and protect his patent. But instead of the lockstitch mechanism remaining Howe’s, Issac Singer used it when he invented the up-and-down motion mechanism (the one we’re used to today – the other machines sewed from the side of the machine), and Allen Wilson developed a rotary hook shuttle (similar to the bobbin mechanism on our sewing machines) to make the lockstitch.
If none of the names I’ve thrown out rings any bells, chances are the name Singer did. And for years Isaac Singer and Elias Howe engaged in an epic battle over the rights to the first workable and affordable sewing machine in America. However, while Howe was almost everything upright and honorable and integrity-filled in this battle, Singer wasn’t. In the words of my beloved paternal grandmother – He was a piece of work.
Isaac Merritt Singer was born October 27, 1811, the youngest of the eight children of Adam and Ruth Singer. His parents divorced in 1821 and Ruth abandoned the family. By the time Isaac was 12, he ran away from home to join a traveling performing stage act called the Rochester Players. Between acts, he worked as a joiner and lathe operator. In 1839 he patented a machine to drill rock and was awarded $2,000 for his efforts – that would be $65,740 today. Instead of sensibly banking his cash, Singer pocketed it and returned to acting. He married Mary Ann Sponsler (a fellow actor) and produced eight children with this woman. He continued to invent tools for building until about 1850-ish when he and several other inventors took note that there were numerous unsuccessful sewing machine models on the market and the female consumers were pretty eager for a successful one.
Between fathering a total of dozen children (another four with a mistress), continuing to dabble in acting, and patenting other inventions, Isaac Merrit Singer became nearly obsessed with re-inventing the sewing machine Howe worked so hard to produce. By this time Howe had locked down the patent and charged exorbitant licensing fees to anyone who built or sold something similar (while he was having a lot of trouble manufacturing and marketing a workable sewing machine, he didn’t want anyone encroaching on his patent).
However, like I said before, Singer was a piece of work. By 1846, he had taken Howe’s ideas and improved on them, adding a thread controller and combining a vertical needle with a horizontal surface. In 1851 he applied for a patent and formed the I.M. Singer and Co. It looked as if Singer now had both a usable sewing machine and the patent to keep it. However, there were a handful of other inventors who also had improved Howe’s machine and patented their improvements. This created a little problem called a “patent thicket.” This means numerous parties could lay claim to key parts of the invention.
The results of the patent thicket were largely predictable. A sewing machine war broke out. Inventors were suing each other right and left, burning up their resources and not further developing the sewing machine. To calm the storm (and finally get an affordable sewing machine on the market) a lawyer stepped in with a novel idea. Orlando Brunson Potter (who also was the president of rival manufacturer Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Company) purported the factions could merge their business interests. Since a powerful and profitable sewing machine required parts covered by several different patents, he proposed an agreement that would charge a single, reduced licensing fee which would then be divided proportionally among the patent holders. It took some heated arguments coupled with some cool logic, but in the end, Howe, Singer, Grover, and Baker as well as manufacturers Wheeler and Wilson all eventually agreed to the wisdom of the idea. Together they created the first “patent pool.” It merged nine patents into the Sewing Machine Combination, with each of the four stakeholders given a percentage of the earnings on every sewing machine, depending on what they contributed to the final design. Three of these designs were and are crucial to a high-quality sewing machine: Howe’s patent on the lock stitch, Wheeler and Wilson’s patent on the four-motion feed, and Singer’s patent on the combination of a vertical needle with a horizontal surface.
This patent merger immediately resulted in an uptick in sewing machine manufacturing. The concept of a workable machine could now freely move forward because the patent merger took the best concepts of each inventor and used those. The merger also caused the cost of the licensing fee to drop from $25 (roughly $1,000 in today’s money, and half the cost of an 1850 sewing machine) to $5. This made sewing machine manufacturing affordable and as a result, dozens of production houses sprang up. So this crowdsourced sewing machine could be sold cheaply to a wide audience. But it had nine patent holders tied to the merger. Have you ever wondered what caused Singer to come out on top and so far ahead of the others?
The answers will be posted next week.
Until then, remember the Details Make the Difference!
Love and Stitches,