Note: This article is Part 5 in our series of 5 articles on Sewing Notions and Tools. To read the other articles in the series click here.

Supposedly, a man’s shirt took ten hours and 31 minutes to complete by hand and one hour and sixteen minutes by machine. This antique photo card showing a woman at her sewing machine sold for $14 in 2008.

Imagine for a moment that you are a working-class woman with a modest family of four.  In the early 19th century, you would be responsible for hand sewing clothing for every member of the family. Luckily, your family would have fewer articles of clothing then than they would today.  If you were able, you would buy fabric instead of spinning, dying, and weaving it yourself. How many hours a week would you spend on making and mending clothing?

Now imagine a machine that could do the sewing for you.

This is the final installment of the series on Sewing Notions and Tools; it is an investigation of the ultimate sewing tool innovation – the sewing machine. 

According to research Daniel Delis Hill cited in Advertising to the American Woman 1900-1999, a man’s shirt took ten hours and 31 minutes to complete by hand and one hour and sixteen minutes by machine.  Not only would this machine change a woman’s life, but it allowed for mass production of ready-to-wear clothing.

No one person is credited for inventing the sewing machine but here are some notable inventors:

Barthelemy Thimonnier, a French tailor took his version of the sewing machine to Paris in the late 1840s and caused a riot.  Parisian tailors, fearing they would lose their jobs to this machine, burned down a workshop where Thimonnier’s machines were installed to make uniforms for the French army.

Elias Howe received the first United States patent for a lockstitch sewing machine.  The lockstitch, that uses thread from two sources, had been introduced by others but the patent went to Howe.

An Elias Howe 1867 sewing machine sold for almost $400 in 2013.

Isaac Singer is credited with refining the sewing machine and making it a machine for use in the home.  Singer added more innovations to the machine by removing the hand crank and using a foot peddle as well as creating a machine where the needle went up and down, not side to side. His machine was issued a patent in 1851. By 1889, Singer introduced the first practical electric sewing machine.  He also introduced paying by installments as sewing machines were a large expense but highly desirable.

Helen Blanchard held 22 patents for sewing machine improvements, including creating the first machine to use a zig-zag stitch.  The Smithsonian displays her 1873 “overseaming machine” at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Wilcox and Gibbs was a company that came out of a partnership between the entrepreneurs James Wilcox and Charles Gibbs.  The Wilcox Gibbs machines use a chain stitch.  Their machine was unique in that it was mass produced and had no adjustable tension setting.

This Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch Automatic Silent sewing machine sold for over $1200 in 2017.

[Author’s Note: The lawsuits over patents are not covered in this article but may be of interest to anyone studying the history of the sewing machine.]

Innovations in sewing machine technology have not ended.  A new home sewing machine can cost over $12,000 depending on the type and function of the machine.  The serious seamstress may want to consider the secondary market to find high-quality machines at more affordable prices.

A Bernina 830 computerized sewing machine sold for $3600 in 2016.

The collectability of sewing machines varies.  Following are a few machines that attract attention, have potentially high prices, or are a good entre into sewing machine collection.

The Singer Featherweight

Seamstresses today are keen to purchase Singer Featherweight machines.  First introduced in 1933, the featherweight is portable, weighing just over 11 pounds with a powerful motor.  While you may find one for less than $1,000, others have sold for several thousand.

This Singer Sewing Machine 1938 221-1 Featherweight sold for almost $6000 in 2016.

Toy Sewing Machines

Toy sewing machines may hold appeal because of their size; miniatures are found desirable because they are cute.  Many are small hand crank cast iron novelties, created to introduce young girls to the joy of sewing.  These are fairly inexpensive, many can be found for less than $100, and they are a good gateway to sewing machine collections.   Other unique, rare, and unusual toy sewing machines will cost a great deal more.

This circa 1880s cast-iron mechanical bank, reportedly given away by American Sewing Machine Co., sold for over $37,000 in 2014.

The Necchi Mirella Sewing Machine

This sewing machine was designed by artist Marcello Nizzoli for Vittorio Necchi in the mid-1950s.  Reviews of this machine do not rank it high on its functionality; its form, however, is deemed as museum-worthy.  A Mirella machine is on permanent display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  This machine is made of aluminum and is very light, like the featherweight, but much more in the spirit of atomic space age design.

A Necchi Mirella 50s vintage sewing machine sold for $230 in 2011.

Treadle Sewing Machines

Sewing machines contained in cabinets are beautiful but rarely collectible.  Upcyclers have turned the attractive metal bases into tables, or they simply use the cabinets as tables, never removing the machine.  The author purchased her treadle machine at a garage sale for less than $50.  These machines are a joy to use, but hard to collect without a large space.

To learn more about sewing machines, their history, and the wide variety of models available, contact or plan a visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Vintage Sewing Center and Museum.

Megan Mahn Miller is an auctioneer and appraiser specializing in Rock ‘n Roll and Hollywood memorabilia, and other hard-to-value items.  Her company, Mahn Miller Collective, Inc. can assist you with solving your personal property problems. Visit for more information.

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