In July 1965, Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Singer Sewing Machine factory at Clydebank outside Glasgow, which employed more than 700 people. At the end of their tour, the company presented them with a sewing machine for Princess Anne, then 15. I like to think she ran up the odd ball gown on it, over the years, but did she tackle the more complex Vogue patterns, or stay safe with Simplicity and Butterick?
A sewing machine was once a common gift for a young woman. My then-boyfriend’s parents gave his sister one for her 21st birthday. Two years later, they gave him a car. Even in my lovelorn state, and a beneficiary of the car, I recognised the unfairness of this, but then, I was given a sewing machine for my 21st birthday too.
The sewing machine was invented many times, both in Europe and in America, from the 18th century onwards, but it was Isaac Singer who successfully commercialized the product and sold it to the world. Singer was a rogue, a bigamist, and probably stole the idea for the machine from Elias Howe, who sued and won a patent battle with Singer in 1854 – but he was also a salesman of genius. Rather than invent the machine, he invented the idea of hire purchase, which let people, mainly women, put a deposit on a sewing machine, then pay it off gradually through the profits they made from their sewing.
At the time sewing machines first hit the market, clothes were made by hand sewing, and the extreme poverty of ‘distressed needlewomen’ was an issue of social concern. They were part of what were known as sweated industries, where women worked as outworkers, paid a pittance according to how much they produced. In 1843, Thomas Hood published a poem, The Song of the Shirt, in Punch:
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread —
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt.”
And so on, for another 11 equally dolorous verses.
Sewing machines were a game changer. Sewing machines and home dressmaking generated a whole swathe of new auxiliary developments. Women’s magazines thrived on a new interest in home made fashion for the middle class. One of the first to cash in was the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, edited by Sam and Isabella Beeton, which printed detailed instructions for cutting and sewing clothing for women and children. In America in 1863, Ebenezer Butterick designed the first paper patterns to come in different sizes.
The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine also printed letters, and questions from its readers, dealing with the social nuances of the sewing machine. One reader asked if she should let her servant use the sewing machine to make her own clothes? The general view of other readers was that this was a reasonable request, so long as it didn’t interfere with her work as a domestic servant. But it says something that mistress and maid were both eagerly converging on the same new gadget.
Sewing at a machine was a solitary occupation. Jane Austen’s women sat together round a table, sewing and gossiping companionably; in America, the tradition of the quilting party was equally sociable. But a sewing machine was a heavy piece of equipment, and costly. Treadle machines eventually became common items of household furniture, beautifully finished with wrought iron and carved wooden drawers. But there was only ever one within the household, and you didn’t take it with you to a sewing party.
Sewing machines were widely considered a married woman’s ‘tools of trade’, a legal term that applied to the tools that one uses to make a living, and which are protected from seizure in the event of bankruptcy. Until the 1880s, when Married Women’s Property Acts were introduced in Britain and the Australian colonies, a married woman had no property independent of her husband, so a sewing machine was a particularly valuable household asset, something that gave a woman some financial security if her husband turned out to be a dud.
While home dressmaking was a strictly female occupation, the sewing machine was not limited to women. Tailoring was an equally gendered – male – occupation, and sewing machines transformed that work too. The schmutter trade (from the Yiddish for ‘rags’), from the late 19th and early 20th century, came to be dominated by Jewish refugees, and the sewing machine gave them a chance to set up a small business.
The sewing machine (like a university degree!) is what economists call a ‘relative good’. That means that when most people are sewing by hand, those who own a sewing machine have an advantage in the market, because they can make more shirts or suits or whatever than a hand sewer, and therefore make more money from their sale. But once everyone has a sewing machine (or degree) that relative advantage disappears, the price of each shirt drops, and within a generation, sewing machinists, men and women, were working in sweatshops and as poorly paid as ever.
Today, with globalization, those sweatshops have moved offshore, but they still exist. I remember seeing brand new treadle sewing machines in the market in Bangkok, destined for villages that were not yet connected to electricity.
Not only the clothing factories have moved to Asia. In 1854, the American Admiral, Matthew Perry, entered Tokyo Harbour, intent on persuading the Japanese, by force if necessary, to trade with the west. Amongst the trade goods he brought with him to show to the Japanese was a very early model sewing machine.
In 1980, Singer’s Clydebank factory in Glasgow closed, with a loss of over 3000 jobs, and today, most sewing machines are built in Asia. Be careful what you wish for.