Sunday, April 27, 2014

So you think you can sew, Mr Saint?

by Mike Rendell

I am intrigued by the inventor Thomas Saint, the man who first patented a design for a sewing machine, in 1790. For a start, apart from the fact that he was a cabinet maker, little is known about him. In articles on the web I come across a number of portraits allegedly of him, but clearly Victorian and almost certainly of Barthelemy Thimonnier (1793-1857) a later (French) inventor.

Then there is the fact that there is no evidence that he ever made a sewing machine (as opposed to designing it). It wasn’t helped by the fact that when he patented his machine he called it "An Entire New Method of Making and Completing Shoes, Boots, Splatterdashes, Clogs, and Other Articles, by Means of Tools and Machines also Invented by Me for that Purpose, and of Certain Compositions of the Nature of Japan or Varnish,which will be very advantageous in many useful Appliances."

The patent contains descriptions of three separate machines; the second of these was for "stitching, quilting, or sewing."

The Patent Office promptly catalogued it under ‘wearing apparel’ and there it languished for some 83 years. So nobody knew what the man had invented, and no-one tried making it work. The first working model was made nearly a century after the patent was taken out and needed a few amendments to the patented design before it could be made to operate. At its heart the machine incorporated many of the characteristics of a modern machine: it had a horizontal cloth plate or table, an overhanging arm carrying a straight needle, and a continuous supply of thread from a spool. A rotating hand crank on a shaft activated cams that produced all the machine's actions.

Saint had designed it for punching and sewing small pieces of leather and for this the feed was sufficient. It produced a chain stitch whereas later inventions produced a lock stitch i.e. so that the stitch was locked in place by a second thread, thereby stopping it unraveling if for any reason the stitch broke.

A working replica of the  machine was made many years later – Wikipedia sates that the replica is in London’s Science Museum but I can only find reference to the Elias Howe machine made in 1846. I have however come across these pictures of the Saint replica, They were on the website of New York clothing firm LFANT, but the images appear to have been moved so I am unable to provide a link:

The first functional sewing machine was invented by Barthelemy Thimonnier, in 1830. His machine used only one thread and a hooked needle (like a crochet needle). By the 1840's he had a factory containing 80 such machines, churning out uniforms for the French army. But his success was also his downfall – revolting tailors, fearful for their livelihoods, stormed the factory and set fire to it. Thimonnier fled to England and died penniless a few years later.

It was left to the Americans to press ahead with a commercially successful machine – not, ironically, that Isaac Singer can claim much credit. In the second half of the 19th Century he was locked in a bitter patent infringement case with Elias Howe who had patented a lock stitch machine in 1846. Elias Howe's machine had a needle with an eye at the point. The needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop, creating the lock-stitch. This design element was repeated by Singer, who lost his patent case and had to pay Howe hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties.

Howe was a tad lucky though – his machine drew heavily on the ideas of Walter Hunt who had come up with his version of the invention in the 1830's. Hunt was however appalled at the idea of creating widespread unemployment in the US garment industry and abandoned the machine, forfeiting any patent rights. Had he persevered Mr Singer would have had to pay him rather a lot of money, and Elias Howe would have got nothing. Ah, the vagaries of life!

I would prefer to remember Thomas Saint, because with his efforts I can safely claim the sewing machine as a Georgian (British), rather than a Victorian, (American) invention! Mind you, it was left to the Americans to make a commercial success of it - something so often the case...


Mike is the author of a number of books on Georgian history including "The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman" and, more recently, a book about the founder of the modern circus entitled "Astley's Circus - the story of an English Hussar".



  1. The Thomas Saint replica, made by sewing machine maker and historian W. Newton-Wilson is indeed in the London Science museum.

    Also there a Thimonnier and other pioneer machines


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