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The Exciting Evolution of Machine Embroidery Throughout the Years

Just like any other form of technology, it has been a long road to get to the current state of machine embroidery. Can you imagine machine embroidery using punch cards?

Read on for a fun overview of the evolution of embroidery trends throughout time.

Hand Embroidery Machine

Hand-embroidery machine photo via Ian Collins

The computerized embroidery machines that bless our homes are nothing like their prototypes which could fill an entire lower-level living space. Without them, though, we would not have ever gotten this far.

The hand embroidery machine

Nearly 20 years before the first sewing machine was patented by Isaac Singer in 1846, Frenchman Josue Heilmann invented a hand embroidery machine. The behemoth could do the work of up to four hand embroiderers.

Heilmann’s embroidery machine consisted of a frame to hold the fabric, a needle assembly and a handle to work the needle. Instead of taking the needle to the fabric, fabric moved to meet the needle, which had a point at each end and an eye in the middle. The process allowed stitching in any direction.

Vintage silk postcard

Vintage silk postcard stitched on hand-embroidery machine. Photos via Ian Collins

Designs were six times the size of the original and a great amount of coordination was needed to stitch. The operator used his left hand to guide a scribe around the pattern diagram. His right hand cranked a wheel that pushed needles through the fabric and his feet operated the clamps that gripped the needles.

The invention was thought to be such a threat to hand embroiderers that Heilmann only sold two machines, but the technology led to the development of modern-day embroidery machines.

Schiffli Machine

Photo via Ian Collins

Schiffli shuttle machines

Before affordable computers, embroidery was completed by punching designs on paper that ran through the embroidery machine. Created by Isaac Groebli in Switzerland, the Schiffli machine utilized the combination of a continuously threaded needle and a shuttle containing a bobbin of thread. Groebli’s son went on to create the automatic Schiffli machine.

Gorgeous laces and broderie anglaise flew off of the loom-like embroidery machines. They were so efficient that the fruits of their labor were mistaken for hand embroidery. Home businesses and factories sprung up.

bernina vintage embroidery

Photo via Bernina.

Modern day machine embroidery

The convenience of home sewing machines took a leap in 1911 when the Singer Sewing Company developed the first multi-head embroidery sewing machine, equipped with six heads and a pantograph attachment.

War time halted manufacture of anything not relevant to the cause but post-war prosperity further advanced embroidery equipment. In the 1950s, home embroidery machines exploded upon the market.

In the 1980s, Wilcom introduced the first computerized embroidery designs  both home and small business embroiderers. Today, advances in computer technology make it possible for modern-day embroiderers to stitch everything from lace and cutwork to quilts and leather in a fraction of time it would take if done by hand.

Now that you have an appreciation for the history of this craft, what will you stitch with your machine?

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5 Comments

Rika Brouwer

Love the article! I do both hand and machine embroidery and love learning the history behind the art!

Reply
Debbie Henry

Thanks, Rika! I am fond of history as well. It is wonderful how far technology has advanced and I am amazed at the level of engineering early on.

Reply
Corby O'Connor

Thank you for the information. I’d like to know more about the home embroidery business since the 80’s, the time Wilcom entered the scene. Can you direct me to a resource for information about the growth of the industry and other information pertaining to the embroidery business?

Thanks.

Reply
Henry S

My grandfather helped usher this into the USA witch my father was in after the war

Reply
Debbie Henry

That’s exciting, Henry!

Reply

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