A sewing machine is a mechanical (or electromechanical) device that joins fabric
using thread. Sewing machines make a stitch, called a sewing-machine stitch, usually
using two threads although machines exist that stitch using one, three, four or more
threads. As a lad these wonderful machines interested me. Later, I collected a few,
simply because some of the oldies are so beautiful.
Sewing machines can make a great variety of plain or patterned stitches. They include
means for gripping, supporting, and conveying the fabric past the sewing needle to
form the stitch pattern. Most home sewing machines, as with many industrial machines,
use a two thread stitch called the lockstitch. Some older machine types are chain
stitch machines and sergers.
The fabric shifting mechanism may be a simple workguide or may be pattern-controlled
(e.g., jacquard type). Some machines can create embroidery-type stitches. Some have
a work holder frame. Some have a workfeeder that can move along a curved path, while
others have a workfeeder with a work clamp.
History of the sewing machine
Before the invention of a usable machine for sewing or dress design, everything was
sewn by hand. Most early attempts tried to replicate this hand sewing method and
were generally a failure. Some looked to embroidery, where the needle was used to
produce decorative, not joining stitches. This needle was altered to create a fine
steel hook – called an agulha in Portugal and aguja in Spain. This was called a crochet
in France and could be used to create a form of chain stitch. This was possible because
when the needle was pushed partly through fabric and withdrawn, it left a loop of
thread. The following stitch would pass through this first loop whilst creating a
loop of its own for the next stitch, this resembled a chain – hence the name.
The first known attempt at a mechanical device for sewing was by the German born
Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal, who was working in England. He was awarded British Patent
No. 701 in 1755 for a double pointed needle with an eye at one end. This needle was
designed to be passed through the cloth by a pair of mechanical fingers and grasped
on the other side by a second pair. This method of recreating the hand sewing method
suffered from the problem of the needle going right through the fabric, meaning the
full length of the thread had to do so as well. The mechanical limitations meant
that the thread had to be kept short, needing frequent stops to renew the supply.
In 1790 British Patent No. 1764 was awarded to Thomas Saint, a cabinetmaker of London.
Due to several other patents dealing with leather and products to treat leather,
the patent was filed under "Glues & Varnishes" and was not discovered until 1873
by Mr. Newton Wilson. Wilson built a replica to the patent's specifications and it
had to be heavily modified before the machine would stitch – suggesting that Saint
never actually made a machine of his own. Saint's design had the overhead arm for
the needle and a form of tensioning system, which was to become a common feature
of later machines.
There were various attempts and patents awarded for chain stitch machines of varying
types from 1795-1830, none of which were used to any degree of success – many of
which didn't work correctly at all. A French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier made the
next major breakthrough. He did not try to replicate the human hand stitch, looking
instead for a way of finding a stitch, which could be made quickly and easily by
machine. His machine worked by using a horizontal arm mounted on a vertical reciprocating
bar, the needle-bar projected from the end of the horizontal arm.
The cloth was supported on a hollow, horizontal fixed arm, with a hole on the topside,
which the needle projected through at the lowest part of its stroke. Inside the arm
was a hook, which partly rotated at each stroke in order to wrap the thread (fed
from the bobbin onto the hook) around the needle at each stroke. The needle then
carried the thread back through the cloth with the upward motion of its stroke. This
formed the chain stitch, which held the cloth together.
The machine was powered by means of a foot pedal. The easiest way to describe this
is to picture the machine working upside-down from how sewing machines are generally
thought of today – the stitch was formed on the top of the cloth, not the bottom
as with most other chain stitch machine made since. Thimonnier was awarded a French
patent in 1830 and 80 of these machines were installed in a factory in Paris to stitch
Soldiers clothing. Other tailors concerned for their livelihood invaded the factory
and smashed the machines.
