On this day in 1790, English inventor Thomas Saint received the first patent for an invention that would change the world: the sewing machine. You may think that I’m being dramatic in saying that a machine used to stitch pieces of cloth together had an extremely profound impact on the human race, but hear me out.
The 1790s saw Britain in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Inventions like the flying shuttle and the spinning jenny allowed for a massive increase in the production of cotton fabrics and yarn, which, when combined with the advent of the steam engine, led to the creation of large textile factories. All of this fabric, however, was still getting sewn together by hand. Both professional clothes-makers and housewives would spend many hours a week producing and mending clothing.
Thomas Saint recognized that while this increase in fabric production was a huge leap forward, there was more that could be done to streamline the process of clothing production. Thus came his patent of a “sewing machine”. Unskilled at marketing his invention, however, it wasn’t until almost twenty years later that other inventors began to construct similar devices with far more success. By 1829, French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier had done it– the first practical sewing machine was built and successfully marketed. Over the next hundred-or-so-years, the sewing machine underwent constant improvements and changes and spread to other parts of Europe and North America. What did this mean, though?
The invention of the sewing machine had several very significant impacts. Firstly, it changed the domestic life of many women. As more households began to own sewing machines, women, the ones who traditionally stayed home to do chores including making and repairing clothing, found themselves with more free time. When previously several days a week would be dedicated to sewing clothing for herself and her family, a housewife could now complete her sewing in a mere several hours, allowing for more free time to pursue hobbies and attain new skills.
Sewing and clothing production in general became more industrialized activities, taking place less in the home and more in large factories. Industrial sewing machines, in combination with the cotton gin, the spinning jenny, and the steam engine, made clothing production much easier and much cheaper. People could now afford to buy more clothing more often, marking the beginnings of the clothing industry that we see today.
As clothing production increased, more fabric was needed to make the clothing, meaning cotton and wool had to be farmed more intensively. Cotton plantations in the United States expanded as the demand for raw cotton increased, further perpetuating the enslavement of native Africans. Similarly, there was an increased demand for thread, metal (for needles and machine parts), and now machinists as well, to fix broken sewing machines.
From here it’s not hard to see how we get to the garment industry of today. Continued advancements in the efficiency of the sewing machines themselves and constant increases in the size of garment factories created greater amounts of waste. In the second half of the twentieth century, as production demands went up and competition between clothing companies increased, many corporations moved their production to countries in the Third World where regulation was limited or nonexistent. Workers – disproportionately women– are crammed into factories where, among other duties, they sit at sewing machines for hours every day, usually earning very low wages and working in unsafe conditions.
So how should you celebrate National Sewing Machine Day? Take a little time to think about where your clothes come from and all the materials, labour, and waste that go into creating them. Compare the ways in which clothing production and the value of clothing have changed over the last two hundred years. Consider the fact that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, many women spent hours at home making and mending clothing and, today, women in the Third World work upwards of ten hours a day in hazardous conditions for very little pay. Importantly, though, maybe next time your shirt or pants get a rip, consider dusting off your sewing machine or taking them to a tailor instead of tossing them in the trash.
About the Author
Ryan is a recent graduate of McMaster University's history program and has a passion for reading, writing, and the art of storytelling . In his free time he likes to blog about movies, TV shows, and books. You can check out more of Ryan's writing at https://greaterdepths.wordpress.com/