While the skill of hand sewing has been around for thousands of years, the invention of the concept of mechanized sewing first appeared in the mid 18th century. Over the past two and a half centuries since, the sewing machine has evolved from a rudimentary single-stitch machine operated by hand cranking to today's sophisticated computerized models that almost operate themselves. Its invention was no simple matter clearly attributable to one individual, but instead, it was a progressive gathering of concepts that took a century to coalesce into a practicable, usable device that revolutionized the garment and home-sewing industries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
When I think of the inventions of the Industrial Revolution (1750 - 1920) that contributed to the remarkable cultural and social changes that occurred in the US and Europe during this time, what I remember studying in school were devices like the steam engine, the cotton gin and the telegraph (just to name a few). I have recently discovered that the sewing machine also played an important role in the industrialization of modern society. The story is quite fascinating and includes tales of a riot, lawsuits, and libel.
Here is a brief timeline that tracks the major milestones in the development of the sewing machine:
1755: Charles Weisenthal, a German man, is awarded an English patent for his invention. His patent application describes a sewing needle for use in a machine, but the description of the machine is not included in the patent, so it is unknown if he actually designed a machine as well.
1790: Thomas Saint, an Englishman, receives the first patent that describes a complete sewing machine. It is not known if he ever produced a working prototype, but one was built in the 1880s based on his schematics that did not function until significant changes were made to the design.
1804: Thomas Stone and James Henderson registered a patent in France for a machine intended to simulate hand sewing.
1804: Scott John Duncan receives a British patent for his invention of an embroidery type machine using multiple hooked needles to create chain stitches on the top surface of fabric.
1810: Balthasar Krems, a German hosiery maker, developed a machine specifically for sewing caps, but did not patent it.
1814: Josef Madersperger, an Austrian tailor, patented his machine that is thought to have created a couched stitch that was useful only for embroidery and not for seaming, and therefore not useful for apparel construction. He continued working on his design and in 1839, was awarded another patent for a machine that produced a chain stitch.
1818: John Adams Dodge is thought to have invented the first American machine, but not much is known about the machine itself. The Dodge Family website has a sketch of what the machine looked like. According to the website, Dodge was a busy pastor with no time to devote to furthering the progress of his invention.
1830: Barthelemy Thimonnier was a French tailor who is credited with creating the first working machine. It used one thread and a hooked needle which produced a chain stitch. He operated the first garment factory with 80 of his machines and had contracted with the French army to manufacture their uniforms. His success was short-lived, however, because a mob of French tailors, fearing that they would lose their jobs, rioted, smashing the machines and burning down the factory.
1834: Walter Hunt built the first working American sewing machine using an eye-pointed needle and two threads that created a lock-stitch in the middle of the fabric (click to see an animation of how a modern day lockstitch is made here). Unfortunately, he failed to patent his machine and when others later used the same lockstitch concept, he was unable to defend his claim to the idea. His lockstitch concept is important because this is the first time an inventor moved away from attempting to duplicate hand sewing motions.
1842: John Greenough, received the first American patent for a sewing machine on February 21, 1842. You can view the patent if you wish. The description is technical, but there are two drawings of the machine included. This machine created a running stitch by driving a double pointed needle through the material by means of pincers on each side in a manner similar to sewing by hand. It was limited in usefulness because it used cut lengths of thread that needed to be replaced when they were used up.
Click to read A History of Sewing Machines (1843 - 1873)
Interested in learning more about sewing machine history - these books will tell you more!