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article number 275
article date 10-03-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
No More Pricked Fingers … We Invent the Sewing Machine
by John Walker Harrington

From the 1924 book, A Popular History of American Invention. Original chapter title, “Making Clothes by Machine.”

“BODY of me! I have driven the needle under my nail! Let these be noble stitches! They have a grandeur and majesty about them that do cause these small and stingy ones of the tailor man to seem mighty paltry and plebeian !”

That bluff and hearty soldier of fortune, Miles Hendon, utters the words in Mark Twain’s ‘Prince and Pauper,’ a story of England in the sixteenth century, while fuming over his task of trying to make a second-hand suit of clothes fit the little son of the British king. He had saved the boys from a band of ruffians who, not knowing that the lad had changed clothes with a young beggar, were treating him like the crazy ragamuffin he seemed to be.

If there had been any sewing-machines in those days, Hendon might have picked up in the shops, a cheap brand-new suit which would have fitted the Prince well, and have spared himself a good deal of trouble and not a few needle-pricks.

So great a part does the sewing-machine play in our everyday life, that it is difficult to imagine how the world ever got along without it. Probably soldiers and sailors, with their need for ready-to-wear uniforms, deserve the credit for bringing into existence the cutting and sewing of clothes by machinery.

The wants of war had to be appeased first, and this spurred inventors both in this country and abroad to design contrivances that could put clothes together far more quickly than the nimblest of fingers. Then the sewing-machine became the tireless servant in the home and in a thousand ways added to the comfort of every one. Millions of its tiny stitches are in our clothes, our shoes, and our hats.

Before the coming of the sewing-machine, men, women, and girls—and sometimes boys—bent their backs and strained their eyes sewing by hand. There is an old saying that it takes nine tailors to make a man, which was first uttered, no doubt, by some one who noticed that sewing in the old way made men round-shouldered and bow-legged.


The tailors whom Miles Hendon derided sat cross-legged on a bench all day long: even when some kindly inventor built a legless chair for them, they were no better off.

Saving the human race from drudgery is too often a thankless task; almost every device which has lessened labor has been opposed by the very men and women it ultimately helped.

Most men are so inclined to let well enough alone, so content with what is, that the inventor has had to fight his way through poverty and heart-breaking toil and in hundreds of cases has gone to his death without even a glimpse of the success that should have been his.

Even when he succeeds in converting the public belief toward his invention it then seems so simple of understanding that the world is likely to say: “Why, anybody could have done that. It’s as easy as falling off a log !”

It is indeed strange that men did not try to build machines that would take the place of fingers in the making of clothes long before they did. Perhaps the bad luck and misfortune of so many former inventors had something to do with it. In fact, the unfortunate experiences of so many men who had tried to bring the sewing-machine into use, is a conclusive proof that the inventor who eventually won the day was a plucky man.

Who first thought of putting wheels and bobbins and gears to the tasks of plain and fancy sewing? It is likely that the first attempt to make a machine that would knit suggested one that would sew.

The Reverend William Lee, who lived in England about the time that Miles Hendon is thought to have lived there, studied the motions of his wife’s knitting-needle, and he invented a machine late in the sixteenth century which took the place of the shining needles and the nimble fingers.

When Queen Elizabeth heard that the minister had applied for a patent, she refused even to consider his plea. She said that if she granted it many thousands of her liege subjects who made stockings and hose would be forced out of work; so she would have none of it.

Gloriana, as Kipling calls her, could not be crossed when she made up her mind; persons who did that lost their heads. Parson Lee got the promise of some aid from the King of France, but on the death of that monarch he found himself with little hope and no means.

Knitter Asleep, painting by Jean Baptiste Greuze.

In spite of all this, Lee did manage to start a small factory, but he had to abandon it, owing to the objections of the working classes, and he died bankrupt and broken-hearted. For many years to come, stockings and hose continued to be cut out of cloth and sewed up by hand.

Inventors had to build their machines secretly and wait year after year for the permission to introduce them.

So far as is known, the first sewing-machine patented in England was one in 1790, an invention by Thomas Saint. It made a plain crochet stitch, similar to that made by hand, and crude drawings of it may be seen in the British Patent Office.

Probably a few of his machines were sold, but for the most part they were regarded as mechanical toys and classed with such oddities as tomatoes and potatoes, long objects of curiosity and distrust. And yet, at least sixty years before the hum of the sewing-machine reached the public ear, Thomas Saint, to whom success was denied, had given the world a great labor-saving invention.



The military bugle was calling more and more men in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and this meant that thousands of soldiers needed garments of the same pattern, uniforms which had to be made more quickly than human hands could fashion them.

Napoleon’s success in sending his men over the Alps was due largely to the efficient way in which they were outfitted, down to every button and every gaiter strap. Europe, even in times of peace, was increasing its standing armies, and the nations were like armed camps.

Hence genius, urged on by the exigencies of war, began the invention of machines for the rapid making of uniforms.

The first important step in making the sewing-machine a part of the life of the world was taken in 1830 when Bartholomey Thimmonier obtained a patent for such a device in Paris. He worked in a small way until 1841; then he improved his machine so far that it was possible for the French Government to make army uniforms by the thousands.

