Sewing is an ancient craft involving the stitching of cloth, animal skins, furs, or other materials, using a needle and thread. Its use is nearly universal among human populations and dates back to Paleolithic times (30,000 BC). Sewing predates the weaving of cloth.
Early sewing needles were made from bone, wood, or natural needles taken from plants as Native Americans did with the agave plant. The earliest verified sewing needles made from iron date back to the third century B.C. and were found in what is now Germany.
The thimble was developed to assist early sewers to push needles through thick hides and furs, and was first made from bone, wood, or leather. Later thimbles began to be made from metal, glass, or porcelain. The thimble also became an object of beauty with thimbles made from precious and semi-precious stones, and precious metals. Chinese archaeologists report finding a complete set of iron sewing needles and thimbles in a tomb dating from the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) in China.
The first thread was made from plant fibers and animal sinew, which was used to sew together hides and furs for clothing, blankets, and shelter. Later it was found that fibers from plants and animals could be spun together to make thread. The ancient Egyptians made thread by spinning fibers together, and dying the thread using plant matter. In China and Japan, silk fibers taken from the cocoon of the silk worm was spun to make very fine thread.
Sewing is used primarily to produce clothing and household furnishings as curtains, bedclothes, upholstery, and table linens. It is also used for sails, bellows, skin boats, and other items shaped out of flexible materials such as canvas and leather.
For most of the history, sewing was done by hand. From the simplest stitches to ornate decorative work was done with a needle, thread and a steady hand. It remained so until the invention of the sewing machine.
Today, most sewing in the industrial world is done by machines. Pieces of a garment or the edge of a cloth are firstly tacked together. Some people sew clothes for themselves and their families. More often home sewers sew to repair clothes, such as mending a torn seam or replacing a loose button. A person who sews for a living is known as a seamstress, dressmaker, tailor, or garment worker.
"Plain" sewing is done for functional reasons: making or mending clothing or household linens. "Fancy" sewing is primarily decorative, including techniques such as shirring, embroidery, or quilting. Sewing is the foundation for many needle arts and crafts, such as appliqué, canvas work, and patchwork.
A sewing machine is a mechanical (or electromechanical) device that joins fabric using thread, in a manner similar to manual sewing. Sewing machines make a stitch, called a sewing-machine stitch, usually using two threads although machines exist that stitch using one, three, four or more threads.
Sewing machines can make a great variety of plain or patterned stitches. They include means for gripping, supporting, and conveying the fabric past the sewing needle to form the stitch pattern. Most home sewing machines, as with many industrial machines, use a two thread stitch called the lockstitch. Some other common machine types are chain stitch machines and sergers.
The fabric shifting mechanism may be a simple work-guide or may be pattern-controlled (e.g., jacquard type). Some machines can create embroidery-type stitches. Some have a work holder frame. Some have a work-feeder that can move along a curved path, while others have a work-feeder with a work clamp.
An overlock sewing machine is also known as a serger. Using 3 or 4 thread cones instead of a top thread and bobbin thread, they sew the seam and overlock the seam edge/selvedge in one process. Some overlock machines can be set to do a rolled hem, but all can bind off the edge with and overcast stitch.
History of the Sewing Machine
Before the invention of a usable machine for sewing, everything was sewn by hand. Most early attempts tried to replicate this hand sewing method and were generally a failure. Some looked to embroidery, where the needle was used to produce decorative, not joining stitches. This needle was altered to create a fine steel hook – called an aguja in Spain. This was called a crochet in France and could be used to create a form of chain stitch. This was possible because when the needle was pushed partly through fabric and withdrawn, it left a loop of thread. The following stitch would pass through this first loop whilst creating a loop of its own for the next stitch, this resembled a chain – hence the name.
The first known attempt at a mechanical device for sewing was by the German born Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, who was working in England. He was awarded British Patent No. 701 in 1755 for a double pointed needle with an eye at one end. This needle was designed to be passed through the cloth by a pair of mechanical fingers and grasped on the other side by a second pair. This method of recreating the hand sewing method suffered from the problem of the needle going right through the fabric, meaning the full length of the thread had to do so as well. The mechanical limitations meant that the thread had to be kept short, needing frequent stops to renew the supply.
In 1790 British Patent No. 1764 was awarded to Thomas Saint, a cabinetmaker in London. Due to several other patents dealing with leather and products to treat leather, the patent was filed under "Glues & Varnishes" and was not discovered until 1873 by Mr. Newton Wilson. Wilson built a replica to the patent's specifications and it had to be heavily modified before the machine would stitch – suggesting that Saint never actually made a machine of his own. Saint's design had the overhead arm for the needle and a form of tensioning system, which was to become a common feature of later machines.
