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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

The Sewing Machine and Quilters in the 19th Century
by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

The first several years the sewing machine was available in America are curious ones to reflect upon . . . one would think women had flocked to buy them, assuming they could afford them, as they were not cheap, but they did not.  In fact, when mechanic, Elias Howe Jr., patented his invention in 1846 (it featured a horizontal needle; and the lock stitch, invented by  Walter Hunt in the 1830s), he could hardly get anyone to notice. The Patent Museum shows a copy of the original application and drawing.  

But, it was the marketing genius of Isaac Singer that put them into the hands of women across America. He introduced his version of the lock stitch machine (with a vertical needle and foot treadle) in 1851 and patented it in 1856. See one of his 1853 commercial machines

Singer was charming, outgoing, and quite the ladies' man. He would travel to different towns to set up rooms filled with sewing machines. He offered all the women the opportunity to sew, at their leisure. When they were impressed, he offered to let them take the machine home right then, for a small down payment and a contract to pay it off over time. He was the grandfather of the credit card, you might say. By the mid-1860s, the sewing machine was in common use, and within the next couple of decades, was in most homes. The 'chain stitch' appeared in 1851, and the 'zig zag stitch' in the 1870s.

One historian estimates that between 1865 and 1900, approximately 10% of quilts had some form of machine work on them. I have studied many quilts made during this time, and seldom have I seen machine quilting. When I have, it is more likely from the 1880s or 1890s. Machine piecing is more common. The Amish used their treadle machines to piece their quilts, a fact that many people  do not realize, because of the Amish beautiful and skillful hand quilting. However, the Amish made their quilts to serve a purpose, and the sewing machine made it faster to accomplish that end. You will also find women often used their machine to put on the binding, even when the quilt was hand-made. It is believed they did this to show off their machine!

Besides the cost, I believe the reason the sewing machine was not immediately embraced is because women took great pride in their ability to make all the clothes, bedding, and household decor for their families, and it was one of the major ways they contributed to their family’s needs. As much as it was grueling work at times, and seemingly never-ending, to take it away by speeding it up and making it so simple would be to take away a big part of their way of nurturing and raison d’etre  within the family. I call it the, “Betty Crocker Instant Cake Mix Syndrome.” Advertising history tells us that women in the war years had a similar response to this new quick cake mix, when it was first introduced. It failed so miserably, they took it off the shelf.

Here's another point of view on the newly invented sewing machine - This conversation may be referring to factory machines, since it says the machine makes 400 stitches a minute!

In an article from 1873, in Arthur's Illustrated Home Magazine, #6, there was a letter written to a friend, written 25 years earlier [1848] about the virtues of the sewing machine.

"I have been examining a new machine for sewing, which has recently been invented and constructed by an  ingenious mechanic of Cambridge.....this is the first attempt to construct a machine of this kind, and it appears to be successful......it is very correct and does not occupy a space of more than about six inches either way. It runs with such ease that I should suppose one might easily operate twenty or thirty of them, and the work is done in a most thorough and perfect manner.

"Both sides of the seam look alike, appearing to be beautifully stitched, and the seam is closer and more uniform than when sewn by hand. It will sew straight or curved seams with equal facility and so rapidly that it takes but two minutes to sew the whole length of the outside seam of a pair of men's pantaloons. It sets 400 stitches a minute.

"The thread is less worn by this process than by hand-sewing and consequently retains more of its strength. The simplicity of this machine, and the accuracy, rapidity and perfection of its operation, will place it in the same rank with the card-machine, the straw-binder, the pin-machine, and the coach-lace loom, machines which never fail to command the admiration of every intelligent beholder."

Views have changed significantly since the sewing machine as we know it, came on the scene. Or have they? Contrast this with the ongoing discussion today about the virtues of hand quilting over machine quilting, and custom machine quilting over a longarm quilting machine.

It seems the machine age is still vying for equal status. I'm surprised there hasn't been more discussion given to the use of computer machine fancy stitches vs. hand embroidery. Maybe that will change, now that the crazy quilt is getting more attention and more reproductions are being made.

My feeling is . . . let the craft, the art, and the creativity flow in whatever way it possibly can. Set no limits, and you can see where the creative mind and hand can take us. Each individual can choose that which they desire to produce, buy, or see. With limits set and negative judgments left to stand as truth, the process stops unfolding.

Also see Anne Johnson's article The True History of the Sewing Machine: ~ Isaac Singer, scoundrel or genius ~

Thank you Joan Kiplinger for making the Arthur's Illustrated Home Magazine #6 information available. See Vintage Fabric: In Search Of Warp Ends to learn more about Joan and her contributions on vintage textile and sewing history.

If you skipped the article on Elias Howe, take a minute; his story is fascinating.

"The Real Story Behind 'Thread City'"  Windham, Connecticut by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD - A destination on my A Quilter's Journey through New England Tour, is the old Willimantic Linen Company in Willimantic, CT. This small, but wonderful, museum is housed in an old boarding house where the workers once lived.

Teachers contact me for written permission.

For more sewing machine history, see Anne Kusilek's article:
The Non-Electric Sewing Machine,
People Powered Sewing Machines, Not Just for the Amish


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© 2002 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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