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Sewing machines in the 19th century

Part 1: a history

Why this article ?

It may seem odd to you that we are discussing the genesis of sewing machines as part of our historical reconstruction of 19th century workers' clothing.

However, we thought it would be interesting to show the history of these sewing machines in the domestic setting, including their value and worldwide expansion, to highlight the difference between industrially produced clothing (a phenomenon that began well into the 19th century) and clothing produced for home use.

The need to address such a "revolutionary" tool in our project is real: we are researching the fashion of that time, and fashion is inseparable from sewing, whether by hand or machine.

We will see in

- a first article, a small precision of the evolution of the sewing machine

- a second article, we will focus on the island of Reunion with the arrival of the sewing machine and the changes caused by this machine.

- In the third article, we will discuss the history of the sewing industry in Belgium, more specifically in Brussels which was considered the "capital of clothing" at that time.

And if you think this is going to be boring, I can assure you that you will be surprised!

What does a modern sewing machine look like?

To better understand the technical developments of the inventors of the machine, it would be good to make a small summary of what a sewing machine is, and how it works (but not too technical, I reassure you)

The general shape is not unknown to you

The details, however, may be less familiar to you.

Machine stitching

One thing to remember to understand the rest, is that our machines have a system with 2 wires:

- one that runs from the spool pins at the top of the machine

- one wound on a spool at the bottom of the machine (under the needle plate)

This animated gif shows very well how the two wires work

The needles

For handstitching

When sewing by hand, the needle passes through the fabric and brings the thread to the other side.

For machine sewing

Sewing machine needles have the needle eye close to the point. It is impossible to sew by hand with a sewing machine needle!

Fun fact, our logo represents a hand sewing needle: the eye of the needle (where the thread passes) is far from its point.
This was chosen because most of the clothes created at that time were still sewn by hand

From hand sewing to "mechanical" sewing

Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal

(1726-1789) German physicist and inventor, living in England


While some would say he invented the sewing machine, his only related patent is for a double-pointed needle with an eye, filed in 1755, which would have been used on a machine, of which we have no record.

This machine was supposed to pass the needle through the fabric as a person sewing by hand would do

Thomas Saint

(?-?) English cabinetmaker


This man filed a patent in 1790 for a machine, operated by a crank, which would work thick fabrics such as canvas and leather.

Unfortunately the machine did not exist until 1854 when William Newton Wilson made it with modifications, as the machine as described unfortunately did not work.

Barthélemy Thimonnier

(1793-1857) French inventor


The first functional sewing machine was made of wood, and used a single thread that reproduced the "chain stitch" (used in embroidery). This stitch was made with a single thread, and unfortunately lacked the strength to make clothes

This machine was really a revolution, so much so that after building a workshop with 80 machines for the first "mechanical" sewing company, tailors afraid of losing their jobs set fire to Barthélemy Thimmonier's workshop!

So the fear of being replaced by machines goes back that far?

Walter Hunt

(1796-1859)American inventor


No patent was taken out for this machine, although a further leap forward was made: this time the machine used 2 threads (which has been the standard for all sewing machines since).

Unfortunately, not having patented it and being afraid of taking the work of the seamstresses, he did not market his model. Until...

Isaac Merritt Singer

(1811-1875) American entrepreneur


In 1851, he patented an improved machine based on Howe's model. Howe sued Isaac Merritt Singer for patent theft, which he won, forcing Singer to share his profits with Howe.

If Elias Howe had difficulty marketing his product, it was Isaac Merritt singer who succeeded in bringing the brand into our daily lives, thanks to a well-oiled advertising campaign: exhibitions in shops targeting homes rather than professionals, the possibility of paying in several instalments or even renting the machines, low-cost sewing courses to learn how to use the machine, etc

    Some examples of Singer's advertising campaign

    The brand was gradually exported and became well known over the years, reinforcing Singer's reputation.

    And even if families didn't use the machine, it was still a beautiful decorative object, like the one seen in your grandparents' or other family members' homes when you were younger.

    Of course, a choice had to be made in the patents applied for, the brands cited, and the inventors presented. There are many others, but this is an interesting industrial evolution to arrive at the models known today.

    To be continued

    If these developments show us the time needed to develop a concept, we can see that the various patents taken out, the revolts of tailors and seamstresses, the legal proceedings to establish paternity, etc., took place during the period that interests us: 1848-1900.

    This means that these machines spread beyond the borders, and many brands were created (Pfaff, a German brand founded in 1862; Bernina, a Swiss brand founded in 1893; Brother, a Japanese brand founded in 1908; to name but a few that still exist).

    As you can imagine, all this leads to the question : when did sewing machines arrive in Reunion Island ?

    This is the subject of another article soon to be published on our blog, written by our researcher: Dominique VANDANJON. Stay tuned for more information!