I was looking forward to demonstrating sewing and quilting at the 200th birthday party for the Virginia Executive Mansion planned for Capital Square, then the weather forecast threw a damp towel on the affair. But flexibility saved the day, and the party went on as scheduled, at the Virginia State Library! 600 to 1,000 people showed up! We were busy the whole time, and with children cranking the sewing machines, we finished a quilt top for charity. A fun time was had by all!
For your reading pleasure, here’s a quick history of sewing:
Sewing, Fashion, The Garment Industry, Microcosm of The Industrial Revolution
1. First Needle – 20,000 years ago: People started sewing as long as 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age. Archaeologists have discovered bone needles with eyes, used to sew together skins and furs, dating back to this time. The earliest known sewing needles made of iron come from the Celtic hill fort at Manching, Germany, and date to the third century BC. The tomb of a minor official of the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) has been reported by Chinese archaeologists as containing a sewing set complete with thimble. This would be the oldest known example of a thimble, which originated as a device to help push crude needles through resistant materials such as animal skins.
2. Bone and awl: The first sewing needles were made from bone and were used to sew animal hides together. The oldest known bone sewing needle was one found in what is now southwestern France and has been estimated to be over 25,000 years old.
– Needles made from copper, silver and bronze were used in ancient Egypt.
– The oldest iron needle known was found in what is now Germany, and dates back to the 3rd century B.C.E.
– Bookbinders and shoemakers used needles made from hog bristles in the Middle Ages.
– Native Americans used porcupine quills and the pointed end of agave leaves for sewing needles. The fibers of the agave leaf were also used for thread.
3. 11th Century Spanish Muslims medical doctors: Metal needle making was perfected by Muslims in Spain in the 11th century. Spanish Muslims were some of the most knowledgeable medical doctors in the world at the time, and had perfected many surgical techniques that required needles for suturing. When the Muslims were driven out of Spain in the 15th century, they took the knowledge of needle making with them to Arab lands. Muslims returned to needle making, and Arab traders took them to Europe.
Europe learned the art of needle making from Arab needle makers, and it came to England in the 17th century. Before this time, metal needles were made in Europe by the local blacksmith, and resulted in very crude needles.
The knowledge of needle making was also used to make fish hooks in England. The country became well known for high quality fish hooks as well as sewing needles in the middle of the 17th century.
4. 1850 needle making machines: Around 1850 needle making machines began producing needles and turned needle making from a cottage industry into an industry done in factories. By 1866 there were 100 million needles being made in England a year.
Ready Made Wear
5. Mass-produced clothing: The notion of mass-produced clothing, cheap and well made and available to all, is peculiarly American.
Perhaps nothing affronted old-fashioned European ideas of caste and class so flagrantly as the fact that by 1900 or so, a poor factory girl in America who worked six days a week in the same rough dress could, if she liked, wear store-bought silks or laces on Sundays. Or that an illiterate immigrant, if he had the cash, could go from Ellis Island to Broadway and after a few hours of shopping transform himself into a plausible-looking American.
In his essay “A Democracy of Clothing,” in “The Americans”, Daniel Boorstin observes that even by the middle of the 1800s, long before there was much of a garment trade, foreign visitors to the United States fretted about the upstart sartorial habits of the lower classes. As one British merchant complained in the mid-1850s: “You meet men in railroad-cars, and on the decks of steamboats, rigged out in super-fine broadcloth and white waistcoats, as if they were on their way to a ballroom, and common workmen you find attired in glossy black clothes while performing work of the dirtiest description.”
Clearly the common people were not dressing as commonly as they had been expected to do in other times and places. And during the last half of the 1800s, the trend gradually turned into a torrent. Shop girls and servants acquired fur-pieces and “Parisian” bonnets and, by means of newly published dress patterns, copied fashionable dresses and coats, so that it grew impossible to tell who was who. Wealthy women reacted to all this instant chic by adopting skin-tight bodices and elaborate styles that were extremely hard to tailor, let alone copy.
6. The Gold Rush of 1849 and Levi Strauss: The Gold Rush of 1849 provided another great impetus. One of the forty-niners was an enterprising young dry-goods merchant named Levi Strauss. Realizing that a roof might be hard to come by in the California wilderness, he had brought along a supply of cotton tenting. But once he arrived, he found that the miners were as desperate for clothes as for gold nuggets, so he hired a tailor and turned his roll of cloth into work pants. He continued to use canvas for many years but he soon also began importing a sturdy French fabric known as “serge de Nimes,” which had been anglicized to “denimes” and then denim.
But the sewing was still hand-done; the industry had begun to grow long before its basic tool arrived. The 1850 census showed over 4,000 men’s clothing manufacturers in the United States, including some ready-made establishments competing with the more numerous traditional custom-tailors’ firms. As Grace Rogers Cooper points out in her authoritative work on the sewing machine, “Here was the ready market for a practical sewing machine.”
