On June 24, 1958, the U.S. Patent Office issued Patent No. 2,839,909 to a young and energetic man from Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, John E. Morgan. The patent gave him rights to “knitted circular thermal fabric and garments” made by using his process.
The fabric created by the legendary Stitch features rows of cell pockets that trap heat and the Stitch is specially designed to resist shrinking and hold its form. Today the “waffle stitch” of thermal underwear is easily recognized by the fabric’s rows of pockets that resemble a breakfast waffle. These pockets trap body heat to the delight of outdoor workers, hunters, skiers and soldiers across the globe who value lightweight, warm and well-fitting garments. To this day, the gentle warmth of The Stitch makes the fabric a favorite for baby blankets.
The award of a patent for The Stitch set the stage for an epic battle between the small-town entrepreneur and the giants of the world textile industry.
Twelve titans of the industry held a special meeting where they pledged to work together to invalidate the patent and to defend one another if they were sued for infringing on Morgan’s patent. As a group, they agreed to contribute more than a half-million in inflation-adjusted dollars for the looming legal costs to fight the upstart Morgan. They further pledged that none among them would seek a license from Morgan to legally use The Stitch and they established an illegal group boycott of Morgan’s businesses.
In federal court, they claimed the patent for The Stitch and machine used to create it “lacked invention” and offered nothing innovative or new.
John Morgan and his wife, Anna Hoban Morgan, knew better.
John and Anna conceived the idea for The Stitch years earlier on a cold visit to the Norwegian Peninsula sparked by a warm, hand-knit sweater that caught their eye and their imaginations. At the time, thermal underwear was only available in rib, jersey and flatbed raschel fabric. If they could develop a small, circular waffle stitch that created heat-trapping pockets like a Nordic sweater, they could revolutionize the industry. John, who started his textile career as a floor boy in a Tamaqua mill and later became a sewing machine mechanic, and Anna, a pattern maker, returned to Tamaqua with a mission.
It took ingenuity and long hours of tinkering with the help of knitting machine manager, Alvin Ditzler, and mechanic Henry Behr, to perfect the Morgan Stitch and the machine to manufacture it. The machine had to be specially designed to stitch and hold the large amount of thread and fabric necessary to create a material with a three-dimensional structure and form. The result was a mechanical achievement and textile design accomplishment that is still in use today.
In a Hollywood-like show-down, Morgan fought the cartel of “Big Textile” in a dramatic courtroom scene in a federal courtroom of Philadelphia. For the presiding judge to be convinced of the uniqueness and inventiveness of The Stitch, Morgan knew he would have to be persuasive.
His opponents had the best team of patent attorneys that money could buy and were prepared with endless law citations and legal maneuvers. Morgan was just an upstart from the small town of Tamaqua.
To win the day, John Morgan brought the entire working knitting machine his company created instead of relying solely patent designs on paper. When pressed with hard questions about what was so “innovative” and “new” about The Stitch, Morgan invited the judge to step down from the bench so he could see for himself the novel mechanism for holding and assembling the material into the waffle-stitch.
On the floor of the courtroom, the judge and the attorneys crawled beneath the knitting machine and listened as a brash and confident Morgan and Alvin Ditzler explained every detail of the 8-feed pocketed repeat circular stitching system. The uniqueness of the ingenious Stitch pattern and machine mechanics was clear.
A triumphant Morgan returned to Tamaqua, his patent for The Stitch affirmed. Demand grew as The Stitch of JE Morgan Knitting Mills was used in more clothing and garments. Morgan expanded sewing operations in downtown Tamaqua in the former Brobst Bakery Building on Rowe Street and the Auchmuty Building on Center Street. As demand from the U.S. Military and other customers grew, Morgan expanded into the former Liberty Hall on East Broad Street before consolidating operations to the large JE Morgan Knitting Mill facility in Hometown.
The Stitch helped John Morgan achieve an industrial and financial success surpassed only by his philanthropic achievements. Morgan was generous during his lifetime to charities that provided health care to the people of his community. Today, new generations of Tamaquans know about Morgan through the John E. Morgan Foundation established to carry on his benevolent endeavors in support of health care, education, scholarships and his community. Beyond the generations of people kept warm by The Stitch, the wealth derived from that small Stitch will forever improve the lives of so many people.
The Tamaqua Community Art Center is proud to share the legacy of John E. Morgan and The Stitch that made it all possible.