There were various attempts and patents awarded for chain stitch machines of varying types from 1795-1830, none of which were used to any degree of success – many of which didn't work correctly at all. A French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier made the next major breakthrough. He did not try to replicate the human hand stitch, looking instead for a way of finding a stitch, which could be made quickly and easily by machine. His machine worked by using a horizontal arm mounted on a vertical reciprocating bar, the needle-bar projected from the end of the horizontal arm. The cloth was supported on a hollow, horizontal fixed arm, with a hole on the topside, which the needle projected through at the lowest part of its stroke. Inside the arm was a hook, which partly rotated at each stroke in order to wrap the thread (fed from the bobbin onto the hook) around the needle at each stroke. The needle then carried the thread back through the cloth with the upward motion of its stroke. This formed the chain stitch, which held the cloth together. The machine was powered by means of a foot pedal. The easiest way to describe this is to picture the machine working the wrong way round – the stitch was formed on the top of the cloth, not the bottom as with most other chain stitch machine made since. Thimonnier was awarded a French patent in 1830 and 80 of these machines were installed in a factory in Paris to stitch Soldiers clothing. Unfortunately, other tailors concerned for their livelihood invaded the factory and smashed the machines.
Chain stitch has one major drawback – it is very weak, the stitch can easily be pulled apart. A stitch more suited to machine production was needed, it was found in the lock stitch. A lock stitch is created by two separate threads interlocking through the two layers of fabric, resulting in a stitch, which looks the same from both sides of the fabric. Although the credit for the lock stitch machine is generally given to Elias Howe, Walter Hunt first developed it over ten years before in 1834. His machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying the upper thread, and a shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down – requiring the machine to be stopped frequently to set up again. Hunt grew bored with his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it.
Elias Howe patented his machine in 1846; using a similar method to Hunt's, except the fabric was held vertically. The major improvement he made was to put a groove in the needle running away from the point, starting from the eye. After a lengthy stint in England trying to attract interest for his machine he returned to America to find various people infringing his patent. He eventually won his case in 1854 and was awarded the right to claim royalties from the manufacturers using ideas covered in his patent.
Isaac Merritt Singer has become synonymous with the sewing machine. Trained as an engineer, he saw a rotary sewing machine being repaired in a Boston shop. He thought it to be clumsy and promptly set out to design a better one. His machine used a flying shuttle instead of a rotary one; the needle was mounted vertically and included a presser foot to hold the cloth in place. It had a fixed arm to hold the needle and included a basic tensioning system. This machine combined elements of Thimonnier’s, Hunts and Howe’s machines. He was granted an American Patent in 1851 and it was suggested he patent the foot pedal (or Treadle) used to power some of his machines, however it had been in use for too long for a patent to be issued. When Howe learned of Singer’s machine he took him to court. Howe won and Singer was forced to pay a lump sum for all machines already produced. Singer then took out a license under Howe’s patent and paid him $15 per machine. Singer then entered a joint partnership with a lawyer named Edward Clark, and they formed the first hire purchase scheme to allow people to afford their machines.
Meanwhile Mr. Allen Wilson had developed a reciprocating shuttle, which was an improvement over Singer’s and Howe’s. However, John Bradshaw had patented a similar device and was threatening to sue. Wilson decided to change tack and try a new method. He went into partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler to produce a machine with a rotary hook instead of a shuttle. This was far quieter and smoother than the other methods and the Wheeler and Wilson Company produced more machines in 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer. Wilson also invented the four-motion feed mechanism; this is still seen on every machine today. This had a forward, down, back, and up motion, which drew the cloth through in an even and smooth motion.
Through the 1850s more and more companies were being formed and were trying to sue each other. In 1856 the Sewing Machine Combination was formed, consisting of Singer, Howe, Wheeler and Wilson, and Grover and Baker. These four companies pooled their patents, meaning that all the other manufacturers had to obtain a license and pay $15 per machine. This lasted until 1877 when the last patent expired.
Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish decoration appearing until well into the 1900s when the first electric machines started to appear. At first these were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side. As more homes gained power, these became more popular and the motor was gradually introduced into the casing.
Modern machines are computer controlled and use stepper motors or sequential cams to achieve very complex patterns. Most of these are now made in Asia and the market is becoming more specialized, as fewer families own a sewing machine.
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