Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Sewing-machines


We are indebted to the United States for this elegant and useful invention, which is rapidly finding its way into every household,

Pauperumque tabernas, regumque turres.

Our American neighbours have been successful in producing many ingenious applications of mechanics to the details of common life, having for their end the saving of manual labour in the domestic economy. Such are wringing-machines, egg-whips, baby-jumpers, and various other inventions, not ambitious in character but neat and complete in themselves, and setting free by their use portions of time for other purposes, ordinarily consumed, as a matter of course, in the daily round of household work.

It is, however, the tendency of all processes for saving or dispensing with manual labour to produce, or to induce, other labour. The energy which perfects a time-saving machine will not be content to sit afterwards with folded hands and see it work. Attention, but of a more intellectual kind, and labour, but of a more skilled character, must be given even to the machine-work which is most automatous; and new branches of industry open out in unexpected directions as the fruits of inventive talent. Besides which, facility of production leads to a larger quantity of the particular object made being produced and used; so that if demand brings about supply as a natural consequence, abundant supply in its turn generates an increased consumption, often unexpectedly great. The facilities for travelling given by the construction of railways led to an expansion of travelling that could not have been predicted; many thousands of pounds being spent by persons who travel without object, urged by the restlessness which the constant sight of locomotion produces. It may be safely said that as a consequence of the introduction of sewing-machines in this country more work will be done, more stitches made than were done before, or appeared necessary to be done. Work is now performed in many houses for amusement, or for pleasure. A clergyman meditating his Sunday’s sermon finds his ideas flow more readily whilst his foot is on the treddle of the working-machine, and his hands are running a long seam for his wife. The lawyer, wearied by head-work, finds refreshment, as he sits by the fire after dinner, in stitching himself half-a-dozen pairs of wrist-bands for his shirts; and our dolls are getting better dressed as our children are allowed the privilege of working for a few minutes at a time with mamma’s sewing-machine.

From the first conception, that of seaming and stitching woven fabrics, modifications have been made, so as to render the sewing-machine capable of making boots and shoes, gloves, and doing other leather-work; and the improvement introduced of looping the stitches has very much reduced the danger which machine-work was at first subject to, of the work coming undone when a single stitch gave way. The “inexorable logic” which made every step dependent on the previous one is now provided against.

In America, steam has already been applied as an adjunct to the sewing-machine, and the increase in rapidity is immense in the processes. Whilst in stitching fine linen, twenty-three stitches can be made by a good workwoman in a minute, the treddle sewing-machine will make six hundred and forty; and the machine with steam applied will produce from fifteen hundred to two thousand!—being about eighty times the number producible with the human hand.

The following comparison of times required to do different kinds of needle-work is the result of practical experiments instituted by a sewing-machine company in the United States. The fineness of the work must be presumed to be equal in the two processes. Whereas it took fourteen hours and twenty-six minutes to complete a gentleman’s shirt by hand, the same was finished by machine in one hour and sixteen minutes. A frock-coat took sixteen hours and thirty-five minutes by hand-labour, and two hours and thirty-eight minutes by machine. A lady’s chemise required ten hours and a-half to be produced by hand, and one minute over an hour for its production by the machine. A satin waistcoat was made in seven hours and nineteen minutes by hand; in one hour and fourteen minutes by machine. A pair of cloth trowsers required five hours and ten minutes by hand; and only fifty-one minutes by machine. A lady’s silk dress, which cost the labour of eight hours and twenty-seven minutes by hand, took one hour and thirteen minutes by machine; in a merino dress the comparative gain in time was greater by nine minutes. In smaller matters, a silk apron was produced by the machine in fifteen minutes, which required four hours and sixteen minutes by ordinary workmanship: whilst a plain apron was made in nine minutes by machine, which consumed one hour and twenty-six minutes by hand.

