Archive for Thursday, March 11, 2010

The art of sewing

March 11, 2010

It is, by far, the oldest and most durable piece of equipment that we own. Standing in the corner, ready to swing into action, is a 1957 Pfaff sewing machine Jean bought before we met. While the cabinet has changed colors several times, it still is in excellent condition.

It was a top-of-the-line Jean bought when she got her first full-time job. It cost $350, which was more than a month’s salary for a young legal secretary, however, it may have been the best investment we ever made. Over the years, it has been used to sew literally thousands of items ranging from clothing to curtains, costumes and bed spreads. For decades, Jean sewed her own clothes and dresses for our three daughters. It is too bad she didn’t keep a record of everything she made. It would be a staggering total.

Sometimes, it was used until the wee hours of the morning, when she produced back-to-school dresses for three young girls. Even though the sewing machine had heavy use for decades, it required relatively little maintenance and had few break-downs.

Certainly, sewing is an ancient art dating back 20,000 years. Early needles were made of bone, and the iron needle didn’t come into existence until the 14th century. The needle with an eye was developed in the 15th century.

Probably the most famous Americans when it comes to sewing were Betsy Ross, who created the American flag, and President Andrew Johnson, who was a tailor by trade. Even when in Washington, legend has it President Johnson made his own suits and shirts.

What surprised me when I started researching the history of the sewing machine was the amount of controversy it generated. These ranged from fights over patent rights to an outright riot in France.

You can check a variety of sources, but no one is exactly sure who developed the first sewing machine. A German, Charles Weisenthal, had an idea for a sewing machine in 1755. In 1791, Thomas Saint, a British inventor, patented a design for a sewing machine, however, a working model was never built. His idea was to use the machine on leather and canvas. Josef Madersperger, an Austrian, had a working model in 1814.

A French tailor, Barthelemy Thimonnier, earned a patent for a sewing machine in 1830. He may have been the first to find a commercial use for the sewing machine and started a factory with 80 machines. He was sewing uniforms for the French Army when his factory ran afoul of competitors. The idea of something new has always caused trouble, and this was the case with Thimonnier’s factory. Tailors in France were convinced the new machine would end their profession so they broke into the factory and destroyed the machines.

The sewing machine soon moved across the Atlantic Ocean, where a variety of inventors tried their hand at developing new and better models. John Greenough patented the first sewing machine in the United States in 1842. Interestingly, Walter Hunt developed the first lock stitch sewing machine in 1833, however he never patented his invention.

Elias Howe developed a machine in 1845. He went to England to try to drum up financial support, and when he returned to the United States, he found others were infringing on his patent. The best known American sewing pioneer was Isaac Merritt Singer, who made improvements in sewing machines and suggested a foot pedal or treadle to operate the machine. However, the sewing machine ended up in court with Howe suing Singer and winning.

During the years, the sewing machine has seen many improvements and has contributed to the wellbeing of millions of Americans. I doubt any sewing machine has received more tender, loving care than the one Jean bought more than 50 years ago.

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