Sewing Machine

American girls born before 1860 spent their childhood and adolescence learning to skillfully hand sew in order to be prepared to produce their family's clothing once married. The proof of their education is found in their quilts, especially in pre-Civil War (1861-1865) appliquéd masterpieces, including Baltimore albums and those with intricately appliquéd cut chintz. 

The tedious and inefficient nature of hand sewing prompted a number of inventors to search for a way to mechanize the task. Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the first functional sewing machine in France in 1830, but this machine never came into general use. Elias Howe patented the first sewing machine in the United States in 1846.  The early machines were primarily for industrial, rather than home use.

This changed in 1859 when inventor and clever entrepreneur Isaac Singer manufactured and widely marketed a sewing machine for the home market.  Recognizing that a $75-$100 machine was beyond the reach of most working class families (and many middle class families, as well), Singer and his partner Edward Clark allowed families to buy a machine on a payment plan for $5 per month, and in this way helped make sewing machines much more widely available.

As sewing machines grew more affordable, the construction and look of quilts began to change.  Some mid- and late 19th-century quilts feature machine quilting.  In addition, quiltmakers frequently stitched sashings, borders and bindings—all attached with long seams—by machine, although many makers continued to piece blocks by hand. 

One of the most profound changes brought about by the sewing machine was the loss of hand-sewing skills. Consequently, quilts of the latter half of the 19th century have far less intricate quilting than antebellum quilts. 

Yet conversely, once machine sewing cut the time required for plain sewing to make family clothing, the average woman had more time to do decorative hand sewing or fancy work.  It is no coincidence that the Crazy quilt fad began in the 1880s as sewing machines moved into many American homes.