Elias Howe (1819-1867) created the first practical mechanical sewing machine in 1846 with a patent filed describing “a process that used thread from two different sources”… Top thread passed through a curved needle with an eye at the pointed end. The needle would pierce through the fabric, while another thread contained in a shuttle passed through and caught the first thread forming a locked stitch. Elias Howe had done it! His lockstitch machine could put out (250spm) as much as five speedy experienced hand sewers.
It was joked that Elias Howe was not actually the inventor of the sewing machine. Some said it was actually his wife. She got so upset with her husband that one day she made up her mind and in two hours invented the thing. Elias, however, filed the patent taking credit for everything. (ref. Russel Conwell, 1877) We will never know the truth, but difficulties marketing the device and struggles over patent rights drained the Howe family of even greater success.
Others were watching and adapting. Isaac Singer (1811-1875) invented a mechanism that moved up and down. Allen Wilson originated a rotary hook shuttle. By 1850 the race to deliver a practical sewing machine to industry and the home entered mass production. Isaac Singer led the way with the first commercially successful sewing machine with moving needle (up/down) powered by a foot treadle device to produce 40 the same lockstitch designed by Howe. The famous foot treadle device was a huge advancement. Previous machines had all been hand crank machines.
Walter Hunt (1796-1860)) launched a lockstitch machine (1834) using two threads and an eye-pointed needle, but he never filed a patent. Elias Howe sued Hunt for patent infringement, and a panic among garment workers fearing unemployment crushed Hunt’s enthusiasm. Hunt abandoned his efforts and the patent pursuit. Legal battles ensued over patent infringements. In spite of winning the court battle (1854), Elias Howe largely lost the marketing battle. Elias Howe marketed his machine earning an estimated two million dollars by the end of the Civil War.
Singer continued to enhance and market his own version of the sewing machine. Singer became a household name, and even today remains the best known brand of sewing machines. Communities were desperate to get their hands on this exciting new invention. When the average family income was only $500 per year, the Singer machine cost $125. Towns would join together pooling their resources to buy one machine.