Invention of the Sewing Machine
The invention and marketing of the sewing machine has all the elements of a pulp novel of the epoch–bitter rivalry, unabashed chicanery, showmanship, guile, acrimonious courtroom testimony, wealth, ruination, and sex. The sewing machine, like the light bulb, was the invention of many hands. Patents had been granted in both England and France in 1790 and 1830, respectively.
7. 1830 a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857): In 1830 a French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857), patented the first practical sewing machine. It employed a hook-tipped needle, much like an embroidery needle, that was moved downward by a cord-connected foot treadle and returned by a spring. It produced a chain stitch. By 1841, eighty of his machines were being used to sew uniforms for the French army. However, his factory was destroyed by a mob of tailors, who saw the new machines as a threat to their livelihood. Thimonnier died bankrupt in England.
8. 1846 – lock stitch machine: None of these machines presented any real competition to hand-sewing, though; that was accomplished by Elias Howe (1819-67) of Massachusetts. In 1846 Howe patented a sewing machine with a grooved, eye-pointed needle and shuttle. This lock stitch machine could sew nothing but straight seams, which could not be longer than the basing plate. Unsuccessful in marketing the device in America, Howe went to England to adapt his machine for an English corset-maker. He returned penniless to find that sewing machines were being sold by many manufacturers, all infringing on some part of his 1846 patent. In 1856, after favorable litigation, Howe entered into the world’s first patent pool.
9. 1851 – first rigid-arm sewing machine: In 1851, Isaac M. Singer (1811-75) patented the first rigid-arm sewing machine. Before this, all machines employed an overhanging arm that held the needle directly and vibrated with it. Singer’s machine also included a table to support the cloth horizontally, instead of a feed bar; a vertical presser foot to hold the cloth down against the upward stroke of the needle, and an arm to hold the presser foot and the vertical needle-holding bar in position over the table. A real breakthrough was his invention of a foot treadle instead of a hand crank. Parts of Singer’s new machine were based on Howe’s work. In fact,Singer was sued by Howe for infringement of the latter’s patent rights, but a compromise was reached where Singer paid a royalty.
10. In every department of his life Isaac Singer was more energetic than scrupulous: Isaac Singer – 6’4”; son of German immigrants; machinist, bitten by the acting bug; 24 children by 5 women, frequently ‘living’ with more than one, which eventually led to him leaving the US for Europe. Isaac Singer turned the sewing machine into a standard household and industrial appliance. Born to German immigrant parents in 1811 in upstate New York (the wild frontier in those days), Singer earned his living by any means that came to hand. His profession of choice was acting. Forced for a time to dig ditches, he had invented a rock-drilling machine. As a stranded actor in Fredericksburg, OH, he perfected a machine that cut wooden type blocks. Back East again, he persuaded a bookseller named George B. Zieber to stake him to $40 and give him a chance to perfect a sewing machine. His motive, he readily admitted later, was greed. “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I am after.” He took the horizontal needle and made it vertical and added a foot treadle. It worked, and the basic design is much the same today. In every department of his life Isaac Singer was more energetic than scrupulous.
First Home appliance – Early Home Sewing Machines
11. 1860 – “Queen of Machines”: The sewing machine promised a revolution in household labor. Dubbed’The Queen of Inventions” by Gody’s magazine in 1860, the sewing machine offered women a relief from the countless hours and tedium of hand sewing. Early sewing machine manufacturers recognized this market potential and promoted their machines accordingly. The exorbitant cost of these early machines meant that they were well beyond the means of most American families. A sewing machine cost about $125 at a time when the average yearly income was about $500. Many communities and organizations pooled their money to purchase a single machine for members to share. Since this curtailed manufacturer’s potential profits, various schemes were devised to expand the market. In 1856 the I. M. Singer Company offered a hire/purchase plan where machines could be bought on monthly installments. Sales of Singer machines tripled in the first year of this offer.
The lease/purchase option soon became the most popular way of buying a sewing machine. Some unscrupulous manufacturers took advantage of the mania to acquire a machine. Stories of foreclosure and financial ruin, exploitation, and abuse of women sewing for credit (in lieu of paying cash) are also part of the early history of the home sewing machine.
The Social Effects of the Sewing Machine
12. Advantages and the social problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution: The introduction of the sewing machine into American life had both positive and negative effects. A boon to the homemaker and seamstress, its use in industry reflected both the advantages and the social problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
The development of the sewing machine for factory use in the 1850s revolutionized the shoe and garment industries. Production moved from homes and small shops into large, machine-controlled environments dominated by impersonal managements. Production increased and prices fell, but workers suffered loss of independence, lower wages, and sometimes harsh working conditions. Hundreds more faced unemployment The situation became even worse when the addition of electric motors to the machines led to sweat shops. The ensuing social upheaval contributed to large-scale unrest, the organization of workers into unions, and eventually to the establishment of government standards for the work place.
