We love quilt history here at SQ, and we especially love anything and everything that has to do with our best friend, the sewing machine. In this post I share with you how the invention of the sewing machine changed sewing, and the whole world, forever. Ready for a quick and entertaining history lesson?
Sidenote: If quilt history is your jam, be sure to check out some of the other posts we have on the topic (and a lot of them even include a free pattern!)
- Courthouse Steps Quilt Pattern
- Rail Fence Quilt Pattern
- Irish Chain Quilt Pattern
- Sawtooth Star Quilt Pattern
- Churn Dash Quilt Pattern
- Bear Paw Quilt Pattern
- Flying Geese Quilt Pattern
- Double Wedding Ring Quilt Pattern
- A Brief and Entertaining History of Polka Dots
- A Brief and Amusing History of Paisley
- Sunbonnet Sue: A Brief History
Photo cred: Stitched & Found
As you can see below, many modern sewing machines come fully equipped with tiny computers built inside of them. My sew baby, a BERNINA 770 QE, has over a THOUSAND different stitches.
It's amazing to think about a time, not too long ago, when the only stitch pattern available was whatever you could sew with your hands. Let's travel back 150 years to learn about the exciting evolution of the sewing machine!
The quilt featured above is the Glitter and Glow pattern and can be purchased in the shop!
The following photos were taken by Hannah, the creator of Stitched & Found. Hannah is a photographer/vintage quilt hunter. She buys and sells beautiful quilts and takes the most fabulous quilt photos along the way.
Texting? Try Textile-ing.
If you take a look at the full timeline of quilting, you can pinpoint a stark difference between the years before the invention and mass sales of the domestic sewing machine, and the years after.
These days teens are prolific at texting, but at one point, the primary responsibility of growing girls was to learn to hand sew, so they could produce all of the family’s clothing, quilts, and basic home decor… by hand… once married.
This work was TEDIOUS. (We know it because we still do it sometimes!) Hand sewing and hand quilting are time consuming tasks that would have taken young women years to perfect, and a lifetime to put to practical use.
Enter the Invention of the Sewing Machine!
That’s why in the late 1800s after the invention of the sewing machine and domestic sewing machines became both available and affordable, sewing machine sales went threw the roof! Every family who could afford one, wanted one. I guess you could say sewing machines in the 1860s were like TVs in the 1950s and iPhones to us now. They were high tech, exciting, and new!
Even Mahatma Gandhi, who eschewed all other machines, made an exception for the sewing machine after learning to sew while in jail. He called it “one of the few useful things ever invented.”
Once every household owned a sewing machine, life changed, not least of all in the quilting realm. Now there was a highly-precise, efficient machine that could stitch fabric instead of your precious hands.
It makes sense then, that hand sewing started to become a lost art. Like most skills we no longer need to survive (churning butter… writing cursive…) the mastery of the technique began to fall by the wayside. Women now needed to master a new set of skills: manipulating the machinery that did the stitching for them.
Above is a machine quilted vintage Tumbling Block quilt.
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Ladies Started Getting Fancy
Because the act of quilting itself took so much less time, women could really dive head-first into hand-sewing embellishments that made their quilts unique. “Crazy quilts” made of abstract shapes sewn randomly together suddenly became a thing in the wake of quicker quilt production. It was a constant sewing party and women had more time to get creative!
Photo cred: The State Museum of Pennsylvania
By the turn of the century, quilting was less of an obligatory household chore, and more of a business opportunity. Living the good life meant consumption more than production, and people started buying and selling quilt patterns like never before. The quilting industry turned into a consumer-facing business, and in an interesting plot twist, that made some sewists famous, household names.
During this time, craft and sewing publishing really took off. In the early 20th century, quilt patterns were being published and circulated through newspapers, magazines, and catalogs. Instead of just quilting for necessity, people began honing their specific tastes and styles.
For a more in-depth look at the evolution of quilting during the 19th and 20th centuries, check out:
- Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts by Barbara Brackman (she is the queen of quilt history, so any of her books will be great)
- Quilts: A Living Tradition by Robert Shaw (he also has many wonderful books on this topic)
A Quilting Resurgence in the 1970s
Before the 1970s, even though most quilts were pieced with a sewing machine, quilters mostly still hand quilted their quilt layers together. By the 1950s and 60s the idea of hand quilting a quilt was...well...not appealing.
More and more women were entering the workforce and life was busy! Quilting as an artform was taking a turn, and not towards popularity, until...
...quilters realized that they could machine quilt their quilts (most of the credit for this discovery should go to the infamous Marti Michell), thus saving themselves hours and hours of sewing. Very similar to now, people were crunched for time and looking for a faster and more efficient way to sew. And they found it!
Quilting in the 21st Century
Flashforward to the present and quilting has only grown in popularity. We have fabric stores dedicated just to quilting fabric, quilting notions, and quilting books. That’s a relatively new thing! Before the 1970s fabric stores carried all kinds of fabric and mostly for apparel.
Polyester was aplenty! It was difficult to find pretty light-weight cotton that worked well for piecing a quilt. Now, that wonderful cotton is lovingly coined as quilting cotton. How nice!
These days dedicated quilters spend millions a year on kits, fabric, tools, and, of course, sewing machines. The acceleration and massive change in the quilting industry after the invention of the sewing machine is nothing short of epic.
Even though the sewing machine has enabled garment sewing, bag making and, of course, quilting, to blossom into an accessible art form for people worldwide, in my opinion, there’s still nothing like channeling your inner, pre-1850s teenager, and thoughtfully hand quilting a piece that will stick around to see yet another generation of sewing machine enthusiasts.
The quilt featured above is the Fly Away pattern and can be purchased in the shop!
The quilt featured above is the Maypole pattern and can be purchased in the shop!
Is your sewing machine your best friend? Now that you know all about its historic journey to your sewing room, I bet you love it even more! What kind of sewing machine do you have and why do you love it? Tell us in the comments!