Then the storm broke. The tailors rose up and complained that the new invention would take the bread out of their mouths. They called on the laboring classes to help them. Soon a mob broke into the factory where the machines were used, tore them out, and burned them. As the original machines were made of wood, the flames made short work of them.


Thimmonier was not so easily discouraged. Determining to make his invention a success, he started all over again. But his life was far from a pleasant one. Wherever he went, he was threatened by the people.

When his second lot of machines, which he had in good running order in a factory in 1848, were burned by another mob, the inventor felt that he was to be cruelly denied success. He made a final effort to get on his feet, and indeed even took out a patent on his machine in the United States in 1850, but his spirit was broken and he never regained his old courage. He died in bitter poverty.

Although other inventors soon surpassed it, the machine of Thimmonier had many good points. It carried a needle on a horizontal arm. The cloth, as it was sewed, was pressed forward by a device to receive the thread.

His machine made two hundred stitches a minute, which meant it sewed fourteen times faster than was possible by hand. Since it automatically drew the cloth toward the needle, it was certainly a motion-saver.

On this side of the Atlantic, not only the War of 1812 and later the Mexican War created a demand for uniforms, but the American merchant marine was also storming the shops for ready-to-wear clothes.

In the old town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the centre of a whaling industry, very profitable before the discovery of petroleum, the sailors from the whalers wanted new clothes the minute they got ashore from their long voyages. They could not get out of their tar-stained, blubber-soaked breeches soon enough; therefore they went to the shops and asked the merchants to “hand me down a suit of clothes.” The same situation obtained in New London, in Old Salem, in Boston and in the big city of New York.


George Opdyke, later mayor of New York, who became a well-known banker, had started, in 1831, says a government report, the first clothing factory in the United States. When the men from all the Seven Seas came to him with their “Shiver my timbers! Let’s have some duds in a jiffy !” he was always ready for them.

The Thimmonier machine for sewing was only being developed at that time, and all the work in the Opdyke ready-to-wear plant, was done by hand, by as skilful and rapid cutters and tailors as could be had at the highest wages then paid.

It was really not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the sewing-machine was first felt as a factor in the ready-made clothing industry both in the United States and in Europe.

Although he has never received due credit for his work, the brunt of the battle for the introduction of the sewing-machine on this side of the ocean was borne by the American inventor, Walter Hunt, of New York. Hunt, careless and easy-going, kept so little in the way of exact notes that the actual date at which he began to invent his model is not known. Between 1832 and 1834, however, he built and sold a few workable sewing-machines of his own design.

Jack-of-all-Trades, busy with many other things, a typical visionary inventor, Hunt did not even take the trouble of patenting his device. Had he used more common sense to guide his fine talents, he would have reaped the rewards which went later to Elias Howe, Jr.; for when he finally made up his mind to do something, years after Howe had obtained a patent, Hunt found that he was too late.

His machine was of the lock-stitch variety; that is, it made a stitch consisting of two threads twisted together in such a way that they could not be ravelled out as easily as could the simple stitches of the earlier machines.

Hunt’s great contributions were the lock-stitch and the eye-pointed needle. Without the eye-pointed needle, Howe would never have developed his successful sewing-machine.

The introduction of the eye-pointed needle enabled inventors to depart from the erroneous idea that a machine must imitate exactly the motions of the human hands and fingers which it is endeavoring to aid; in fact, it led to the machines of the present day.


Bleak New England farms do not as a rule raise bumper crops, but they certainly seem to produce inventors who have the necessary iron will implanted in them to stick to their work until it is done and get the full value of it. It did not take the New Englanders long, after they had rid themselves of hostile Indians, to find that they must use all their ingenuity to wrest a living out of their rock-strewn acres.

The father of Elias Howe, Jr., owned one of these barren farms near Spencer, Massachusetts, and there in 1819 the inventor of the sewing-machine was born. The elder Howe eked out his income by running a small grist-mill; he also manufactured cards for the growing cotton industry of New England.

Among the earliest recollections of the long-haired, high-cheek-boned, and puny Elias Howe was that of bending over a bench and putting bits of wire on the wooden forms which made up the comb-like contrivance known as a card, with which the fibres of the cotton were pulled.

He was not much of a success at that, and at the age of six he was bound out to a neighboring farmer. Children were leased in those hard days for their board and keep, and they came into a way of living not much better than that of “Orphant Annie.” Doing the odd chores of the place, such as watering the horses and milking the cows, did not appeal to the lad, and he went back to his father’s home for a while.

Then, against the wishes of the family, he went to Lowell, Massachusetts. There he got employment in a machine-shop where cotton-spinning machinery was made and repaired. Losing his job in 1837, on account of the financial panic which was then sweeping the country, he decided to find a place in Boston.

There he came in contact with Ari Davis, a maker of mariners’ instruments and scientific apparatus, and a rough hewer of men’s destinies. Howe was eighteen years old at this time and his meeting with Davis meant much to him. He learned to develop his ideas and how to get at the root of the difficulty without wasting too much time.

ELIAS HOWE. Elias Howe, of whom this is a rare photograph, was apprenticed to Ari Davis, an instrument-maker, when he first conceived the idea of a sewing-machine. After years of hardship in the United States and England he eventually succeeded in introducing his machine. When he petitioned Congress for an extension of his patent in 1860, he estimated that his invention was worth $150,000,000. Up to that date he had received $1,185,000.

