Historians of the early days of the sewing machine can argue for hours over the simple matter of who invented what is, in many ways, one of the most important machines ever devised.
The story really starts in 1755 in London when a German immigrant, Charles Weisenthal, took out a patent for a needle to be used for mechanical sewing. There was no mention of a machine to go with it, and another 34 years were to pass before Englishman Thomas Saint invented what is generally considered to be the first real sewing machine.
In 1790 the cabinet maker patented a machine with which an awl made a hole in leather and then allowed a needle to pass through. Critics of Saint’s claim to fame point out that quite possibly Saint only patented an idea and that most likely the machine was never built. It is known that when an attempt was made in the 1880s to produce a machine from Saint’s drawings it would not work without considerable modification.
The story then moves to Germany where, in around 1810, inventor Balthasar Krems developed a machine for sewing caps. No exact dates can be given for the Krems models as no patents were taken out.
An Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger produced a series of machines during the early years of the 19th century and received a patent in 1814. He was still working on the invention in 1839, aided by grants from the Austrian government, but he failed to get all the elements together successfully in one machine and eventually died a pauper. Two more inventions were patented in 1804, one in France to a Thomas Stone and a James Henderson — a machine which attempted to emulate hand sewing — and another to a Scott John Duncan for an embroidery machine using a number of needles. Nothing is known of the fate of either invention.
America’s first real claim to fame came in 1818 when a Vermont churchman John Adams Doge and his partner John Knowles produced a device which, although making a reasonable stitch, could only sew a very short length of material before laborious re-setting up was necessary.
One of the more reasonable claimants for inventor of the sewing machine must be Barthelemy Thimonnier who, in 1830, was granted a patent by the French government. He used a barbed needle for his machine which was built almost entirely of wood. It is said that he originally designed the machine to do embroidery, but then saw its potential as a sewing machine.
Unlike any others who went before him, he was able to convince the authorities of the usefulness of his invention and he was eventually given a contract to build a batch of machines and use them to sew uniforms for the French army. In less than 10 years after the granting of his patent Thimonnier had a factory running with 80 machines, but then ran into trouble from Parisian tailors. They feared that, were his machines successful, they would soon take over from hand sewing, putting the craftsmen tailors out of work.
Late one night a group of tailors stormed the factory, destroying every machine, and causing Thimonnier to flee for his life. With a new partner he started again, produced a vastly- improved machine and looked set to go into full-scale production; but the tailors attacked again. With France in the grip of revolution, Thimonnier could expect little help from the police or army and fled to England with the one machine he was able to salvage.