As early as the mid-1700s, European inventors sought to overcome the technical problems of mechanical sewing. Often they tried to mimic the motions used in hand sewing with no success. Some American inventors who were looking for ways to mechanize sewing in the early 1800s also attempted to simulate the motions of sewing by hand, but others took a more innovative approach. Elias Howe, Jr. patented his first sewing machine in 1846. It incorporated some, but not all of the elements of a successful machine. Other inventors continued the quest.
A combination of their patented improvements ultimately resulted in several practical sewing machines. The necessary features were an eye-pointed needle; continuous thread from spools; a horizontal table; a lock stitch; a shuttle or bobbin for a second thread; an overhanging arm; synchronous cloth feed and needle motion; a presser foot; and a capacity for either curved or straight stitching. These individual improvements, along with the mechanisms to ensure that each operation was carried out in proper sequence, comprised the fundamentals of a practical sewing machine.
From: Cooper, Grace Rogers. "The Sewing Machine: Its Invention and Development." Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.
Isaac Merrit Singer
Isaac Merrit Singer (1811-1875) personified two distinct chapters in America's story of industrial expansion during the 1900s. As the clever machinist, who in 1851, he was a living testimony to the Yankee genius that revolutionized this country's way of life. In devoting much of the fortune reaped from that invention to indulgence in luxury, he also became an early reflection of the uninhibited opulence that characterized life among America's Gilded Age entrepreneurs.
Ready-to-Wear Clothing Industry
Most clothing in pre-industrial America was custom-made for a particular individual, either at home or by a tailor or dressmaker. An exception was the so-called slop shop, which produced and sold cheap, ready-made garments for unmarried laborers, sailors, and, increasingly after the 1810s, for Southern slaves. To broaden their markets and keep their workers and equipment busy during slow periods, both slop shops and tailor shops in the 1800s began to produce a full range of ready-to-wear garments for men. This expansion was aided by new technology, a shift in popular taste to looser-fitting fashions that required less precision tailoring, and the growing social acceptability of ready-made clothing. Although a few articles such as cloaks, corsets, and hoop skirts were commercially produced, most women's clothing in the mid-19th century was still custom-made at home or by paid dressmakers.
In the early 1800s, tailors began to adopt proportional drafting and sizing systems. These made it possible to standardize the cutting of garment parts, a crucial step in creating mass-produced clothing. As demand for ready-made clothing increased in the 1820s, shop owners found they could reduce their labor costs by cutting the cloth themselves, farming out the simple sewing tasks to women working at home, and paying them 25 to 50 percent less than male journeymen tailors. This "innovation" led to the rise of the garment industry sweatshop.
The ready-made clothing industry quickly embraced sewing machines in the 1850s, claiming tremendous time savings over hand sewing. After the invention of the sewing machine, the development of cloth-cutting devices was the next important breakthrough in the mass production of clothing. Long knives, introduced in the 1870s, allowed several layers of material to be cut simultaneously. By the 1890s, cutters could slice through stacks of cloth using electrically driven blades, greatly increasing the speed of this operation.
Between the 1870s and 1900, the men's and women's garment industries rapidly grew into mature and important sectors of the American economy. (By the 1910s, women could purchase a complete ready-to-wear wardrobe.) From just a handful of large brand-name companies before the Civil War, national brands of men's and women's clothing became common in the early 20th century. These companies established large factories with modern machinery and efficient production practices. Consumer demand for cheaper clothes rose dramatically, capital investment tripled, and the work force grew from about 120,000 to 206,000. New York City dominated the industry, producing more than 40 percent of all ready-to-wear clothes in the country.
In the early 20th century, many clothing makers moved out of New York City, seeking cheaper labor and production facilities. In the 1920s, Chicago and Rochester became centers of the men's clothing industry. Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, and Cincinnati were busy production sites. By the 1930s, Los Angeles had developed a booming sportswear industry. Production in each of these cities had its own characteristics, but all relied on a mix of modern factories, contract shops, home workers, and sweatshops. Competing against these large firms was a second tier of small entrepreneurial shops, which relied on cheap labor and their greater flexibility to meet market demands. While national manufacturers often resented the price-cutting pressures of these small competitors, they often used them to augment their own production during busy seasons.
The development of large department stores and mail-order companies helped stimulate demand for ready-to-wear clothing. By the 1940s, sweatshop production faded under the influence of strong labor organizations, government regulations, changing immigration patterns, and the shift by manufacturers from small contract shops to large factories. In the 1970s, manufacturers began moving away from factory production. Focusing primarily on design, brand-name advertising, and distribution, they left the bulk of actual production to an army of contractors in the United States and abroad. Today's restructuring of the apparel industry is influenced by offshore manufacturing, changes in retailing and inventory practices, and the need to fill orders quickly.