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What is the thing that most of us will do just about anything for? Money. Money is usually the motivation to do most things in our lives, from getting a job to trying to win a game show. So when we hear there’s an opportunity to make money, we try our hardest to do what it takes to get it. While it was a dream that sparked his motivation to build the sewing machine, money was also an encouragement that got Elias Howe thinking about how he could make the sewing machine. He was told that someone could make a fortune by building a sewing machine, and at the time his family was struggling with poverty.1 The financial stability that it could provide for his family was something that Howe looked forward to.2 From a young age, Howe had always had an interest in machinery and all the inner workings of machines, so he already had prior knowledge of machines.3 Howe wanted to make money, and working in a cotton machinery factory in Massachusetts wasn’t enough for him. He decided to give it a shot. While money was one of his inspirations, the actual details on how it would work came from a dream where he was continuously getting stabbed with a spear. It was this dream that allowed him to make the connection that needles could move down and up.4

Portrait of Elias Howe with a blurred grey background | Painted by Charles Loring Elliot | Courtesy of Science Museum Group

Elias Howe, born in Spencer, Massachusetts on July 9, 1819, came from a family of eight. He was always working on the family farm.5 However, he didn’t want to work on the farm for the rest of his life, so he decided to go work at a cotton machinery factory. The textile machinery factory that he worked at was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he learned the inner workings of the machinist trade.6 Due to his interest, knowledge, and his desire to make money, he began to work on the machine that would change his life and would change the rest of the world. He spent the next five years working on the development of this machine without blueprints. 7 After much trial and error in the development of the machine, he was granted patent rights in 1846. However, it was no straight line to Howe’s success; he faced many bumps along the road. The primary difference between the sewing machine that had been previously built compared to the one that Howe had built, was that his was a lockstitch machine, which was a sewing machine that would stitch two pieces of clothing together with the same needle, meaning that there was a line of stitches on both sides of the clothing binding them together. While he probably never expected to end up building the lockstitch sewing machine, his invention revolutionized the world in more ways than one.

This image is a representation of what his sewing machine later evolved to | Courtesy of ISMACS International

Howe was a man who had an interest in cotton machinery, due to his previous job in the cotton machinery factory, and as previously mentioned, he wanted to make a fortune, so when it was suggested to him that building a lockstitch sewing machine would make him a fortune, he began to look for ways to make that happen.8 This led to him taking the knowledge he had accumulated from his job at the cotton factory and applying it to the standard sewing machine and for the next five years transforming it into a more efficient and functional machine. While there are misunderstandings about who really invented the sewing machine, Howe didn’t invent the first sewing machine. What Howe is known for is inventing the lockstitch sewing machine, which was different from the first sewing machine. The primary difference is that a lockstitch machine basically looped two pieces of thread together on each side of the thread, rather than having to go row by row. Another crucial component of the lockstitch sewing machine that made it different from the previously built typical sewing machines was the curved needle with the eye at the point.9 This ultimately made sewing easier and quicker. Not only did this accelerate the rate of the production of sewn goods, but also decreased the price of sewn goods. This was because now they didn’t need to pay as many women for labor to sew clothes because the machine did the majority of the labor. However, due to the lockstitch machine, it ended up employing women with new jobs, which significantly benefited them because they were now able to leave the house for a portion of the day to go to work.10 So they wouldn’t just be housewives. With years passing by, Howe made adjustments and modifications to the machine. And with the new adjustments, the sewing machine ended up looking a little different. It developed into what we think of today as the original sewing machines, shown in the image below.

In 1846, Howe received a patent on his invention, giving him sole vendor and distribution rights. When he finally finished the sewing machine in 1846, it didn’t immediately appeal to many people. Shown below is one of the marketing strategies Howe was attempting in hopes of selling his machines. Unfortunately, despite Howe’s best efforts, the sewing machine was simply not appealing to the public quite yet. In need of some type of income, he was left with no other choice than to try to sell his product in a new market; this led to him actually selling his patent for about $1, 250, but he was able to keep some of the rights for the machines. This led to his decision to move to Europe in hopes that his invention would be more successful there. He left behind everything, including his family. Unfortunately, things didn’t go well for him in Europe as well. While he did sell some sewing machines, it was not near the quantity he’d wished to sell. With sales not going well in Europe, and with the news that his wife had fallen ill, he decided to return back to the United States. However, when he returned home, he found that his patent on the sewing machine had been broken, even though he had sold his patent.11

