Thursday, 23 February 2017

My sewing machines 1

A couple of weeks ago I gave my Bernina 330 to the daughter of our oldest friends. She has never used a sewing machine although her husband (who grew up in Canada) has and she now has an eight year old daughter so I felt they were the logical people to pass it on to.  I bought the machine in 2012 as something to take to workshops but I promptly gave up going to workshops so it is virtually unused.  I recently thought I might try using it so I plugged it in and turned it on.  It immediately started making a nasty noise which people told me was probably the result of under-use and meant that it needed oiling so I have told the friend that I will pay for it to be properly serviced.  Luckily there is a Bernina dealer in their local market town.

Giving away the machine is one step in my attempt to down-size.  It seems that a lot of quilters now qualify as ‘older generation’ and are wanting to shed fabric, books and equipment.  This has prompted comments on both the Contemporary Quilt group’s Yahoo site and the SAQA Yahoo group.  For those of us with no children and currently no connection to quilting groups it can pose a problem thinking of how to dispose of all the supplies, not to mention the quilts and hangings that we have made but do not have homes for.   It is easy to build up a sentimental attachment to things you bought years ago but have never used. In my case, a terrible house fire in 1999 destroyed everything I had made, started making or bought for my craft work, so I only have seventeen years’ worth of ‘stuff’ to dispose of.  It is enough and this photo only shows a fraction of it!

Parting with this machine (not the one in the photo) started me thinking about how I learnt machine skills and the sewing machines I have used.  I have difficulty remembering when I learnt to machine but it was very early on.  I think I was only about four or five years old.  The reason I was allowed to start sewing on the machine was that we had an old Singer hand machine which was originally my grandmother’s.  I can remember it sitting in the room in her house where we children slept when we stayed there, but at some point it was passed to my mother.  It was of course pretty safe for small children to use as your right hand was occupied turning the wheel and there were no electric components.  I recall making pot holders from off-cuts of tweed stitched onto green cotton left over from my mother making us school knickers!

When I was about six I was given a ‘toy’ sewing machine for Christmas; one of the ones that did chain stitch.  It was a sore disappointment and I soon reverted to using my mother’s.  She made clothes for herself and three daughters on this machine.  My grandmother was a knitter rather than a dressmaker and I seem to remember that she used the machine for tasks such as ‘sides to middling’ sheets.  This was where you cut the worn sheet down the middle and sewed the sides together so that the worn part was on the edges. Make do and mend was the order of the day in the mid-twentieth century, no doubt partly because of the War but also I think in New Zealand because new bedding was generally imported and therefore expensive.

My mother struggled on with this sewing machine until in the mid-1950s my father bought her an Elna Supermatic.  It was the only thing that he ever bought on hire purchase.  I can remember her going to sewing classes (it may have only been one) at the Elna dealer.  The Supermatic had discs with fancy embroidery stitches on them but it was my father who tried all these out.   My father should have been an engineer so he really enjoyed the machine and the fancy work was usually his.  The Supermatic also sewed zips in and did buttonholes so a lot of techniques that we originally learnt to do by hand became machine techniques.   Sewing at home did cause some disruption as we had to do it on the dining room table.  Later I used to put it on a folding card table.  My memories of weekend afternoons as a teenager are of sewing to the noise of rugby being played on the park across the road.  And of course we had to negotiate when there was more than one of us wanting to sew which was most weekends.  I do not have any photographs of this machine but found a website with plenty of details anmd lots of photos.  Elna in the 1950s  In writing this post I have also learnt that Elna sold out to Janome.

My mother sewed because you had to, especially with three daughters, but she was obviously happy when I showed a taste for dressmkaing and started making clothes rather than just things for dolls.  I know I had learnt to use a machine before we started dressmaking classes at school.  These began in the second year of secondary school.  We were taught by a wonderful Welsh woman who insisted that we learn everything properly so we began by stitching on lined paper without any thread.  The aim was to learn to stitch a straight line.  From there we moved to making samples of every technique under the sun including all sorts of buttonholes and plackets, inserting zips etc. The samples were glued into an exercise book and marked out of ten.  I do not remember any other year at our school doing this real apprencticeship but it certainly stood me in good stead.  At the same time we made ourselves simple garments.  I can remember making a skirt the first year and then summer pyjamas.   I found it very frustrating using the school sewing machines.  All but one of them were treadle machines and I never learnt to use them.  (I also failed to master the art of using a potter’s wheel which I think used a similar technique.)   I preferred to do hand-stitching at school and my machining at home.  As teenagers we all made clothes for ourselves and, if we were the eldest as I was, for our younger sisters although I think my younger sister has never got over the summer ‘duster’ coat I made her!

We went to university in our home town so did not leave home and my student days were also filled with dressmaking.  By this time I was making dresses to wear to balls (yes, it was all very old fashioned in NZ and so we dressed up like middle-aged women).  The sixties did not arrive in NZ until the seventies by which time I had left home.

I used to pride myself on using Vogue patterns, not just the simple ones but ones which were advertised as Paris inspired or couturier designed.  Fashions in New Zealand were generally a couple of years behind Europe so the patterns were as up to date as bought clothing, not that we ever bought clothes other than heavy winter items such as coats and suits.  I think I did not even really know what size I was until about a year before I left home.

I am afraid this post is short on illustrations.  This is partly because of copyright issues and partly because I have very few photos of my past, having lost most of them in the fire we had in 1999.

I will continue this story in a second post.

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