Born: October 27, 1811 - Pittstown, New York,
Died: July 23, 1875 - Devon, England
Singer Sewing MachinesQuiltmakers remember Isaac M. Singer as the developer of the Singer sewing machine, but before making improvements to the sewing machine designs of his era, Singer was an actor, and also patented other types of machinery, including rock drilling equipment.
American Lockstitch Sewing MachinesWalter Hunt is thought to be the first American to develop a sewing machine that produced a lockstitch, but didn't patent his 1832 invention. Twelve years later, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a U.S. patent for developing a sewing machine capable of producing a lockstitch from two threads. The machines were similar -- both used needles with eyes at the bottom end, rather than at the top, which had been the norm. Fabric was fed horizontally through Hunt's sewing machine, vertically through Elias Howe's.
Hunt had evidently lost interest in his machine, and Elias Howe couldn't find buyers or investors. Each of Howe's machine took a few months to build and the price was out of reach for most families. Howe's sewing machines were also difficult to use.
Isaac Singer developed his version of a lockstitch sewing machine in 1850, improving the design of a Lerow & Blodgett model. Singer's sewing machine could sew 900 stitches per minute, a huge improvement over the 250 stitches from Howe's machine.
Other companies wasted no time in joining the blossoming sewing machine market. In 1851, Singer received a patent for his modifications, which included a presser foot and an improved shuttle for the second thread. Singer's design was the first sewing machine to sew a continuous, reliable straight or curved seam.
Howe's Lawsuit Against SingerElias Howe was in England when the U.S sewing machine business blossomed. When he returned to America, Howe filed suit against manufacturers he felt were infringing on his patent, including Isaac Singer. Some lawsuits were settled out of court, but his pursuit of Singer went to to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Howe's favor, awarding him a lump sum for past sales and royalties for future sales of sewing machines.
Singer's Focus on the Home Sewing MarketIssac Singer's early machines were pricey, selling for $100 each. While they cost less than Howe's $300 sewing machines, they were still beyond the budget of most American families. Singer began to mass produce his product, refining the design to make the machines less clumsy than the earliest model. The end result was a sewing machine that sold for half as much as the original.
Singer's work as an actor prepared him to become a showman -- he was a personable guy who seemed to be a born salesman. He built elaborate showrooms for Singer sewing machines, and developed a worldwide network that sold parts, made repairs and offered training. The Singer Company arranged installment payments for machines and accepted trade-ins, making its products affordable to people who possibly only dreamed of owning a sewing machine.
By 1890, fifteen years after Isaac's death, Singer machines made up 90% of the world's sewing machine sales. In 1933, Singer introduced its Featherweight sewing machine at the Chicago World's Fair. The little machines remained in production for more than three decades and are extremely popular with today's quilters.
In 1939, the company temporarily halted the development of sewing machines in order to produce wartime supplies. In 1975, Singer introduced the world's first electronic sewing machine.
Isaac Singer's Personal LifeI really hadn't thought much about the personal life of Isaac Singer until searching for photographs of early sewing machines. Singer fathered at least 22 children during his life, two with his first wife, Catharine Maria Haley. While still married to Catharine, Singer proposed to Mary Ann Sponsler, and although the pair were never legally married, the union produced eight children -- some accounts say ten. While living with Sponsler, Singer was granted a divorce from Catharine based on her adultery with another man.
Singer had five more children with a company employee before Mary Ann Sponsler discovered the new relationship. Later, Singer fathered additional children with a woman he'd become acquainted with in Paris.
In all, Isaac M. Singer listed 22 offspring in his will, but family records indicate that two others died when they were children.
Singer Company TodayThe company has had its ups and downs in recent years, but seems to be gaining in momentum again, and remains a more affordable choice for home sewers than many other brands.
The Singer Company celebrated its 160th anniversary in 2011, and invited readers to share their own special Singer stories. The replies are an interesting read.
Nearly 300 quilters have responded to my question: What features make a sewing machine an excellent tool? Many Singers sewing machines are included in the replies.