Impact on the Garment Industry
13. Summer pants: two hours and 50 minutes by hand; in 1861 less than 38 minutes by machine: In the marketplace, the first and most important effect of the sewing machine was to drive clothing prices down. According to Grace Rogers Cooper, a pair of summer pants that had taken two hours and 50 minutes to sew by hand in 1861 could now be stitched in less than 38 minutes. In New Haven, CT, in 1860, a shirt manufacturer who installed machines drove his labor costs down from $6,000 a week to $1,600 a week and still produced 800 dozen shirts. The difference was that instead of employing 2,000 seamstresses, he now needed only 400. The 400 were now making $4 a week instead of $3. What happened to the surplus workers is not recorded.
14. “If you don’t come in Sunday, don’t come in Monday”: Another development was that sewing, which had always been farmed out as piece-work to be done at home, could now also be done in contractors’ shops or on salary in factories. One form of sweated labor went in tandem with another. In the 1880s, the weekly wage in cities like Baltimore, Boston, and New York might run anywhere from $3.50 to $7. Working conditions were unsafe and inhuman, and hours were set at the employers’ discretion. “If you don’t come in Sunday, don’t come in Monday” was the famous admonition affixed to many sweatshop walls. And not too surprisingly, according to a report made in 1884 by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, “The running of heavy sewing machines by foot power soon breaks down a girl’s health.” Not to mention poor light and bad air.
Not just women but men and thousands of children toiled over sewing machines. In 1907, according to an article by the poet Edwin Markham, 60,000 children were shut up in sweatshops or sent out as messengers on the lower East Side of Manhattan.
15. 1911 – Triangle Factory Fire: Triangle Factory Fire: David von Drehle, Triangle – The Fire that Changed America; Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uprising; Mary Jane Auch, Ashes of Roses: The Triangle fire took 146 lives at a shirtwaist factory in NYC, March 1911. The fire at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the worst disasters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This incident has had great significance to this day because it highlights the inhumane working conditions to which industrial workers can be subjected. Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.
The Paper Pattern
16. Ellen Demorest, ardent abolitionist and women’s rights advocate: As the story goes, one day Ellen Curtis Demorest (1824-98), a prosperous hat manufacturer, saw her maid cutting out a dress from some wrapping paper and was struck with the idea that she could copy fashionable garments on to paper for the home sewer. However, it has been verified that, aided by her sister and husband, they devised a mathematical system to print patterns in a variety of sizes. In 1860 Madame Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, a pattern catalog, was introduced and by 1865 Demorest was so successful that she had thirty distribution agencies across the nation with over 200 saleswomen. Her success in paper patterns spawned a mail order empire for women eager to acquire the latest fashions and accessories from New York. An ardent abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, Ellen Demorest employed both black and white women in her enterprises. Those who objected to her politics were asked to shop elsewhere.
Ironically, the Demorests failed to patent their paper pattern but another inventor, Ebenezer Butterick, did. Initially Butterick confined his patterns to men’s and children’s wear, but by 1867 he expanded to women’s patterns as well. By 1874 his empire extended from Europe to North America with over 100 branch offices. It remains the center of the paper pattern industry today.
Social Impact In the Home
17. Disappearance of hired help and loss of status: In a quieter, more “lady-like” way sewing machines also revolutionized the domestic scene. Although some ready-made clothing was available as early as Roman times, until the late 19th century nearly all clothing was made in the home. According to Godey’s Lady’s Book, it took about 14 hours to make a man’s dress shirt and at least 10 for a simple dress. A middle-class housewife spent several days a month making and mending her family’s clothes even with the help of a hired seamstress. After the purchase of a sewing machine–and suitable training and practice–those hours dropped to 1 1/4 for the shirt and one hour for the simple dress. The itinerant dressmaker was forced to find another way to make her living. In fact, the greater efficiency of the sewing machine made it possible for an enterprising housewife to “take in sewing” for extra money just as working class women took in washing.
Women’s advocates and ladies magazines welcomed the relief from the hard labor and rejoiced in the hours freed for leisure and worthwhile pursuits such as “refinement and exercize”. But as often happens with labor-saving inventions, ease of production brought demand for higher quality results, again making the work harder.
The sewing machine was only the first of many labor-saving devices for the home; washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners all made housekeeping easier and cut down the work time required. An important side effect of all this “labor saving” has been the disappearance of hired help and the consequent diminishing of the woman’s role as household manager. This gradual loss of status helped to undermine the satisfaction many women formerly found in the homemaking role and encouraged them to seek more demanding employment in other places.
History of the Sewing Machine, http://www.moah.org/exhibits/virtual/sewing.html
The Triangle Factory Fire, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/
19th-Century Fashion and the Sewing Machine, http://historywired.si.edu/detail.cfm?ID=502