Victorian London - Publications - Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, by Andrew Wynter, 1865 - Chapter 32 - The Sewing-Machine

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[-314-]

THE SEWING-MACHINE.

    IT is the privilege of an advancing civilization that its constant tendency is to obliterate the evils its footsteps are constantly inflciting upon classes of the community. Hood' s "Song of the Shirt" gave utterance to such a cry of agony on the part of the poor sempstress, that we almost felt that progress was purchased at the price of too much individual suffering to be accepted as an unmitigated good.. Whilst that song, however, was yet ringing in the ears of the public, a human agency was at work, toiling and moiling in obscurity, to obliterate the drudgery of the needle, and to lift the poor sempstress out of the slough of despond in which she had been so long prostrated. In the year 1846 Elias Howe, a mechanic of New York, working for his daily bread, took out a patent for the first successful Sewing-machine, and thus accomplished the last link of that chain of inventions which has emancipated the human hand from the direct fabrication of clothing of a textile character. The spinning-jenny and the stocking-machine have long since rendered obsolete the spinning-wheel and the knitting-needle, and now the sewing machine is in the fair way to render the common needle a curiosity. The idea of a Sewing-machine had long floated in men's minds. As [-315-] early as the beginning of this century, a machine for executing tambour-work was patented, and the elder Brunel made a machine early in his career for embroidering patterns on light muslins. Contrivances of different kinds" continued to be patented for executing ornamental work, in some of which essential parts of the present sewing-machine, such as the shuttle, were used; indeed, mechanicians played about, and almost touched the final invention.
    It was left, however, for American ingenuity to embody the floating idea in men's minds into a working every-day fact. Howe's machine of 1846 contains the leading f features of the principal Sewing-machines of the present day. It does, indeed, seem a hard problem to solve, the construction of a machine, which shall rival the delicacy of manipulation of the human hand, and which shall perform all the various motions of the needle in perfecting the different stitches the clever sempstress has invented; but all these conditions have been fulfilled, and hemming, stitching, felling, and seaming, are now performed by the iron hand, that never grows tired, with marvellous speed and accuracy. There have been scores of patents taken out in America and England during the last fifteen years, but the leading features of all Sewing-machines are the same, namely, an iron arm to hold and give motion to the needle, which has an up and down thrusting motion, and which carries a continuous thread round off a reel or spool. The peculiarity of the needle is that its eye is near its point, the object being to thrust a loop of thread through the material to be sown; in order to secure this loop, and thus to make a firm [-316-] stitch, another apparatus, generally a shuttle, is made to pass through the loop on the under side of the cloth, which is supported in an horizontal position on a small metal table. The length of the stitch is regulated by the rapidity with which the "feed" apparatus is worked, or the contrivance which pushes the work forward after each stitch. The most intricate patterns can be sewn with the greatest ease by simply twisting the work with the hand in the required direction, and it can do everything that the needle is capable of doing, excepting making button-holes and sewing on buttons. But will the work wear? says the lady reader. That depends upon the machine selected; there are some cheap machines, which make what is called a single stitch like this---
    
     Clearly you have only to pull at the end of this thread to unravel the whole stitch; therefore, for ordinary sewing, the single-stitch machine is worthless. There are very few of these machines made now, however, the double or " lock" stitch having almost entirely superseded it. The advantage of the" lock" stitch is that the lock, as will
    
    be seen by the above diagram, takes place in the substance of the material sewn,-a matter of the utmost importance, inasmuch as the thread is protected from all wear and tear of washing, ironing, &c. In some of the single-thread machines the loops are passed through each other and form [-317-]  a raised seam on the under side of the cloth, as we see in this woodcut:—
    
    A very objectionable method, as the cotton is sure to speedily wear out. In purchasing a sewing-machine, particular attention should be paid to these points, as on them depend the good or bad nature of the work performed. It should be remembered also that particular machines are required for particular work. Thus for sewing leather the powerful action of Messrs. Singer's patent is most applicable. For ail kinds of heavy cloth work, again, this machine, and those of Messrs. Grover and Baker, and Thomas and Co., are particularly adapted. They are all shuttle machines, and the noise and clatter they make render them more suitable for the workshop than for private use. The machine that is destined to find its way into families is, without doubt, Wheeler and Wilson's patent. It is both delicate and simple in design, so much so, that it would form no unsightly ornament to the drawing-room. While it is strong enough to sew cloth, its touch is sufficiently light for the finest muslin, and it is by far the most rapid in its action of any Sewing-machine. Whilst five and thirty stitches per minute is good work for the sempstress, this machine can be driven at the rate of 2, 000 per minute, making all the time the strongest and most regular work. This is, of course, far above the aTcrue work done. but the relative speed per minute of [-318-] hand and machine sewing may be fairly judged by the following table, the particulars of which were arrived at by actual experiment :---  

 
  By Hand By Machine Name of Machine
Patent leather fine stitching 7 175 A. B. Howe.
Fitting ladies' garters 28 510 Ditto
Binding hats 33 374 Grover & Baker, Howe Patent
Stitching vamps of shoes 10 210 A B. Howe
Seaming fine cloth 38 594 Ditto
Stitching fine linen 23 640 Wheeler & Wilson
Ditto satin 24 520 A. B. Howe
Ditto silk 30 550 Ditto

