The sew-sew history of sewing machines

by Ruth Griffiths

This winter I have enjoyed helping to produce practical quilts for men and women in Prince Albert shelters. So far this season we have delivered 76 quilts. Margaret Ferguson runs the program out of her well-equipped basement sewing room. Helpers are mainly from her church and Girl Guides. Over the past several years the volunteers have produced 298 quilts.

Good coffee and conversation fuel the fingers that piece together tops for the quilts. A commercial batting is sandwiched between the top and a plain backing (often a repurposed sheet). All three layers are tied together at four-inch intervals so the layers won’t shift around with use and laundering. Tying the quilts by hand takes some time, but is the most social part of the process.

At home, while I was sewing together squares of fabric for a quilt top, I wondered about the history of the domestic sewing machine. It seemed that the basic working mechanism has changed little in my lifetime.

According to Wikipedia, the English inventor Thomas Saint designed the first sewing machine in 1790. It used a single-thread chain stitch and was used for sewing leather into saddles and canvas into ship sails.

Chain stitch rips out easily. You might have ripped it out of the top of a potato sack. Today the lockstitch is more common. It uses two threads to produce an interlocking stitch and mechanisms to hold and move the fabric along as it is sewn together. Several types of lockstitch sewing machines appeared in North America around 1832. According to Wikipedia, Isaac Merritt Singer pulled together ideas from several machines to produce the first Singer sewing machine in 1851… and the sewing machine wars were off! It was a typical American business story. There were legal disputes over patents and mergers to starve the competition. Machines were sold on credit plans.

Clothing manufacturers were the first sewing machine customers and used them to produce the first ready-to-wear clothing and shoes. But by the 1860s, sewing machines became common in middle-class homes.

Before sewing machines became common, women spent much of their time maintaining their family’s clothing. Middle-class housewives, even with the aid of a hired seamstress, would devote several days of each month to this task. According to Wikipedia, it took an experienced seamstress at least 14 hours to make a dress shirt for a man; a woman’s dress took 10 hours; and a pair of summer pants took three hours. Most individuals would have only two sets of clothing: a work outfit and a Sunday outfit.

Sewing machines reduced the time for making a dress shirt to an hour and 15 minutes; the time to make a dress to an hour; and the time for a pair of summer pants to 38 minutes. Women were freed from the long hours spent stitching clothing by hand. Factory produced clothing further reduced the amount of time women spent sewing at home.

Very few people sew their own clothing today, either by hand or by machine. But when I help to produce quilts for the homeless, I can appreciate the long hours that inventors spent perfecting the sewing machine.