It is also likely that Howe, without knowing it, picked up many of the mannerisms of Davis. Many inventors are off in their ways, but Davis was queer even for an inventor. He was often asked to make apparatus for the professors of Harvard University, and he could turn out a model of the solar system or rig up an air-pump and keep up two or three conversations at the same time.

Inventors often went to Ari Davis to ask his advice about models they had made, which were good enough in their way except that they would not work. Sometimes he helped them, and sometimes he shouted at them in anger, for he was one of the noisiest men in Boston. His clothes, too, were characteristically loud and unusual, for Davis prided himself on wearing the most outlandish, voluminous, and gaily colored garments.

Young Howe chanced one day to hear the shrill voice of his employer airing opinions for the benefit of an inventor of a knitting-machine, who had been brought to the dirty, topsy-turvy little shop by a capitalist. The man with the money thought that the machine might be developed, if it would only work, and wished to retain Davis as a consulting expert.

“Why are you wasting your time over a knitting-machine ?” shrieked Davis. “Take my advice, try something that will pay. Make a sewing-machine.”

“It can’t be done,” was the reply.

“Can’t be done?” Davis bellowed. “Don’t tell me that. Why—I can make a sewing-machine myself.”

“If you do,” interrupted the capitalist, “I can make an independent fortune for you.”

Davis, like most men of many words, was short on performance, and he never did invent a sewing-machine. In fact, he probably thought no more of the suggestion; but the keen-witted boy of eighteen who was standing by his side could not forget that sentence, “I can make a sewing-machine myself,” and the promise of the capitalist. And from that moment began the career of Elias Howe.



Howe married when he was twenty years old, just when his work on the sewing-machine was beginning. All too frequently young Howes came into this world, to share the haps and the mishaps of their father’s lot. The inventor’s health was often so poor that he had to stop work for days at a time and sit about the house with a wet bandage on his head, trying to get over his numerous headaches.

Things went so badly that Mrs. Howe took in sewing, and while the inventor saw before him the vision of the machine that would release her precious fingers from toil, he was forced to realize that his idea was, as yet, merely a dream, and that what his wife was doing was the grim reality.

It is not unlikely that in those dark days there came to him the words of Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt,” a poem only recently written in his day, and widely read:

“With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread.”

“Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch,
She sang ‘The Song of the Shirt.’”

But Elias Howe, grim prophet of an age of power, possessed a heart of steel. Year after year he worked on at his trade of machinist, earning just enough to enable him to get food for his family, while he spent all his spare time in perfecting his invention.

Tinkering away in his small home shop, he must have presented a strange sight. Working away at his model, his long and shaggy hair falling in waves from his puckered forehead, his clothes shabby, his form became bent by close attention to his yet unrewarded toil. Despite the complaints of his family and the chidings of his friends, who thought he was a poor lunatic and an idle dreamer, he persevered.

Like some of his fellow workers, Howe at first fell into the mistake of trying to follow too exactly the motions of the human hand and arm in sewing. The truth is that a machine which mimics such motions must always analyze those motions and then create or restore them in the finished work.

The binder which is part of a reaping-machine, for instance, seems to be doing just what the human hand does in tying a knot in the twine that holds together a sheaf of wheat; but in reality it is doing that magic task with the equivalent of three fingers.

The early inventors of the airplanes believed that the so-called wings really had to flop up and down, as do the wings of a bird; but they discovered that the canvas wings need only be supports and the propellers would do the work of sending the flying craft through the air.

For many years Howe had been working out in his mind a great principle without having had the benefit of the successes and failures of other inventors, for he knew little or nothing about their work.



In continuing to imitate the motions of his wife’s all too busy needle, Howe made the needles of his early failures with a hole in the middle of the shank. His brain was busy with the invention day and night and even when he slept. One night he dreamed, so the story goes, that he was captured by a tribe of savages who took him a prisoner before their king.

“Elias Howe,” roared the monarch, “I command you on pain of death to finish this machine at once.”

Cold sweat poured down his brow, his hands shook with fear, his knees quaked. Try as he would, the inventor could not get the missing figure in the problem over which he had worked so long. All this was so real to him that he cried aloud. In the vision he saw himself surrounded by dark-skinned and painted warriors, who formed a hollow square about him and led him to the place of execution.

Suddenly he noticed that near the heads of the spears which his guards carried, there were eye-shaped holes! He had solved the secret! What he needed was a needle with an eye near the point! He awoke from his dream, sprang out of bed, and at once made a whittled model of the eye-pointed needle, with which he brought his experiments to a successful close.

As we have seen, Hunt had invented the eye-pointed needle, wide-awake in broad daylight and not in a dream. Much was made of this in patent suits in which Howe was later involved, but poor Hunt never took the trouble to patent his great idea.

Scant as were his funds, Howe did a great deal in the months which followed his vision. Most of the work was done in the attic of a factory for splitting palm-leaves which his father had started at Cambridge. When this building burned down, Howe was for days in the depths of despair until he thought of his old schoolmate, George Fisher, who had received a small inheritance.

Like many another man who has had a windfall of good fortune, Fisher was willing to let some easily gained money go in backing what he considered at most a very risky venture. He lent $500 to Howe and entered into one of the strangest partnerships in the history of invention. For an interest in the invention, Fisher was to take Howe and his numerous family into his house, there to feed and lodge them, and also give the attic of the dwelling over to the inventor for a workshop.

