Does sewing defy mechanisation?

The eccentric engineer: dreaming up the sewing machine

Image credit: Getty Images

Many people have tried to mechanise sewing, but Elias Howe is remembered as the inventor of the modern lockstitch sewing machine.

Elias Howe had dreams of a career in the textile industry and became an apprentice in a textile factory in 1835. However, his ambitions did not pan out quite as he had hoped. Just two years into his apprenticeship, the financial panic of 1837 bankrupted his factory, and he was forced to move to Cambridge Massachusetts, where he worked in a carding factory before finding an apprenticeship with a master engineer who specialised in the construction and repair of scientific instruments.

The combination of working in precision engineering and a background in cloth production seems to have inspired Howe’s great idea. He would invent a machine for sewing. There was a problem with this, of course. The sewing machine had already been invented – lots of times. The first patented machine appeared in London in 1790, bizarrely 35 years after another patent for the first needle for a sewing machine.

There were problems with these other machines, too. There is not much evidence that some of them were ever actually constructed, and those that were could only produce a short run of stitching before requiring laborious resetting. So, the title of ‘inventor of the sewing machine’ was still up for grabs and Howe wanted it for himself.

His idea was to create a machine that would repeatedly twist two threads together between a fabric to create a lockstitch. This presented him with three problems. Firstly, how do you get the two threads to come together without forming a huge knot? Secondly, how do you keep the fabric moving on at a steady pace, and thirdly – perhaps most importantly of all – how do you get the needle to carry the thread through the cloth?

This last problem might seem the easiest, but the trouble with traditional needles was that they had their eye in the wrong place, at the heel. This bothered Howe. Indeed, a somewhat emotional retrospective in Popular Mechanics from 1905 claims the problem took up his thoughts day and night and almost beggared him. Perhaps all these late nights of worrying made him tired, and that was fortunate, as the answer was to come to him in a dream, according to his family’s published history.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when Howe fell asleep, he dreamed he was trying to invent a sewing machine, but the odds were raised. He wasn’t in America any more, but in a distant land where a brutal king was, for reasons that are lost to us, demanding that he make a working sewing machine, or else. Having been given just 24 hours to solve the problem, Howe worked through the night, but the solution evaded him.

At dawn, the guards arrived to carry him off to his execution, but as he walked his doleful way towards death, he noticed that the guards each carried a spear with a hole near the point.
That was it! That was where to place the eye of the machine needle. Howe jolted awake at 4am and ran to his workshop, and by 9 that morning had created his first machine needle.

Having had a fairy-tale beginning, one might have hoped that it would be plain sailing for Howe, but sadly not. With the patent secured, he tried to interest the tailoring trade by running a competition setting his machines against the fastest hand-sewers in America. The machine won, but not a single sale resulted. In some ways he was lucky. Another ‘inventor of the sewing machine’, Barthelemy Thimonnier, had previously set up a factory with 80 machines only to have a mob of angry tailors storm the place and destroy the lot.

Howe’s business was only saved from bankruptcy when a London corset-maker brought him and his brother to England to further develop the machine, but Elias soon returned home, disappointed with developments.

Here he got another surprise. Sewing machines were now everywhere – all using his patent without his permission. In particular, the Singer company was selling an almost identical copy and Howe was forced to defend his patent in a case lasting five years. Curiously, in this case of small inventor versus large corporation, Howe won, and Singer was forced to hand over substantial royalties. That is unusual, unless you were Englishman John Fisher, who had patented a working sewing machine in 1844, the year before Howe, but having had it misfiled, it could not be found when the legal actions kicked off.

At this point the American Civil War intervened and Howe spent much of his windfall fitting out his Union regiment. Just two years after he was demobbed in 1865, he died aged just 48.

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