Machine Embroidery History

I recently studied a bit about the history of machine embroidery for my stitch class. I found an instruction book from the Singer Sewing Machine Company published in 1911 for doing “Art Embroidery”. It was amazing to see what was being done 100 years ago on a treadle sewing machine.

Recently, Mary Corbet of Needle ‘n Thread wrote a blog post about old embroidery books online because she’s had lots of questions about where to find antique embroidery patterns. So I thought perhaps there might be some interest in the history of machine embroidery. Do read Mary’s post, as she has some excellent links.

This is the book that I made with my local surface design group. Jan showed us several book making techniques and I used some fabric that I had screen printed quite a while ago.

Since I already had the book made, I thought I’d put it to use while researching machine embroidery history. I looked up the origin of the sewing machine and then went searching for other early resources.

Amazingly (to me anyways), I found a Singer manual for “Art Embroidery” that looked very similar to techniques I was learning in class. I found the manual through Internet Archive. It is a digital library with tons of old books that have been scanned and made into PDF files. And it’s free. You can go and search to find many old goodies. Here’s the Singer manual PDF link. If you do any type of machine embroidery, it is worth a look. You will be amazed at what was being stitched in 1911. The instructions are pretty funny to read and vague, but it is quite interesting.

I can’t imagine doing machine embroidery on a treadle machine. The coordination is hard enough with a foot pedal much less having to pump your foot up and down on the treadle at the same time you’re stitching.

We were given three names to research as these were well-known machine embroiderers in England in the early nineteenth century. The first was Rebecca Crompton who started with hand embroidery but then moved on to machine and a combination of both. She was very much into teaching design and moving embroidery away from “craft” towards “art”.

Next was Dorothy Benson. She worked for Singer Sewing Company and made many machine embroidery samples. She wrote a book about machine embroidery and sewed many of Rebecca Crompton’s designs.

Here are a couple of examples of Dorothy’s work that were stitched in the 1940’s. I think these would fit right in with what people are stitching today, don’t you?

The last name I researched was Constance Howard. She was a well known instructor in the UK. She lived to be 90 years old and dyed her hair green long before the trend became popular. She established the department of Embroidery in the Art School at Goldsmith’s College, London when embroidery was completely out of vogue. She was the author of several books including the mammoth task of “Twentieth Century Embroidery” which chronicles the history of embroidery in the UK from mid 19th century to the mid 1980’s.

So even if you aren’t into machine embroidery, take a look at the Internet Archive. I did find “A Treatise on Hat-Making and Felting” published in 1868 that was interesting. There are many books and pamphlets about hand embroidery and other topics that I haven’t explored. It has an easy to use search feature. Do let me know if you find anything fun!

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16 Responses to Machine Embroidery History

  1. Lyn says:

    That Singer manual is a great read and I was surprised to find some colour photos in it.

    Dorothy’s 1940’s work is lovely and, as you say, would not look out of place today.

    Being of a certain age and suffering from hot flushes (flashes) I feel sorry for the ladies of 100 years ago having to wear all those clothes whilst sitting at the sewing machine. Phew!

  2. zedster66 says:

    I liked the Singer manual too. It’s hard to believe what was achieved back then, we had a Singer treadle machine and it wasn’t hard to work, but I didn’t even know it was possible to get those designs with it.
    Good reasearch 🙂

  3. Very interesting Ruth. The internet archive looks like a great resource.

  4. Karen says:

    I remember the first machine i had was a treadle, yes it was my mums and she passed it over, i used to love using that machine and getting into the rythym of the foot work lol I couldnt open the link to read but i’ll try again later. Sounds like your getting a lot of your stitching course 🙂

    • ruthlane says:

      Sorry the link didn’t work for you. I am doing many things for my stitch course that I certainly wouldn’t have done on my own. It’s always fun learning something new.

  5. Brenda Holmes says:

    Very interesting, thank you. I will definitely look further into this. It’s the kind of history that resonates with me. I didn’t enjoy learning about long dead monarchs and battles at school, but this has me hooked.

  6. Lois Malone says:

    I am trying to find out about my Grandmother who worked for singer in the 1920’s. She came from Belfast Northern Ireland and was an instructor for the commercial embroidery machines. She left New York in 1928 after the Wall St crash. Could you advise me where I might find some information?

    • ruthlane says:

      That sounds like some interesting research Lois. The only information I have is through searching the internet. There are a lot of resources in the links that I provided but I am not sure you’ll find anything about your grandmother. Good luck in your research.

  7. Constance Howard was still around when I was living in Britain in the 70s and 80s. I have heard a few lectures by her. She also came to talk to my students at one of the London City &Guilds courses that I was teaching in Buckinghamshire. She was a very generous person, bringing armloads of very old embroideries for our group to study. I was loaned Dorothy Benson machine embroidered samples from the Guild that keeps them in Britain when I was researching my first book in Machine Embroidery. There are lovely examples of Dorothy Benson’s on page 6 and 7 of my book. Gail

  8. Carolynn says:

    What a great post. Thanks for linking to that Singer Manual. I would never have found that on my own. I love that people were doing free motion stitching on a treadle machine a hundred years ago!

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