In building the second machine, Howe spent all the money advanced by Fisher. The machine was ready in May, 1845, but was not patented until the following September. Howe rested a little on his oars then, for he believed that at the age of twenty-six he had won his long pull against the tide.

He set up his machine in a public hall in Boston, and after much cajoling he induced a tailor to operate it for about three times the usual wage. Howe’s reception by the regular garment-makers was similar to that suffered by the unfortunate Thimmonier.

A gaping crowd went to see the “new-fangled contraption,” but when Howe tried to get the big clothing establishments to use the machine he found out exactly where he stood; the howl of the tailors echoed to the Bunker Hill Monument.



Confronted at every turn with disappointments and rejections and feeling that his own country was against him, Howe permitted his brother, Amasa B. Howe—who had had some business success down South—to take a model of his machine over to England. From there, after many rebuffs, appeared a little ray of sunshine.

William Thomas, a manufacturer of umbrellas, corsets, and leather goods, employing several hundred workmen, all of whom stitched by hand, became interested in the new machine. He saw its possibilities in the manufacturing business.

“This,” said the manufacturer, after he had seen the machine demonstrated, “is the beginning of a tremendous enterprise. And the man who has carried it thus far is the man to carry it farther.”

On the strength of these encouraging words, Elias Howe gathered together his goods and chattels and, with his family, crossed the ocean. His father had lent him $1,000 for expenses, and prospects appeared bright.


But poor Howe’s troubles were not over yet. William Thomas certainly bought a machine of him for 250 pounds—about $1,250 dollars—and with it he acquired the entire rights of the new sewing-machine for Great Britain. Howe was retained by the Thomas establishment at a salary of fifteen dollars a week, and this kept him from begging his bread.

He was to adapt his invention for the sewing of heavy leather, used in travelling bags and other articles, in the making of which the English have always excelled. But after eight months or so, a quarrel arose and amicable relations between employer and inventor came to an end. Poor Howe was again without a job.

He took this ill turn with good grace, and started to build another machine. His funds ran so low, however, that he was obliged to take his family to cheaper lodgings. Things went from bad to worse. At last Howe, glad enough to accept the charity of a captain of a Yankee packet-ship, sent his family back to America. To do this, he borrowed enough money for their current expenses and pawned his model and his patent papers.

After he had saved himself from imprisonment for the non-payment of his bills by taking the “Poor Debtors’ Oath,” the inventor returned to the United States some months later in a sailing vessel, paying his way by cooking for the steerage passengers. When he reached New York he heard that his wife was seriously ill, but he could not go to her until he had received a loan from his father for his travelling expenses to Boston. His wife survived only a few days after his return.


During his absence the fame of his machine and its acceptance in England had reached his own country. The scoffers began to realize that there was something in his device after all.

Indeed, several American firms had already begun to sell sewing-machines, which were like his in design. This looked like the end of all his hopes, but Howe roused himself and went after the manufacturers for infringement.

Fisher, his former partner, having lost all belief in the invention, had sold his half interest in the American rights to George W. Bliss, a man of wealth. He it was who now advanced the money for the heavy legal expenses necessary to protect the patent.

The rights of Howe were not fully established in the courts until 1854, and the fight for them was one of the longest in the history of American patent law. Many thousands of pages of testimony were taken which are in themselves a record of sewing-machine invention.

With the proceeds of one or two successful suits, Howe was able to provide himself still further with the sinews of war. He was a rather gaunt and fierce figure in those days, for the death of a wife who missed sharing his good fortune had added to his firm resolve to get all that he could for the product of his brains.

His patent was declared basic, and the courts gave him judgment for a twenty-five-dollar royalty on every sewing-machine built that infringed his patent. It was success at last. But Howe must have been haunted by the vision of the death-bed of one who shared all his sorrows and none of his joys.

MODEL OF HOWE’S SEWING-MACHINE IN THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL MUSEUM. Before Howe patented this machine Walter Hunt, about 1832—1834, had invented the eye-pointed needle and the double thread or lock-stitch, both of which Howe later re-invented and patented (1846).

During the life of his patent, fourteen years, Howe’s income often reached $4,000 a week. He held that his rights were really worth as much as $150,000,000, and when, in 1860, he petitioned Congress for a further extension, he stated that up to that date he had received only $1,185,000.

Although Howe had invented, demonstrated, and sold his machines, he never had a factory of his own. The one at Bridgeport, Connecticut, popularly believed to be owned by him, belonged to his brother, Amasa Howe. It was the centre of many lawsuits, brought by other inventors who declared that, although the machines built there were nominally made on the Howe principles, their own ideas had also been embodied in them.

Elias Howe again showed his mettle in the Civil War. He enlisted as a private soldier in a Connecticut regiment which he organized. Elected colonel by the men, he refused a commission and served in the ranks, although placing his means at the regiment’s disposal.

Once he advanced the money for the entire pay-roll, taking his own $13.60 with his comrades when the cash was paid. He died in Brooklyn in 1867, only two years after the struggle between the North and South had come to a close.

The excitement caused by the many suits of Howe against his competitors stimulated the invention of sewing-machines of all kinds, and there are now more than a thousand patents for such devices in our national archives.