Chain stitch has one major drawback – it is very weak, the stitch can easily be pulled
apart. A stitch more suited to machine production was needed, it was found in the
lock stitch. A lock stitch is created by two separate threads interlocking through
the two layers of fabric, resulting in a stitch, which looks the same from both sides
of the fabric. Although the credit for the lock stitch machine is generally given
to Elias Howe, Walter Hunt first developed it over ten years before in 1834. His
machine used an eye-pointed needle (with the eye and the point on the same end) carrying
the upper thread, and a shuttle carrying the lower thread. The curved needle moved
through the fabric horizontally, leaving the loop as it withdrew. The shuttle passed
through the loop, interlocking the thread. The feed let the machine down – requiring
the machine to be stopped frequently to set up again. Hunt grew bored with his machine
and sold it without bothering to patent it.
Singer sewing machine
Elias Howe patented his machine in 1846; using a similar method to Hunt's, except
the fabric was held vertically. The major improvement he made was to put a groove
in the needle running away from the point, starting from the eye. After a lengthy
stint in England trying to attract interest for his machine he returned to America
to find various people infringing his patent. He eventually won his case in 1854
and was awarded the right to claim royalties from the manufacturers using ideas covered
in his patent. Isaac Merritt Singer has become synonymous with the sewing machine.
Trained as an engineer, he saw a rotary sewing machine being repaired in a Boston
shop. He thought it to be clumsy and promptly set out to design a better one. His
machine used a flying shuttle instead of a rotary one; the needle was mounted vertically
and included a presser foot to hold the cloth in place. It had a fixed arm to hold
the needle and included a basic tensioning system.
This machine combined elements of Thimonnier’s, Hunts and Howe’s machines. He was
granted an American Patent in 1851 and it was suggested he patent the foot pedal
(or Treadle) used to power some of his machines, however it had been in use for too
long for a patent to be issued. When Howe learned of Singer’s machine he took him
to court. Howe won and Singer was forced to pay a lump sum for all machines already
produced. Singer then took out a license under Howe’s patent and paid him $15 per
machine. Singer then entered a joint partnership with a lawyer named Edward Clark,
and they formed the first hire purchase scheme to allow people to afford their machines.
Meanwhile Mr. Allen Wilson had developed a reciprocating shuttle, which was an improvement
over Singer’s and Howe’s. However, John Bradshaw had patented a similar device and
was threatening to sue. Wilson decided to change track and try a new method. He went
into partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler to produce a machine with a rotary hook instead
of a shuttle. This was far quieter and smoother than the other methods and the Wheeler
and Wilson Company produced more machines in 1850s and 1860s than any other manufacturer.
Wilson also invented the four-motion feed mechanism; this is still seen on every
machine today. This had a forward, down, back, and up motion, which drew the cloth
through in an even and smooth motion.
Through the 1850s more and more companies were being formed and were trying to sue
each other. Charles Miller patented the first machine to stitch buttonholes (US10609).
In 1856 the Sewing Machine Combination was formed, consisting of Singer, Howe, Wheeler
and Wilson, and Grover and Baker. These four companies pooled their patents, meaning
that all the other manufacturers had to obtain a license and pay $15 per machine.
This lasted until 1877 when the last patent expired.
James Edward Allen Gibbs (1829-19502), a farmer from Raphine in Rockbridge County,
Virginia who patented the first chain-stitch single-thread sewing machine on June
2, 1857. In partnership with James Wilcox, Gibbs became a principal in Wilcox & Gibbs
Sewing Machine Company. Wilcox & Gibbs commercial sewing machines are still made
and used in the 21st century.
Sewing machines continued being made to roughly the same design, with more lavish
decoration appearing until well into the 1900s when the first electric machines started
to appear. At first these were standard machines with a motor strapped on the side.
As more homes gained power, these became more popular and the motor was gradually
introduced into the casing.
Modern machines are computer controlled and use stepper motors or sequential cams
to achieve very complex patterns. Most of these are now made in Asia and the market
is becoming more specialized, as fewer families own a sewing machine.
Needle plate, foot and transporter of a sewing machine
Without the sewing machine, the world would be a very different place. Like the automobile,
the cotton gin and countless other innovations from the past 300 years, the sewing
machine takes something time-consuming and laborious and makes it fast and easy.
With the invention of the mechanized sewing machine, manufacturers could suddenly
produce piles of high-quality clothing at minimal expense. Because of this technology,
the vast majority of people in the world can now afford the sort of sturdy, finely-stitched
clothes that were a luxury only 200 years ago.
