As you Sew


Sewing Machine
Sewing Machine


  • How do sewing machines work?
  • Who invented it?
  • How the automated process was almost killed by a Mob?
  • This week in Invisible History: Locomotion Number 1. Domain: Public Transport.
  • Discuss the article here.

Take a moment to look closely at what you're wearing. On average, a single t-shirt contains more than 1000 individual stitches. Multiply that across the average American wardrobe which has around 100 items, and you're looking at more than 130 thousand total stitches. Now imagine having to sew each stitch by hand. If you weren't already grateful for the astonishing speed of the sewing machine, you might be now. Did you ever wonder just how does a sewing machine work?

It might help to think about how we sew by hand. The easiest stitch to learn is the running stitch. That's the stitch you've probably used to mend your favourite blouse. You stab a threaded needle into the fabric, run it over and pull it back through the material. If you're wondering how in the world you could get a machine to replicate that motion, you are asking the right question.

The comedy of inventions

During the early part of the 19th century, those early days of prototyping machines that could sew as sewists read like a comedy of errors. For instance, take German inventor Balthazar Krems whose patent lists kept sewing contraption. But by all accounts, it never actually worked. Then take Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger. He succeeded in earning a patent for his take on a sewing machine, but there's a twist. Unfortunately, the patent expired before he could commercialise it. To make up for his mistake, he tried and built a machine that finally worked. But before he could commercialise it again, he ran out of money. Then there was the French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier who neared something resembling success, only to escape death narrowly when a French mob attacked him. The group consisted of tailors who feared being put out of work because of this invention.

Howie's machine
Howe's Sewing Machine

It wouldn't be until 1845 that the modern sewing machine would start to take shape. It was then that American inventor Elias Howe made a breakthrough. Instead of trying to recreate the sewing motion of a human hand working with a single source of thread, he designed a process that used two sources of thread. Howe, unfortunately, struggled to spark interest in his machine, and imitators began to take liberties with the design. The most successful innovation was the use of an up-down sewing motion instead of the side-to-side variation, the man credited for that advancement was none other than Isaac Singer - founder of the successful manufacturer of sewing machines.

Through the eye of a needle

The mechanism of the machine that Singer introduced is still in use. What was the secret to Singer's lasting success? The modern sewing machine features three key components: a needle mechanism providing one source of thread, a bobbin and shuttle mechanism providing a second source of thread and a mechanism that keeps fabric moving under the needle. A threaded needle pushes through the fabric pulling a single upper thread along with it. Unlike the eye of handheld needles, the eye of sewing machine needles is located near the tip. This allows the needle to push the thread in and out of the fabric without having to go through itself. The video below can explain the whole process in detail.

As the needle rises, the thread folds into a tiny loop. A shuttle hook catches this loop. This hook carries the line a full circle until it catches on a second lower thread streaming from the bobbin. Together the upper and lower threads form a knot that tightens as the needle completes its upstroke just before the cycle begins again. The metal bars known as feed dogs, nudge the fabric forward. A foot pedal gives users control of the sewing speed much like the gas pedal on a car. When synchronized just right, these mechanisms can produce more than 1,000 stitches a minute.


Although the sewing mechanism has remained more or less the same over the past century and a half, sewing machines have surely gotten a lot smarter. Today's computerized sewing machines can save sewing data from reproducing any design faithfully. Some can even be uploaded. With custom patterns for sewing or embroidery, it's a bit like 3d printing in textiles but lest history repeats itself don't expect the machines to take over just yet. Many designers and clothing companies find that there is still no substitute for human touch. The complexity of modern garments is too much for today's sewing machines, even if it is integrated with robotics to handle all on their own. So next time you find yourself peeking in the closet or the mirror take a moment to appreciate both the human and machine power that keeps you looking effortlessly fashionable.

This week in Invisible history.

As stated in the previous article, the topic of this article is the answer to the previous clue. Only two people could guess the answer correctly. Radhika Oguri (Editor of the blog :P) and Sanjay Pitadia (Instagram.)

Howe commemorative
Howe commemorative, 1940

On 9th September 1846, Elias Howe of Spencer, Massachusetts, received a patent for his hand-cranked sewing machine. Isaac Singer patented one five years later. Howe sued Singer for infringement and won, but by that time Singer was well ahead in the sewing machine business. That is why the machines that we use today are a derivation of Singer’s claim.

The clue for the next week is “Locomotion number 1.” The domain is Public transport.

See you next weekend!

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Reference links

  1. A Brief History of the Sewing Machine
  2. Who invented the first sewing machine?
  3. The short history of early pedal powered machines
  4. HistoryWired: A Few of Our Favorite Things


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