Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Dorman History

by Graham Forsdyke
Issue No. 34

FEW SMALL Victorian sewing-machine manufacturers had their own facilities for iron casting. Most put out the work either to specialists like the St George's or Clegg's Alma Founderies or had the work done by small local concerns.

Once the casting had been received the tedious work of cleaning up and machining had to be put in hand.

Perhaps it was the frustration of all this that led Arthur Francis Wileman, a Northampton engineer, to sit down and invent what he considered the cheapest practical machine and one without a single cast-iron part in its construction.

We can reasonably surmise that Arthur was a toolmaker by trade for the machine he invented was made almost completely of stamped-out sheet metal.

His machine is the one we know today as the Dorman.

A close look at any of the surviving models reveals that once the dies and tools had been made, very little machinery was needed.

It is not certain at this date whether Wileman worked for or owned the company which produced the Dorman or whether his October 1887 patent was bought from him. What is certain is that the company's roots go back to the mid-1850s when the business was "Patent Manufacturing Company, Stampers and Piercers".

With the advent of the Dorman Sewing Machine the name was changed to the Dorman Engineering Company with T P Dorman as the principal partner. The other director was H W Dover who stayed with the company until 1877 when he left to concentrate on his Dover Gearcare Company.

Northampton civic records give the works address as The Mayorhold and the office at Bulls Head Lane - the same street entered by Wileman as his home in his patent application.

It's probable that manufacture got underway before the full patent was granted, for a Dorman won a prize at a London exhibition in 1887.

A year later the company repeated the win, but by this time Wileman had moved to fashionable Ealing, just outside London and the firm's office address was officially changed to 32 Sheet Street, Northampton.

It could be that Wileman had moved south to set up a Patents Manufacturer Company office at Grocer's Hall Court, Poultry, London, to handle trade and export orders.

Clearly export markets were being aimed at for instruction leaflets were available in French, Spanish, German and Italian as well as English.

Initially the sheet-steel machine was offered in a cardboard box at a very reasonable 16 shillings (80p). Soon after a square walnut box came along complete with scissors, screwdriver and packet of needles, raising the price to 21 shillings (£1.05p).

One of the advantages of the sheet-steel design was the lightweight - under 3lbs - which meant it could be sent by post to any country at reasonable rates.

But the lightness was also a problem when it came to using the machine and eventually the company had to offer a heavy cast-iron base into which the machine could be slipped. This added 2s 6d (12.5p) to the cost but the large number of machines which turn up today with the base suggest that it was an option which appealed to most buyers.

The machine, geared to give three stitches per turn of the drive wheel, was guaranteed for three years - an unheard-of warranty period in Victorian times and one which would put many modern manufacturers out of business.

Two varieties of the machine appear to have been produced. The earlier is easily identified by having the serial number stamped at the top of the sewing head and the latter with the number on the plated sewing-head cover. Decoration is quite different between the two models.

In the last years of the century the Dorman Company went into motor-cycle-engine production and in 1896 produced cycles, designed by local engineer A Roebuck, in 1900.

In 1902 four machines were on offer but just one year later the business failed.

Today Dorman machines with their over-high appearance are much prized by collectors. The earlier version is, obviously, at a premium as is the pyramid-shaped walnut box offered for a short time in the early 1890s.

Two strange models exist in the MS collection. One is a standard Dorman but nestled in a compartmented box with fitted accessories and the other, again appearing run-of-the-mill, but with a normal vertical bobbin-mounting rod in place of the steel fingers normally used to hold the cotton reel in a horizontal position.

Good hunting grounds for Dorman machines seem to be the West Country and Scotland where at least 50% of the surviving examples have been located.

There's probably no better reason for this than two very active agents in the area who really pushed the Northampton models.

In the case of the West Country Dorman had its own office for a short time at 67 Wine Street, Bristol.

Although the Company existed for only 17 years, many Dorman machines survive and it was only in the 1860s that the old Dorman Engineering Company factory in Mayorhold, Northampton was pulled down.

The company had, in my opinion, one other claim to fame. It was probably the first sewing machine manufacturer to use color print in an instruction booklet. Not a lot of color, it's true, but the sheet showing the threading has the cotton picked out in red.

Let us leave the last word to the unknown author of the 1890 Leeds International Exhibition catalogue who said: "Of all the cheap sewing machines that have flooded the market during the past few years, the Dorman is the only one we know that has held its ground and fairly offers to the public most of the good qualities of a high-priced machine at an outlay of considerably less than a soverign."