Singer Sewing Machines

Americana, Featured Article, History, Traditions
on May 1, 2012
Michael Good Rothwell still keeps her mother’s 1950 Singer Featherweight, one of the machines on which she learned to sew as a girl.

Some of Victoria Rothwell’s fondest childhood memories are of sitting beside her grandmother in front of a Singer sewing machine and learning to stitch together scraps of fabric to make clothes for her dolls.

“Every summer, I’d go and stay with my grandmother in Portland, Ore., for three or four weeks, and we would work on sewing projects together,” recalls Rothwell, 57, of Seattle, who was about 10 when she first operated the electric machine, controlling the stitching speed with a knee lever.

She honed her seamstress skills on her mother’s 1950 Singer Featherweight machine, sewing projects for 4-H Club and beginning to fashion her own unique style. In the process, she developed a passion for sewing that today she is handing down to her daughter, Elowen, 12.

Rothwell even organized several Saturday sewing classes last year for Elowen and three of her school friends, teaching the girls to sew on two vintage Singers. She helped the girls shop for fabric and taught them how to use a sewing pattern to make a patchwork pillow and a baby quilt for an expecting teacher.

“I thought if I invited her friends, she’d learn more,” Rothwell says.

A sewing innovation
More than 160 years after Isaac Merritt Singer patented the first commercially successful sewing machine, the Singer brand is tightly woven into the fabric of American life as treasured machines, skills and memories are handed down from generation to generation.

Before Singer’s design, clothing was made primarily by hand with a needle and thread, usually by women at home or tailors in shops.

Sewing machines date to the 1700s, but none proved popular for general use until Singer—a machinist, inventor and actor from Pittstown, N.Y.—patented his design in 1851. While repairing an existing model, he added a shuttle to move the needle up and down instead of side to side, replaced the arm crank with a foot pedal, and built an arm that extended over the machine’s worktable for ease of use.

The innovations proved transformational, allowing the operator to complete 900 stitches a minute, compared with up to 50 stitches a minute by an experienced sewer.

 “We don’t credit Isaac Singer with the invention of the sewing machine, but rather the invention of the first practical sewing machine,” says Gary Jones, president of mass market for the Singer Sewing Co., which operates its North American headquarters in La Vergne, Tenn. (pop. 32,588).

Singer’s design was unveiled at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and won first prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris. In 1857, he opened the first of many Singer factories in New York, a hub of production until the company moved its remaining domestic manufacturing operations overseas during the late 20th century. Ever the innovator, Singer also introduced installment payments for purchasing his $99 machine.

The contraption quickly became a household necessity. For instance, it helped Western settlers efficiently turn flour sacks and other castoff material into aprons, dishtowels and clothing.

The first Singers were known as treadles and powered by foot pedals. Electric models were introduced beginning in the late 1800s.

Twentieth-century innovations in the garment industry decreased the need for sewing at home with the introduction of mass-market, ready-to-wear clothing. The Singer company, however, reached new generations of seamstresses and hobbyists by designing models geared toward ease, simplicity and decorative sewing, including its iconic Featherweight unveiled at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, its first zigzag-stitch machine introduced in 1952, and the world’s first computer-controlled model, the Touchtronic, in 1978.

“Everywhere I go, I hear new stories about Singer sewing machines,” Jones says. “When someone finds out I work for Singer, I hear about how their baby’s christening gown, their wedding dress or their prom dress was sewn on a Singer.”

Mother’s machine
Johnnie J. LaComb, 74, continues to sew on the 1920s Singer treadle machine used by her mother to make clothing for herself and her eight brothers and sisters while growing up on a cotton farm in Wharton, Texas.

“The first thing I remember is being in my mother’s little sewing room watching her sew,” says LaComb, recalling how Frances Luchak made clothing for her children while watching them play outside through a window across from her machine.

LaComb says her large family depended on her mother’s homemaking abilities—from baking bread every morning at 5 o’clock to spending hours sewing garments on her Singer machine.

“She made the aprons that we all had to wear when we worked in the kitchen, and she made my little sisters’ sundresses out of flour sacks,” LaComb recalls. “She was very good at making us feel special with the finished products.”

LaComb’s machine and its wooden cabinet remain a tangible reminder of the hard-working mom she remembers and admires. “When my parents died, all the children came to pick out something that they wanted,” she says, “and I picked out the old Singer.”

While her own children weren’t interested in sewing, LaComb says her grandchildren are more intrigued.

“When the grandkids were little, they loved to work the treadle,” she says. “Now they like to bring their jeans and other things for me to patch and hem.”

Custom made
After learning to sew on her mother’s and grandmother’s machines, Victoria Rothwell decided she wanted her own.

Saving money from her baby-sitting jobs, Rothwell was 16 in 1971 when she purchased a Singer 237 Fashion Mate for $99. “That was a ton of money back then,” she recalls, “and it’s still a pretty good machine.”

She began sewing most of her own clothing and, as the only resident who brought a machine to her dormitory at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., often made repairs for classmates. Rothwell became so proficient as a seamstress that, in 1995, she made her wedding dress on her trusty Fashion Mate.

“I tried on dresses at wedding shops and found patterns that mimicked the designs I liked best,” she says. “It was a beautiful dress, with an off-the-shoulder cowl neckline. It was one of the nicest parts of my wedding.”

Her daughter is developing her own tastes in clothing and home décor using her mom’s machine. Last year, Elowen made a pillow and a pair of pajamas.

 “She got me interested, and now I think it’s fun to go out and find fabric that I like and make something customized,” Elowen says. “It’s just more special when you make it yourself.”