Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

The UK Operation

Although Willcox and Gibbs machines were available in this country from the early 1860s, it was not until 1867 that offices were opened in the UK.

This first depot was in Regent Street, a very prestigious address then, as now.

It is not known how many of the earlier glass-tensioner machines were exported, but the big flood of W&G machines to Britain started with the introduction of the Automatic machine in 1875. And it is this machine, with minor, later, improvements, which turns up so frequently today.

The large majority of American sales were for treadle machines. But when the gamble was made to export to the UK, the company - perhaps to cut down on transport costs - decided to promote the machine primarily as a hand-operated item.

To match the quality of the machine, a top-class base was ordered from a firm of British cabinet makers. That left the parent company with the problem of gearing up the hand drive to achieve a reasonable sewing speed.

A large-diameter pulley wheel and a support were obviously needed, and the company went to the cast-iron foundry specialists at Colebrookdale - where we held our 1986 AGM - for the work to be done.

There is some evidence that the first attempt at producing a wheel and support was less than successful. There is in the MS collection a very early glass-tensioner model dating from the mid-1860s with what can only be a Mark One wheel and support. The good-quality base is there, but the rather small wheel is held by a support which, although beautifully made and cast is, in engineering terms, a disaster.

Because of its design, virtually mounted to the base in only two places, it would give little support to the wheel and quickly work loose in use. This is the only example of this support I have ever seen.

W&G must have quickly seen the error of its ways and quickly replaced it with a triangulated design which, although not having the artistic merit of the first attempt, did, at least, do the job.

This second attempt did have some small cast-in decoration, but this soon gave way to an easier-to-manufacture support which is the one commonly found today.

That so many machines turn up must be a credit to the esteem in which they were held, for import duties etc made the models very expensive here, often twice the price of a good-quality British lock-stitch model.