Embroidery History Timeline

With over 35 years in the embroidery industry with particular emphasis on writing, education, and digitizing, Helen Hart Momsen is widely published in the trade press. Momsen founded and moderates the Embroidery Line (www.embroideryline.net), the longest continuously running internet forum for apparel decorators. A sought-after speaker for many years for THE NBM SHOW, Momsen has authored two ground-breaking books on professional embroidery, available at www.Helenhart.com.

When you are standing at the helm of your multi-needle machine, do you ever wonder about the history behind this amazing invention? Would you be fascinated to learn that an embroidery machine was in the works 213 years ago? If so, read on...

In 1755, a German immigrant living in London, Charles Weisenthal, applied for a patent for a needle to be used for “mechanical” sewing, but with no machine in sight to put it to the test. In 1790, Thomas Saint, an English cabinetmaker, patented a machine that used an awl to make a hole in leather, allowing a needle and thread to pass through. No one saw that machine until nearly 100 years later a machine was finally built using the documents submitted with the patent. It did not work.

In 1804, Thomas Stone and James Henderson patented a machine in France that was said to create a stitch that emulated hand sewing, a capability many seemed to think was required. At the same time, in Scotland, a patent was granted to John Duncan for an embroidery machine that used a number of needles. What happened to either of these inventions is unknown, but just imagine an embroidery machine with multiple needles 200 years ago. We would probably have 50-needle machine heads managed by robots by now if the embroidery machine had begun its evolution in 1804!

Meanwhile, in Germany, Balthasar Krems developed a machine for sewing caps. No patents were applied for, so the date is unknown, but 1810 is the best guess.

In 1814, Josef Madersperger of Austria received a patent for a bevy of machines and, with the help of his government, tried to develop a working version for 25 years. He just couldn’t get it all to come together and eventually he died, a pauper.

Over in America, around 1818, John Doge and John Knowles developed a machine that could create a stitch, but could only sew a short span of fabric before the machine had to be reset. 

It is important to note here that in 1828, a man by the name of Joshua Heilman developed the first hand-loom embroidery machine. He wasn’t trying to develop a sewing machine, but a loom that would produce the look of hand embroidery. No bobbin thread was present so the stitches show on the reverse in the same top thread that you see on the face of the work. The wonderful part about these shuttle-style looms with no motor is that the needle threading is mechanized. The hand-loom machine was shown at the Paris Exposition and won the coveted Legion of Merit Gold Medal. By the 1840s these hand-looms were the mainstay of textile production in Western Europe and Switzerland.

Two years later in France, the government granted another sewing machine patent to Barthelemy Thimonnier. His machine was all wood with a barbed needle. He was different from the other inventors as he had visions of embroidery in his head. He designed his machine to create embroidery, but on a more practical note he realized it had great potential as a sewing machine. 

Bart got his machine into production; a contract was granted for building them to sew French army uniforms. By the end of a decade, he had 80 machines running in a factory environment, but the tailors of Paris revolted, fearing that a machine would replace their craft of hand sewing and they would find themselves destitute. They attacked the factory, destroyed the machines, and sent the inventor on a flight for his life.

Bart was a brave soul and, with a new partner, he began an improved version of his machine. Before he could get into production, the tailors attacked again, and with France in the throes of revolution, the police and the army busy elsewhere, so he grabbed one machine and headed off to England. Barthelemy Thimonnier was the first to offer a useful sewing machine for sale and the first to run a garment factory. 

By 1850, needles were no longer being produced at home but were manufactured in an industrial setting. Eleven years later a needle factory was founded in Germany. These new and improved needles placed by the age of metal in nearly every household had (mostly) ladies busily plying their thread, embroidering, and sewing. The gents were off trying to figure out a way to mechanize the whole process, combining that new needle with a motor.