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.”