Sewing and Quilting

picture of some fabric squares on a handmade quilt

The introduction of the sewing machine into American life had both positive and negative effects. A boom to the homemaker and seamstress, its use in industry reflected both the advantages and the social problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

The development of the sewing machine for factory use in the 1850s revolutionized the shoe and garment industries. Production moved from homes and small shops into large machine-controlled environments dominated by impersonal managements. Production increased and prices fell, but workers suffered loss of independence, lower wages, and sometimes harsh working conditions. Hundreds more faced unemployment. The situation became even worse when the addition of electric motors to the machines led to sweat shops. The ensuing social up heave contributed to large-scale unrest, the organization of workers into unions, and eventually to the establishment of government standards for the work place.

In a quieter, more “lady-like” way, sewing machine also revolutionized the domestic scene. Although some ready-made clothing was available as early as Roman times, until the late 19th century nearly all clothing was made in home. It took about 14 hours to make a man’s dress shirt and at least 10 hours for a simple dress. A middle-class housewife spent several days a month making and mending family’s clothes even with the help of a hired seamstress. After the purchase of a sewing machine, and suitable training and practice, those hours dropped to 1¼ hours for the shirt and and one hour for the simple dress. The itinerant dressmaker was forced to find another way to make her living. The greater efficiency of the sewing machine made it possible for an enterprising housewife to “take in sewing” for extra money just as working class women took in washing.