Singer sewing machines: production on a grand scale

young woman using a singer sewing machine

You might remember the sight of an old steel and wood bench with a sewing machine affixed to it in the house of your parents, grandparents, or somewhere forgotten, collecting dust. Singer sewing machines and their logos and fonts are embedded in the collective mind of many, but how did it end up there in the first place?

The tale of the Singer company and their world-changing sewing machines is one of industrialisation, emancipation, mass production, mass marketing, and a massive impact on the world. 

EXPLORE: Singer sewing machines in Europeana

The story of Singer starts around 1850, when Isaac Merritt Singer, an American businessman, came up with an idea for improving the current lockstitch design that sewing machines had. He proposed the design for a sewing machine with a shuttle with a straight needle instead of a curved one, that went straight up and down instead of in a circle like previous sewing machines did.

This made the operation of a sewing machine much more reliable, and Singer filed a patent for this new design in 1851. 

Sewing machine, Museu, Lithuania, CC BY

Singer’s sewing machines really took off when they were awarded the first prize at the Paris World Fair in 1855. Singer became the largest selling brand of sewing machines internationally in that year. Singer put a lot of effort into pushing down the cost of producing their sewing machines. The prices of Singer sewing machines were pushed down to 10 dollars in the 1870s (about the equivalent of 280$ in 2018) so they would be affordable to a large group of people. 

Singer. Sewing machines in the factory, 1892, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, France, NoC-OKLR

Singer didn’t only want to provide sewing machines to textile factories, they wanted to bring sewing machines into the home. 

Singer marketed to families by focusing on the image of the virtuous domestic wife repairing and sewing clothes in no time for husband and children alike.

“Singer in the House, Gold in the family”, Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum – Budapest, Hungary, CC BY-NC-ND.

In 1870 they debuted the red “S” logo with a sewing woman in the background, staying in use until at least 1920.

Singer invested heavily in teaching women how to use sewing machines in the home, organising Singer tutorial workshops for women and girls all over the world. 

Retrat de grup: Singer Compañía, 1928. Ajuntament de Girona, Spain, CC BY-NC-ND

The machines were continuously redesigned to be quicker, easier to use, and lighter. New inventions, like the vibrating shuttle invention of 1885, allowed the Singer Corporation to create their own patents and start mass production. 

Ad for the vibrating shuttle sewing machine, in Luxemburger Wort 1890-08-26. National Library of Luxembourg, Luxembourg, Public Domain Mark

Lower prices and higher availability of Singer sewing machines meant that the prices of clothing went down drastically, impacting workers relying on sewing for their livelihood. 

EXPLORE: Listen to the sound of a Singer sewing machine

At the same time it had emancipating effects, giving women more time for other activities outside the household and enjoy leisure activities or seek employment. 

Artificial limb factory in Rome: six women working at benches, 1914, Wellcome collection, United Kingdom, CC BY.

Industrialisation and mass production also brought massive negative consequences, like the proliferation of exploited and oppressed workers in sweatshops, issues that persist to this day.

Clothing factory workers in Twente, Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, the Netherlands,  CC BY-NC-SA

Singer sewing machines changed the working lives of many in myriad different ways. The stories of seamstresses, sweatshop workers, housewives, and many more are intricately intertwined with the machinery they used in their labour. By looking back at the history of the Singer sewing machine, those stories are surfaced as well.

At the Sewing Machine. Hugo Simberg. 1899, Finnish National Gallery, Finland, CC0

By Jolan Wuyts, Europeana Foundation


Europe at Work: Share your story

Did you or your family work with Singer sewing machines or in the clothes production industry? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

photograph of man working in a factory surrounded by machines, the words 'Share your story' and a logo saying 'Europe at Work' are above

Featured Image: Fotografie | Berufsbild Schneiderin, Theodor Strübin, 1936-1968, KIM.bl, Switzerland, CC BY-NC-SA

15 thoughts on “Singer sewing machines: production on a grand scale

  1. Venho de uma verdadeira disnastia de costureiras desde a minha trisavó, embora eu já não trabalhe ainda as uso para as minhas costuras
    Sempre vi em casa de minha avó e na casa de minha mãe um máquina de costura singer eu tenho duas das de 1920 e 2 mais actuais já electricas minha filha também tem uma antiga que mandou electrificar todas trabalham

  2. Excelent article! I allways thought Singer to be a German brand… And I think it is worth while mentioning that few years ago there was a scam involving the Singer sewing machines, that temporarely raise the price of all kind of dusted Singer sewing machines!!!

