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This Month in Sewing History

Antique Sewing MachineYou know we’re passionate about sewing, Boise. Being passionate about sewing also means we’re total sewing history nerds, too. Did you know we have a whole page devoted to the history of sewing? It’s true! You can check it out here.

The history of sewing is interesting, because you can’t just give one answer when someone asks you, “Who invented the sewing machine?”

Several inventors and tailors put tons of old-timey blood, sweat, and tears into their own visions for sewing machines before Isaac Singer’s company popularized them for home use. There was patent theft, business partners betraying each other, and innovative tradesmen that had their shops burned down by angry tailors who wanted to keep sewing the old fashioned way.

Any part of it would make an excellent TV miniseries. Does anyone have a contact at the History Channel?

As it turns out, August is a big month for sewing history, even if we just focus on two people.

James Edward Allen Gibbs

James Edward Allen Gibbs, of Willcox and Gibbs, invented a sewing machine. It wasn’t the sewing machine, but it was innovative– his take on the chain stitch, brought precision and refinement to both households and commercial sewing. Although Willcox and Gibbs no longer sales sewing machines, it’s still in operation to this day.

Gibbs was born on August 1st, 1829.

James Edward Allen Gibbs made a huge contribution to the sewing world, but he’s woefully unknown compared to Isaac Singer and Elias Howe. Before he invented his sewing machine, he worked surveying land, as a carpenter, and as a millwright.

As a young man, he injured his knee with an axe while trying to cut down a small pine tree. We can all thank that pine tree because, without it, Gibbs probably would have remained a surveyor for the rest of his life.

Essentially, Gibbs saw a woodcut rendering of a Grover & Baker sewing machine in a newspaper and decided he could make one himself. The woodcut never even showed the underside of the sewing machine, but he designed one anyway. He basically built it to satiate his own curiosity, and once he succeeded, he brushed it aside for “more important” matters (yeah, right).

Gibbs once saw a Singer sewing machine in person, and decided it was overpriced, cumbersome, and kind of crappy. He again took matters into his own hands, teamed up with James Willcox, and marketed the heck out of his own sewing machine.

Scientific American had this to say about Gibbs’ machine:

“… one cannot but admire the beauty and accuracy of (the machine’s) movements, and the entire absence of all noise, even when it is running at the rate of two-thousand stitches and upwards per minute.”

They also praised its elegance and the ease of replacing its interchangeable parts. They even mentioned it made a great addition to one’s “parlour.”

His life wasn’t all state-of-the-art sewing machines, though. There were sicknesses and Civil Wars. Gibbs even had his patent revoked after the war, because he was a “traitor to the Union” (he worked on producing saltpeter in his home state of Virginia during the war). Luckily, 18 businesses endorsed his sewing machine and his patent was soon restored.

If we tried to fit all of the drama, intrigue, and bravery of Gibbs’ life here, it would turn into a book instead of a blog post.

He knew sewing machines, and even though he was a brilliant inventor, he was never egocentric.

We’ll leave you with this brilliant quote:

“No useful machine ever was invented by one man; and all first attempts to do work by machinery, previously done by hand, have been failures. It is only after several able inventors have failed in attempt, that someone with the mental power to combine the efforts of others with his own, at last produces a machine that is practicable. Sewing machines are no exception to this.”

Isaac Merritt Singer

As Gibbs said, one man did not invent the sewing machine alone. Isaac Merritt Singer, however, patented the first practical sewing machine on August 12th, 1851.

Singer was an outgoing and boisterous man. From PBS:

“To attract attention to his sewing machine, Singer would croon “The Song of the Shirt” at county fairs and circuses, while a pretty woman demonstrated the ease of his new machine.”

He was once asked to repair a tradesman’s sewing machine. Instead, he dissected and improved it. Soon enough, he filed a patent, and started selling his own sewing machines. At first they were bulky and expensive, but not long after that, he created a slimmed down model priced at $10.

In those times, housewives were expected to sew many things. Singer’s machine was a godsend for them.

The innovation from that machine came from its needle-holding arm.

Again, from PBS:

“Importantly, the new design caused less thread breakage with the innovation of an arm-like apparatus that extended over the worktable, holding the needle at its end. It was the first practical replacement for hand-sewing, and it could sew 900 stitches per minute, a dramatic improvement over an accomplished seamstress’s rate of 40 stitches a minute on simple work.”

Singer’s partner, Edward Clark, also innovated an installment payment plan that landed these sewing machines in many American homes. At the time of his death, Singer was a wealthy man, and his company had a near-monopoly in the sewing machine trade.

Obviously, the world of sewing machines would have been way different without Isaac Merritt Singer. His passion, gusto, and go-getter attitude put practical sewing machines in American homes, and his company’s products are still sought after today.

August is a landmark month for sewing innovation. We salute Gibbs and Singer, who designed and innovated the machines that gave birth to our modern appliances. The history of sewing is full of drama and intrigue, and the lives of sewing pioneers are a goldmine for captivating stories. We know you love Sewing, too, Boise, so we hope to explore many more of these stories in the coming months.

For the love of Embroidery!

Jones Sew & Vac Team

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