Among the inventors and the promoters of the sewing-machine, the name of Isaac Merritt Singer stands out conspicuously. His energy, force, initiative, and fine executive ability did more than any other agency to make the sewing-machine a boon to every household and a mighty factor in industry.

By trade a mechanic, he made important improvements in sewing-machines, but his good fortune lay in the fact that he was one of the best salesmen of his time. He had been a theatrical manager at one stage of a picturesque career and his experience as a showman probably stood him in good stead in bringing the sewing-machine before the American public.

Singer was the pioneer in the use of lavishly decorated showrooms. Even to this day, there are relics of the carved walnut furniture and the gilded ornaments which the sewing-machine makers used in attracting the women-folk to their establishments.

These rooms were carpeted richly, and pretty young women sat before mirrors, operating the “greatest invention of the age,” a sewing-machine that would make “three hundred stitches a minute.” Consequently nearly every good housewife soon wanted to own a machine, and the Singer got a very good proportion of the business.

SINGER SEWING-MACHINE OF 1851. In some respects Singer’s machine suggested that of Thimmonnier. Thus it had a presser-foot, the device by which the cloth is firmly held down. The old Howe machine got its power from a whee] turned by hand, whereas Singer introduced the treadle. Singer also introduced the trim cabinet which now distinguishes the American machine.

Singer, who proved to be the drum-major of a new industry, started life in Oswego, New York, as a cabinet-maker and mechanic. He became interested in a wood-carving machine and went to Boston to perfect it, after the manner of many inventors of that time who found help from experts of the Ari Davis type.

In fact, Boston was then the hub of this humming new industry of making sewing-machines and power-machines of all kinds. He thought he could produce a machine for sewing clothes, and did it with forty dollars which he borrowed from a friend to pay for the materials.

His machine was perfect as far as the top of the seam was concerned; but to his dismay, when he was using it at a demonstration, he found that on the other side were many hanging threads. He thought that he had failed, but soon a new inspiration struck him.

“It’s tension,” said Singer; “just tension; that’s all that it needs.” Correcting that defect, in 1855 he had a machine ready for the market. For a while he manufactured his machine in a small way in Boston, then moved to New York, where he opened up a large factory in Centre Street.

Elias Howe came demanding his toll about that time, and there was a lively battle between these strong-willed and resourceful sewing-machine pioneers. The Singer Company maintained that it had a right to operate because the neglect of Walter Hunt in patenting his machine had opened up the use of the eye-pointed needle and other devices to all the world.

The courts decided otherwise, and the Singer interests paid $15,000 in back royalties and obtained a license from Howe. This sum helped Howe considerably in carrying on his fight against other alleged infringers.


But the efficient sales force of the Singer interests were soon spreading the “great American sewing-machine” to all parts of the earth. Owing to a quarrel with one of his associates, Singer withdrew from the company and went to England to live. There, at Torquay, he occupied an oddly built house which was one of the show places of the neighborhood.

Many improvements have been made on his original machine. It was marked, however, by an up-and-down motion of the needle, driven by a rotary shaft concealed in an iron casing. The rough rim of a wheel, coming up through a slot in the table, easily carried the material toward the sewing mechanism.

In some respects it suggested the forgotten machine of Thimmonier, particularly in the device called a presser-foot, that firmly held down the work. The old Howe machine got its power from a wheel at the side turned by hand, whereas Singer introduced a treadle by which even a slight drive with the feet would keep the machine in motion.

The first Singer machines were packed in awkward-looking boxes, on which they were set when operated, the treadle being in the case. These boxes were later superseded by inlaid and varnished cabinets, or by the trim standards and supports of iron which now distinguish the American sewing-machine everywhere.

ONE OF THE FIRST SINGER SEWING-MACHINES. These were set up on the packing-cases in which they were shipped.

From a mechanical point of view, much credit belongs to Allen Benjamin Wilson, who invented a sewing-machine, even in the height of the craze over that device, without ever having seen one of any type. He used a double-pointed shuttle in combination with the needle, which made a stitch with each forward and backward movement of the shuttle, instead of one at each throw of the shuttle, as in the Howe machine.

His first patent was granted in 1856 and from that date he led a busy inventor’s life. He obtained a patent for a rotating hook a year later which made a lock-stitch of unusual holding power.

Another twelve months and we hear of him introducing a method of feeding the thread by four motions, a method which was later adopted in practically all sewing-machines in popular use. The hook seized the loop of the thread in the needle when it had gone down to the lowest point, opened it, and carried it around the bobbin, so that the thread was then passed through the loop of the stitch.

Wilson formed a partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler, a very able manufacturer, and the Wheeler & Wilson machine was made for many years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in a factory which before the Civil War was considered one of the largest establishments of its kind in the world.

The machine had a vogue for many years and was in much demand by the women of the United States. Its model also proved of much value to the manufacturing trades, and some types of it for factory use have made three thousand stitches to the minute.

ISAAC MERRITT SINGER. Isaac Merritt Singer was the most resourceful and energetic of the sewing-machine pioneers. He was the first to sell machines in lavishly decorated show-rooms. Among other devices, Singer introduced the treadle.


Sewing-machines were being invented by people who had little or no mechanical experience to guide them. It has been shown that Wilson, the cabinetmaker, had never seen a sewing-machine until he decided to make one.

