The Sewing Machine and the Textile Revolution

Elias Howe invented the sewing machine in 1846

Boys Sewing At The Boys Home Industrial School, London, 1900

Heritage Images/Getty Images 

Before the invention of the sewing machine, most sewing was done by individuals in their homes. However, many people offered services as tailors or seamstresses in small shops where wages were very low.

Thomas Hood's ballad The Song of the Shirt, published in 1843, depicts the hardships of the English seamstress:

"With fingers weary and worn, With eyelids heavy and red, A woman sat in unwomanly rags, Plying her needle and thread."

Elias Howe

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, one inventor was struggling to put into metal an idea to lighten the toil of those who lived by the needle.

Elias Howe was born in Massachusett in 1819. His father was an unsuccessful farmer, who also had some small mills, but seems to have succeeded in nothing he undertook. Howe led the typical life of a New England country boy, going to school in winter and working about the farm until the age of sixteen, handling tools every day.

Hearing of the high wages and interesting work in Lowell, a growing town on the Merrimac River, he went there in 1835 and found employment; but two years later, he left Lowell and went to work in a machine shop in Cambridge.

Elias Howe then moved to Boston, and worked in the machine shop of Ari Davis, an eccentric maker and repairer of fine machinery. This is where Elias Howe, as a young mechanic, first heard of sewing machines and began to puzzle over the problem.

First Sewing Machines

Before Elias Howe's time, many inventors had attempted to make sewing machines and some had just fallen short of success. Thomas Saint, an Englishman, had patented one fifty years earlier. About this very time, a Frenchman named Thimonnier was working eighty sewing machines to make army uniforms, when the tailors of Paris, fearing that the bread was to be taken from them, broke into his workroom and destroyed the machines. Thimonnier tried again, but his machine never came into general use.

Several patents had been issued on sewing machines in the United States, but without any practical result. An inventor named Walter Hunt had discovered the principle of the lock-stitch and had built a machine, but he abandoned his invention just as success was in sight, believing it would cause unemployment. Elias Howe probaly knew nothing of any of these inventors. There is no evidence that he had ever seen the work of another.

Elias Howe Begins Inventing

The idea of a mechanical sewing machine obsessed Elias Howe. However, Howe was married and had children, and his wages were only nine dollars a week. Howe found support from an old schoolmate, George Fisher, who agreed to support Howe's family and furnish him with five hundred dollars for materials and tools. The attic in Fisher's house in Cambridge was converted into a workroom for Howe.

Howe's first efforts were failures, until the idea of the lock stitch came to him. Previously all sewing machines (except Walter Hunt's) had used the chain stitch, which wasted thread and easily unraveled. The two threads of the lock stitch cross, and the lines of stitches show the same on both sides.

The chain stitch is a crochet or knitting stitch, while the lock stitch is a weaving stitch. Elias Howe had been working at night and was on his way home, gloomy and despondent, when this idea dawned on his mind, probably rising out of his experience in the cotton mill. The shuttle would be driven back and forth as in a loom, as he had seen it thousands of times, and passed through a loop of thread which the curved needle would throw out on the other side of the cloth. The cloth would be fastened to the machine vertically by pins. A curved arm would ply the needle with the motion of a pick-axe. A handle attached to the fly-wheel would furnish the power.

Commercial Failure

Elias Howe made a machine which, crude as it was, sewed more rapidly than five of the swiftest needle workers. But his machine was too expensive, it could sew only a straight seam, and it easily got out of order. The needle workers were opposed, as they have generally been, to any sort of labor-saving machinery that might cost them their jobs, and there was no clothing manufacturer willing to buy even one machine at the price Howe asked—three hundred dollars.

Elias Howe's 1846 Patent

Elias Howe's second sewing machine design was an improvement on his first. It was more compact and ran more smoothly. George Fisher took Elias Howe and his prototype to the patent office in Washington, paying all the expenses, and a patent was issued to the inventor in September 1846.

The second machine also failed to find buyers. George Fisher had invested about two thousand dollars, and he could not, or would not, invest more. Elias Howe returned temporarily to his father's farm to wait for better times.

