The History of Sewing
17,500 BC – First Sewing Needles With Eyes
Archaeologists and anthropologists have discovered sewing needles with eyes dating back to 17,500 BC, which were likely made of bone, and used to sew skins and furs.
202 BC-220 AD – Han Dynasty Uses Sewing Needles and Thimbles
Although some ancient sewing needles date back nearly 25,000 years ago, during the last ice age, Chinese archaeologists found something interesting that dates back to 202 BC. Sewing needles, along with the oldest thimbles in recorded history, were found in the tomb of a government official from the Han Dynasty. Even in ancient history, sewing was an important part of life– and more advanced than we might think.
1200 – Buttons Become Popular in Europe
Due to the Crusades, Europeans encountered many other cultures. As a result, Europeans began using buttons and button holes to fasten their clothing. Soon after, buttons became a driving force in the clothing industry in Europe.
1730 – Cotton Spun by Machinery
In 1730, cotton thread was spun by machinery in England. This introduced cotton thread to a much broader audience, and it spread “like wildfire” across the British Colonies and the world at large.
1730 – Needle Factory Founded in Aachen, Germany
Stephan Beissel founded an early needle factory in Aachen Germany, a town then famous for its needle-makers guild.
1755 – Charles Weisenthal takes out patent for mechanical sewing needle
Charles Weisenthal, a German immigrant living in London, took out a patent for a needle meant for mechanical sewing in 1755. No record of any machine to accompany the needle has ever been found, but this is recognized as one of the first events that would culminate in the sewing machine.
1776 – Betsy Ross sews first American flag
By all accounts, Betsy Ross was an expert tailor and seamstress. By 1776, she was a widow running her own upholstery business. She had done prior work for General George Washington, and she impressed a secret committee from the First Continental Congress with her ability to craft a five-pointed star with the right folds and one snip of the scissors. In late May or early June of 1776, she finished sewing the first American flag.
1790 – Thomas Saint patents early sewing machine
Though his machine was never built, a London cabinetmaker successfully patented a crude sewing machine in 1790. Thomas Saint also built plans for his machine, which were not discovered until the 1800s. It would not work without modification, but it was an important step on the road to the sewing machine.
“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.” – James Edward Allen Gibbs, inventor and sewing machine innovator.
1812 – Brass Buttons Mass Produced in America
In 1812, The Waterbury Button Company began mass producing brass buttons for American military uniforms. 1812 marked the start of a renewed war between England and the United States, and brass buttons became popular for American military uniforms, as well as popular for domestic and import use among civilians. Brass buttons were a strong commodity throughout the 1800s, and are still used in sewing to this day.
1812 – James and Patrick Clark Mass Produce Cotton Thread for Sewing
In 1812, England was being blockaded by Napoleon’s warships, which led to a silk shortage. As a nation used to luxury goods, they soon found themselves in quite a bind. Their luxury needs weren’t being met because of the embargo, and they lacked sewing thread almost entirely.
Enter James and Patrick Clark of Clark and Co, based out of Paisley, Scotland. The Clark family came up with a way to twist cotton threads together, producing an excellent thread for sewing. Their thread was the first such material mass produced for sewing, in fact. England, and the rest of the world, appreciated their efforts.
1830 – Barthelemy Thimonnier invents first practical sewing machine
In 1830, Barthelemy Thimonnier was awarded a patent by the French government for his sewing machine. Though he initially imagined an embroidery machine, he found its true purpose as a sewing machine. It was practical and efficient, used a barbed needle, and was built almost entirely out of wood. At some point, he had a factory running with 80 machines. He also sold his sewing machines for commercial use, and ran one of the first-ever garment factories, throughout his tumultuous life.
1831 – French Tailors Riot Over Barthelemy Thimonnier’s Sewing Machines
Though his patented sewing machine changed the world and he ran what was likely the world’s first sewing factory, Barthelemy Thimonnier had his fair share of detractors. Many French tailors were afraid Thimonnier’s invention and his factories spelled the doom of their livelihood.
On January 20, 1831, some 200 hungry and fearful French tailors set fire to Thimonnier’s factory and his mostly-wooden sewing machines. Reportedly, Thimonnier never fully recovered from the after-effects of the riot.
1834 – Walter Hunt Invents First Lockstitch Sewing Machine
In 1834 (or 1833, according to some accounts), prolific American inventor Walter Hunt created the first lockstitch sewing machine. Hunt’s sewing machine is said to be the first that didn’t mimic the movements of the human hand– instead, it was a curved, eye-pointed needle machine that passed the thread through fabric in an arc motion. On the other side of the fabric, a loop was made while a second thread, carried by a shuttle, ran on a track and passed back through the loop. The lockstitch was born.
Though his design was brilliant, Hunt did not patent his machine. He worried it would put seamstresses out of business and cause unemployment. That was a real concern in the sewing industry (see 1831 above), so his fears were not unfounded.
Hunt also invented the safety pin, a predecessor to the Winchester repeating rifle, road sweeping machinery, nail making machinery, and a safer household oil lamp, among other inventions.
1844 – Elias Howe invents modern sewing machine
Though many other brilliant inventors produced mechanical sewing equipment, most Americans claim that Elias Howe, from Massachusetts, invented the first modern sewing machine in 1844. Unfortunately, the machine didn’t catch on immediately, even though it amazed people in sewing competitions, where it out-sewed some of American’s finest tailors.
