You are currently viewing National Sewing Month: The History of Sewing
Post logo for National Sewing Month The History of Sewing featuring an old tailor studio from the later 19th century

National Sewing Month encourages to keep sewing alive as a hobby for making your own clothes and a cheap way to alter or repair clothing. Another important aspect of being able to sew is sustainability in fashion. This post gives a brief review on the history of sewing.



Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.


Clothes Making in Ancient Times

In ancient times, animal hides were stitched together with bones and tendons for clothing and tents for shelter. About 4000 BC, making of fabrics from natural fibers and turning them into clothes started in the Middle East.


Mid-Evil Seamstresses and Tailors

Traditionally, sewing like spinning was a women occupation. In the Middle Ages, aristocrats and rich people employed tailors or seamstresses to make their clothing. Everything was hand-made.

New clothing was a major investment. Therefore, the poor often had their clothes repaired. Old fabric was of great value as it could be turned into new garments. Together this means there was no look-a-like attire.


Embroidery Conquers the World

Skills like embroidery were highly valued and were country/region specific. Clothes making and decoration skills were handed down from one generation of women to the next. In Europe, young brides got pins, needles, and pin cushions as part of the dowry during the Middle Ages and still in the 17th century.

Embroidered clothing was luxury. The silk road brought stitching from the Far East to Europe. Also the traditional organic floral stitching from the Middle East was on high demand. The Hanseatic League spread embroidery patterns from around the Baltic and North Seas.

Today embroidered clothing is considered ethnic and traditional and hence difficult to style. More on styling embroidery.



How the Industrial Revolution Changed the Making of Garments

In 1790, Thomas Saint received the patent for the World’s first sewing machine.  Other sewing machines were developed in the 19th century. For example, 1829, Barthélemy Thimonnier (1793 – 1857) invented a sewing machine and filed the patent together with Auguste Ferrand in 1830, who made the drawings required for patenting. His invention used a barbed needle that formed a chain stitch, i.e. only one thread was needed. In 1841, he used the sewing machines to produce military uniforms for the French Army. A mob rioted his store. They accused him to eliminate their jobs. He won several prizes at World Shows, but died in poverty. animation showing the chain stich
Thimonniers Stitch – a chain stitch formed with a barbed needle. By Panjigally. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


In 1832, Walter Hunt invented a sewing machine with two needles, one of which had an eye. He never filed for patent because of fear that the machine would put tailors and seamstresses out of their jobs. He abandoned his idea in 1838.

At the same time, Elias Howe had the same idea. He got his patent in 1846 in a stage man vs. five seamstresses challenge. His machine beat the speed of the ladies. He never received any royalties for his sewing machine. Isaac Singer invented a similar machine, but with only one needle with eye. He paid Howe thousands of dollars in royalties for the eye-pointed needle. So did seven other manufacturers.


Sewing Machines Made a Huge Impact on the Clothing Industry

The machines permitted production of garments in fractions of the time needed to hand-stitch items. Shops with often underpaid women produced industrial clothing.


2 women with thread and machine, man handing one of the women an object
Sewing scene: Two women with thread and machine, man handing one of the women an object. Artist/Maker: Fraget & Viret. About 1855. Form: Getty’s Open Content Program


Some machines were driven by pedals. I remember Granny Hannah having an old-fashioned one with foot-pedal. It needed a lot of coordination making it work.


Group of ten men, women, and children sitting around a sewing machine
Group of ten men, women, and children sitting around a sewing machine. date: 1865–1870. From: Getty’s Open Content Program.



The Invention of Zig-zag Stitching Simplified Clothes Making

In 1873, Helen Augusta Blanchard (25 October 1840 – January 12, 1922) improved the sewing machine so it could create a zig-zag stitch. Her zig-zag stitch permitted sealing the edges of the fabric in an easy way. Before, one had to sew the piece together on the right, trim away the fabric close to the seams, iron the piece before turning it over to the left and doing the final stitching. I actually learned this technique still in middle school.  It was tedious. Why? Machines with zig-zag options were more expensive. Thus, the school didn’t have them. I still used the old-fashioned method when in graduate school as my Singer had no zig-zag option.


Helen augusta blanchard
Helen Augusta Blanchard. From: Wiki Commons


Ms Blanchard further improved the sewing machines as well as the needles. In 1881, she establish the Blanchard Over-Seam Co. in Philadelphia. In total, she received 28 patents!


Who Invented the Safety Pin?

