Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machines: Overview of an Icon

Published November 30, 2020
Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machine

Once one of the premier names in home sewing, Willcox and Gibbs sewing machines are highly collectible. In fact, these can be some of the most valuable antique sewing machines. Learn about the company's fascinating history, the Willcox and Gibbs sewing machine models it made, and how to assign a value to an antique machine from this company.

Willcox and Gibbs History

In the early 1850s, James Edward Allen Gibbs saw an engraving of the top part of a sewing machine and set to work figuring out the parts he couldn't see in the picture. He devised a way to create a hook that allowed the machine to produce a chain stitch with a single thread. A couple of years later, he saw a Singer sewing machine in a store and immediately felt it was too cumbersome and expensive. Convinced his method was better, he created his own prototype and patented the design in 1857. He partnered with James Willcox, and they began producing machines under the Willcox and Gibbs name in late 1858. Interestingly, the American Civil War separated the partners for a time, and as a Southerner, Gibbs lost most of his wealth. Borrowing a suit and walking from Virginia to the Willcox and Gibbs offices in New York City after the war, he reunited with his partner who had preserved Gibbs' stake in the company. Their company still produces commercial sewing machines today.

Notable Willcox and Gibbs Sewing Machine Models

Over the course of their long history, Willcox and Gibbs have made a number of different styles of sewing machines. These are some of the machines you may see in antique stores, estate sales, and auctions.

Willcox and Gibbs Original Machine

The first Willcox and Gibbs sewing machines operated with a hand crank. Later, there was also a treadle version in a cabinet. Both machines were made of cast iron and had a graceful arched shape that formed the letter G for Gibbs. They are surprisingly small and compact, closer to the size of a 3/4 Singer than a full-sized machine. They used an adjustable glass tensioner for the thread.

British Willcox and Gibbs

Willcox and Gibbs sold sewing machines in Great Britain as well as the United States, and the British machines had a slightly different design. These machines had a larger hand-crank wheel, often with ornate decals on it. They were nearly silent in their operation, and they are famous for their precision engineering.

American Hand Crank Willcox and Gibbs

The American version of the hand crank machine was similar to the British version, but the crank wheel was smaller and less ornate. It also had a special safety feature to prevent reverse sewing, which consisted of a piece of leather that would stop the gears from turning in the wrong direction.

Willcox and Gibbs Treadle Sewing Machines

In addition to the hand-crank models, Willcox and Gibbs made treadle sewing machines. These machines had an integrated treadle cabinet with small drawers for sewing machine parts and accessories. They are a bit harder to find in good condition with the cabinet and metal treadle components intact.

Willcox and Gibbs Double Feed Straw Hat Machine

Willcox and Gibbs made several specialty machines, but one of the most desirable is the Straw Hat machine. This machine used a very large stitch to sew straw braid into hats. It had special adjustments to allow the operator to change the machine to accommodate various hat sizes and styles.

How to Date a Willcox and Gibbs Sewing Machine

If you have a Willcox and Gibbs and are wondering about its age, you can use the serial number to date it. This is particularly useful for older Willcox and Gibbs machines. You can find the serial number on the side of the machine. For the first 10 years of the company's history, they used serial numbers in a range of 10,000 for each year. After 1867, they were producing more than 10,000 machines a year and had to change to a less clear way of numbering them. Here are some example Willcox and Gibbs sewing machine serial numbers to help you get a sense of a machine's age:

  • 10,001 to 20,000 - 1858
  • 20,001 to 30,000 - 1859
  • 90,001 to 100,000 - 1866
  • 100,001 to 115,000 - 1867
  • 115,001 to 130,000 - 1868
  • 190,128 to 223,766 - 1872

Willcox and Gibbs Sewing Machine Value

Because of their precision engineering, Willcox and Gibbs are some of the most collectible antique sewing machines on the market. Condition has a big impact on value with machines in rough condition selling for under $100. However, restored machines in beautiful shape are worth hundreds. Here are some example values for these machines:

Willcox and Gibbs Machines Are Part of Sewing History

Although the company no longer makes machines for home use and only makes commercial sewing machines, Willcox and Gibbs machines have an important place in sewing history. This company is one of several important sewing machine brands of the past that made technological advancements and engineering achievements that propelled the sewing machine industry forward into the 20th and 21st century.

Willcox & Gibbs Sewing Machines: Overview of an Icon