A sewing machine is, obviously enough, “a machine that sews,” but if you think about those words literally, it can help you figure out how it works. Let’s say we had a big construction set with standard, snap-together, engineering components in it; which bits would we need to make a sewing machine? The answer is surprisingly few.
Although you can still find the odd hand-powered sewing machine (and you can operate any machine slowly by hand if you want to for slow, precision work), virtually all modern sewing machines are electric. They’re built around quite hefty electric motors (roughly the same size as the ones you find in vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers). Pushing a tiny little needle up and down through multiple layers of thick fabric is hard to work, and lifting and feeding the fabric takes effort as well. If you’ve ever seen something like a pair of curtains, you’ll know it can be quite exhausting turning and moving the fabric, but a sewing machine helps you do that job as well.
Way back a long, people would gather in close circles in their homes and sew garments with their hands. Their work illuminated only by flickering candlelight. They darned socks made christening gowns from scratch, sewed buttonholes, embroidered beautiful designs onto the edges of collars and onto the pockets of aprons. The construction of clothing had been changed forever. And so had the lives of the housewives, children and servants who had been depended upon to create the bulk of a family’s essential wardrobe items.
There is something astonishing, even magical about sewing with your hands. Most tools of the trade are tiny but effective. Little thimbles that fit over the fatty parts of your fingers to keep them from bleeding. Needle eyes and points of various sizes and widths, each combination made for sliding easily in and out of a specific type of material. Thin ribbons of thread that you double knot at the end and pull through a tiny ball of wax to keep it smooth. And free of twists when it travels through the surface of your cloth.