Who invented the sewing machine? The answer is more complicated than you might think. Like a lot of great ideas, the evolution of the sewing machine is a series of inventions, innovations, improvements and hacks. And one can’t simply ask what year was the sewing machine invented, because it took place over a long period of time.
In fact, the evolution continues to this day.
Why Was the Sewing Machine Invented?
People have been sewing by hand for a very long time. The oldest sewing needle on record is 50,000 years old. The needle is made out of bird bone, and wasn’t crafted by Homo Sapiens, but by the Denisovans, one of two other humanoid species alive at the time. 
The sewing machine, by contrast, is a fairly recent development. Although many people were involved in its evolution, and that evolution is still continuing today, we can trace the first sewing machines to the end of the 18th century.
The Industrial Revolution
The 18th and 19th centuries in Europe were a time of rapid and widespread scientific and technological development. The Industrial Revolution saw the mechanization of many handicrafts, as well as a shift from rural to urban life. Nowhere was this revolution more noticeable than in the textile industry. 
The invention of new technologies like the flying shuttle (1733), the spinning jenny (1770), and the power loom (1785) made fabric production faster and more efficient. It’s only natural that the market would demand faster and more efficient sewing technology as well. [3, 4, 5]
The Calico Acts
During the 17th century, British factories in India produced around one quarter of the world’s textiles, primarily cotton. Eventually these factories began to produce finished cotton products as well. These imports were less expensive than the wool and linen clothing produced in Britain. This proved to be a grave threat to Britain’s domestic textile and garment industries.
The Calico Acts of 1700 and 1721 banned the import and sale of finished cotton products, though it was still legal to import raw cotton. Eventually a new, cotton-based textile industry developed in Britain. 
By the time the Calico Acts were repealed in 1774, Britain had its own thriving cotton goods industry. This new industry fueled the development of new spinning, weaving, and later sewing technologies.
In addition to technological and political developments, shifting market forces were at work. The influx of workers to cities meant increased demand for cheaper, ready-made clothing. The rise of a new, urban consumer class also added to this demand. The less expensive fabric was there; people just needed a faster way to turn it into clothing and household items.
Who Invented the Sewing Machine?
Who was the inventor of the sewing machine? It’s difficult to point to a single person, as so many people, from a surprising number of disciplines and backgrounds, contributed to the technologies that led to it.
Like so many inventions, the development of the sewing machine is a story of good ideas that, more often than not, took many years and many different attempts to catch on. The story of the sewing machine illustrates the sad truth that a good idea doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate market success.
Rather, success is the harmonious convergence of ideas, personalities, and luck. And sometimes a bit of strategic patent infringement.
Let’s have a look.
Charles Frederick Wiesenthal
Charles Frederick Wiesenthal was a German inventor in the 18th century. While living in Britain, he invented the first known mechanical sewing device, though it wasn’t a sewing machine as we know it.
In 1755, he also invented a double pointed machine sewing needle with an eye at one end, for which he received a British patent.
In 1790, English cabinet maker Thomas Saint designed and patented a hand-cranked device for sewing leather with a chain stitch. His design had the arm that we’re so familiar with, a feed mechanism, a needle bar, and a looping mechanism. Many believe that Saint built a prototype, however, he never built his machine for sale.
In 1874, English engineer William Newton Wilson found Saint’s patent drawings and built a working sewing machine.
James Henderson, Thomas Stone, and John Duncan
1804 was a big year for sewing machine innovation. British engineers James Henderson and Thomas Stone built their version of a sewing machine. It didn’t work very well, unfortunately, and was quickly abandoned.
Also in this year, Scotsman John Duncan received a patent for a multi-needle embroidery machine. It, likewise, failed to catch on.
In 1810, Balthasar Krems invented a machine for sewing caps. It didn’t work very well, and he never patented it.
Josef Madersperger was an Austrian tailor. In 1814, he invented a machine that he called “the Sewing Hand.” This was one of several designs, none of which, unfortunately, caught on.
In 1839, Madersperger tried another design, which used chain stitching to imitate the process of weaving.
Rev. John Adams Dodge and John Knowles
The Reverend John Adams Dodge was an American pastor and inventor. He invented numerous items related to the production of horse collars. And, in 1818, along with John Knowles, he invented a sewing machine.
Dodge never pursued production, sale, or even a patent for his machine, as his duties as a pastor kept him too busy.
In 1830, French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier received a patent for his sewing machine. The machine used a barbed needle to puncture the fabric and pull the bottom thread back up to the surface.
