Innovation Case Study: The Sewing Machine

IB Design Technology: Innovation Case Study -The Sewing Machine

A sewing machine is a device which joins fabric using thread usually by creating stitches with two threads though some machines use more threads. Sewing machines can also create patterned stitches and button holes.

The first sewing machine was patented in 1830 by Barthelemy Thimonnier. By 1841 Thimmonier had 80 machines in his Paris factory producing French Army uniforms (a pioneering system of volume production using mechanisation).

The use of the sewing machine produced consistency of stitching and allowed data to be assimilated relating to how many stitches per minute could be done efficiently leading to a production system based on quotas and accurate costing.

In 1856 Isaac Singer patented a sewing machine which produced a different type of stitch called a link stitch and his machine was much easier to use than previous machines. Singer was also an entrepreneur as he targeted his machine at the domestic market, in particular to women. At this time many women spent a considerable amount of time hand stitching garments at home so an easy to use and understand device such as Singer’s sewing machnbine was a liberating innovation to them. It also changed attitudes to women as prior to this time it was assumed that women were incapable of understanding and using machines. Singer further used his entrepreneurial skills to introduce an innovative “hire purchase plan” in the US so that families unable to afford his sewing machine outright could spread the payments over many years. This initiative was supported by an “after sales service” demonstrating that Singer’s machines were not designed with planned obsolescence in mind as the after sales service was intended to prolongue the product life cycle. The Singer sewing machine therefore contributed to social sustainability for many households as not only was the machine the first labour saving device for the home, many women used the spate time created to “take in” sewing, hence contributing to the family income and improving quality of life.

The sewing machine originated as a mechanical device but in the late 1880s an electric motor was attached to turn it into an elctromechanical machine. Developments in materials and manufacturing technology have produced smaller, lighter and faster machines for the home. The use of computerisation has further enhanced the capability of the sewing machine enabling the user at home to not only manufacture garments but also to design them. This means that the cycle of innovation has turned full circle with users able to produce  one-off production of unique garments as in the old craft production days.

Social sustainability has already been mentioned in this Case Study in relation to home working but there are other aspects of social sustainability that may be considered such as the use of sewing machines in the workplace, particularly in some developing countries where working conditions and child employment are serious health and safety issues.

Environmental sustainability is another consideration. The Case Study could be expanded to focus on the product life cycle of clothing and the concept of repair to encourage consumers to repair garments rather than discard them. It could also be argued that more use of sewing machines in the home reduces the volume production of clothing in factories which will have a positive impact on the environment.

The issue of values is another possible consideration. Creating garments at home may mean that the items are more cherished than some purchased from shops and that they will be worn for longer and mean more to the user.

Links to Assessment Statements: 2.1.4; 2.2.2 ;2.2.9: 2.3.16; 3.3.8; 5.1.2; 5.2.3; 5.3.5; 6.2.3; 12.1.4; D.2.8; D.2.9;D.2.10; D.3; D.5.2; D.12.


Bellis, M. “Stitches. The History of Sewing Machines.”

“Fascinating Facts about the Invention of the Sewing Machine”.

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