Howe left America for England to sell his design, which did not end well. When he returned to America, he found several entrepreneurs, including Isaac Singer (yes, that Singer), making money off of his patent. Though Howe eventually made his fortune, it was a hard-won battle.
1851 – First Singer sewing machine patented
On August 12th, 1851, Isaac Merritt Singer patented what’s known as the first modern and practical sewing machine. Though patent and legal disputes abounded around this time, Singer was eventually able to formalize an affordable payment plan for his machines, bringing them into many American households.
1874 – Husqvarna Begins Sewing Machine Production
Though they’re known for their excellent Viking sewing machines, Husqvarna was not always in the sewing business. Prior to 1872, Husqvarna produced high-quality rifles and other military armaments for the Swedish Crown. In 1872, orders for military hardware stopped coming in, so Husqvarna had to adapt.
In 1874, they turned their formidable steel forging and metal bending skills toward making many household items, including pots, pans, and bicycles. Soon enough, however, their sewing machines took the spotlight.
As it turns out, Viking has always been a warrior brand.
1880 – First electric sewing machine
1880 marked the first time in recorded history an electric motor was affixed to a sewing machine. These motors were added to retrofitted sewing machines, invented and implemented by Philip Diehl, a contractor who worked for Singer.
1889 – First practical electric sewing machines sold for mass market
In 1889, Singer introduced a sewing machine that could be purchased with an already built-in electric motor. This was the first electric sewing machine intended for home use.
1900 – Heinrich Stoll creates the flat bed purl knitting machine
In 1900, hosiery was in great demand. Germany’s Heinrich Stoll met that demand with his flat purl-knitting machine. Stoll’s machine was both efficient and powerful, resulting in more than enough knitwear to go around.
1910 – Circular bed purl knitting machine invented
By 1910, knitting machines had come a long way. Many were automatic and motorized. They still couldn’t produce the foot and length of a stocking in one single production step, but the invention of the circular bed purl knitting machine allowed the length (or tube) of a stocking to be completed in one step. The foot was then knit onto the length, which was standard practice until the 1970s.
1920’s – “Portable” electric sewing machine popularized
The first practical electric sewing machine was invented by Singer in 1889, but electric sewing machines didn’t become portable until the 1920s. Though they were technically portable, these machines were both heavy and expensive. Sewing machines became much more lightweight in the 1930s.
1932 – PFAFF 130, the Universal Tailoring Machine, Released
The PFAFF 130 was a high-performance zig-zag sewing machine, and it is still used widely by serious sewers who appreciate classically-built machines. It saw many industrial uses in its early days, and was used by many professional tailors and seamstresses.
The 130 came about in 1932, but didn’t reach American shores until much later. The Necchi is widely considered the first zig-zag machine that came to America for home use (see below), but the PFAFF 130 was equally important. Likely because of its German origins, It didn’t make it to American shores until after World War II.
Though it is very heavy by today’s standards, the 130 was a high-speed and high-performance portable machine, used widely by the Merchant Marines after WWII because it was very effective at mending sales. Because of its versatility and popularity, it was known as the universal tailoring machine.
Overall, the PFAFF 130 is one of the most important sewing machines in history. It set a high bar for Pfaff’s future products– a bar they reach or exceed to this very day.
1947 – The Necchi introduces zig-zag sewing for home use
Prior to the Necchi, zig-zag sewing machines only saw industrial use. Zig-zag sewing is used when straight stitches just won’t do. It’s used to reinforce buttonholes, stitch stretchable fabrics, and for transitional project work such as temporarily joining two pieces of fabric, edge-to-edge. Necchi brought zig-zag sewing into the home.
1949 – Heinrich Mauersberger invents the sewing-knitting technique and his “Malimo” machine.
The Malimo machine, which creates textile substrates through a stitch-bonding process at the speed of a sewing machine, was invented by Heinrich Mauersberger in 1949. Mauersberger got the idea from his wife, who repaired a piece of underwear by stitching both across, and up and down the damaged fabric.
The Malimo, in its various stages, bonded support fabrics to other fabrics, for the composite industry. Karl Mayer also produced notable Malimo machines. The Malimo was constantly upgraded and repurposed, and some versions of the Malimo machine are still used today.
1950’s – Portability and Variety
Although portability and other sewing machine innovations began in the late 1940s, with the Necchi, sewing machines really started becoming lighter and more versatile in the 1950s. The Elna, a Swiss zig-zag machine from 1950, was made from a lightweight alloy and only weighed 19 pounds– much lighter than its 40+ pound predecessors. It also had a free-arm, ran quiet, and was featured in a new color: green.
Elna made further waves in 1952. The Elna Supermatic was the first machine to use cams or discs that were interchangeable, allowing for a wide variety of stitches.
1978 – Singer Invents first computer-controlled sewing machine
Singer introduced the Touchtronic 2001, the world’s first computer-controlled machine, in 1978.
2013 – The Great British Sewing Bee airs
In 2013, BBC Two graced us with one of the best sewing-related TV shows ever created. The Great British Sewing Bee, judged by May Martin and Patrick Grant, both sewing industry experts. The show pits sewing enthusiasts of all ages against one another in a series of tough challenges. Contestants often use vintage sewing machines, such as the Singer 201. For people who love sewing, it is the show to watch.
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