Hand sewing has been around for over 20,000 years, probably since Adam and Eve’s day when they had to make clothes out of leaves and things. The first needles were made of bone or animal horn and the first thread was animal sinew.
(By the way, the first needles with eyes didn’t appear until the 15th century.)
Lots of men tried unsuccessfully to design a sewing machine. The first functional one was made in 1830 by a French tailor, Barthelemy Timonnier. It used only one thread and a hooked needle that made a chain stitch such as that used in embroidery. But he was attacked by a group of seriously upset tailors and almost killed. They burned down his garment factory because they feared the sewing machine would put them out of business.
The first successful American to design and put the sewing machine to the test was Walter Hunt in 1834. Unfortunately, he lost interest and abandoned his patent, again out of fears of unemployment.
Next came American Elias Howe in 1846. His machine used thread from two different sources to create a lockstitch. After he patented it, he spent the next 9 years looking for investors and fighting off imitators who looked to steal his idea.
Even though Singer’s machine was decidedly different from Howe’s, Howe sued him for patent infringement and won. For the next 13 years Singer had to pay Elias Howe considerable patent royalties. Howe’s income jumped from a mere $300 a year to $200,000. He became a wealthy man. But so did Singer in spite of everything. Interest in the Singer Sewing Machine exploded. (On the right is a photo of Isaac Singer.)
Finally in 1889, sewing machines made it into homes. They were no longer just used in factories.
In the late 19th century on the American frontier, home sewing enjoyed renewed popularity. Numerous women’s diaries listed sewing for the family as the most common domestic activity for women. Those women fortunate enough to have machines to assist them, often worked as community dressmakers to bring in extra income. They would work for about one dollar a day, which was excellent back then.
“It is wonderful what progress civilization makes! My head is filled with those pretty sewing machines that are being bought by so many families and are so delightful to have! Some people have been able to get these little fairies for between $10 and $60. The stitches they make are so strong, so pretty and so easy to make.”
My mother taught me to sew on a Singer treadle machine exactly like the one on the left in the 1950’s. I still remember how fun it was. But one day the needle went through my finger and broke off. My mom had to get some pliers to pull it out. Man, that hurt! After that I learned to keep my fingers out of the way.