Willcox & Gibbs

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James Gibbs had originally seen a woodcut picture of a Grover & Baker machine in 1855. The picture only showed the top half of the machine, so Gibbs tried to imagine how a stitch was formed. He could tell the needle went in and out of the same hole in the fabric, rather than travelling completely through as in hand sewing, and came up with the idea that sewing had to have been accomplished with a chainstitch.

In January 1856 while visiting his father he saw a Singer machine in a tailor's shop for the first time. To him it looked too heavy and expensive and he decided to pursue his idea of a simpler, lightweight chainstitch machine. His work on it had to fit around his employment and he was hampered by a lack of tools and materials, but by April of that year his first model was ready and his employers agreed to finance the patenting of it.

Having been to Washington's patent office he went to Philadelphia to show his model to James Willcox, who was specializing in building models of new inventions. Willcox was impressed with Gibbs' machine and put him to work with his own son, Charles Willcox. James Gibbs took out two patents (December 16, 1856 and January 20, 1857), before the all important patent above, from June 2, 1857.

In this patent the revolving hook takes the loop of thread and holds it while the feed moves the fabric until the needle descends once more through the loop. The thread is twisted in its rotation before a new loop is started. The machine used a straight needle.


Willcox & Gibbs Automatic Instruction Manual


Gibbs' 1856 Patent Model

Courtesy of Claire Sherwell from the archives in the Smithsonian Institute.

This is Gibbs' 1856 patent model:

Gibbs' 1857 Patent Model

Courtesy Claire Sherwell, from the Smithsonian Institution

This is the actual model submitted by James E A Gibbs to the patent office in 1857 and now held by the Smithsonian Institute, still with its patent tag present.

Although it doesn't at first look familiar, it is the most important Gibbs patent. It covers the formation of his famous and enduring chainstitch looper. It was re-issued the following year.

It covers the formation of his famous and enduring chainstitch looper. It was re-issued the following year. It uses a straight needle:


"The hook is so arranged in relation to the needle-arm that when the latter shall have reached its lowest point of stroke the hook is just facing the loop which the needle has brought through the cloth. The next motion of the needle will be ascending.

The loop is thereby loosened and opens. In the same time the hook will advance and penetrate the loop, as shown in Fig. 4. The loop is now gradually spread by the hook during the next following part of its revolution. The hook is gradually swelling, (in thickness,) and is concavely shaped where the loop is in contact therewith, for the purpose of not drawing more thread than is strictly necessary.

After the loop has thus been drawn open, it will slip off the hook and lodge into the angular recess r, which the hook is forming with the shaft. This is done during the time the hook is revolving from position Fig. 5 to position Fig. 6.

The loop is then twisted—i. e., the thread which has been behind the needle is brought to the front, while the thread in front of the needle is turned toward the rear of the loop. This is effected by the spur or cast-off x. This cast-off is so arranged in relation to the hook and angular recess r that the loop, is spread for the hook-nose to pass through on taking a fresh loop from the needle.

At this moment the hook has two loops engaged, the fresh loop at the nose and the preceding loop, which now bears against the convex part of the hook. (See Fig. 4.) The next motion of the hook will allow this latter loop to slip off entirely from the hook, as shown in Fig. 5, and is drawn tight by drawing open the new loop.

This series of operations is repeated at every revolution of the hook."


Gibbs' 1858 Patent Model

Serial #10365, pictures taken in the Smithsonian Institute by Claire Sherwell

The machine bears the previous patent of January 20, 1857:


From the Harry Berzack Museum, courtesy of Claire Sherwell.

This J E A Gibbs machine has several differences from the Smithsonian's patent model:


Glass Tension Treadle Model

Courtesy of Mike & Kelly Anderson

Serial #168341

Rose decals: "extra ornamented".


Comparison of Willcox & Gibbs Handcrank Gantries

Courtesy of Rijnko Fekkes

Glass Tension English Hand Model

with Ornamented Gantry

Courtesy of Rijnko Fekkes

Serial #174071

Stitch Formation

Willcox & Gibbs Automatic Instruction Manual

Courtesy of Daveofsuffolk.

The illustration shows the formation of the chain stitch.

How to make a replacement spool pin


Courtesy of Claire Sherwell

The Willcox & Gibbs wrench measures approximately 1 5/8" long (shown against a Willcox & Gibbs chainstitch needle) and is used for pushing up the needle into the needle bar and fastening the needle. The needle itself has a long groove all the way up.


Automatic Chainstitch Machine

Serial #A296632

Courtesy of Fay

Automatic refers to the automatic tension (earlier machines had glass tension discs).

The machine has J.E.A. Gibbs patents June 2-57, July 14-70, April 16-61; Willcox and Carleton June 27-71, July 14-71; and Chas. H Willcox May 31-62, Mch 22-64 and Oct 8-61. It also has Under Royal Letter Patent, James Willcox, July 4-71.

Included was a ruffler with instructions which states the price was $2; a tuckmarker for which the instructions say that an additional Guide Plate was available for tucks less than 1/8 inch wide for fifty cents.


Serial #A684651

Courtesy of MeezerMom

Straw Hat Sewing Machine

Serial #B502942

Courtesy of Jess