  3. When I was a kid in the late 40’s, early 50’s, my grandma, who was living with us, had a Singer sewing machine, which originally was activated with a large pedal pushed up and down with feet. Later, I think when I was still a little kid, she got a small electric motor attached to the machine and she switched it on with a small pedal! She did wonders of clothes for us and all our cousins. That was in France. Then in 1979 we lived in Manila and ordered a then modern, still simple enough, no electronics, Singer sewing machine from Hong Kong. My wife has been using it ever since. Today, in 2019, this machine still is in top condition, doing wonders and never required a repair! So sturdy and high quality! We would not even consider buying a non Singer sewing machine…. Singer is the reference for a sewing machine!

  4. My mother used a Singer sewing machine at an exclusive dressmaking business 1945-55, & when she left to get married she bought a similar model which she has used ever since. I have always envied the perfect buttonholes which the attachment produces, unlike my very expensive modern machines! My grandmother never had a sewing machine until she was in her seventies, when she chose an old Singer treadle machine – a beautiful work of art which was also practical. I later inherited an even older Singer treadle machine from my great-aunt, which came complete with period lolly papers – & the original bill. My mother enjoyed using it, but I never managed the treadling action although I have kept it as a lovely piece of furniture. By the time I was buying my own new machine in 1975 my first thought was a Singer, but workmates warned me of their experiences where the insides had melted together – apparently the parts were by then made of plastic, & no good when overheated.

  5. Well written and very interesting. I will add that in Greater Romania, the ads were confiscated starting in the early 20s, soon after new territories were added, because the colors of the add represented the colors of the Hungarian flag.

  6. My late Mom worked at the Singer factory in the late 40’s in Amsterdam. She did clerical as a young 15-17yr old. She was never a semester but her Mom, my grandmother was and she was amazing. She sewed so many outfits for my Mom. After the war in Holland my mom would take America magazine’s and would beg her Mom too make the most fashionable dresses on her foot pedaling machine. All my Moms childhood pictures are of her in amazing clothing. Thanks too the Singer and of course my Oma. My mom ended up marrying a Schneider (lol, seamstress in translation).

  7. My mother bought a Singer 301 model during the time of her marriage to my dad, 1951. She made clothes for 3 children and several tasks during the years she had it.
    She used it until her death in 1993.

    I inherited that machine shortly after and have used it for making clothes. costumes and repairs.

    Most recently it has been used daily to make masks for the Covid-19 pandemic. I have donated over 100 masks to healthcare workers, hospitals, doctors offices, friends and family. This machine just keeps on working beautifully through it all. I actually have another machine (different brand) and don’t use it. This Singer is such an easy machine to work with I almost refuse to use any other.

  8. I started working in Singers in Dublin in 1973 and have been repairing Singer (and every other make) since last. Singer machines are not what they used to be. Hernia, Pfaff, Juki are much better.

  9. I have a Singer sewing machine which I bought in the seventies. Unfortunately, some parts were made out of rubber that eventually dried out and cracked away!!!! I couldn’t find someone to repair it! I still have it in the basement in hope that some day it will be repaired!! I did not expect that SINGER would sacrifice the quality for the profits!!!!!

  10. Anyone knowing anything about the Sackman mashines were the related maybe? I can’t find anything about my Sackman supposed to be bought 1901.

    1. Hi Kristina, unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be anything on Europeana relating to Sackman. Hopefully someone reading will be able to help.

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