This is image that was circulating with the types of models for sale with their functions and prices | Courtesy of ISMACS International

Can you imagine having to get every single piece of clothing altered? The idea of this probably sounds absurd to us now, but this was people’s reality before Elias Howe’s sewing machine. We may not think about it, but the sewing machine didn’t just revolutionize the clothing world but so much more, starting off with the economy. Since mass production was on the rise, there was a need for workers, which primarily employed women. While this didn’t change women’s rights, it gave them the opportunity to have a job, and not just be a housewife.12 Howe’s invention also allowed more people to buy more sewn goods because they were becoming cheaper. This is due to the fact that even though the sewing machine was providing jobs, it didn’t require as much manual labor. That meant that more clothing could be sewn in a shorter amount of time, which led to workers not having to work as much, therefore companies would be saving money. This inevitably led to more clothing being produced; therefore, more people were able to purchase clothes, which in the end helped the economy tremendously.13 The sewing machine caused such a large impact in the textile industry that ultimately was a large contributor to the industrial revolution. It become a house appliance that could be found practically in every home. Due to the sewing machine, the “ready-made” clothing industry was introduced, meaning that you could go into a store and buy a piece of clothing in your size, rather than having to buy it standard size and having to get it altered prior to ever using it.

One of the main and most well-known sewing machine inventors that happen to have broken the patent was Isaac Singer. Isaac Singer, while Howe was away in England, was working on his own lockstitch sewing machine.9 While his sewing machine was also a lockstitch, it worked almost four times faster than Elias Howes’s machine. This greatly hurt Howe’s business not only because of its efficiency but also because when Howe returned from England, the Singer sewing machine was more well known and therefore more purchased. This led to Howe fighting for his case in court from 1849 to 1854, because of Isaac Singer and Walter Hunt who had perfected the lockstitch machine and were selling them, which was a violation of the patent granted to Howe. While there was much turmoil and devastation to get past, his invention became one of the most influential inventions still to this day.

Can you imagine not being able to go and buy clothes from a store? Well, this was people’s reality until around 1846. Howe’s invention shook the industry of clothing manufacturing and also the whole world. With the unfortunate news of his broken patent, he was unsure of what steps to take next. Multiple people were building and selling lockstitch sewing machines, which was a direct violation of the patent granted to him. With the news of the broken patent, he was devasted. Unfortunately, not long after returning home, his wife, Elizabeth Jennings Ames, passed away. With the devastation of his wife’s passing and the patent broken, he was destroyed and sadly also broke. Despite these tragic events, he was eventually repaid the royalties of all the sewing machines that were sold in the United States.15 While Elias Howe had to overcome many obstacles along his journey to fame and success, he inevitably made it. Due to the recommendation of his broken patent, he gained back the money from the royalties owed to him, which led to his becoming a very wealthy man. After Howe received his royalties and practically became a millionaire, he went on to manufacture and sell his machine in Bridgeport, Connecticut.9 After much trial and error that eventually led to success, he passed away on October 3, 1867, in Brooklyn, New York. Elias Howe changed the world simply by not giving up even after failing multiple times. He continued to persevere with his invention and ultimately revolutionized one of the largest markets in the world. While Howe wasn’t the first to invent the sewing machine, he was the first to invent the lockstitch sewing machine. His inventions didn’t just revolutionize the world, but greatly influenced the world of mass production of sewn goods.

  1. Patricia E Sweeney, “Great Lives From History”, vol. 1, (Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 2010), 561-565.
  2. “1846 – Elias Howe Jr.’s Sewing Machine Patent Model,” National Museum of American History, accessed November 4, 2022, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_630930.
  3. “Elias Howe | American Inventor,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed October 2, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elias-Howe.
  4. “Big Ideas Inspired by Dreams,” Jack& Jill 77, no. 6 (November 1, 2015): 19.
  5. “Elias Howe | American Inventor,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed October 2, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elias-Howe.
  6. “The Hutchinson Encyclopedia,” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, January 1, 2018.
  7. Patricia E Sweeney, “Great Lives From History”, vol. 1 (Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 2010), 561-565.
  8. “Elias Howe | American Inventor | Britannica,” accessed October 2, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elias-Howe.
  9. “The Hutchinson Encyclopedia,” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, January 1, 2018.
  10. “How Did the Sewing Machine Impact the Industrial Revolution?,” Stocks (website), accessed November 2, 2022, https://www.stocks.co.uk/blog/how-did-sewing-machine-impact-industrial-revolution.html.
  11. “Howe, Elias,” The Columbia Encyclopedia,  accessed October 14, 2022, https://search.credoreference.com/content/title/columency?tab=entry_view&heading=howe_elias&sequence=0.
  12. “How Did the Sewing Machine Impact the Industrial Revolution?,” accessed November 2, 2022, https://www.stocks.co.uk/blog/how-did-sewing-machine-impact-industrial-revolution.html.
  13. “How Did the Sewing Machine Impact the Industrial Revolution?,” accessed November 2, 2022, https://www.stocks.co.uk/blog/how-did-sewing-machine-impact-industrial-revolution.html.
  14. “The Hutchinson Encyclopedia,” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, January 1, 2018.
  15. “Elias Howe | American Inventor | Britannica,” accessed October 2, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elias-Howe.
  16. “The Hutchinson Encyclopedia,” The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide, January 1, 2018.

