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How stitching machines helped to change the world

Exploring the comparatively rapid development of this important equipment which involved failed dreams, innovation and sometimes costly litigation.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Volodymyr Shtun |

The vast majority of shoes and boots manufactured around the world today will feature, to a greater or lesser degree, some form of stitching. This form of footwear construction stretches back through history – even the so-called ‘Areni-1’ leather shoe – found in 2008 in Armenia and considered by many experts to be 5,500 years old – was held together by rudimentary stitches.

A 1568 illustration showing hand-stitched shoes being made by artisans

As thousands of years passed after some unknown person made the Areni-1 shoes, footwear design and fashion styling became more complex, but there was one continuing aspect of production – by and large, the various components of shoes and boots were stitched together by hand by a skilled artisan.

Things changed as what became known as the ‘first industrial revolution’ exploded into action in the 18th century. This was the transition to new manufacturing processes that began in about 1760, when hand production was quickly replaced by mechanised methods. Historians generally agree that the industrial revolution began in Britain and spread to Western Europe and the United States within a few decades.

It is not an over-exaggeration to say that the industrial revolution dramatically changed life in much of the world and entirely altered the way many people worked. The introduction of the stitching machine meant that footwear, garments and many other items which had previously been hand-sewn could now be mass produced in a much shorter time. This drove down prices, which allowed ordinary families access to more affordable goods. Many more women could now find employment in factories which, in turn, was instrumental in increasing their family's income.

Innovation and invention

As the drive for machinery to be introduced to more production processes gathered momentum, many different ideas and styles of a mechanical device to produce stitches were suggested by engineers and other innovative thinkers around the world. However, the man who is usually given credit for producing plans for the forerunner of the modern stitching machine is English cabinetmaker and inventor Thomas Saint. In 1790, he was awarded a British patent for a machine to produce stitches.

Saint’s device featured an overhead arm to take the stitching awl and a tensioning system. The awl pierced the material and a forked rod carried the thread through the hole, where it would be hooked underneath and moved to the next stitching place. The cycle would then be repeated, so locking the stitch. Apparently, no example of his equipment was actually built and marketed, and this patent was forgotten, only to be re-discovered in 1873 by Newton Wilson. He built a replica to the patent’s specifications but found that the machine had to be considerably modified before it would stitch. This suggests that Saint never actually made a working machine.

Between 1795 and 1830, there were numerous attempts and patents awarded for chain stitch machines of varying types, but none of these proved to be successful. A major breakthrough, however, was made by a French tailor called Barthelemy Thimonnier. Rather than attempting to replicate the way a human hand stitches (which had caused previous inventors so many problems), he decided to start afresh with the simple goal of finding a stitch that could be made quickly and easily by machine. His design incorporated a horizontal arm mounted on a vertical reciprocating bar, with the needle bar projecting from the end of the horizontal arm. A hook-tipped needle moved up and down using foot power and was returned to the start position by a spring.

In 1829, Thimonnier began using his stitching machines in a factory, but the workers broke them up because they were worried that these devices would mean the end of their employment. Nevertheless, the French government granted him a patent in 1830.

Across the Atlantic

Meanwhile, an American inventor – Walter Hunt – created a stitching machine that used an eye-pointed needle and incorporated the new idea of the oscillating shuttle. His machine was made in about 1834 and is viewed as the first working equipment using a lock stitch. It used a curved needle with the eye in the point to carry the upper thread, and a falling shuttle to carry the lower thread. The needle moved through the fabric horizontally, and left a loop of thread as it withdrew. The shuttle passed through the loop, so creating an interlock. What caused problems was the feed, and the machine often had to be stopped so that the system could be reset. Apparently, Hunt eventually lost interest in his machine and sold it without bothering to patent it, so the results of his hard work were open for anyone to copy.

Elias Howe’s 1846 stitching machine

From then on, stitching machines grew in popularity and improvements were continually made. However, none of the early devices could be claimed to be really reliable. Things began to change in the mid-1840s, when what is viewed as the first really practical and working stitching machine was developed. The man credited for that invention was another American inventor – Elias Howe Jr. After trying to attract interest in his machine firstly in American and then in England, he returned to the USA to find various other inventors infringing his patent. Unfortunately, by this time Howe could not afford to take his case to court, and it was not until 1854 – having borrowed money from friends and family – that he eventually won a case for patent infringement and was awarded the right to claim royalties from any rivals using ideas covered by his patent.

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A Singer machine from the 1850s ​

One of the designers affected by this royalty payment was an engineer by the name of Isaac Merritt Singer. Some years before, he had seen a rotary stitching machine being repaired in a Boston shop and, having thought it was a very clumsy design, decided to make a better one. Instead of a rotary shuttle, Singer’s machine used a falling shuttle; the needle was mounted vertically and a presser foot was incorporated to hold the material in place. A fixed arm was incorporated to hold the needle and his design included a basic tensioning system.

Singer was granted an American patent in 1851. However, when Elias Howe learned of Singer's machine, he took him to court. Howe won the case and Singer was forced to pay compensation for all the machines he had already manufactured. At that point, Singer took out a license under Howe's patent and paid him USD 1.15 for every stitching machine sold.

Indicating the rapidly-growing enthusiasm for stitching machines – both in the factory and the home – just one US company manufactured around 800 machines in 1853, but just six years later was producing no less than 21,000 units. By 1860, 110,000 stitching machines were made in the USA alone, and in 1875 the Singer Company – one of America’s first multinational corporations – reported revenue of USD 22 million.

Continued refinements

Other inventors then added further improvements, such as a shuttle that reciprocated (vibrated) in a short arc, and the use of a rotary hook instead of a shuttle (which was viewed as far quieter and smoother than previous methods). Later still, the four-motion feed mechanism was invented, which had a forward, down, back, and up motion and drew the material through in an even and smooth motion. This innovation is still seen on stitching machines today.

The Singer Sewing Co introduced the first electric machines in 1889, and by the end of the 1914-1918 war, the company was offering hand turned, treadle-driven and electric machines. At first, the electric machines simply had a motor strapped on the side, but redesigns saw the power unit built into the casing.

Stitching machines being used in the early 20th century

That was when the first truly ‘modern’ stitching machine became available for the first time. The 20th century saw continued technological advancements in the design, speed and reliability of the stitching machine.

Today, computer-controlled stitching machines are used in many shoe factories and, if used properly, they can give more consistent stitching (hence, better quality) as well as reducing stitching times/cost. Automatic stitching machines can also enable complicated designs to be used which might otherwise be too costly, while allowing the use of less skilled labour. Such machines are very good for stitching decorative fashion flashes, embroidery or logos onto components. These jobs would be almost impossible on a conventional stitching machine.

OlafSpeier |

Technological advancements have improved machine design, speed and reliability

Technology has undoubtedly improved the footwear stitching process beyond what innovators like Thomas Saint, Barthelemy Thimonnier, Walter Hunt, Elias Howe or even Isaac Merritt Singer could ever have dreamed of. Nevertheless, every new design of stitching machine draws upon the ingenuity of the men who, in some cases hundreds of years ago, changed the production of apparel and footwear forever.

The final word on the subject can go to Mohandas Gandhi, who learned to use a Singer machine in a British jail: “The sewing machine is one of the few useful things ever invented.”

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 10 of the April 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »