Elias Howe’s Dream

by Sandra Bruce

There’s a story about the invention of the sewing machine that I love to tell. It goes something like this: In the mid 1800’s, Elias Howe was trying to perfect his idea of a sewing machine. He had been working on it for a very long time to no avail, as he was perplexed about the eye of the needle and where it should be. Up until that time the eye of the needle had always been at the top, as it still is today on hand sewing needles. So, the story goes, one night he had a dream in which he had gone to a savage country to create a sewing machine for the king. The king gave him 24 hours in which to create a machine and make it sew. He tried and tried but could not accomplish this, knowing he would not live to see the light of the next day if he didn’t figure it out. As he was being marched to his end, he noticed all the warriors’ spears had holes near the points at the ends……….he begged for more time, and just at that moment, he woke up (here’s where I imagine him smacking the side of his head). It was 4 AM and he was off to his workshop, where by 9AM, he had made a rudimentary but functioning needle, with the eye where it is today, down near the point! I love this story! The account came from a written family history and I believe it to be true. Here’s what Howe’s invention looked like:


Who would know what that was?? The story of the invention of the sewing machine is long and complicated, as many inventors in several countries were all trying to invent a machine, each a little different than the others. While Howe was in England trying to drum up some support for his version, Isaac Singer had invented a machine that included his ideas and those of Howe’s. Howe and Singer ended up in court and Singer had to pay Howe a fee for each sewing machine that he had sold up until that point. “Singer” is the word that comes to my mind when I think sewing machine, because it’s the first machine that I learned to sew on. As a child my family had a treadle Singer machine, which lived in our dining room under a window, and if I close my eyes I can still remember sewing on it, feeling the metal grate of the treadle under my bare feet and hearing the whirr of the mechanism. There was something so soothing about the rhythm of it. I wish I had a photo of it, but will have to rely on the internet for a facsimile!


Sewing machines are such a marvel these days, when you stop to think about it. Such a far cry from our mother’s and grandmother’s days!Woman_with_Singer

I have a Bernina which I bought over 20 years ago, and it’s a workhorse. It doesn’t have any bells or whistles, but I don’t really need that for what I do, especially Material Matrix. When I teach it’s always interesting to me seeing everyone’s machines and how they work. When I do a demo on someone’s machine I always get chuckles from students who watch me trying to find the presser foot, or realize that the bobbin can be wound without even taking it out! When I think how far we’ve come with sewing machines it really is amazing and we are lucky to have such wonderful tools! If you look up “sewing machine” on Wikipedia, there’s a moving graphic that shows what happen when a machine makes a stitch, the lockstitch. I could watch it for hours (OK, I’m a little weird).


The ladies of Artistic Alchemy are hard at work preparing for the Zephyr Cove retreat which is coming up soon. I look forward to hearing there the sounds of sewing machines going, which means we are working on creating wonderful projects! I hope you liked the story about Elias Howe’s dream, I love the idea of tapping into our dream-states for ideas and creativity. That could be a post for another time! Happy sewing to you all.




14 thoughts on “Elias Howe’s Dream

  1. Dear Sandra,
    I loved reading your story about sewing machines. I’m glad Howe figured out the idea of putting the eye of the needle on the bottom before he got his head chopped off!! Otherwise sewing would not be half as fun as it is today. And I, too first learned to sew on a treadle machine. My aunt gave me my first lesson.
    I wish I could be there at your retreat. It sounds like it’ll be really great.

  2. Delightful Elias Howe history lesson! My sister is still sewing on my first Singer…..Congratulations on taking first place in the Nevada Co. Fair for your matrix quilt !! Way to go Sandra!

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