Now came James E. Gibbs, a Virginia planter, who saw a picture of a sewing-machine in the Scientific American, together with a brief description of it. The mechanism was not visible in the engraving, for the working parts were largely hidden in the cast-iron casings.

Gibbs fell to wondering how the thing worked and just how the needle stitched the cloth. To satisfy himself he made a rough machine of his own—the first model of which is still in existence—in which he thought he had shown just how those sewing-machines do their work.

It did not occur to him until later that he had a revolving-hook, and therefore a machine of his own. His device needed the eye-pointed needle and the four-motion feed to make it a practical success, and this he found out later when he had to pay royalties to Howe and Wilson.

Such was the origin of one of the finest machines for certain purposes which the world has ever seen. It is marked by the peculiar and gracefully curved “G “-shaped head, which is represented in the trade-mark.

Gibbs went to New York, where he formed a partnership with a man named Wilicox, who had a large machine-shop. This was the origin of the noted Wilicox and Gibbs machine. When the Civil War broke out, Gibbs returned to his native Virginia, where for four years he made gun-powder for the Confederate Army.

When the war was over he went back to New York, where he found that his Northern partner had conserved his interests during all that period, and the two men resumed their business relations without making any reference to “the late unpleasantness.”

The Willcox & Gibbs machine has for many years been made by Messrs. Brown & Sharpe, fine tool and instrument makers of Providence, Rhode Island.

With the introduction of a new lock-stitch, the Wilicox & Gibbs machine is now extensively used in the making of fine underwear, for which it is desirable to have the seam lie snug and flat.

Among the many good machines that spread the fame of American ingenuity around the world, was the old Grover, with its double-chain action, now long since disappeared from the market. To mention the names of all the machines which have contributed to the success of the wholesale manufacture of clothing would be to pile up a towering record.

With so much talent devoted to the perfecting of the sewing devices, it is not at all astonishing that ready-made clothing makers were soon utilizing every labor-saving device they could find. There was some opposition to the successive steps by the labor-unions, of course, but this was eventually overcome.



The ready-to-wear clothing industry developed as the introduction of power machines hastened production. But it was not placed on its present firm foundation until the demands for uniforms made by the Civil War spurred inventive genius to the utmost and necessitated large-scale methods of handling the output of the woollen-mills.

In order to meet the needs of the army, large buildings for the making of uniforms were erected in various parts of the country, and the clothing-makers responded with great ability to the requirements of the quartermaster-general.

When the war was over, many persons feared that these big structures would have to be torn down, but the change into civilian clothes on the part of so many discharged soldiers kept up the old forces and taxed the capacity of the war plants. The development of the West, and the tide of immigrants from Europe, all eager to put aside their peasant costumes and appear in smart American clothes, still further increased the orders for ready-to-wear garments.

The machines used in the leading clothing factories are built into long tables and are driven by electric current which sends their needles flying at the rate of from three to four thousand stitches a minute. As the average stitch is about one-eighth of an inch in length, machines of this power can reel off readily forty-five feet of seam a minute.


It was soon evident that garments could not be cut fast enough to keep pace with four thousand stitches a minute on a machine operated by one man or woman.

In the early days of the ready-made-clothing industry, a very strong and clever cutter could use his shears on three plies or thicknesses of cloth at a time. Workers of this class were known by their calloused thumbs and first fingers of their right hands.

George P. Eastman, a foreman in a clothing factory in Toronto, invented in 1897 a reciprocating or straight-knife machine of unusual excellence. He had been in the clothing business as cutter and foreman for many years, and had become dissatisfied with the appliances which were then on the market as substitutes for the shears.

The round-blade machine then in use he thought unsuitable, for in going around a curve in the design laid out of the cloth, he noted that the machine did not cut all the pieces precisely the same, and that the variation was still more marked in going about an angle.

The Eastman Machine Company, of Buffalo, was organized for the marketing of his inventions, as Eastman had no capital of his own. He later sold his holdings for a large amount and retired to his old home in Canada. The device of Eastman, which has undergone many improvements in the last twenty-four years, is widely used.

Some unknown genius in England then invented the short knife, which could be employed in cutting out four or five plies. Later came a gang-saw arrangement, much like the heavy vertical blade in the old-time sawmills. The cloth was shoved up against this moving saw by hand, and the cutters, in order to keep their hands whole, wore fingers of tin a little longer than their own digits.

Later came the round or buzz-saw, which whirled around as it projected half-way above the top of a table. The cutters got up to ten or twelve thicknesses of cloth in this way, but without a guard the saws were dangerous. Also, since the position of the layers of cloth had to be continually shifted, the method was neither satisfactory nor speedy.

A distinct advance was made in cloth-cutters in 1872, when two mechanics, Albion and Wurth, established a small factory on Staten Island, New York.

There they made a steam-driven machine of heavy build, consisting of mechanisms for operating a reciprocating, vertical knife. The blade, so adjusted, and rising and falling at a high speed, reminded one of the action of the earlier sewing-machines.

Another arrangement, the Fenno cutting device, was also worked by steam, but had a circular rotary knife rigged to a long arm. Both cutters were heavy and could not be run over the cloth as are the machines of the present day.

