Shirleen Davies

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Shirleen Davies

The American Sewing Machine

The development of the sewing machine began with Walter Hunt’s 1834 eye-pointed needle design, which was later re-invented and patented by Elias Howe in 1846. Both Walter Hunt’s and Elias Howe’s machines used two spools of thread and a curved eye-pointed needle that passed the thread through cloth in an arc motion; then on the other side of the fabric a loop was created; and the second thread carried by a shuttle running back and forth on a track passed through the loop making a lockstitch. It sewed 250 stitches a minute.

Walter Hunt

The courts upheld Howe’s patent because Hunt had abandoned his since he’d lost interest due to his machine not working that well and he was also afraid it could put people out of work. Howe’s lockstitch mechanism was implemented by others working on their own innovations such as Isaac Singer with his up-and-down motion mechanism, and Allen Wilson with his rotary hook shuttle.

Since Isaac Singer’s sewing machine used Howe’s patented lockstitch he was sued for patent infringement, and Singer had to pay patent royalties to Howe. Elias Howe died in 1867, the same year his patent expired.


Isaac Singer


Best Known Manufactures

Some of the most popular and successful American sewing machine manufactures in the 19th century were:

  • Singer Corporation, which was founded in 1851 as I. M. Singer Company, in New York, NY. It opened a big factory for mass production in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1863.The business was renamed Singer Manufacturing Company in 1865
  • Grover & Baker of Boston Massachusetts, which started their business by 1851. They had four to five hundred workmen.


Wheeler Wilson Plant c1900
  • Wheeler & Wilson’s which began as Wheeler, Wilson & Company, changed their name in 1853, to The Wheeler & Wilson Manufacturing Company. In 1856 the company moved from Watertown, Connecticut to a huge factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
  • The Howe Sewing Machine Co. which was organized by Elias Howe’s brother, Amasa, in 1854. Elias offered to join Amasa by building a large factory at Bridgeport, Connecticut, to fill the increasing demand for more machines.
    Howe Sewing Machine

    The brothers dissolved their joint venture, and Elias called this new company The Howe Machine In 1873, B. P. Howe, Amasa’s son, sold the Howe Sewing Machine Co. to the Stockwell brothers, who continued to manufacture Howe machines until 1886.
  • American Buttonhole, Overseaming & Sewing Machine Company which goes back to 1863, was incorporated in 1886. Their main works were in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and their main office was at 20th Street and Washington Ave., plus they had a large foundry in Toledo, Ohio and a woodwork factory in Chicago, Illinois. 
    American Sewing Machine
  • Merrow Sewing Machine Company, which was built outside of Hartford Connecticut, was the first knitting mill built in America.

Progress of Product

In addition to Howe, other creative inventors developed the sewing machine including Allen Wilson, Isaac Singer, Grover and Baker, James G Gibbs, and Helen Augusta Blanchard. In fact, since Howe’s patent, more than a thousand other innovators have added to the sewing machine.

Three are four major elements of a modern sewing machine:

  • The needle goes through the material
  • The bottom bobbin is pushed through the loop
  • The needle comes out and the stitch is pulled tight
  • And the material is pulled forward

None of the early sewing machines could increase speed without, increasing the size of the thread. So, they could only be used in factory production lines for sewing heavy or coarse garments. However, many innovations improved the product.

In 1850, A.B. Wilson obtained a patent for a “two-pointed shuttle,” which took a stitch in the backward, as well as in the forward motion.

A. B. Wilson

Sewing machines didn’t go into mass production until the 1850’s when Isaac Singer built the first commercially successful machine. That Singer machine had a needle that moved up and down rather than side-to-side, also the needle was powered by a foot treadle. The previous machines were all hand-cranked.

19th Century Singer Sewing Machine

Also, in 1851, Grover & Baker attained a patent for forming a double loop stitch, by means of two needles, one working vertically and the other horizontally.

Then, in 1851, A.B. Wilson invented the “rotary hook,” so a lock stitch could be made with the finest thread on the most delicate material.

Several devices for regulating the supply of the thread, the feed motion were also invented. On June 2, 1857, James Gibbs patented the first chain-stitch single-thread sewing machine.

Helen Blanchard’s original zig-zag buttonhole sewing machine

Helen Augusta Blanchard of Portland, Maine patented the first zig-zag stitch machine in 1873. The zig-zag stitch better seals the edges of a seam, making a garment sturdier. Helen Blanchard also patented 28 other inventions including the hat-sewing machine, surgical needles, and other improvements to sewing machines.

Helen Augusta Blanchard


From 1863, for the next 10 years, The American Sewing Machine Company regularly patented their own overseaming, sewing machine and buttonhole machine advancements.  Their Franklin Foell patent of 1882 was for minor improvements to the feed and shuttle of a previous patent by G Rominger. 

The American Sewing Machine model 6 used a shuttle but took a round bobbin. It was a sort of mix between two cultures, the best of both.  People who have used the American Sewing Machine say it sewed a near perfect seam. The American Sewing Machine model 7 had already developed into the standard looking sewing machine shape that was to dominate all sewing machines for decades. The American Sewing Machine Company produced a range of attractive and practical sewing machines right up until the later part of the Victorian period. Their range included the Improved American and the High-Arm American, industrial, boot and leather machines. They brought out many patents from 1870 until 1881 but then developments seemed to slow. The company seems to have disappeared around 1896 

Then, in 1877 Joseph Makens Merrow invented the first crochet stitch machine.

In 1889 a sewing machine for use in the home was designed and marketed. By 1905, electrically-powered sewing machines were in wide use.



The female protagonist Survivor Pass, book 5, Redemption Mountain historical western romance series moves to Splendor, brining with her a sewing machine for her millenary and seamtress shop. The book  is available in eBook and paperback.



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