In this article, we'll take look at the remarkable machine that makes all of this
possible. As it turns out, the automated stitching mechanism at the heart of a sewing
machine is incredibly simple, though the machinery that drives it is fairly elaborate,
relying on an assembly of gears, pulleys and motors to function properly. When you
get down to it, the sewing machine is among the most elegant and ingenious tools
Sewing machines are something like cars: There are hundreds of models on the market,
and they vary considerably in price and performance. At the low-end of the scale,
there are conventional no-frills electric designs, ideal for occasional home use;
at the high-end, there are sophisticated electronic machines that hook up to a computer.
Textile companies have many machines to choose from, including streamlined models
specifically designed to sew one particular product.
But just like cars, most sewing machines are built around one basic idea. Where the
heart of a car is the internal combustion engine, the heart of a sewing machine is
the loop stitching system.
The loop stitch approach is very different from ordinary hand-sewing. In the simplest
hand stitch, a length of thread is tied to a small eye at the end of a needle. The
sewer passes the needle and the attached thread all the way through two pieces of
fabric, from one side to the other and back again. In this way, the needle runs the
thread in and out of the fabric pieces, binding them together.
While this is easy enough to do by hand, it is extremely difficult to pull off with
a machine. The machine would have to release the needle on one side of the fabric
just as it grabbed it again on the other side. Then it would have to pull the entire
length of loose thread through the fabric, turn the needle around and do the whole
thing in reverse. This process is way too complicated and unwieldy for a simple machine,
and even by hand it only works well with short lengths of thread.
Instead, sewing machines pass the needle only part-way through the fabric. On a machine
needle, the eye is right behind the sharp point, rather than at the end.
The needle is fastened to the needle bar, which is driven up and down by the motor
via a series of gears and cams (more on this later).
When the point passes through the fabric, it pulls a small loop of thread from one
side to the other. A mechanism underneath the fabric grabs this loop and wraps it
around either another piece of thread or another loop in the same piece of thread.
In the next couple of sections, we'll see exactly how this system works.
Lock and Chain
In the last section, we saw that the heart of a sewing machine is the loop stitch.
There are actually several different types of loop stitches, and they all work a
The simplest loop stitch is the chain stitch. To sew a chain stitch, the sewing machine
loops a single length of thread back on itself. You can see how one version of this
stitch works in the diagram below.
The fabric, sitting on a metal plate underneath the needle, is held down by a presser
foot. At the beginning of each stitch, the needle pulls a loop of thread through
the fabric. A looper mechanism, which moves in synch with the needle, grabs the loop
of thread before the needle pulls up. Once the needle has pulled out of the fabric,
the feed dog mechanism (which we'll examine later) pulls the fabric forward.
When the needle pushes through the fabric again, the new loop of thread passes directly
through the middle of the earlier loop. The looper grabs the thread again and loops
it around the next thread loop. In this way, every loop of thread holds the next
loop in place.
The main advantage of the chain stitch is that it can be sewn very quickly. It is
not especially sturdy, however, since the entire seam can come undone if one end
of the thread is loosened. Most sewing machines use a sturdier stitch known as the
lock-stitch. You can see how the typical lock-stitch mechanism works in the animation
The most important element of a lock-stitch mechanism is the shuttle hook and bobbin
assembly. The bobbin is just a spool of thread positioned underneath the fabric.
It sits in the middle of a shuttle, which is rotated by the machine's motor in synch
with the motion of the needle.
Just as in a chain-stitch machine, the needle pulls a loop of thread through the
fabric, rises again as the feed dogs move the fabric along, and then pushes another
loop in. But instead of joining the different loops together, the stitching mechanism
joins them to another length of thread that unspools from the bobbin.
When the needle pushes a loop through the thread, the rotary shuttle grips the loop
with a hook. As the shuttle rotates, it pulls the loop around the thread coming from
the bobbin. This makes for a very sturdy stitch.
In the next section, we'll see how the sewing machine moves all of these components
Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine
The General Assembly
The conventional electric sewing machine is a fascinating piece of engineering. If
you were to take the outer casing off, you would see a mass of gears, cams, cranks
and belts, all driven by a single electric motor. The exact configuration of these
elements varies a good deal from machine to machine, but they all work on a similar
idea. The diagram below shows a fairly standard lock-stitch design.
