Secret Life of the Sewing Machine

Entertainment Geek Culture Television
The second episode of the 1988 series of ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ focused on the first machine to enter into private homes: the sewing machine. (Photo from Rutgers University Library, no known copyright restrictions).

In the second episode of The Secret Life of Machines, Tim Hunkin and Rex Garrod delve into the background of what Hunkin refers to as the first machine to appear in the home: the sewing machine. In this episode and its accompanying comic, we meet the various inventors who first attempted to mechanize the tedious motions associated with hand-sewing, including Barthélemy Thimmonier and the man whose name eventually came to synonymous with home sewing industry, Isaac Meritt Singer.

Hunkin examines the evolution of the machine stitch and does a remarkable job explaining how the four basic motions required of a sewing machine–pushing the needle through the fabric, passing the thread around the bobbin, pulling the thread taut, and moving the fabric forward–can all be accomplished with a single drive shaft via a series of mechanical linkages. The process is memorably illustrated by a “human sewing machine” featuring four individuals each accomplishing one of the tasks.

The episode also looks at the wide variety of styles of machines produced with a visit to a collector whose organization has since grown into the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society. Hunkin finishes up the program by examining the intricate stitches that have been made possible with sewing machines, first by cams and later by stepper motors and microprocessors. The episode closes with a modern machine embroidering “This is the end.”

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2 thoughts on “Secret Life of the Sewing Machine

  1. Roger, a quest of yours should be to put this video back in middle school sewing classes. Sewing has become a “Lost Art”. I am 53 and had to learn to sew when I was 9 years old, the more I sewed, the more I had to wear – verses buying garments in a store. Now the opposite is true, I am a costumer for various reenactment groups, and most of the time I can buy it cheaper than making it. I enjoyed this “look back into history”!!! Thank you.

    1. It would be great to bring back sewing classes in general! 🙂 We’ve been fortunate in that both my mother and my wife’s mother sew, and they’ve passed that on to our daughters (seven and five). Matter of fact, our seven-year-old just got her very first sewing machine. Glad you enjoyed the episode. The hosts did a really great job, I thought, at simplifying what’s actually a surprisingly complicated machine.

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