Antique sewing machine

I’ve said it many times, but I’ll say it again – sewing is a passion. We love sewing for many different reasons. But, how much do you know about sewing history? Do you know when was the sewing machine invented? And who invented it? Answers to these questions won’t improve your sewing skills, but it’s nice to know that some people shared our passion a long, long time ago.

Actually, the earliest history of sewing machines included intrigues, rivalries, lawsuits, and scandals. While it doesn’t sound like something to be proud of, it shows the significance of the sewing machine from the very start. It was so important that people argued, and plotted against each other. There were even some riots, factories burned down, all because of the sewing machine! Fortunately, there were no casualties except for some hurt feelings and pride. This was happening in the 19th century, but it all started way earlier. 

Humans were sewing for thousands of years before the invention of the sewing machine. It is one of the oldest if not the oldest craft. Ancient humans used animal sinews and bones to create needles and threads to sew clothes out of animal fur more than 20,000 years ago. We kept sewing by hand for thousands of years, but the craft improved immensely. During the Industrial Revolution, we tried to invent and construct all kinds of machines to make life easier. It was only natural to try to create a machine that will revolutionize the old, useful, and beloved art of sewing.

very old sewing machine illustration

Who Invented The Sewing Machine Conundrum

A simple question – who invented it – is not so simple actually. Historians have different opinions because several pioneers constructed or designed, and patented early models of sewing machines. However, some of them have never seen the light of day, others didn’t work, and each story has some missing link to prevent us from making an undeniable conclusion. So, we don’t know for sure who invented it first. However, there is no lack of candidates. This is how the story goes.

Charles Wiesenthal

Charles Wiesenthal was a German inventor. He was awarded the patent for the first device, or part of the device for sewing in 1755. It was a double-pointed needle with an eye, and it was clearly designed for a machine. However, we have no idea if there was an actual machine to use this needle. So, he might have designed the machine, but we have no evidence and he can’t be credited for the invention of the sewing machine.

Thomas Saint

A skilled cabinet maker Thomas Saint designed elaborate sewing machine for leather and canvas in 1790. It had some brilliant solutions, but it might have come a little bit too early. He failed to sell the idea to the people, so he gave up and turned to other endeavors. Actually, we don’t even have evidence of the prototype. In 1874 William Newton Wilson slightly modified Saint’s drawings to construct a working model of the machine.

19th Century Development

At the beginning of the 19th century, the race was on. In 1804 Thomas Stone and James Henderson built the sewing machine while a Scottish inventor John Duncan designed and built an embroidery machine. German Balthasar Krems constructed an automatic sewing machine in 1810, but it didn’t work well so he didn’t patent it. In 1814 an Austrian tailor, Josef Madersperger constructed his own sewing machine. John Adams Dodge and John Knowles constructed the first American sewing machine in 1818.

However, none of these prototypes lived on. Some of them didn’t function well, others would break too soon. So, none of these inventors could pride themselves with the successful sewing machine. Maybe they needed better marketing or some improvements, but all we know is that these projects ultimately didn’t succeed.

Barthelemy Thimonnier

Barthelemy Thimonnier built the first useful, fully functional sewing machine in 1829, in France. He was a designer, but he made a partnership with an engineer Auguste Ferrand and several investors to start a manufacturing company. It stirred outrage among tailors and seamstresses, fearing that they would lose their jobs. The project was supported by the French government, but it ended in smoke: angry workers burned the factory down. Thimonnier continued to work on improvements and his later models won some awards. No one dared to invest in sewing machines though, so Thimonnier ultimately died in poverty.

Hunt, Howe, and Singer – Fathers of Modern Sewing Machine

France wasn’t the best place to start sewing machine business, but it was a whole different story in the United States. Walter Hunt constructed the first lockstitch sewing machine in the US, in 1832. He sold several machines but eventually stopped producing them. He has never patented it. Why? He thought it could lead to unemployment! By the way, he was a very prolific inventor, and his inventions include wide array from a safety pin to the ice plough.

While Hunt invented a lockstitch design, Elias Howe improved designs of his predecessors and patented lockstitch sewing machine in 1846. It was the first modern sewing machine. However, he couldn’t attract investors so he traveled to England to try there as well. But, he wasn’t the one to widespread the glory of sewing machines.

While Howe struggled to find investors, Isaac Merrit Singer, an actor, businessman, and inventor, adventurous father of at least 20 children, entered the scene. He came across the sewing machine by chance and he thought he could improve it. And so he did. He patented his sewing machine and started manufacturing. Howe accused Singer of infringement. Singer defended himself claiming that it was Walter Hunt’s invention and not Howe’s. However, Howe won the lawsuit and Singer had to pay royalties for all produced and future sewing machines to Howe. 

Everybody Against Everybody

Singer’s success spurred development and many inventors and businessmen saw an opportunity. Most notably, Allen B. Wilson and Nathaniel Wheeler invented the sewing machine with a rotary hook. Soon enough patents were popping up all over the United States. And suddenly, all hell broke loose. Companies started suing each other and it became almost hilarious. One company would sue another of infringement, only to be accused by the third company that claimed to be the rightful owner of the patent. 

It took a good lawyer to come up with an idea to merge their patents. In 1856, Howe, Singer, Wilson, Wheeler, Grover, and Baker finally made a deal and created the first patent pool. It ended a ‘Sewing Machine War’ and made them all rich. Elias Howe received the greatest royalties, but I don’t have to tell you which one of them was the most successful. How many guys from this list have you heard of? All of them can be found in history books, but only one name is famous today. It is no one else but a mischievous, and eccentric entrepreneur, Isaak Singer.

Final Thoughts on Sewing Machines

All these inventors combined their patents to produce the high-quality sewing machine. They have found some perfect solutions and set the basic principles which are still used in models of today. Of course, sewing machines were improving, and are improving. But, the basic principles are the same ones set by Howe, Singer, Wilson, and others. The secret of Singer’s greatest success is in the best marketing and strategy, but that’s a whole different story.

The early history of sewing machines was turbulent and stormy. However, all the feuds, disagreements, and differences are left in the past. On the other hand, the creations of these brilliant minds live on and make millions of people happy and occupied. As for the questions from the start, who invented it and when, obviously it is a ball of yarn that is hard to unravel. You can pick your favorite, but you can’t be sure. Maybe there’s more justice in sharing credits rather than ascribing it all to one person.