    It is calculated that one machine, with a good operator, is capable of doing as much work as a dozen hands; hence the saving of labour is enormous. Its value to the United States, where wages are high, is greater than to this country, and its amount, according to recent calculations, is really startling. The annual saving to the city of New York alone, on men and boys' clothing, is not less than £1,500,000; on hats and caps, £92,500; on shirt fronts, £168,750. On boots and shoes in Massachusetts alone, £1,500,000, and throughout the States an aggregate saving of £f70,000 annually is said to be the result of the Sewing-machine. There is scarcely a manufacture in' which the needle was formerly used which does not now employ these machines; and there is scarcely a household in which it does not drudge for  the family welfare; they are counted in the States, in fact, by hundreds of thousands. Their invention has revolutionized thirty-seven distinct departments of manufacture, and created numerous new ones. Moreover, they have in several trades set capital [-319-] free to a very large extent. Thus, in the clothing trade, when garments had to be made by hand, to meet the fashion of a season, as many months were consumed in their construction as days now are. In the making of bags again, an article of very sudden demand, the ability to manufacture in the quickest time and in any quantities has set free hundreds of thousands of pounds that otherwise would· have been locked up for months.
    In this country the Sewing-machine is, as yet, in its infancy. Nevertheless, our manufacturers are fast taking them into their service; they do the major part of the boot-sewing in Northampton, and they are mainly employed by the shirt-makers, glovers, and the great clothiers. They have not been extensively introduced into domestic use, however, in consequence of the existence of Mr. Thomas's patent-right, which has hitherto precluded the introduction of the chief American machines. That patent has now expired, and the consequence is, that several of the American Joint-stock Companies for their manufacture on a large scale have opened agencies for the sale of the different patents in this metropolis.
    But the saving of capital and time brought about by the introduction of this ingenious machine, is, in our eyes, but a secondary matter to the effect it will have in improving the health of large classes of our operatives, and of raising them in the social scale. At the present moment, among the most deadly occupations of large civilized communities, are those of the tailor, the dressmaker, and the shoemaker. That fatal instrument, the needle, has probably killed greater numbers among the two former occupations throughout the world, than the sword [-320-] has ever done, and those it does not kill by inducing consumption, it crooks and disfigures; witness the tailor's bandy legs, and the milliner's contracted chest. The very large per-centage of deaths arising in these classes from the present method of sewing will be entirely eliminated by the introduction of sewing-machines, and what is very singular, wages in all cases where they have been employed have risen instead of fallen. We were informed by a manufacturer largely employed in shirt-making, that the old slop-shirt sewer, instead of her four shillings weekly, is now earning ten or twelve shillings, and that even young girls are earning eight shillings. The wretched creature, whose miseries inspired the "Song of the Shirt," will shortly become an extinct animal, and a much more intelligent worker will be found ministering with the sewing-machine to the public wants.
    And will not the sewing-machine bring joy into the family circle? We know it will. It would be difficult to imagine a greater contrast than the drudgery the old hand-sewing presents to that performed by the machine. The toil, the uninteresting toil of drawing the needle through the hundreds of yards of plain sewing, required to keep the clothes of a large family decent, must have an effect upon the spirits of the workers. A wife who has been employed for a month making a set of shirts is always at a discount as regards cheerfulness when her husband comes home, and hopes to see her bright and happy; her forefinger gets ragged and rough, and is in keeping with her temper. Now we shall have none of these disagreeables when the sewing-machine is commoner in every house than the piano. There is something positively fascinating in [-321-] the click, click of the merry machine needle; and the sense of progress, as yard after yard of sewing streams out of the apparatus, absolutely excites rather than depresses the spirits, as the common needle-sewing does. Then again the manner in which the manipulator can wisk the work about, making curves, ovals, acute angles, or any evolutions, as neatly as the skater cuts figures upon the ice, absolutely giving a sense of power and liberty which the sewer never felt before. Some of the movements of the machine are absolutely marvellous; for instance, the hemming apparatus is the prettiest contrivance imaginable. You see a raw edge of linen placed upon an edge of metal curved in a slightly spiral manner, and the next thing you see is the raw edge tucked under and hemmed with the rapidly-advancing needle. Handkerchiefs are thus hemmed before you can look round.
    In America every household possesses its machine; not a black clumsy article, fit only for the workshop, but a brightly arabesqued or silver-plated little instrument, mounted in an elegant, polished, fancy-wood case,---quite an ornament to any room, in fact. Independently of the pleasure felt in working it, we must consider for a moment what its advent means. It means emancipation from the most abject domestic drudgery; it means increased time for all occupations requiring the exercise of mind. The Sewing-machine ought to give us time in our homes for more and better music; the arts of design should now flourish; and all the elegances which are evidences of a time of ease and refinement, should abound in dwellings before debarred from such luxuries by the toil entailed upon our women by that barbarous machine the needle. [-322-] If we would consider how much the well-being of all classes of civilized men are bound together, and act and react upon each other, we should not forget the story of Elias Howe, the New York mechanic, who, in "poverty, hunger, and dirt," laboured successfully not only to lift poor women from the slow starvation entailed upon them by the needle, but also sent a gleam of sunshine into every household, and incidentally lent powerful aid to the progress of social happiness and refinement.

source: Andrew Wynter, Our Social Bees; or, Pictures of Town & Country Life, and other papers, 1865