Second Sunrise Archive: Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch Sewing Machine

Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch Sewing Machine

Maker - Willcox & Gibbs
Era - 1915-1916
Acquired - by Second Sunrise in 2013

We usually write about vintage clothing every week but we thought it would be nice to change subject this time, from vintage garments to vintage sewing machines! If you have visited our shop you have probably noticed the machines in the workshop area at the back of the store. There's totally seven of them and we use them mainly for our repair services, and sometimes we make our own in-store jeans under the label Blue Highway Clothing.

Among the seven machines there's a small black one located in the corner and it appears to be almost hidden away. It's easy to miss at first glance because it's quite small, but it has an interesting story to tell! Many people are familiar with sewing machines named Singer Sewing Machines and Union Special, but Willcox & Gibbs is not a brand very often talked about these days. We want to share the story of this less known manufacturer while also telling you the story of the dawn of the chainstitch. 

James Edward Allen Gibbs was born in 1829. His father was a farmer and also owned a carding business, where wool and cotton was prepared to be spun into yarn. A fire destroyed the business in 1845 and the young James Gibbs decided to leave home to start a new life. In the upcoming years he tried different occupations such as carpenter, millwright and machinist, and eventually he went back to carpentry. 

Many things were changing in the world at this time, and a lot of new inventions were made. In 1855 James got to see a picture of a Grover & Baker sewing machine. The idea of the sewing machine got stuck in James head and without knowing anything about how the machine worked and with just the picture as a guidance he started to copying the machine and making his own version. The legend says that he started out with with his carpentry tools, a penknife, some farm tools wood and spare bits of metal to build his machine.

One thing he figured out was that the needle of the machine had to pass through the same hole that it entered the fabric, not going down in one hole and up in another as when you stitch by hand. He then figured out that the locking of the thread had to be different, and that's when he came to think about the chainstitch. This stitch is a way of sewing where the thread catches itself and forms interlocking loops on one side of the fabric, and looks like lock stitch on the other. 

The design he invented has a lower revolving hook to catch the thread and twist it into a loop to lock the stitch in the fabric with the following thread. The earliest versions of a sewing machine had been made in similar way, using a single thread that made a chain stitch but they never really reached perfection. James's hook solution proved to make a stitch that had flexibility and strength, something that no other chainstitch machine could do. At this time he was still unaware of the fact that his invention would come to have a major impact on the history of sewing machines. The special hook was patented in 1857.

Gibbs sewing machine came to be half the price, half the size and half the threading of competitors of the time. The business took of when James Edward Allen Gibbs partnered with James Willcox and his son Charles Willcox who presented themselves as entrepreneurs, investors and manufacturers of new ideas. Together they improved the machine and came up with many patented inventions for it. The strength behind the W&G machines was that they were small and not as complicated as machines from other brands. Spare parts could easily be changed and the assembly time in the factory was less then 30 minutes. All this came with a price tag that was more than resonable for a lot of people. "If one thread will do, why bother with two" is one of the slogans that became associated with W&G.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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Today, the lock stitch machines are dominating the sewing machine market and we want to explain how a chain stitch machine differs from them.

The lock stitch is the result of two threads, an upper and a lower, that are "locked" together in each stitch by twisting once around each other, forming a seam that looks the same on both sides of the fabric. This creates a strong seam that is not very likely to rip up even if a thread breaks, as the twisting of the yarn between each stitch acts like small knots. 

The chainstitch however does not look the same on both sides of the fabric. From one side, it looks like a lock stitch, but from the other the loops can be seen interlocking, which gives almost a braided expression. This has come to be widely appreciated in the denim community, since the "chain" side of the seam will show if you wear your jeans cuffed. The weak spot of the chain stitch is that if you find the right end of the thread, the whole seam can be pulled out in a single draw because there's nothing else locking it than the previous loop. 
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The top seam shows what the chain stitch looks like from the front, and the bottom one shows it from the back. The loops are drawn so tight its hard to see that they interlock, but they do! 

So far it sounds like the lock stitch machine should be the winner of the day here, but it has one weakness. Due to certain restrictions in the way that the lock stitch machines are built, the bobbin that holds the lower thread has to be very small in comparison to the upper thread's bobbin. In domestic use this isn't really a problem, but to the industry every minute counts and having to halt the sewing to wind up new thread for the lower, smaller bobbin is a big setback!

A few years back I actually meet an engineer who had spent some years of research trying to find a way of making a lock stitch machine where the lower thread bobbin could be just as big as the upper thread one. This person had realized that there was potentially a lot of money to be made of they could find a solution to the problem but the laws of the treads tension was to hard to work around and they never came up with a proper solution.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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The machine has got a lot of traces showing it's age and the fact that it has been in service for more than a hundred yers now. The time period known as Jugend or Art Nouveau shows it's face in the decorative gold painting on the black cast iron machine.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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The emblem logo located on the front of the machine. Pictured is an early version of the W&G sewing machine, forming a G for Gibbs, and four W&G patented needles that Willcox invented forming a W. 
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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Visible on the machine we will also find information of patented regions and the fact that this machine was built in USA.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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The foot of the machine and the place where the thread penetrates the fabric with help of the needle. Under the foot you can also see the feeder that moves the fabric forward during each stitch.   
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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This machine has a guidance that can be set to different widths, Im not sure why it has this but I do know that the W&G machines were popular among hat makers and this might be handy in that occupation. It seems that this machine was only intended for hemming or similar works, because the guidance decide can not be removed. If you know more about this please give us a comment because we would love to know more!
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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The machine also has serial number located underneath the hook that makes the chain stitch. I checked the numbers with a guide to determine the age of the machine and found out that that this machine was made in 1915-1916.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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The side of the machine where you can see where the thread will go down with the needle to reach the hook, the invention that James patented. The hook moves in revolving motion counterclockwise with each stitch.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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Close up of the hook before the needle comes down.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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When the needle heads back up the hook has moved to catch the thread.
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Willcox & Gibbs Chainstitch

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And in the next turn the needle comes back down at the same time as the hook lets go of the thread. The loop will catch the upper thread and lock the stitch to the fabric.

Today there are a number of different chain stitch machines made and the usual ones we see today used for hemming a pair of jeans are made using two threads instead of one. But the basics are still the same, making a stitch that doesn't need the weakness of a smaller bobbin used as an under thread. The weakness also remains, and the seam can be ripped by just polling the right thread.

Which stitch is your favorite and why? We are more than happy to hear what you got to say on this topic so feel free to post a comment below.

If you missed last weeks archival blog post and like to know more about why MI6 printed maps on silk/rayon you can read about it here.


5 comments

  • I have one that is still in the original table with the original leather belt and the foot treadle is in the shape of a butterfly table also has four drawers. Does anyone know what my machine is worth? or if it is rare?

    Curious Curstal
  • This sewing machine was great at that time. when the other was very basic. this machine was a real pro. It can sew faster and more accurate. this chain stitch machine were best.
    https://needlesandsewingthreads.com

    Manuel Riko
  • Thanks Thore! I was suspecting that it was made for making straw hats and now I know for sure :)

    Douglas
  • Thanks Thore! I was thinking it might have been used for making straw hats and now I know for sure :)

    Douglas
  • Congrats! You have a straw braid sewing machine :) But there’s a guide missing that is attached to the foot.

    Thore

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