Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sewing Machines Through the Ages

Airports can also have interesting exhibits. This one in San Francisco International Airport terminal 3 was excellent. Upon our arrival in SF, I didn't take time to enjoy this, but upon our return, with plenty of time to spare for our flight, it was a slow walk down the aisle. Pardon the glare on the glass--so much light coming through the side windows.

The Florence Machine company, founded by Leander Langdon, filed the first patent in 1855 and the first machine was produced in 1860 in Florence, Massachusetts.  Their production continued for 20 years.

Isaac M. Singer's life is rags to riches story. He was son of German immigrant growing up in NYC poverty. His parents divorced when he was 12, so he left home. He tried different jobs in his young life before settling on inventions and entrepreneurship. First he invited a machine for drilling into rocks. Later he designed his own version of the sewing machine with a presser foot to easily feed fabric. His machine enabled continuous and curved stitching with an overhanging arm that held the needle bar over a horizontal table. It sewed approximately 900 stitches per minute vs. seamstress that sewed at 40 per minute. 


During the 1850's having laborsaving devices in the home was a new concept. Many were skeptical--could women actually operate such machinery? Singer set up installment plans but machines were expensive--some cost $125 in mid 1850's. The price decreased to around $50 for simplest models by 1860 but the cost still represented a significant portion of the annual family income of less than $500.

When inventors were first grappling with inventing a sewing machine in early 1800's, they made many unsuccessful attempts to design a machine that imitated hand sewing, where the needle requires a short length of thread that is forced in and out of the fabric in order to form a stitch. A machine could not do this, so the challenge was to create a new way for a continuous supply of thread to form stitches in fabric. Sewing machine inventor Elias Howe (1819-67) tried to devise a machine that mimicked hand sewing before he eventually fabricated a machine with an eye-pointed needle. He had a hard time convincing seamstress that they should use this laborsaving device. Even though the machine sewed faster than any seamstress, no one placed an order! Soon, though, all this changed.

Since 1890's, many large retailers and mail order houses began to sell their own brand of sewing machines.  They entered into contracts with established sewing machine manufactures who would supply standard models with their name rather than the manufacturer's named.  Sewing machines with the names of various newspapers on them were even offered as premiums with subscriptions during the 1900's.  The "Minnesota A" was a top of the line machine manufactured by Davis and sold as Sears, Roebuck & Co model in its mail order catalog.  next to Singer, Sears, Roebuck & Co. founded in 1893 was one of the most important suppliers of sewing machines in North America from1890-1950.  Did you have a Sears, Roebuck machine in your household?


In the early 1850's, the majority of machines were too heavy and cumbersome.  James Gibbs designed a relatively inexpensive, lightweight machine and together with James Willcox, the founded the Willcox and Gibbs Sewing Machine Company in 1857.  Their machines made a single thread chain stitch with the aid of a rotating hook.  Their chain stitch machine used one thread, without the aid of a bobbin; while most machines used two spools--a bobbin thread from below and a spool of thread from above to produce a lockstitch.  Problem?  Yes, chain stitches unravel if broken at any point and the number of stitches can't be altered from one stitch to the next.  Items such as feed sacks, which were taken apart and used as fabric for clothing or towels were ideal items to be sewn with this machine.  These machines were popular because they sold for less than Singer. 

Men's and boy's ready to wear garments were available by 1850's but female ready to wear clothing was not available in quantity until late 19th century and became more common in the first two decades of the 1900's.  Even after ready made clothes became increasingly available, many homemakers still preferred to save money by sewing at least some of their clothing at home.  To promote business, home sewing machine manufacturers encouraged women to save money by sewing their own garments. 

Around 1875, machines became streamlined and electrically powdered machines were introduced by Singer in 1889. 


Beginning in 1830's many pattern drafting systems aided professional dressmakers.  One such device, the McDowell Garment Drafting Machine, eliminated the need for dress forms and multiple fitting sessions.  Patented in 1879, the company revised the tool in response to changing fashions and in an effort to improve the mechanism.

Thomas Edison was among the first to advocate the use of electricity to power machinery for the home in order to reduce the time required of servants and housewives to complete their everyday chores.  Edison Electric advertised its 1917 electric sewing machine as having a "little motor that makes sewing easy".

And then came the toy machines to encourage little girls to learn to sew.  These machines were salesmen samples.

Of course, one must have an iron if sewing!  Blacksmiths started forging simple flat irons in the late Middle Ages (1300-1500).  Flat irons were also called sad (antiquated word meaning solid) irons or smoothing irons.  Hot metal handles were gripped with a thick rag, pad or well insulated glove.  Some irons had wooden handles.  In 1870 a model with a detachable wooden handle was patented.  Most homes did not have electricity so these type of irons were used--a hot, hard job.  There were many difficulties using this type of iron--it had to be kept clean, sanded and polished.  One had to learn how to keep a constant adequate temperature.  It couldn't be too hot or the fabric would be scorched.  In addition to sad irons, charcoal irons, in which glowing coals were placed inside the iron, continue to used in parts of Asia and Africa.  Electric irons became available in early 1900's.

Sewing needles made from bone, carved from wood, ivory, shell and metal have long been used by many cultures.  Before the Industrial Revolution and mass production, pins were not headed as there was no inexpensive method for heading pins.  These storage cases for pins and needles were known as pin-poppets.  Fashioned from ivory and other materials hung from women's belts as early as the 1600's.

These pin-poppets are carved from ivory.  Once pins and needles became mass produced in the 1800's, manufacturers created various designs to market their products.  By the 1840's pins and needles were sold in decorative cases.  During the late 1800's, needle books and embroidered fabric became popular.

Portable sewing cases, packed with essential sewing implements are still important for a seamstress even today.  This exhibition was made possible through a generous loan from the Museum of American Heritage, Palo Alto, CA, Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, Berkeley, CA, and the Lace Museum, Sunnyvale, CA. 

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