Thesis ID: CBB887002863

Mechanising the Needle: The Development of the Sewing Machine as a Manufacturing Tool, 1851-1980 (2019)


The sewing machine is a ubiquitous technology. Yet despite its contribution to the mechanisation of innumerable trades associated with the needle, its role as a domestic machine has overshadowed its significance as a manufacturing tool. This thesis redresses this imbalance and offers the first comprehensive examination of the sewing machine as a specialised tool for manufacturing. Because the process of mechanisation did not occur in isolation, this thesis employs a cross-disciplinary approach, which interleaves material culture and economic analyses, to situate the process within the dynamic relationships that surrounded it. This multi-dimensional view of machine development not only demonstrates that mechanisation was an adaptive and responsive process, it also reveals the significance of the stitched object and object maker to the direction of the sewing machine's technological development. The range of manufacturing models produced by one of the world's most significant sewing machine manufacturers, the Singer Company, is used as the primary resource. Trade literature, machine models, and company records from collections in both the United States and the West of Scotland, which was the site of one of the Singer Company's largest factories, capture the scope and diversity of development undertaken by this major American manufacturer. The depth and breadth of this development serve as a proxy for the development of the sewing machine as a manufacturing tool during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The thesis is divided into two parts. The first part concentrates on the range and scope of machine development. It illustrates how the size, shape, material, and construction of stitched objects directly influenced the shape and specialisation of the sewing machine as a manufacturing tool. It also uses examples of prototype building to explore the important influence of the relationship between stitched object maker and machinery maker, and examines the changing appearance of the sewing machine to demonstrate the strength and extent of this influence. The second part examines the interaction between production and consumption. It uses object studies of men's shirts and women's shoes to explore the influence of changing fashion and consumer taste on the direction of specialised machine development. Stitched objects provide an original interpretative source for a history of technology for two reasons. First, they capture the relevance of trade structure to the adoption and diffusion of the sewing machine. And secondly, they provide evidence of the important human role in the process of mechanisation.

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Authors & Contributors
Alexander, Jennifer Karns
Choi, Hyungsub
Gordon, Andrew. H.
Heitmann, John Alfred
Heppenheimer, T. A.
Hounshell, David A.
American Heritage of Invention and Technology
American Quarterly
Archives of Natural History
The Bridge: Journal of the National Academy of Engineering
Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology
Food, Culture and Society
Johns Hopkins University Press
Carnegie Publishing
Oxford University Press
Reaktion Books
University of California Press
Technology and society
Babbage, Charles
Boulton, Matthew
Carlyle, Thomas
Hamilton, William
James, William
Schreber, Daniel Paul
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
18th century
21st century
United States
Great Britain
Singer Sewing Machine Company

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