Do you remember sewing machines? Ever used one? Did they have them in your house growing up? In just about all the homes I went in as a kid down in Sandy Point you would find many common items; stoves, fireplaces, porches, wells, a home remedy stock pile, a family Bible, a steamer trunk, shotgun, and a box for stove wood and one for kindling. The list goes on and on. Most homes also had, set up in some prominent place, a sewing machine. If I went around my neighborhood today I doubt I would find a single one. I still see them in Walmart and Sears so I know some people still buy them and, of course, use them.
Both my grandmothers had them and used them. They were in an easy to get to spot where emergency sewing could take place. For example, it’s Sunday morning and Dad just ripped out the seam in the seat of his only Sunday suit! Now, that was an emergency!
The Singer treadle powered sewing machines were used most often to make repairs, let out or shorten hems, make new pants cuffs and sewing on patches. Of course, there was the occasional new garment made with a bolt of cloth and a pattern that was purchased from a dry goods store, Sears, or some other mail order catalog. Curtains, if the house had curtains, were often made on the sewing machine. And the seat of a lot of pants got resewn, too.
Wikipedia says the first working sewing machine was likely made by a man named Thomas Saint in 1790! A replica of that machine is shown in this picture from Wikipedia:
My guess is this baby took a lot of effort and was for some special purpose like leather making and may have been dangerous to your health! That big wheel with all the teeth on the side is a dead giveaway.
The first machines I remember, the Singers, looked just like this one below and they are seen in antique stores today. This machine was invented by the man credited with the first workable machines, Isaac Merritt Singer in the year 1850. The needle, thread, and thimbles could go on the shelf.
These were powered by the operator’s feet and when you started pedaling the machine could go forward of backward so the operator would give the wheel on the right hand side a little hand assistance to start it in the right direction. Quite honestly, I never figured out how the things worked! But, work they did. And Singer sewing machines became a house hold staple!
Families recycled clothes within the families back then since the families had a lot of kids in many cases. More kids than they had money and extra clothes. Nothing went to Goodwill: Little sister got big sister’s dress that she outgrew and little bother got big brother’s overalls. They got them; patches and all. If mother or grandmother was a good seamstress, there would be a new dress in the works on the sewing machine that was done between all the other things she had to do. Sometimes, in the less affluent families, the dress cloth looked very familiar: maybe a lot like the recent cloth flour sacks. So did underwear, dish towels, and other cloth items. I was an only child and there were no boys of my size in the immediate family so I got no hand-me-downs.
My mother was a very good seamstress and and spent her whole working life in the garment industry. She could see a pattern for sale in the newspaper and cut the picture out and go about making the item just by looking at it. Somewhere in some storage boxes are three denim jackets made out of patchwork material that she made for our three sons. My sons look at them and laugh now but they thought they were neat back in the day.
When we finally had to get my mother into assisted living and closed out her house, the only thing she made me promise to keep was her very nice sewing machine. My mother lasted almost a year in the facility. I kept the sewing machine for two years after her death and finally, reluctantly, took it to Goodwill. I truly hope someone is using it!
Back in elementary and high school they had Home Economics classes. Home Ec for short. They were for the girls who were expected to be able to cook, keep house and sew! Try and sell that today! That’s right, to meet the stereotyped image of women at the time the girls were taught to sew. They had wood shop for the boys in many schools and a lot of boys took advantage of that training. It got them out of Social Studies or Geometry.
Today, we buy new, throw the old away or, sometimes, give the garments to a place that helps the disadvantaged. It is hard to get little sister to wear big sister’s stuff except when it serves to make big sister mad! Don’t refer to it as a hand-me-down!
Electricity came along and the sewing machine started having motors, then, somewhere in the 60’s the Japanese took over the sewing machine industry. They now had become nice precision instruments for making all sorts of items for the home.
Yes, for most of us that era has passed but it might surprise you that the Singer Company sold three million machines in 2015! Up from one and a half million in 2012! People use them as a means of expressing themselves much the same way an artist paints a picture. Making ones own wedding dress is one example. Who knows? Maybe what goes around comes around?
But isn’t it amazing as to how many things the ladies of the past could do to make life better for their families. They wore many hats and got little credit. Sewing was just one of those things.
JC © 2017