A Cincinnati cutter, a man named Bloch, devised a round-blade machine operated by electricity, and as it weighed only thirty-five pounds it was better adapted to the needs of the industry. From 1892, the year of the Bloch patent, the development of the mechanical cloth-cutting machine was rapid.

The Eastman Company of Buffalo, in 1897, introduced a vertical-blade machine driven by electricity, and seven years later they brought out a rotary device. In all these cloth-cutters, a small motor above the blade supplied power and speed.

A machine perfected by H. Maimin, a veteran in the business, has in some types a four-inch circular blade which develops a speed of 4,000 revolutions to the minute. While the machine is laid over the cloth, this little round knife is travelling at the rate of I2 ½ inches (3.1416 times its diameter) per revolution, which is four-fifths of a mile a minute or forty-eight miles an hour.

The advantage of these high-power cutting machines is not merely that they can cut twenty, thirty, forty, and even as high as 120 thicknesses of cloth, but also that they enable one marking out of the pattern to do for all the thicknesses in the pile. This reduces expenses.

CUTTING CLOTH WITH AN ELECTRIC MACHINE. As many as 120 layers of cloth are cut at one operation. Electrical cloth-cutters of this type have blades which rotate at a speed of forty-eight miles an hour.

The laying out of the pattern so as to get the value of all the cloth possible is a fine art, and one man may save ten per cent. more cloth than another.

Sometimes this economy is blocked by unions which insist that only so many piles may be laid down. There have never been any riots over the introduction of the cutting-machine, but for all that its coming into the industry has been opposed by labor rules and regulations at every step.

There were in the city of New York twenty years ago about 200 mechanical cloth-cutters of six or seven different types in use, and every one of them was attacked. It was feared that men would be thrown out of employment right and left, especially as the worker with clear head and steady nerves could operate a machine without ever having served an apprenticeship at the shears.

There are now, according to a careful estimate, 6,000 machines in use in the metropolis, but the number of operatives in the clothing industry is still increasing.

There is hardly a step now in the ready-made clothing business which does not have some kind of a special machine. There is a machine, for instance, employed for stitching the stiffening in the lapels of coats, another that presses into the form of the body the lining of overcoats. Once the clothes take shape and are duly basted together, the lightning-like sewing-machines make quick work of them.

One of the most tedious operations in clothing-making is the putting in of the buttonholes. The customs tailors made them by hand, but in most ready-to-wear garments they are the work of machines.

Many attempts to fashion buttonholes by machinery were made as soon as the clothing business was established on a wholesale plan. The best-known of the pioneers in this line was John Reece, of Boston, who in the early eighties produced a machine which would cut and work buttonholes at the same time.

He had to work many a year after his device was mechanically perfect before he could market it; but it is now used for all kinds of fabrics, from the flimsy shirtwaist to the heaviest overcoat. Only an expert can detect the difference between the work of the Reece buttonhole-machine and that of the most skilful journeyman tailor.

Another type of this machine is used in sewing on shoe-buttons, and the makers show with a glow of pride a photograph of a pair of shoes worn by President Harding at his inauguration, the buttonholes of which were made and worked by their contrivance.



The appearance of a suit of clothes largely depends upon the way it is pressed, and the maker of even the cheapest ready-made garments cannot afford to neglect that feature of his trade. The hardest article of men’s apparel to make is a coat, and it is also difficult to press so as to catch the eye of the customer.

Painstaking workmen will often take a whole day to press eight or ten coats with the big iron, known as the “goose.” More speed is attained with the use of the gas-irons, which have flaming vapor inside of them and are fed by means of a rubber tube. All these are heavy and awkward tools, and had it not been for the fact that a certain boy apprentice in a small tailor and dyeing shop at Syracuse, New York, dislocated his shoulder, the pressing of suits might still be a slow and laborious business.

After his accident, Adon J. Hoffman was unable for a time to use his arms, so he invented a clothes-pressing machine which he could operate with his feet. Instead of wielding the heavy iron, he applied steam-pressure, which he controlled with a foot-lever. A man with a broken shoulder can handle this press alone, for all that he has to do is to lay the garment between two pads and turn on steam-pressure.

Hoffman felt so sure that he had something worth while in the first model he made, that he mortgaged his earnings for six months in advance to get the materials for his experiments. But the dyeing and dry-cleaning business not being very good at that time, he went to the State of Washington for a few months to regain his health.

He finally drifted back to his home town of Syracuse, bringing back with him his machine, on which he had made some improvements. Eventually he set it up in a little tailor-shop which he opened just opposite the Yates Hotel.

Sitting in the window of that comfortable old hostelry one stormy day was a man who had been caught in the rain. His coat was humpy, his trousers baggy, and he had no other suit with him. As he gazed across the street, he saw in a window opposite the sign:


It was just what he needed. Over he went and the young clothes-presser gave him a bath-robe to put on temporarily and told him to make himself comfortable behind the curtain which partitioned the little store. Presently the patron heard a queer bumping and the hiss of live steam.

Rushing out into the store he saw young Hoffman putting his coat into a strange contraption, the jaws of which snapped like those of an alligator.

“Hold on !“ he shouted. “What are you doing with my coat, young man? Where is your iron ?“

“Don’t need it,” answered Hoffman. “There are your trousers, already pressed. Put them on.”

