Stitches in Time: - - - - - - - - -
- - - - - 100 Years of Machines and Sewing

June 4 - September 26, 2004

Intro - - - Technology - - - Machines - - - Impact - - - Quotes - - - Inventors

Impact of the sewing machine

Social effects --- Quilting --- Toy sewing machines --- Sheet music

The sewing machine brought about a profound change: the loss of hand sewing skills. Girls born before 1860 spent their childhood and adolescence learning to sew a fine seam. Once the machine was available workmanship steadily declined.

The sewing machine, like most products of the Industrial Revolution, had both positive and negative effects on American life.

Q: What magazine was started in 1876 by a tailor to promote his dress patterns?
A: McCall's. Started by tailor James McCall, it was originally a pamphlet called The Queen, Illustrated Magazine of Fashions. It was renamed McCall's in the 1890s. In 2001, after 125 years, it was reincarnated as TV personality Rosie O'Donnell's magazine, Rosie. The magazine suspended publication after the December, 2002 issue.

Social effects


The development of the sewing machine for factory use in the 1850s revolutionized the shoe and garment industries. Production moved from homes and small shops into large, machine-controlled environments dominated by impersonal management. Production increased and prices fell, but workers suffered loss of independence, lower wages and sometimes, harsh working conditions -- even sweat shops. Hundreds more faced unemployment.

The Civil War reduced machines' manufacture, but increased demand greatly. The need for clothing and supplies for soldiers increased the use of machines both in factories and homes.

After the war, continuing social upheaval brought about by the harsh conditions of factory production contributed to large-scale unrest and the organization of workers into unions. Eventually the government set standards for the workplace.


In a quieter, more "lady-like" way, sewing machines also revolutionized the domestic scene.

Although some ready-made clothing was available as early Roman times, until the late 19th century housewives made nearly all the family's clothing. According to Godey's Lady's Book, it took about 14 hours to make a man's dress shirt and at least 10 hours for a simple dress. A middle-class housewife spent several days a month making and mending her family's clothes even with hired help.

With the use of a sewing machine those hours dropped to one and a quarter hours for the shirt and one hour for the simple dress. In fact, the sewing machine's greater efficiency made it possible for a housewife to "take in sewing" for extra money just as women took in washing.

Still other women found careers in the business world as sewing machine demonstrators and saleswomen.

The sewing machine was only the first of many labor-saving devices for the home; washing machines, dryers, dishwashers and vacuum cleaners all made housework easier and cut down on work time. As an important side effect, hired help disappeared and woman's role as household manager diminished. This gradual loss of status helped to undermine the satisfaction many women formerly found in the homemaking role and encouraged them to seek more demanding employment in other places.


The word "quilt" has come to have several meanings. To some it means any cotton-looking blanket, while to others it is an artistically rendered hand-made blanket or bed covering. Technically, a quilt is a bed covering that is made of two layers of fabric with a thin interlining between. This is all held together with rows of stitches that pass through the three layers. It is this stitching that is accurately called quilting.

Quilts in the machine age

It was about 1880, when sewing machines became widespread, that machine stitching appeared in quilts -- for applique, quilting and binding.

The sewing machine influenced quilting in two ways. First, it relieved the homemaker of the tedious business of hand-sewing all the garments and textiles her household required. She could spend more time stitching fancy handwork -- some of which was quilting. It is no coincidence that the crazy quilt fad began in the 1880s.

Second, sewing machines enabled the homemaker to explore the new technology to make quilts. She could piece complex, geometric patterns much more easily and precisely with a sewing machine. Quilt historian Jonathan Holstein estimates that almost half of the quilts he has seen that were made after 1870 show evidence of machine stitching in either the piecing or the application of borders and binding. Borders, in particular, distinguish machine made quilts from hand-stitched ones. These long strips of fabrics were tiresome to sew by hand but easy to stitch with a machine.

In the early years of mechanization, people took pride in mechanical devices. To emphasize the fact that she was using a sewing machine, the quilter might use threads of a different color to quilt and to give prominence to the quilting stitch as well as for decorative purposes. Quilts of the period frequently show white thread quilting on red, green or brown materials.

In the 20th century curved designs, wave patterns and spirals became easier because of the introduction of jigs, supporting the quilt as it passed under the needle.

Toy sewing machines

Little girls have long been able to learn the art of domestic sewing with toy sewing machines. These interesting and highly detailed vintage machines are often mistakenly identified as salesmen's samples, but they were made and marketed as toys.

The FW Muller factory in Berlin began producing ornate cast iron toy machines in 1888. They packaged some turn-of-the-century models with a bisque doll and accessories - one made for the French market was titled "La Petite Couturiere" and a German example, "Die Fleissige Puppenschneiderin" (The Busy Tailor Doll).

Early on, Singer realized the importance of marketing their products and their name to young girls and their mothers. They made their first toy sewing machine, the 4-spoke, in the early 1900s. They were so popular in their day that other toy sewing machine makers copied the Singer design, and many American and foreign manufacturers produced a host of "look-alikes" over the years.

Singer continued the tradition of promoting the company in this way right up to their last model, which they had made for them in Turkey in the 1980s.








Sheet music

Sheet music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected the popularity of the sewing machine. Themes included patriotism (Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers), industrial competition (Battle of the Sewing Machines), appreciation and/or promotion (New Home, Sewing Machine Gallop), comedy, industrial reform (Song of the Shirt), social relations (Sewing Machine Waltz) and more. And the music helped to establish the machines as popular and trendy consumer goods.

A final note: The 1965 Beatles film Help! was dedicated to Elias Howe, "who in 1846 invented the sewing machine." The film is a spoof of the James Bond-style action movie.
Go figure!


Intro - - - Technology - - - Machines - - - Impact - - - Quotes - - - Inventors

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