Alexandra Camarena

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39 comments

  • Michaell Alonzo

    Hey Alexandra, congrats on being nominated for an article award. This post was so beautifully written and fascinating to read. This page has an astonishing quantity of specific information. I was completely unaware of how significant sewing machines were. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of sewing machines and how exactly they work. This article got me thinking about how things were different in the past. I really adored the pictures you chose, which perfectly complemented the narrative you were presenting. I really appreciated how well-organized you were; it made the reading interesting for me.

  • Marissa Rendon

    what a great reading this was! I really enjoyed this article and how neatly organized it was. I had no idea how significant the sewing machine really is. I would have never guessed. It was sad to read after everything Howe went through he came home to wife passed away. I am very happy Howe never gave up and without him the sewing machine would not be here and the world would be much different.

  • Priscilla Leal

    Its interesting to see how sewing machines evolved to what they are today. Someone’s ambition to do well in life can positively impact so many industries, in this case clothing and garments were allowed to be manufactured much faster and provided more jobs. I’ve never questioned or asked where random things come from, but its interesting that everyday objects have a fascinating origin story.

  • Hailey Koch

    You did so well on your article I am so happy I got to read it and learn lots of new things about the sewing machine. Even though I knew people weren’t able to just go out and buy clothes like we are able to do today it shocks me how lucky we are to be able to just go out and purchase whatever we want when that wasn’t always the case. Howe went through many hardships and one being the patent being broken with the locksmith sewing machine. It was very sad to learn that as all of that was going on he came home to his wife passing away which was probably so hard considering everything else going on in his life. His sewing machine made such an impact on the world of clothing to the point that we wouldn’t be where we are today with clothes if it wasn’t for his creative invention.

  • Azeneth Lozano

    From seeing my grandma to my younger sister has a passion for sewing I have never heard about the history of the invention. I also did not know that a sewing machine came before the Singer company’s sewing machine. Howe’s story goes unheard of yet has lots of history and struggle within it. Overall, great introduction and conclusion paragraph and an interesting topic to write about!

  • Maddie

    I have to write a five paragraph essay on how the sewing machines impacted the world and this is honestly the best source I have found. It is also fun learning so much about the sewing machine in depth.

  • Karly West

    My grandmother has had a sewing machine in her house for decades. Little did I know that a simple sewing machine could hold such significance. Today, our mechanized sewing machines are made to be easy and quick, but we don’t ever sit down and appreciate how much work it took to get us to that point. We are so lucky to have this type of technology today, if we didn’t it makes you think how inaccessible clothes would be to buy. Great descriptive article!

  • Jacob Anthony Ayala

    The history behind sewing is extremely interesting. This article really put things into perspective about how good we really got it today. I feel like sewing is such an overlooked practice nowadays and something we take for granted. We all need clothes and if manufacturing didn’t advance like how it did today. Acquiring clothing would be such a hard thing to do. So these technological findings and advancements are something truly special.

  • Abbey Stiffler

    I loved reading your article as it sparked my interest due to being into fashion. I never thought of a sewing machine and how it came to be. I can’t imagine having to hand sew everything and how much time that would take each day for a seamstress. I can’t believe that it was not popular when he first invented it. I would think that would make everyone’s life so much easier and everyone would be excited.

  • Olivia Gray

    This article was very intriguing to read. It is shocking to me how important sewing machines were. I never knew much about sewing machines and how they operate in detail. This article made me reflect on how different life was back then. I also never heard of Howe until I read this article, and how much of an impact he had on history because of his invention.

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