Theodore D. Palmer, for that was the customer’s name, was extremely interested and asked to have the principles of the new contrivance explained to him.

“Have you patented this thing ?“ he inquired when he had heard the young man’s story.

“No, sir. To promote this, I need $15,000, and I haven’t a red cent to my name.”

Palmer had some money left from the wreck of an ill-starred tanning enterprise. He saw that here was an invention that should make a great deal of money for the promoters.

Within a few days a stock company was formed to build and sell machines; young Hoffman went on the road as chief salesman and demonstrator and Palmer remained in Syracuse to manage the factory.

During the first year 100 of the new machines were sold, and by 1908 the business was on a good basis and had been reorganized on a larger scale. An office was opened in Wall Street, New York city, and the stock put on the market. Five years later 30,000 machines had been sold and branches of the company, then known as the T. D. Palmer Company, were established in all parts of the world.

There are now said to be 100,000 of the machines in use, and the corporation, known as the United States Hoffman Machinery Company, Inc., has a huge factory in Syracuse. In that city Adon J. Hoffman built himself a fine house, and became a rich man.

Any one watching one of the Hoffman presses at work in a large clothing factory is taken aback with the magical way in which it irons and dries out the clothes.

When the suit goes into the jaws of the press, a heavy pressure of steam penetrates and moistens it. Then the steam is turned off, and the surplus steam or moisture lingering in the garment is drawn off through the lower flange by a pipe connecting with a chamber in which a vacuum has been created.

THE HOFFMAN CLOTHES-PRESSING MACHINE. The man at the machine is the inventor. More than 100,000 of these machines are now in use.

The various steps of clothing manufacture, ending with the pressing of the final product, are about as complex, if not more so, in the making of clothes for women. Even swifter sewing-machines are used on some of the light fabrics, and machines of more refinement and finish are employed in the pressing and ironing operations.

The mission of the knitting-machine seems dedicated to women’s wear. It is a machine that has undergone many changes since the vain efforts of the Reverend William Lee, in 1589, and it has now become a dependable mechanism without which there would be no reasonably priced stockings and sweaters and such comforts.

However, the simplest form of framework knitting, devised by Lee, remains with only slight alterations to this present year of grace. The rib-work design of Strut made possible those openwork lace hosiery designs which are in such demand by fashion. Dawson, by the invention of his wheel, permitted the threads to be laid in any direction and in any course.

It was the good fortune of another clergyman, Isaac W. Lamb, of Michigan, to compensate for the failure of William Lee, for, in 1863, he patented one of the most important of the knitting-machines ever devised. Isaac Lamb, son of a pioneer minister, showed his mechanical ability at the age of twelve by constructing whip-lashes, and later he invented a machine for braiding the leather thongs in four strands. From this simple contrivance he progressed to a complicated knitting-machine that could knit both flat and tubular work.

Lamb organized a company and improved the machine so that it could produce thirty different kinds of knitted goods and could be worked at the rate of 4,000 knots a minute. After making a fortune and receiving many medals from foreign governments, Lamb was ordained as a Baptist clergyman and spent the remainder of his life preaching in Michigan.


Considering its small beginnings, the manufacture of ready-to-wear clothing has made remarkable progress, and it furnishes one of the most notable examples of the value of power applied to machinery.

A Department of Commerce report made in 1916, after a long study of the men’s factory-made clothing industry, shows that in 1849 the average number of wage-earners employed a year was 96,531. The labor-saving machines, such as the sewing-machines, did not get even a slight hold on the industry until 1850.

In 1909, sixty years later, after scores of labor-saving devices had been brought into the business, there were 191,183 operatives.

Again the urge of war swept over the ready-to-wear garment industry in 1914, and especially when in 1917 the United States entered the European conflict. To meet the requirements of millions of men, both here and overseas, the inventors were put on their mettle to devise machines that would speed up production to the limit of human strength and ingenuity.


Many improvements in existing machines were made at that time. New types of powerful sewing-machines, swifter machines for stitching, buttonholing, blind buttonholing, seaming, seam-closing, fronting, pressing, and labelling, and later for pressing came into being as though born of the needs of the hour.

As an example of what clothing soldiers in the trenches need, we append a list:
- Slicker and overcoat, every five months.
- Blanket, flannel shirt, and breeches, every two months.
- Coats, every seventy-nine days.
- Shoes and puttees, every fifty-one days.
- Drawers and undershirts, every thirty-four days.
- Woollen socks, every twenty-three days.

These figures from the office of the quartermaster-general show that war depends upon the clothes-maker, as well as upon the victualler, to keep its armies in the field.

The value of the output in the men’s ready-made-clothing industry in 1919 was $1,186,707,000, as compared with the $458,211,000 of 1914. Prices were high at that period and are coming down, and the Engineering Council, in a recent report, has estimated the value of the clothes made for men in the year 1921 at $600,000,000.

One of the wonders of the clothing industry is the wide variety of garments which it furnishes ready-made. A large manufacturer, for instance, may put out twenty-nine kinds of sack suits, with fourteen special variations, and the choice of 1,100 varieties of cloth, to say nothing of three styles of linings—thus making possible some 278,000 different combinations.

This, of course, adds greatly to the cost of clothing, for if garments were all of standardized makes, such as is the case in military uniforms, the cost of covering the human frame neatly would be scaled down to the lowest rates.

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