In this diagram, the electric motor is connected to a drive wheel by way of a drive
belt. The drive wheel rotates the long upper drive shaft, which is connected to several
different mechanical elements. The end of the shaft turns a crank, which pulls the
needle bar up and down. The crank also moves the thread-tightening arm. Moving in
synch with the needle bar, the tightening arm lowers to create enough slack for a
loop to form underneath the fabric, then pulls up to tighten the loop after it is
released from the shuttle hook.
The thread runs from a spool on the top of the machine, through the tightening arm
and through a tension disc assembly. By turning the disc assembly, the sewer can
tighten the thread feeding into the needle. The tension must be tighter when sewing
thinner fabric and looser when sewing thicker fabric.
The first element along the shaft is a simple belt that turns a lower drive shaft.
The end of the lower drive shaft is connected to a set of bevel gears that rotates
the shuttle assembly. Since both are connected to the same drive shaft, the shuttle
assembly and the needle assembly always move in unison.
The lower drive shaft also moves linkages that operate the feed dog mechanism. One
linkage slides the feed dog forward and backward with each cycle. At the same time,
another linkage moves the feed dog up and down. The two linkages are synchronized
so that the feed dog presses up against the fabric, shifts it forward, and then moves
down to release the fabric. The feed dog then shifts backward before pressing up
against the fabric again to repeat the cycle.
The motor is controlled by a foot pedal, which lets the sewer vary the speed easily.
The cool thing about this design is that everything is linked together, so when you
press on the pedal, the motor speeds all of the processes up at the same rate. The
process is always perfectly synchronized, no matter how fast the motor is turning.
The sewing machine shown in the diagram can only produce a straight stitch -- a simple
stitch that binds fabric with a straight seam. Most modern machines are a lot more
flexible; they can produce a variety of stitches and, in some cases, can make complex
designs. In the next section, we'll see how modern machines pull this off.
In the last section, we looked at the machinery inside a conventional electric sewing
machine. One important addition to this basic design is the ability to sew different
sorts of stitches. The typical stitch options for a conventional sewing machine are
variations on the zig-zag stitch. The zig-zag stitch is exactly what it sounds like:
a stich with a jagged line.
This zig-zag stitch is fairly simple to achieve. All you have to do is move the needle
assembly from side to side at the same time that it is moving up and down. In a conventional
electric machine, the needle bar is attached to an additional linkage, which is moved
by a cam on the main drive shaft. When the linkage is engaged, the rotating cam shifts
the linkage from side to side. The linkage tilts the needle bar back and forth horizontally
in synch with the up and down motion.
Things work a little differently in the modern machine. Today's high-end home sewing
machines have built-in computers, as well as small monitor displays for easier operation.
In these models, the computer directly controls several different motors, which precisely
move the needle bar, the tensioning discs, the feed dog and other elements in the
machine. With this fine control, it is possible to produce hundreds of different
stitches. The computer drives the motors at just the right speed to move the needle
bar up and down and from side to side in a particular stitch pattern. Typically,
the computer programs for different stitches are stored in removable memory disks
or cartridges. The sewing-machine computer may also hook up to a PC in order to download
patterns directly from the Internet.
Some electronic sewing machines also have the ability to create complex embroidery
patterns. These machines have a motorized work area that holds the fabric in place
underneath the needle assembly. They also have a series of sensors that tell the
computer how all of the machine components are positioned. By precisely moving the
work area forward, backward and side to side while adjusting the needle assembly
to vary the stitching style, the computer can produce an infinite number of elaborate
shapes and lines. The sewer simply loads a pattern from memory or creates an original
one, and the computer does almost everything else. The computer prompts the sewer
to replace the thread or make any other adjustments when necessary.
Obviously, this sort of high-tech sewing machine is a lot more complex than the fully
manual sewing machines of 200 years ago, but they are both built around the same
simple stitching system: A needle passes a loop of thread through a piece of fabric,
where it is wound around another length of thread. This ingenious method was one
of those rare, inspired ideas that changed the world forever.