Wheeler & Wilson Number 4 sewing machine (ca 1875)
Wheeler & Wilson Number 4 sewing machine (ca 1875)

The first patent for a sewing machine was taken out by the British inventor Thomas Saint. His machine was designed to sew leather and canvas but never went into production.

In 1829, a French tailor, Barthelemy Thirmonnier, built the first practical sewing machine. When he installed 80 of his machines in a factory, they were smashed by the local tailors who were afraid of being put out of work.

The American inventor, Water Hunt, (who also invented the safety pin) made the first lockstitch sewing machine in 1834, Lockstitch sewing machines sew with two thread and, so, make a much stronger stitch than the earlier chain stitch machines, Hunt delayed patenting his machine because he was worried that it would put seamstresses out of work. When he did seek a patent his application was disallowed on the grounds of abandonment and another American, Elias Howe, patented a machine with the same essential features in 1846. Another American inventor, Isaac Merrit Singer, also attempted to patent a similar machine but was successfully sued by Howe.

Singer 12K Fiddlebed sewing machine (1878)
Singer 12K Fiddlebed sewing machine (1878)

In 1850, Allen Benjamin Wilson patented the rotary bobbin and the four-motion feed for advancing the material. Finally, in the same year, Singer, brought together the various designs and added the presser foot (the spring tensioned device which holds the material to table) and replace the crank handle with a the foot treadle so that the operator had both hands free to manoeuvre the fabric.

Singer established a chain of opulent showrooms to sell his machines at the high price of $75 each. Singer invented installment plan purchasing to allow his customers to afford such expensive machines. Some of the early machines were almost works of, with mother of pearl inlay and gold filigree work, designed to blend with the ornate Victorian decor.

Pfaff pedal sewing machine (1930s)
Pfaff pedal sewing machine (1930s)

The first European sewing machine was exhibited in 1851 by George Bradbury of Oldham in England. Bradbury opened a factory in 1852 and was quickly followed by other manufacturers on the Continent, including Pfaff and the arms manufacturer, Husqvarna. Singer established a large factory in Scotland in 1860.

Electric motors replaced the foot treadle from the 1930s and the ability to do zig-zag and, then, other fancy stitches was added from the late 1940s.

Vintage sewing machines available now
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