The Heirloom Art of the Sewing Machine

Even after automation, sewing remains a craft that’s passed down through generations. An Object Lesson.

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Both of my sewing machines come from my grandmothers, though neither taught me how to sew. The older one is a child-sized, antique Singer, which can no longer stitch a seam. The hand crank that powers it, however, still turns, and the presser foot still lifts. The other—a plastic electric model from the 1970s—runs well, for now. It’ll eventually go the way of my mother’s machine, a workhorse that outlived the manufacture of replacement parts. When it does, another will take its place, and I’ll have to learn a new set of motions for bobbin-winding and needle-threading.

In much of the Western world, sewing was done by hand for centuries as a cottage industry—a handicraft and trade passed from mother to daughter or master to apprentice. The Industrial Revolution brought innovations in all things textile. The Spinning Jenny, power looms, and similar machines mass-produced thread and fabric. Wheels, gears, and power did the work previously done by human hands. It was only a matter of time before sewing itself would succumb to automation. Sewing machines have replaced many artisans, but they owe their existence to the skilled laborers whose bodies first mastered the task of stitching.

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As early as the 1790s, inventors began to work on the first methods of mechanized sewing, according to the Smithsonian textile expert Grace Rogers Cooper. All faced a recurring problem: how to create secure stitching on both sides of a seam. The hand-sewer can move her hand from one side of the fabric to another, pulling the needle to and fro. At the time, no machine could replicate such motion. The first to file a patent on a sewing machine, a cabinetmaker named Thomas Saint, used a needle above and a “looper” below that caught the lowered thread and shaped the stitches into a chain, one connecting to the next. A subsequent pair of inventors, Thomas Stone and James Henderson, tried using two pairs of pincers that passed a needle back and forth through the cloth, as though two pairs of fingers worked at the task. This design proved too cumbersome to gain popularity, and designs involving multiple needles and multiple threads met a similar fate. For a time, sewing remained a skill shared largely among women—especially mothers to daughters—even with the technological advance.

The first machine-sewing project I remember was a rag doll I made with my mother, during a week-long blizzard when I was in eighth grade. I struggled most with consistency, especially in the doll’s face; no amount of effort could get my satin stitch on her eyes to grow and shrink in increments to form a perfect sphere. Eventually, I abandoned the face to my mother and watched her place the thread at near-perfect intervals. Her needle slipped into the weave of the fabric at just the right points so that her stitches lay snug together, not overlapping, and emulating the circumference of a human eye. Years of cross-stitch and design stitching had taught her the incremental adjustments needed to pull this off.

The nuanced movements required in hand sewing, like the eyes on my doll demanded, represent the most critical design problem of the early sewing machine: what parts should and shouldn’t move. Isaac Singer, whose name remains synonymous with the sewing machine, solved it. His approach was the first to hold the machine’s “arm” rigid and have only the needle on its bar move up and down. Perhaps he noticed the back-and-forth motion of a seamstress’s hand and needle compared with the relative immobility of the arm as a whole.

The way Singer’s machines mirror the mechanics of the human body, in fact, may be why they were among the first to be sold at-large to homemakers for individual use. The table and presser foot serve as a lap and finger holding fabric in place, and the foot treadle (in place of a hand crank) frees up both hands to manipulate the fabric and other settings.

In the 1943 children’s novel These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder offers a glimpse of the early days of the sewing machine. The lead family’s then-innovative foot-powered treadle machine takes three people to move, owing to all the cast-iron components. Ma says, “I don’t know how we ever got along without that sewing machine. It does the work so easily; tucking is no trouble at all. And such beautiful stitching. The best of seamstresses could not possibly equal it by hand.”

Unlike humans—who produced natural variation by virtue of training, oversight, preference, or simple idiosyncrasy—the sewing machine could achieve uniformity, evenness, and consistency because its construction “trained” it to repeat endless copies of the desired stitch length. The work was perfect, perhaps unnaturally so. Later in These Happy Golden Years, Ma acknowledges that “our grandmothers would turn in their graves, but after all, these are modern times.” Previous generations would have seen the machine as lacking the care and precision of hand sewing; haste made waste in that the quality couldn’t equal that of a one-of-a-kind piece. But was the machine’s work inferior? After all, the gears and needle emulate the motion of a hand sewing from muscle memory developed from practice.

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My paternal grandmother had some such memory. Photos of her as a younger woman showcase the polyester pantsuits and dresses she made for herself. After five pregnancies, she likely struggled to find ready-to-wear clothes that fit. The sewing machine both caused and solved this problem. While it gave her the ability to make clothes of a custom fit, the widespread use of the machine originally led the clothing industry to choose quantity over quality.

In 1861, a study by the Wheeler and Wilson company compared stitch counts and time to garment completion for hand sewing versus machine sewing, finding that fine stitching on patent leather could be done at seven stitches per minute by hand compared to 175 by machine in the same time. A gentleman’s shirt took a remarkable 14 hours and 26 minutes by hand, while the machine could help accomplish it in about an hour and a quarter. Faster production meant increased production and lower prices, leading to a drop in home sewing by the early 1900s. Save for the Great Depression, most families bought all their clothes and dealt with whatever variations in fit they encountered.

For my grandmother and others, the inconvenience of time spent negotiating the slippery garment fabrics and stitching buttonholes was apparently worth more than the convenience of designing a fit unachievable by the standardized garment industry. And the repetition and uniformity of the sewing machine present their own problems. The first innovator to dream up the idea of a two-thread machine, Walter Hunt, backed away from his own insight for fear of casting seamstresses into unemployment. His fears had a basis, too: In 1841, a horde of angry, fearful tailors burned down a factory using Barthelemy Thimonnier’s recently patented machines to make army uniforms. In the U.K., mechanization had certainly put individual artisans out of work, compelling them to seek factory jobs in crowded industrial centers like Manchester and London and condemning many to poverty.

Today, information technology makes a similar threat to supermarket clerks and educators alike, given the ability of machines to learn and execute tasks previously requiring human participation. Sewing machines, too, exist in computerized form; some can be hooked up to computers and programmed with a pattern of choice, be it embroidery or more. What once came from shared knowledge now exists in code.

But hand-crafting is experiencing a resurgence. Young women are learning knitting and crocheting, spurring the rise of Stitch ’n’ Bitch crafting circles. One need not go to a specialty shop to buy fabric or notions; Walmart carries both. Still, most people sew for leisure rather than necessity, making specialty items more often than complete wardrobes. I make patchwork skirts and wizard cloaks, whereas my grandmother (and others like her) made entire outfits for daily wear.

As her memory fell away and dementia advanced, my grandmother hallucinated that she had a baby. Her mind, unable to retain names or medicines, returned incessantly to this imagined infant. Only physical representations of a baby she could care for relieved her anxiety. For her own sake, I used her sewing machine to make her a doll. Body, clothes, hair, cap—all forged on the old white Singer she’d given me. She’d become prone to picking at fabric and putting things in her mouth, so every seam had to be tight enough to withstand the constant pluck of fingers; no hand-sewn product would do. I used zigzag stitch for extra stability, the way she’d once told me to do for the narrow seams of a patchwork skirt—one of the few bits of knowledge she passed to me—and stitch-backstitched twice at seam ends to eliminate any lingering threads.

Two summers ago, we buried the rag doll with my grandmother. The next, I used her sewing machine to turn out Wonder Woman throw pillows for some of the women I care about most. I’m not sure what my foremothers would think about the machine or my choice of fabric, but I like to think that somehow, my sewing machine still helps me add to the long legacy of women whose muscles made it possible.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.