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Thursday, December 15, 2011

All Sewed Up

Sewing, as both an art form and an essential life skill, dates back thousands of years. Early sewing needles were made of animal bone. Thread was made of animal sinew.

For centuries, hand-sewing was the means of holding pieces of animal skin, fur, and later fabric together to form clothing. And then things changed.

In 1790, Englishman Thomas Saint obtained the first patent for a design for a machine for sewing. His idea was modified by others from France, Austria and Germany in the early 1800s. Then in 1818, John Knowles and John Adams Doge invented the first American sewing machine. Unfortunately, it stopped working before much fabric could be stitched.

In 1830, a French tailor named Barthelemy Thimonnier developed a machine to produce chain stitching. Unfortunately, his invention angered his fellow tailors. They were afraid this new machine would put them out of jobs, so they burned his factory.

American Walter Hunt built a sewing machine in 1834, but he, too, feared it would cause unemployment. He abandoned the idea.

In 1846, the first American patent for a sewing machine was issued to Elias Howe. His machine combined thread from two sources and secured it through loops.

By this time, other inventors were introducing similar machines to the market. Isaac M. Singer was one of the inventors. He developed a dual thread-source machine that operated with an up-and-down mechanism and was powered by the pumping of a foot treadle similar to that of a spinning wheel. Earlier sewing machines used hand cranks.

Singer and others were subsequently sued by Elias Howe for patent infringement and lost, but Singer continued to experiment with sewing machine development. In 1858, Singer abandoned the idea of producing industrial sewing machines (the industry didn’t seem to want them) and focused on producing a consumer sewing machine that could be used in the home. He received 20 additional patents, spent big bucks on advertising, and created a system that combined sales and service. Soon Singer was mass producing the machines and achieving commercial success.

Singer, who trained as a machinist and cabinet-maker, put expensive price tags on his home sewing machines. He charged $75-$120 at a time when the average annual household income in America was about $500.00. He then introduced a new concept – installment-plan payments – and the sales of his sewing machines skyrocketed. He set up a corporate office and a manufacturing facility in New York City. Sales of his sewing machines in Europe made Singer Manufacturing Company an international entity, and the company continued to grow.

By 1860, his company was the world’s largest manufacturer of sewing machines. He retired to Europe three years later – the same year his company sold more than 20,000 home sewing machines. Singer’s home sewing innovations saved time and changed the way average Americans sewed for their families. They were the first of many time-saving devices (like washing machines and vacuum cleaners) that changed the way Americans did household tasks.

Time passed, and the price of home sewing machines dropped, but sewing machines were still viewed by many as a luxury item. Wage-earners were hesitant to invest such a large sum of money into sewing machines, but Singer was a marketing genius. In addition to offering installment payments, he had retailers do lots of hands-on demonstrations, plus he offered lessons with each machine sold.

More than 170,000 machines were sold in 1870 – the year Singer’s red “S” trademark was introduced. In 1880, more than 500,000 machines were sold. Additional factories were opened throughout Europe and Canada, and new machine models were introduced. The company has now been in business for 160 years and has remained an innovator throughout its history -- even with the rise of competing companies and products.

I thought about all of this recently as Christmas approached. In 1966, all I wanted for Christmas was a sewing machine. I’d watched Mom and Grandma make beautiful creations with their respective Singer sewing machines. My eight-year-old self wanted to be creative, too, and make clothes for my Barbie and Chatty Cathy dolls.

I could hardly believe my eyes Christmas morning when I spotted a large yellow box under the Christmas tree with my name on it. I opened it carefully to find a small portable Singer sewing machine – a lot like Mom’s and just right for small hands. My interest in sewing began that day and continues today.

Through the years I took sewing lessons, became a regular at local fabric shops, and made everything from color guard clothing, purses and Cub Scout vests to bridesmaid dresses and Christmas ornaments. There’s just something extremely satisfying about creating with a needle and thread.

As a young adult, I “inherited” a circa 1890 Singer sewing machine in a beautiful wooden cabinet – complete with a set of tiny tools and attachments in a small wooden box. Very ornate. Things just aren’t made that way today!

I introduced my kids to the sewing machine at early ages, always encouraging a healthy respect for the moving sharp needle. Somehow, no one ever stitched a finger.

A relative gave my daughter a child-size Singer sewing machine in the mid-1990s. The Singer Company had made many changes and addressed safety issues since the production of my first machine. She enjoyed creating things for her dolls and stuffed animals. It didn’t matter if the seams were crooked or the tension adjusted too tight. She was creating and her efforts were beautiful.

She took several clothing construction classes in high school with wonderful teachers who encouraged her creativity. She said she found sewing to be a relaxing activity. She learned the basics on Bernina sewing machines made in Switzerland.

Now a fashion merchandising major, she continues to enjoy sewing one-of-a-kind clothing items. And for her birthday this year, she received a Bernina 215 sewing computer – complete with an LCD display screen and numerous stitch selection buttons and choices. She can manipulate the “computer” and get it to do tasks I didn’t know home machines could do. And yet the concept of interlocking thread from two sources and the use of a sharp needle remains – just like in Isaac Singer’s day.

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I will this year. While I'm not ready to give up my basic 1950s Singer sewing machine, I do want to learn to use at least some of that Bernina computer’s settings and functions. I may not be able to use it with my daughter’s ease and confidence, but I’m going to try. Wonder what Mr. Singer would think?

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