In all the above work the machinery was driven by the treddle. In comparing the numbers of stitches producible by the two processes in different fabrics per minute, the results are equally striking. In stitching linen, we have already stated that the difference is between twenty-three stitches by hand and six hundred and forty by machine, or nearly twenty-eight times the former number. In fine stitching in patent leather the numbers are respectively seven and one hundred and seventy-five, or twenty-fivefold. In seaming fine cloth they are thirty-eight and five hundred and ninety-four stitches, or more than fifteenfold. In stitching satin the rate of increase in number per minute is twenty-twofold; in silk eighteenfold; in fitting gaiters eighteenfold; in stitching shoe-vamps it is twenty-onefold; and in binding hats the rate is elevenfold. In those cases where steam can be applied the ratio of increased speed must be doubled or trebled.

The quantity of needlework which will henceforward be done in England as sewing-machines become more and more general is almost appalling. So much work will be done for working’s sake; so many new applications of the mechanical needle will be discovered; the most recondite stitch will be imitated. The peculiar work which, for a time, set at nought machine imitation was the kind of muslin embroidery so generally used for trimming ladies’ under-clothing and children’s dresses, consisting of perforations sewn round—profanely described by our boys home from school as “holes made on purpose to be darned up again.” Even this intractable problem appears now by the shop windows to have given way to the imitative genius of the machine, and all kinds of embroidery are effected by it.

What is to be the fate of needlewomen under the new dispensation is a question which has occupied the thoughts of many benevolent persons. Beyond the ill-paid class of shop-workers who make a shirt for a few pence, and to whom no change of system could apparently do any injury, there is a considerable section of our female population who have hitherto supported themselves by doing needlework at their homes, or going out to the houses of their private employers. The presence of a sewing-machine in a house will certainly deprive these persons of part of the needlework which used to be done by hand, although a larger quantity of sewing and hemming and stitching will be done now than was thought necessary before the machine was invented. Changes in trade and art-processes must always be attended by changes among the persons occupied in them. Some of these adapt themselves to the new circumstances, and at once commence a new education, and find as a consequence of the disturbance they deplored a more lucrative and more agreeable means of procuring a living. Others are left without occupation, and have to throw themselves into new lines of labour. Another and smaller section, it is feared, sink altogether into pauperism. Some of the needlewomen—those who took in work at their own homes—will succeed in obtaining a machine of their own. Many have already done so, although the price—five pounds to twenty pounds—is large. As an investment it is unquestionably a good one to those who depend on needlework for their bread.

The great number of shops in London devoted to the sale of sewing-machines is a matter of astonishment. The one or two which first opened seemed for a time quite sufficient to supply a demand which had to be created and then encouraged. Now, the best premises in the leading thoroughfares are occupied in selling these instruments; and there were lately in Cheapside three shops in succession filled with this speciality, and other shops of the same kind near them.

Thirty years ago, Mr. Babbage, writing on manufactures, showed that looking-glasses must necessarily fall in price as time went on, because the production of them would lead to a constantly increasing accumulation of them in the world, the breakage of glasses not being very excessive, and the plates broken being readily cut into smaller glasses. The theory has proved itself to be wrong—the demand, or at least the power of sale, keeping up with the production has not affected the price of silvered glasses; any reduction in price being due to economical methods of manufacture or the substitution of an inferior kind in the place of more expensive descriptions.

Thus it may prove with sewing-machines. The world in general is now the market which each manufacturer has to supply, and nation after nation becomes a purchaser. It will be an advantage when the particular style of advertising common to sewing-machine warehouses can be dispensed with—the highly-dressed young ladies sitting at their supposed work in elegant attitudes, framed and glazed within plate-glass windows almost extending to the pavement. A crowd of male admirers, not purchasers, clusters round the charming picture of domestic virtue, and one salesman, with a higher appreciation than others of advertising effect, divided his premises on the diœcious principle. In one window were seen refined and interesting young gentlemen,—in the other, ornately fascinating females. Outside, the effect was truly galvanic. The public instantly arranged itself like the oxygen and hydrogen at the two poles of a battery. The former window was obscured by a compression of crinolines; the other by a queue wearing hats. There was certainly in this case no occasion for the notice seen in many shop-fronts,—“You are requested to choose from the window.”