By 1854, there were four principal makers of sewing machines: Howe, I.M. Singer and Co., Wheeler & Wilson Co., and Grover & Baker Co. These four companies were engaged in a fierce competition to construct a functional and marketable machine. The problem was that each entity held patents that controlled aspects needed by the others to improve their respective machine which was causing legal havoc and disrupting forward development of the machine for everyone. Orlando B. Potter, the president of Grover & Baker came up with the idea of combining the patents of each entity involved so that all parties could use any of the mechanisms covered in any of the patents. In addition, the group sold license rights to other companies wanting to make machines as well to the tune of $15 per machine. This proved to be a profitable endeavor and the arrangement lasted until 1877 when the last patent included in the pool expired. For a more detailed discussion of the “Sewing Machine Combination”, please refer to Adam Mossoff’s research publication: A Stitch in Time: The Rise and Fall of the Sewing Machine Patent Thicket.
When you look at today’s machines, even though they are much more complex than those of the late 19th and early 20th century, it is easy to understand why it took so long to develop all of the components and to make them work in tandem to create a sturdy and attractive stitch. If you look past today’s fancy features, there are functions basic to every machine regardless of manufacturer. The fabric has to be held in place (using a presser foot) on a stable, horizontal surface and moved forward under the needle at a consistent pace as stitches are made; the needle and bobbin threads have to intersect at just the right moment to catch each other to make the lock stitch. Then, the threads need to be fed off the spool and bobbin with the correct amount of tension to create a tight, stable stitch. And, all of this has to be synchronized correctly to prevent jamming and snarling of the thread. The next time you sew, take a moment and think of the moving parts in your machine and how they work together to pierce the fabric and lay the threads correctly. Imagine how different our lives would be today if we were still stitching everything by hand.
If you like antique sewing machines, you will want to take a few minutes to look at the pictures included in Grace Rogers Cooper’s book. The early inventors, in their quest to be unique, were very creative in their designs. Be sure to take a look at the machines depicting a cherub, foliage, horse, sewing shears and a squirrel.
Thank you for reading and happy sewing!
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