guest post: secret life of sewing machines

by contributor on November 15, 2010

in Historic Craft

Today I would like to welcome Erin Gilday from Patchwork Underground – Erin is passionate about sewing and today is going to share a little sewing history with us.

The Secret Life of Sewing Machines: Top 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Sewing Machine

If you’re like me, you spend lots of time with your sewing machine. You went out, picked it out among millions, brought it home, named it, and loved it. You talk to it (sometimes, maybe…OK, a lot…) and you pamper it like one of your own. Your machine is with you through thick denim and thin calico. You think you know your machine so well, but you don’t know the half of it! Your dear friend, the sewing machine has a long, strange and sordid past.

Riots. Did you know that the first serviceable sewing machine ever made was burned in a hand sewer’s riot? Forget stitch ‘n bitch – this was old school stitch and destroy! In 1830, a french tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier invented the first functional sewing machine. His invention was met with rage by French tailors, who feared that the machine would put them out of a job. The group organized themselves in protest and burned his garment factory to the ground. Another early sewing machine inventor, Walter Hunt, chose not to patent his creation because he, too, foresaw that it would obviate the tailor trade.

Rock ’n Roll. Foot powered sewing machines (a.k.a. treadles) were revolutionary because they freed up both hands for sewing. But when treadles were first invented, sales suffered in Britain because all that rocking action going on down below was deemed “unladylike.” In fact, a French woman, Caroline Garcin, and a clock-maker, M. Adam, patented the single-pedal treadle machine in 1872 specifically designed to counteract the sexual arousal women were thought to experience while using the dual pedal machines.

Steampunk. Before settling on electric motors, sewing machine engineers attempted to power their stitches with steam, clockwork and waterwheels. You thought it was a pain to deal with plugging in that power cord? Try firing up ye ol’ waterwheel.

Circus Freaks. Isaac Singer, maker of the Singer sewing machine, also owned an acting company. Singer was fond of advertising his sewing machines at his famous circus sewing shows. Singer insisted on hiring female demonstrators for his circus sewing shows to combat the prevailing notion that women were, on a whole, too “flighty” to deal with such complicated machinery as a sewing machine. It worked! Soon, sewing machines, initially thought of as masculine tools, became synonymous with women’s work.

Mrs. Needles. The first zigzag stitch machine was invented by a pioneering female engineer, Helen Augusta Blanchard. This handy lady – sometimes called “Lady Edison” – was born in 1840 to a wealthy family from Maine. But when her family lost their fortune, she started patenting her inventions (all 28 of them!) to support her kin. Though her sewing machine related patents accounted for 23 of her 28 inventions, Helen also patented surgical needles and a number of other non-sewing related pointy-stick related goods. You can find Helen’s 1873 zigzagger on display at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

References: Ptak science books, The Mechanical Chameleon, Photosearch.

Additional references: Image of Barthelemy Thimonnier,

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Laura November 16, 2010 at 11:39 am

Informative and fun! I live in Lyon, near where Thimonnier was from and in the park across the street, there’s a small monument to him, the inventor of the sewing machine. Before seeing this, I thought the first sewing machine was invented by an American. I don’t know if I like the thought of sewing machines being synonomous with women’s work, since I know men who sew, but I sure love my machines. My first machine was given to me by my dad when I was 13, and it changed my life!

2 Lori November 16, 2010 at 11:53 am

Thank you! This was a fun read.

3 Erin Gilday November 16, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Thanks! Glad you liked it!

4 Aileen November 16, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Brilliant bit of obscure history! Thanks

5 Erin Gilday November 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm

My responses are slightly out of order but here goes….

Hi Lara! How cool that you live near where Thimonnier was from. Good point about women’s work. I agree that sewing machines should not be synonymous with women’s work…I mean…what makes a sewing machine female?? Totally nonsensical! I just mean that they are popularly associated with women in our culture and that that association was created through careful marketing. In no way do I mean to discourage anyone – man, woman, whathaveyou – from sewing!!

Hi Aileen! Glad you enjoyed it!

6 Seanna Lea November 17, 2010 at 9:40 pm

I am not aroused by my single treadle sewing machine. I wonder if I can find a double treadle to fill my days with happiness!

7 Erin Gilday November 18, 2010 at 1:47 pm

Seanna, I found something you might find interesting!

I copy and pasted this from an awesome article on the social history of sewing machines called “The Mechanical Chameleon” – http://francesca.net/SewingMachine.html . Here goes:

In Thésée Pouillet’s treatise on masturbation, De l’onanisme chez la femme, the “doctor” pays a visit to his seamstress “patients” and makes a few predictable discoveries:

During a visit which I once paid to a manufactory of military clothing, I witnessed the following scene. In the midst of the uniform sound produced by some thirty sewing machines, I suddenly heard one of the machines working with much more velocity than the others. I looked at the person who was working it, a brunette of 18 or 20. While she was automatically occupied with the trousers she was making on the machine, her face became animated, her mouth opened slightly, her nostrils dilated, her feet moved the pedals with constantly increasing rapidity. Soon I saw a convulsive look in her eyes, her eyelids were lowered, her faced [sic] turned pale and was thrown backward; hands and legs stopped and became extended; a suffocated cry, followed by a long sigh, was lost in the noise of the workroom. The girl remained motionless a few seconds, drew out her handkerchief to wipe away the pearls of sweat from her forehead, and, after casting a timid and ashamed glance at her companions, resumed her work.

As I was leaving, I heard another machine at another part of the room in accelerated movement. The forewoman smiled at me, and remarked that that was so frequent that it attracted no notice. (Coffin 110-111)

Back to me now: Ew! Can this even be true?? I think the “doctor” was seeing what he wanted to see…I love sewing as much as the next person but c’mon! I just can’t see this happening.

8 Audra Marie June 8, 2011 at 10:56 am

What a fun history! :)

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