A brief history of the sewing machine

Imagine a time when ready-made clothing wasn’t accessible. We have become so accustomed to running out to the store or the mall on any given day and not only finding something ready to wear but having a choice of size, color, fabric and style that we don’t think about how commercial clothes making has changed our world. If it were not for the sewing machine, things would be very different.

Sewing with thread and needle

The first mechanical machine was produced around 1755 and over a number of years various inventors from all over the world worked to create something that would fulfill the need for a faster way to stitch materials into garments and other necessities.

Whether to make sails or shoes, uniforms or everyday clothing, sewing with a needle and thread was a tedious and time-consuming enterprise. So many attempts were made at producing a machine that would simplify that process that it is debatable who invented the first sewing machine.

Today purchasing a sewing machine, serger, or even a large-throat quilting machine is just a click away. It’s hard to imagine a world before the sewing machine. Below is a timeline of key moments in the invention’s history.


  • 1755 – Charles Weisenthal got a patent for a needle for machine sewing but there was no mention of the machine
  • 1790 – Thomas Saint patented the idea for a machine to sew leather but probably didn’t build one
  • 1804 – Thomas Stone and James Henderson received a patent in France for a machine that produced a stitch similar to hand sewing.
  • 1804 – John Duncan got a patent for a machine to do embroidery.
  • 1810 (or so) – Balthasar Krems developed yet another machine but specifically for sewing caps
  • 1814 – Josef Madersperger began a years-long attempt to produce a machine but ultimately failed to tie all his ideas together
  • 1818 – Partners John Adams Doge and John Knowles made a device that could only sew material for a short time and then needed resetting
  • 1830 – Barthelemy Thimonnier received a patent from the French government for a practical commercial machine to produce uniforms for the army. He was successful but his factories were attacked by tailors and he fled with only one machine.
  • 1833 – Walter Hunt utilized two spools of thread and an eye-pointed needle to create a lockstitch but it could only produce straight, short seams
  • 1842 – John Greenough’s invention featured a needle that went completely through the cloth but he was unable to raise capital to manufacture it
  • 1844 – John Fisher designed a machine primarily to make lace but was a working machine. His patent was misfiled, however.
  • 1844 – Elias Howe completed a prototype and was awarded a patent about a year later.

The first practical sewing machine for home use

Although many patents were actually filed both in the United States and Europe for working sewing machines, Elias Howe made one that became popular and practical for household use. So few of the of the previous versions had been sold that the projects were frequently abandoned when their inventors failed to make any money. Mistakes were made, as well, such as failing to file a patent on the design and then having the plans stolen.

American entrepreneur Elias Howe

The Massachusetts entrepreneur Howe’s wife was the inspiration for a mechanical device that would eliminate the long hours of hand-stitching clothing. While unemployed due to a disability, his wife had taken in sewing projects to support the family. Seeing how long and hard she worked, he became determined to invent a practical sewing machine that would shorten the process and save women like his wife from that hard work.

The path to a working prototype

Being out of work and not having the funds to devote to the design, though, the dream of producing the first practical, working sewing machine was delayed. He was saved, however, by George Fisher, a generous friend who was also had a keen business mind. His initial investment of $500 would enable Howe to pursue his dream. He even invited Howe and his family into his home so that there would be no obstacle to his working on a prototype.

In May of 1845, Howe had designed a machine that could sew seams. He wanted to demonstrate how the machine saved time so he set up a display that featured seamstresses competing against it. While the speed of the machine was impressive compared to hand-stitching, the public was still wary and the local tailors were concerned about the machines threatening their livelihoods.

History of the Sewing Machine - Patent
Elias Howe’s patent for the sewing machine. Image from the National Archives.

Howe was discouraged but continued working, assisted with additional capital from his friend. He built a second version of the machine and was awarded a U.S patent. There was still little interest and he went to England to help his brother with a machine designed to sew corsets.

The first in a legacy of legal battles regarding the invention of the sewing machine

Upon returning home from that project several years later, however, he found that the sewing machine had become popular while he was away. Seeing that the machines being sold were based on his original design, he pursued the makers in court and won.

The machines had gained popularity first in Massachusetts, then around the country and then the world. By the year 1900 sewing machines were producing not only clothing but cloth bags, tents, flags, banners, mattresses and linens.

Isaac Singer and marketing the modern sewing machine

Elias Howe was only 48 when he died in 1867. His company was purchased from his brothers-in-law by a competitor, Isaac Singer. Upon acquiring the design, he gained fame for spending $1 million dollars in advertising. It was very successful. Although numerous other manufacturers had entered the competition, Singer remains almost synonymous with the sewing machine today.

Singer Treadle Sewing Machine
An early Singer treadle sewing machine. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although ready-to-wear clothing was becoming common in the late 1880’s, homemakers still purchased sewing machines to make clothing at home to save money. Women’s magazines featured designs and tissue paper patterns like McCall’s and Butterick’s were available as templates.

Early models of some sewing machines were operated by constantly turning a handle. Others used a treadle. To create the chain stitch, the woman would rhythmically rock her foot to control the speed at which the needle would move through the fabric.

By 1925, 98% of families on farms owned a sewing machine while 92% of households in cities did.

Many manual machines are still in use today but the sewing machines of today bear little resemblance to those first machines. Today, even sewing machines for beginners are electric and make short order of sewing projects. They have touch screens, single-needlelock stitch, overlock, flatlock and chainstitch capabilities.

Impact on society

Without a doubt, the sewing machine has had a profound impact on not only the clothing industry but the industries that support it. Demand for clothing resulted in increased cotton production, parts manufacturers and shippers. Beyond clothing, sewing machines are necessary for the manufacturing of other household goods such as upholstery, curtains, and towels.