Thimonnier started a factory, and intended to use his machine to make military uniforms. However, workers burned the factory down after he received the patent, as they were afraid the machine would put them out of work.
A copy of Barthélemy Thimonnier’s sewing machine from about 1830 can be seen on the left. Image courtesy of Panjigally via CreativeCommons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en
American Walter Hunt was a mechanic by trade, but he was also a prolific inventor. In addition to a lockstitch sewing machine (1833), he invented the safety pin (1849), a nail-making machine, a knife sharpener, a streetcar bell, and many other useful things. 
Hunt didn’t initially patent his sewing machine, fearing the machine’s production would put seamstresses out of work. Instead, he sold the rights to a businessman who abandoned the design, also without seeking a patent. When Elias Howe patented a sewing machine that contained elements of Hunt’s design in 1846, Howe initiated court proceedings against previous sewing machine designers, including Hunt.
The case ultimately recognized Hunt as the inventor, but because he never patented his machine, awarded intellectual property rights to Howe. In 1858, Isaac Singer, whose designs owed a lot to Hunt’s original design, agreed to pay Hunt $50,000.
Unfortunately, Hunt died before the first payment arrived.
Newton & Archibold
In 1841, British business partners Newton and Archibold introduced the eye-pointed needle, as well as the new technology of employing two pressing surfaces to hold pieces of fabric in position during sewing.
In 1842, John Greenough patented the first American sewing machine.
Englishman John Fisher managed to combine all of the successful elements of previous sewing machine models into a device that resembled today’s sewing machines. He filed his patent in 1844. Unfortunately, the patent office lost his paperwork, which meant that Isaac Merrit Singer was able to patent a very similar machine in 1851, and go on to fame and fortune.
American Elias Howe created the first American lockstitch machine, which he patented in 1846. But that’s only the beginning of his story.
While in England, drumming up interest in his machine, Isaac Merritt Singer and others were putting forth their own designs, some of which infringed on Howe’s patent in different ways. The resulting court case drew in numerous parties, including Singer and Walter Hunt. Howe won his case, and Singer was forced to pay Howe for a license under Howe’s patent.
Allen B. Wilson
Meanwhile, American Allen B. Wilson didn’t invent a sewing machine, but he did invent two technologies that improved existing designs. In 1850, Wilson invented the vibrating shuttle. In 1851, he invented the rotating shuttle.
Later in 1851, Wilson entered a partnership with Nathaniel Wheeler. Together they invented a rotary hook, which would replace the shuttle altogether. Wilson also invented a four-motion feed mechanism that is still part of many modern sewing machines.
Wheeler and Wilson then went into business producing sewing machines. Their enterprise was highly successful.
Also in the mid-19th century, American Charles Miller invented a buttonhole-stitching machine.
Isaac Merritt Singer
American entrepreneur Isaac Merritt Singer created an improved version of the sewing machines that existed at that time. He was granted a patent for it in 1851.
Ellen Curtis Demorest
Ellen Curtis Demorest is responsible for the invention and development of the paper pattern. She published a pattern catalog in 1860, Madame Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions. The catalog was so successful that by 1865, Demorest had built an all-female sales and distribution force 200 women strong.
She also used a lot of the profits from her company to support women’s rights and the abolition of slavery.
In 1873, American Helen Blanchard patented the first zig zag sewing machine. Blanchard would go on to found the Blanchard Overseam Company in 1881. She ultimately registered 28 patents, with 22 of them having to do with sewing machines. 
James Allen Edward Gibbs and James Willcox
American James Edward Allen Gibbs, a farmer, patented the first single-thread chain stitch sewing machine in 1867. He partnered with James Willcox to form the Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine Company. The Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine company closed in 1973, but their commercial sewing machines are still in use today.
But Who Invented the Sewing Machine First?
That’s a vague question with a lot of answers. Perhaps it’s time to sharpen the question.
You might ask, who was the original inventor of the sewing machine. Or who made the first working sewing machine? Or who patented the first sewing machine? What about the first sewing machine that went to market? Or the first that was mass produced?
Each of these questions has a different answer, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of this complex and contentious history.
Let’s have a look.
What Year Was the Sewing Machine Invented?
The very first mechanical device for sewing was invented in Britain in the mid-1700s. There’s no record that the inventor, Charles Frederick Wiesenthal, ever built a prototype. However, Wiesenthal did patent a sewing machine needle in 1755.