Meanwhile, Elias Howe sent one of his brothers to London with a sewing machine to see if any sales could be found there, and in due time an encouraging report came to the destitute inventor. A corsetmaker named Thomas had paid two hundred and fifty pounds for the English rights and had promised to pay a royalty of three pounds on each machine sold. Moreover, Thomas invited the inventor to London to construct a machine especially for making corsets. Elias Howe went to London and later sent for his family. But after working eight months on small wages, he was as badly off as ever, for, though he had produced the desired machine, he quarrelled with Thomas, and their relations came to an end.

An acquaintance, Charles Inglis, advanced Elias Howe a little money while he worked on another model. This enabled Elias Howe to send his family home to America, and then, by selling his last model and pawning his patent rights, he raised enough money to take passage himself in the steerage in 1848, accompanied by Inglis, who came to try his fortune in the United States.

Elias Howe landed in New York with a few cents in his pocket and immediately found work. But his wife was dying from the hardships she had suffered due to stark poverty. At her funeral, Elias Howe wore borrowed clothes, for his only suit was the one he wore in the shop.

After his wife died, Elias Howe's invention came into its own. Other sewing machines were being made and sold and those machines were using the principles covered by Elias Howe's patent. Businessman George Bliss a man of means, had bought out George Fisher's interest and proceeded to prosecute the patent infringers.

Meanwhile Elias Howe went on making machines. He produced 14 in New York during the 1850s and never lost an opportunity to show the merits of the invention, which was being advertised and brought to notice by the activities of some of the infringers, particularly by Isaac Singer, the best businessman of them all.

Isaac Singer had joined forces with Walter Hunt. Hunt had tried to patent the machine which he had abandoned nearly twenty years before.

The suits dragged on until 1854, when the case was decisively settled in Elias Howe's favor. His patent was declared basic, and all the makers of sewing machines must pay him a royalty of 25 dollars on every machine. So Elias Howe woke one morning to find himself enjoying a large income, which in time rose as high as four thousand dollars a week, and he died in 1867 a rich man.

Improvements to the Sewing Machine

Though the basic nature of Elias Howe's patent was recognized, his sewing machine was only a rough beginning. Improvements followed, one after another, until the sewing machine bore little resemblance to Elias Howe's original.

John Bachelder introduced the horizontal table upon which to lay the work. Through an opening in the table, tiny spikes in an endless belt projected and pushed the work forward continuously.

Allan B. Wilson devised a rotary hook carrying a bobbin to do the work of the shuttle. He also invented the small serrated bar which pops up through the table near the needle, moves forward a tiny space (carrying the cloth with it), drops down just below the upper surface of the table, and returns to its starting point—repeating over and over again this series of motions. This simple device brought its owner a fortune.

Isaac Singer, destined to be the dominant figure of the industry, patented in 1851 a machine stronger than any of the others and with several valuable features, notably the vertical presser foot held down by a spring. Singer was the first to adopt the treadle, leaving both hands of the operator free to manage the work. His machine was good, but, rather than its surpassing merits, it was his wonderful business ability that made the name of Singer a household word.

Competion Among Sewing Machine Manufacturers

By 1856 there were several manufacturers in the field threatening war on each other. All men were paying tribute to Elias Howe, for his patent was basic, and all could join in fighting him. But there were several other devices almost equally fundamental, and even if Howe's patents had been declared void, it is probable that his competitors would have fought quite as fiercely among themselves. At the suggestion of George Gifford, a New York attorney, the leading inventors and manufacturers agreed to pool their inventions and to establish a fixed license fee for the use of each.

This "combination" was composed of Elias Howe, Wheeler and Wilson, Grover and Baker, and Isaac Singer, and dominated the field until after 1877, when the majority of the basic patents expired. The members manufactured sewing machines and sold them in America and Europe.

Isaac Singer introduced the installment plan of sale, to bring the machine within reach of the poor. The sewing machine agent, with a machine or two on his wagon, drove through every small town and country district, demonstrating and selling. Meanwhile, the price of the machines steadily fell, until it seemed that Isaac Singer's slogan, "A machine in every home!" was in a fair way to be realized, had not another development of the sewing machine intervened.

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Bellis, Mary. "The Sewing Machine and the Textile Revolution." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). The Sewing Machine and the Textile Revolution. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Sewing Machine and the Textile Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).