Posted in design and architecture, engineering

This week: the birth of the sewing machine

As featured in Wired (it was technically yesterday, so it’s a belated birthday post), quilters everywhere can rejoice over the patenting of the first actually usable sewing machine design. Not only did it help foster the industrial revolution and sweat shops (not so cool), it also opened doors for creative endeavours in fashion and design (very cool!).

September 10, 1846: Elias Howe patents the first practical sewing machine and threads his way into the fabric of history.

French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier patented a device in 1830 that mechanized the typical hand-sewing motions to create a simple chain stitch. He planned to mass-produce uniforms for the French army. His competition had different ideas.

About 200 tailors rioted on the morning of Jan. 20, 1831, ransacking Thimonnier’s factory, destroying 80 sewing machines and throwing the pieces out the windows. The inventor fled for his life. Thimonnier conceived of a machine that could sew a backstitch (which would be more durable), but resolutely spent the next two decades trying to perfect various permutations of his original machine and its unreliable chain stitch.

American Walter Hunt came up with a back-stitching sewing machine in the early 1830s, but was afraid it would result in the massive unemployment of seamstresses. So he declined to patent it. (Hunt lives on instead as the barely known inventor of the safety pin, as well as a precursor of the repeating rifle, a gong for fire engines, a forest saw, a stove to burn hard coal, a knife sharpener, a streetcar bell, synthetic stone, road-sweeping machinery, bicycle improvements, ice plows and, oh yes, paper collars for shirts.)

Howe spent eight years of his spare time working on such a device. 

Rather than copy that, he would use established machine techniques.

He moved the eye of the needle to the point and devised a shuttle to move a second thread through the loop created by the needle. This created a tight lock stitch that was stronger than Thimonnier’s chain stitch.

At 250 stitches per minute, Howe’s machine was able to out-sew five humans at a demonstration in 1845. Selling them was a problem, however, largely because of the $300 price tag — more than $8,000 in today’s money. He patented the device in 1846, but his American workshop burned down, and he got swindled out of the British royalties. He returned to Boston penniless.



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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