In 1790, Thomas Saint designed and patented a hand-cranked lockstitch sewing machine. He may or may not have built a prototype, but nearly 100 years later, another inventor built a working model based on Saint’s design.
In 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier patented a sewing machine design and built a factory, but his workers, fearful for their jobs, burnt it down.
In 1846 Elias Howe patented a sewing machine that incorporated elements from previous designs, including one that Walter Hunt had failed to patent. However, while Howe was in England trying to generate interest in his machine, Isaac Merritt Singer beat him to the punch with production.
In 1851, Singer patented his own design, which eventually went into production.
Who Patented the First Sewing Machine?
Ah, now that’s a bit easier to answer. The first sewing machine patent went to Englishman Thomas Saint in 1790.
But that’s not the end of the patent story. Numerous patents were filed in the years after that. A flurry of development in the mid-19th century resulted in a flurry of litigation that had an unprecedented ending.
The Sewing Machine War
In the mid 19th century, sewing machine manufacturers were springing up across the United States and England, and many times their claims to the intellectual property rights of various technologies overlapped. In the United States, the resulting patent thicket turned into a series of lengthy and expensive court battles.
In 1856, several of the major players, Singer, Howe, Wheeler, Wilson, and a company called Grover & Baker, formed a consortium called The Sewing Machine Combination to pool their patents. Other manufacturers had to license technologies covered by these patents from the consortium.
The Sewing Machine Combination, also called the Sewing Machine Trust, was the first patent pool in United States history. It lasted until 1877, when the last patent in the pool expired. The three most important patents in the pool were for the lockstitch, the four-motion feed, and the combination of a vertical needle used with a horizontal sewing surface.
What Role did Isaac Singer Play in the Invention of the Sewing Machine?
As we’ve seen, it’s not enough to merely have a good idea. And it’s not enough to patent your idea, or even to build a prototype. Success also means being in the right place at the right time, seeing opportunity, and acting on it.
Isaac Merritt Singer didn’t invent the first sewing machine. He didn’t patent the first sewing machine, either. His designs drew heavily upon the many, many sewing machines that had come before — sometimes to the point of patent infringement.
What Singer did do was to design a working sewing machine, patent it, mass produce it and sell it.
Singer’s advantage wasn’t being the first. Rather, he made his machine the most marketable. Singer’s design adapted easily to home use, which opened up a new market of home sewists. He also expanded his sales overseas. I.M. Singer became one of the first multinational corporations, with a factory near Glasgow and offices in Paris and Rio de Janeiro.
With regard to manufacturing, Singer made use of the new ideas of mass production and interchangeable parts for his machines. This cut production costs in half, which allowed him to both lower the cost of his sewing machines and significantly increase his profit margins.
Singer also pioneered the idea of purchase plans, which allowed customers to pay for their sewing machines in installments. The 1944 Education Act, which mandated dressmaking for young women in public schools, further increased Singer’s market reach.
Although Singer did patent a sewing machine in 1851, his innovations in manufacturing and business practices really made Singer a household name in sewing.
Where Was the First Sewing Machine Made?
The first working sewing machine prototype was made in Britain. But it’s arguable whose prototype came first.
- Charles Frederick Wiesenthal designed a sewing device in the mid-1700s, but there is no evidence that he built it.
- Thomas Saint designed and patented a hand-cranked leather-sewing chain stitch machine in 1790. A prototype has never been found, but in 1874, an engineer constructed a working model based on Saint’s designs.
- In 1804, James Henderson and Thomas Stone built a working sewing machine. Scotsman John Duncan built an embroidery machine that year, too. However, neither machine worked well enough to pursue production.
The first sewing machine that was produced for sale was made in the United States by Isaac Merritt Singer.
Sewing Machine History Timeline
- Mid-1700s Charles Frederick Wiesenthal invents a mechanical sewing device
- 1790 Thomas Saint designs and patents a hand-cranked leather-sewing chain stitch machine
- 1804 James Henderson and Thomas Stone build a working sewing machine.
- 1804 Scotsman John Duncan builds an embroidery machine
- 1810 Balthasar Krems invents a machine for sewing caps
- 1818 The Reverend John Adams Dodge and John Knowles invent a sewing machine
- 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier patents a sewing machine with a barbed needle, which pulls up the bottom thread.
- 1833 Walter Hunt invents a lockstitch sewing machine
- 1839 Josef Madersperger invents “The Sewing Hand” and a chain stitch machine
- 1841 Newton & Archibold introduce the eye-pointed needle and a technology for holding pieces of fabric during sewing.
