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Northampton shoemaking - the rise of shoe machinery

Illustration of a machine closers factory in Northampton from ‘Good Works’ published on the 1st November 1869.

Illustration of a machine closers factory in Northampton from ‘Good Works’ published on the 1st November 1869

The sewing machine

Invented in the 1820s by Isaac Singer, the Singer sewing machine could sew more than 600 stitches per minute. Although originally designed to sew fabrics, by the 1840s he had produced a version that was robust enough to stitch leather. It was a success as it could be accommodated at home and could be bought on hire purchase - its initial price of $100 was too expensive for most as the average wage of a working man was nine shillings / £20 per annum – but for a down payment of a few pounds the shoemaker could take the machine home and start sewing on it straight away. By 1859, 2,500 sewing machines were in use in Northampton. Handsewn closing was being made redundant.

By 1851 Northampton was the leading provincial centre of footwear production in the country. By the 1850s there were signs of factory systems, so called middlemen’s chambers.

Factory conditions

The illustration of a machine closers factory in Northampton is from ‘Good Works’ published on the 1st November 1869 and the following desription is taken from an article in The Shoemaker from 1859.

'The middleman's factory that I visited is a three floored brick building, window-lighted on both sides. The two upper floors are given over to girls.
In each room there is a row of about a dozen machines. Young women, between 17 and 20, were working uppers on Singer Sewing machines; they earn nine shillings a week.
The little girls, who sit on the floor in the middle of the room, with baskets beside them are knot tiers. They earn from one shilling six pence to three shillings by picking
and tyng the threads. The women on the right are fytters and appear to be hammering the seams flat. The ceaseless ticking of the machines goes on all day long. The hours are 7am to 6pm with an hour for lunch.'

The blake sewer

The other significant machine was the Blake Sewer. 

In 1864 the American Lyman Blake perfected his machine the Blake Sewer for stitching on soles. This machine was too large, heavy and expensive to have at home and needed power to drive it. Initially powered by steam it later used electric. It helped to drive the shoemaker into factories over the next 30 years.

The Blake Sewer, 1865