Sewing Machines for Straw Hats
by Martin Gregory
IN VICTORIAN and Edwardian England no one would venture outdoors without a hat. In the summer it was the heyday of the straw hat with fine bonnets for ladies, boaters for gentlemen and even straw helmets for the policemen of Luton.
In England the industry was centred on Luton and Dunstable. In 1872 there were an estimated 1500 people employed in the area sewing hats and they were backed by over 10,000 men, women and children plaiting the straw. The hats, then as now, were made by sewing together lengths of plaited straw in a spiral from button to brim. Production was limited by the rate at which they could be made up. The earliest attempts to sew the hats by machine were in 1865.
However, it was not until 1873 that Mrs William Stratford, wife of the local Willcox & Gibbs agent, first made a complete hat. Willcox & Gibbs' mechanics worked on the problem and in 1875 launched a purpose-built version of their chain-stitch machine.
It was known as the "ten guinea" or "visible-stitch" machine and was an immediate success; 1500 were sold in the first two years. It was an example of this machine which I brought to the Milton Keynes meeting in February. The "visible-stitch" machine (Figure 1) remained popular right to the end of the industry and was supplemented by a Singer version and German copies.
The quality market for ladies' hats demanded a machine better able to deal with soft fine plaits and to simulate hand stitching. Various people had a go at hand-stitch machines - one was the French Legat machine of 1875 (ISMACS News 40, July '93) which was cumbersome and expensive. In 1878 Edmund Wiseman of Luton patented his "concealed-stitch" machine which was half the price and used less thread. Wiseman's patents were taken up by Willcox & Gibbs and developed into its "hand-stitch" machine of 1886 (Figure 2). All the cams, rockers and mechanism were inside the box and it became known as the "box" machine.
The hand-stitch machine produces a chain stitch which looks from the top like hand stitching with gaps between adjacent stitches (figure 3). To make its stitch the machine uses two needles mounted on a common bar. The needles come up through the plait from below (Figure 4). One (A) has an eye near the point like an ordinary sewing-machine needle, the other (B) has a barbed hook like a crochet hook. (A) brings a loop up through the plait and picker (C) takes the loop from (A) to (B). When the needles drop below the plait they leave a stitch of length equal to the separation of (A) and (B). The feed mechanism then moves the plait along a distance greater than the separation of (A) and (B). The stitch uses 20% less thread than the ordinary chain stitch and the resulting machine produced a seam "superior to any hand stitching".
In its Golden Jubilee booklet (1909) Willcox & Gibbs stressed the adaptability and speed of the "hand-stitch" machine. "The capacity of the "hand-stitch" machine is so great, that if an operator were to work it continuously for 10 hours, at the longest stitch, and at full speed, nearly five miles of plait would be sewn. ... 144 hats can be made in a 10-hour day by foot power alone."
With the production of a hat every four minutes per machine, and thousands of machines, it is small wonder that the English plait industry collapsed and cheaper plait was imported from the Far-east to satisfy the appetite of the . As with the "visible-stitch" machine, the Willcox & Gibbs "hand-stitch" machine dominated the market. William Walker of Dunstable and Henry Bland both patented hand-stitch machines but had no commercial success. The Luton distributor and agent Janes Brothers Ltd marketed German Guhl & Harbeck machines and was the main local opposition. Janes Bros "Dresdensia B" machine (Figure 5) competed with the "visible-stitch" machine and the "Lutonia" (Figure 6) with the "hand-stitch machine.