history of sewing

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,