- 1842 John Greenough receives the first American patent for a sewing machine.
- 1844 John Fisher files a British patent for a sewing machine design, but the patent office loses his paperwork.
- 1846 Elias Howe patents the first American lockstitch machine.
- 1850 Allen B. Wilson invents the vibrating shuttle.
- 1851 Allen B. Wilson invents the rotating shuttle.
- 1851 Allen B. Wilson patents the rotating hook, which replaces the shuttle.
- 1851 Isaac Merritt Singer patents his sewing machine.
- 1852 Allen B. Wilson patents the four-motion feed.
- 1852 Charles Miller patents the design for a buttonhole stitching machine.
- 1851-1856 The Sewing Machine War
- 1856 The formation of the Sewing Machine Trust
- 1856 Isaac Merritt Singer founded I.M. Singer & Co.
- 1858 Singer introduces the first lightweight domestic sewing machine, the “Grasshopper.”
- 1860 Englishmen William Jones and Thomas Chadwick found the first English sewing machine manufacturing company.
- 1860 Ellen Curtis Demorest invents the paper pattern and publishes a wildly popular pattern catalog.
- 1867 Ebenezer Butterick patents paper patterns for men’s and women’s clothing.
- 1867 James Allen Edward Gibbs patents the first single-thread chain stitch machine.
- 1873 Helen Blanchard patents the first zig zag sewing machine.
- 1877 Joseph M. Merrow invents the first crochet machine.
- 1885 Singer patents the vibrating shuttle sewing machine.
- 1889 Singer introduces the first electric sewing machine to the market.
- 1893 The Bernina Sewing Machine Company is founded in Switzerland.
- 1908 Kanekichi Yasui founds Yasui & Co Sewing Machine Company (later Brother Industries)
- 1921 The Pine Sewing Machine Company (later Janome) is founded.
- 1935 Janome invents the round bobbin.
- 1938 The Juki Sewing Machine company is founded.
- 1971 Janome releases the first sewing machine with programmable functions.
- 1975 Singer brings out the Athena 2000, the world’s first electronic sewing machine.
- 1978 Singer introduces the first computer-controlled sewing machine, the Touchtronic 2001.
- 1990 Janome releases the first professional-quality embroidery machine for home use.
- 2003 Janome brings out the first professional-quality longarm quilting machine for home use.
Why Sewing Machine History Matters
The history of sewing and sewing machines is important in a number of ways. First, it helps us to understand how invention is rarely the work of one person at one time. Every invention builds upon earlier successes and failures. Innovations and improvements move design forward. And sometimes the secret to success isn’t in design at all, but in business.
Studying sewing machine history also gives us a glimpse into the personalities, politics, and the lives of everyday people, and how these change over time. Inventors may work alone, but it takes cooperation and new kinds of networks and organizations to build an effective industry.
And a person may invent the best product, but if they don’t patent, market, and produce it, it remains simply an interesting idea.
The invention of the industrial sewing machine made clothing and fabric goods cheaper and more accessible to more people. The invention of the mass-produced home sewing machine empowered millions to craft their own clothing and unleash their creative potential. And these are just a few examples.
It’s a long, winding path from that first 18th-century design to the modern machine sitting on your sewing table. That path is filled with false starts, mistakes, unexpected twists of fate, and outright theft. It’s also filled with flashes of technical genius, small modifications that made a huge difference, and the entrepreneurial skill to build a worldwide industry that continues today.
Who invented the sewing machine? A lot of people did. But invention is just part of the story.
- Eric Grundhauser | Found: The World’s Oldest Sewing Needle | https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/found-the-worlds-oldest-sewing-needle
- History.com Editors | Industrial Revolution | https://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution/industrial-revolution
- Kevin Beck | Description of a Flying Shuttle | https://sciencing.com/description-of-a-flying-shuttle-12556508.html
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica | Spinning jenny | https://www.britannica.com/technology/spinning-jenny
- History Crunch Writers | Power Loom Invention in the Industrial Revolution | https://www.historycrunch.com/power-loom-invention-in-the-industrial-revolution.html#/
- Richard A. Webster | Western colonialism | https://www.britannica.com/topic/Western-colonialism/The-English#ref277894
- The Irish Times | Inspiring innovators: Walter Hunt | https://www.irishtimes.com/business/2.790/inspiring-innovators-walter-hunt-1.585062
- National Inventors Hall of Fame | Helen Blanchard | https://www.invent.org/inductees/helen-blanchard