Sunday, 13 November 2011

Elephant No. 42: Machine Stitching

For today's elephant, I thought I'd attempt making a line drawing with the sewing machine. I've been sewing since I was really young, but this is a technique I've never tried. 

Although the first patent related to mechanized sewing was issued in Britain in 1755 to a German named Charles Weisenthal, the patent was only for a sewing machine needle. It said nothing about the rest of the machine—if a machine even existed. 

The first actual sewing machine appears to have been invented in 1790, when Englishman Thomas Saint patented his design for a machine to sew canvas and leather. A cabinetmaker by trade, Saint never advertised his invention, and the machine itself has never been found. His original drawings, however, were discovered in 1874 by a sewing-machine manufacturer named William Newton Wilson. Wilson built a working version of Saint's sewing machine, which is now in the collection of the Science Museum in London, England.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, several other inventors had sewing machines in the works. Austrian tailor Josef Madersperger began developing a machine in 1807, and unveiled his working model in 1814. In 1830, French tailor Barthélmy Thimmonier patented a machine that sewed straight seams. By 1841, he had 80 machines in his factory, sewing uniforms for the French Army. Unfortunately, his factory was destroyed by rioting French tailors, fearful of losing their livelihood. Disheartened, Thimonnier soon gave up on his invention.

The first American sewing machine was invented in 1832 by Walter Hunt. Although it was revolutionary for its lockstitch—still standard on sewing machines today—Hunt's machine was clunky and had to be frequently reset. Hunt soon lost interest in his invention, and never bothered to patent it.

The first machine to be patented in the United States was built by John Greenough in 1842. American inventor Elias Howe—whose name is often associated with the invention of the sewing machine—created his own sewing machine in 1845, adapted from the one created earlier by Walter Hunt. 

Howe went to England to drum up interest in his machine. When he came home, however, he discovered that several people were infringing on his patent. One of them was Isacc Merritt Singer. Howe went to court, and in 1854 was granted the right to royalties from the sale of machines using ideas contained in his patent. This included machines made by Singer.

Elias Howe's lockstitch machine, ca. 1845.
Illustration by Frank Puterbaugh Bachman, 1918.

Singer had been trained as an engineer. While watching a sewing machine being repaired one day, he decided he could improve upon it. The resulting machine, powered by a foot treadle, combined various elements of the machines produced by Thimmonier, Hunt and Howe. Singer's machine would ultimately serve as the model for all mechanical sewing machines to come. 

During the 1850s, as more and more inventors enhanced the sewing machine's basic design, several companies were formed. They were soon suing each other over patents, resulting in a patent free-for-all known as the Sewing Machine War.

In 1856, the Sewing Machine Combination was founded, made up of four companies—including those of Howe and Singer. Over the next few decades, various changes and upgrades were made to sewing machines, including the development of an early overlock machine. The first electric sewing machines were produced by the Singer Sewing Company in 1889.

Today, many of Singer's treadle machines are still in use—particularly in developing countries, where sources of electrical power can be unreliable. Since the invention of the earliest sewing machines, sewing technology has developed by leaps and bounds. There are specialized machines for everything from upholstery to knitwear, and many of today's machines can be programmed with designs created on a home computer. 

For today's elephant, using only the machine's straight stitch, I decided I would see what kind of design I could make with multiple colours of thread. I thought it might end up looking a bit like something produced on an Etch-a-Sketch®, but I was okay with that.

I started with a double layer of unbleached muslin measuring about 35 x 35 cm (14 x 14 inches), and stitched a sort of sketch with the sewing machine. This was definitely the hardest part of today's elephant, because I had no drawing lines to follow. It's surprisingly difficult to know where the lines should go when you can only see a small portion at a time. Although most of it fell into place without too much trouble, I had to unstitch the elephant's sliver of right ear three times before I was happy with it.

When the general sketch was done, I started following along the lines with a couple of different colours of thread.

Realizing that it would take me forever if I just kept adding lines alongside one another, I graduated to big zigzag patterns. Once the concept of slavishly following the outline was broken, it was easier to simply fill in areas with various colours of thread.

I mostly followed what I figured were the general anatomical contours of the elephant's head, to give it a bit of dimensionality. Mostly, however, I just filled in the open areas with various colours of thread. The only areas I left untouched were the elephant's tusks.

This took about four hours, which was longer than I expected—partly because I kept changing colours of thread, and partly because this is actually a fairly big area to cover. I had visions of filling in far more than this, but decided to stop while I was ahead. 

Although it's a bit time-consuming, this technique isn't difficult at all. I used only a straight stitch, and always went forward—except for a bit of backstitch at the beginning and end of each line of stitching, to keep it from unravelling.

The final result is quite pretty in real life, but unbleached muslin plays tricks with the camera's sense of colour, so the pictures aren't the greatest. I would definitely do this again if I had an actual project in mind—and enough time to fill in a lot more.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, loggers once required their elephants to swim from island to island. Legend also suggests that elephants actually swam from India to Sri Lanka, long before humans arrived on the island.

Despite their bulk, elephants are excellent swimmers. They swim either completely underwater, using their trunks as snorkels, or with their faces above the water's surface

Moving all four legs as they swim, elephants are quite fast, and can swim for long distances without tiring. They often travel in small groups, and are surprisingly graceful as they paddle through the water. 

Several adventure travel companies now offer people an opportunity to swim or snorkel with elephants off the coast of India. To see video of a group of swimming elephants, click here.

Elephant swimming in the Andaman Sea.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation

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