One of the easiest ways to sew a full skirt or so-called dirndl skirt, is to sew a tube at the top of the skirt, make a hem at the bottom and a seam either on both sides or in the back. Finally, you pull a piece of rubber band with a safety pin thru the tube. More on sewing a full skirt. Just imagine how to do it without a safety pin! The risk to sew into your fingers was pretty high. Done that, been there. Now you can imagine how Walter Hunt‘s invention revolutionized the clothing industry. In 1849, he got the patent for his safety pin as “dress pins.”


Back to Custom-Made Clothes for the Aristocrats and Rich

In the 19th century, attire made by tailors and seamstresses became associated with high-end fashion. According to my Granny Hannah, until the turn to the 20thcentury, rich families hired a seamstress or tailor twice a year to make identical garments for all female and male members of the family. The new clothing was worn by the entire family to go to church or other events that required dressing up. The next year, the worn attire turned into everyday wear. Consequently, the kids could wear hand-me-downs without other people noticing. Everybody in the village knew they all had the same clothing. And now the family of course wears the new pieces to go out. A smart way to save when shopping for clothes.


sketch of 1909 sewing machine with foot pedal
This piece looks like the one my Granny Hannah had. Study for “The Story of a Seamstress”: Sewing Machine 1908. Umberto Boccioni. From Metropolitan Museum open source program



In the 20th Century Sewing Becomes the Job of the Housewives Again

By the middle of the last century, sewing machines became household items at least for the middle class. My mom had an electric Singer machine. She used her Singer to create beautiful summer dresses for my sister and me. I can’t remember whether and if what she sew for my brother or herself. I used her Singer to make my first skirts when I learned sewing in middle school. They told us that there are reasons to learn how to sew.

Later, when I was in graduate school, my Mom got a new Singer. It had all kinds of different stitches. In contrast to her old one, it was not integrated into a piece of furniture. You could put it easily in a storage room when not in use. My Mom gave me her old one, which I used a lot of my clothes in the 1980s. Mainly pencils skirts. When we immigrated, I tossed it. The US has difference voltage and Watt requirements than Germany.


Custom-Made Clothes for the Middle Class

Today many clothing companies offer custom-made attire at affordable prices for the middle class women. When you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember my review of Rita Phil custom-made pencil skirt. Some clothing industries even use software that gives the potential customer an idea how an attire looks with a different version of sleeves, hem length, etc.


Examples of Self-Made Clothes

This dress has an old 1940s cut from a vintage pattern. I used this cut twice. Once for this floral dress, and once for a corduroy version for winter.


over 50 years old woman in DIY floral dress, cape, open-toe pumps
Movement of the self-sewn dress


style book author in DIY dress, belt, cape, pumps
Armani Exchange cape, DIY shirt dress, Liz Claiborne open-toe pumps, Hermes collier de chien bangle, ruby belt, Celine bag, amber necklace, Hipstik pantyhose, and sunglasses c/o Eagle Eyes



In the 21st Century Sustainability in Fashion Has Led to Recycling and Upcycling

The growing concern in the public about environmental impacts and natural resources has led to a slow fashion and sustainable fashion movement. Consequently, the textile industry recycles some of its waste.

Many fashionistas upcycle old clothes. They upcycle old shirts into a skirt, or upcycle shirts into a maxi dress. Jump the movement. When you are new to sewing, start with an easy project. For instance, learn how to turn an old silk shirt into an infinity scarf.


Wrapping Up the History of Sewing

Who did the sewing has changed several times over history. Today’s fast fashion bears the risk that sewing becomes a lost art. Fast fashion is namely cheaper than buying the fabrics to design and make your own clothes.


Don’t let your outfit be a random thing. Wear the right look in every situation by looking up what to wear when in How to Dress for Success in Midlife. Buy the book now.


Don’t forget to hit subscribe to receive the bi-weekly free High Latitude Style newsletter with a summary of all new posts and more about Fashion, Life and Science at the Last Frontier.



Döbler, H. (1972) Kultur und Sittengeschichte der Welt – Kleidung, Mode, Schmuck. Bertelsmann Verlag, München, Germany.
Smithsonian (2019) Women: Our story. Smithsonian.
Stamp, J.  (2020) The Many, Many Designs of the Sewing Machine. Retrieved: 9/7/2020


Photos of me: G. Kramm

© 2013-2022 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

This Post Has One Comment

  1. thestylesplash

    My mum still has my grandmother’s Singer sewing machine, it’s one of the really old ones operated by a foot pedal. It’s quite a beautiful piece of furniture, and it still has her little tools and cotton reels in it. Thanks for sharing at the link up!

    Emma xxx

Comments are closed.