On Sewing Machines and Love

I enjoyed this lovely reverie by Jocelyn Heath on the power of sewing machines and traditions across generations in ”The Heirloom Art of the Sewing Machine,” part of The Atlantic’s “Object Lesson” series. I see this kind of family connection when we bring a sewing machine to an event – talk of grandparents and learning to sew from a relative always hover in the air behind those hunched over to make their first stitches.

Both of my sewing machines come from my grandmothers, though neither taught me how to sew. The older one is a child-sized, antique Singer, which can no longer stitch a seam. The hand crank that powers it, however, still turns, and the presser foot still lifts. The other—a plastic electric model from the 1970s—runs well, for now. It’ll eventually go the way of my mother’s machine, a workhorse that outlived the manufacture of replacement parts. When it does, another will take its place, and I’ll have to learn a new set of motions for bobbin-winding and needle-threading …

The first machine-sewing project I remember was a rag doll I made with my mother, during a week-long blizzard when I was in eighth grade. I struggled most with consistency, especially in the doll’s face; no amount of effort could get my satin stitch on her eyes to grow and shrink in increments to form a perfect sphere. Eventually, I abandoned the face to my mother and watched her place the thread at near-perfect intervals. Her needle slipped into the weave of the fabric at just the right points so that her stitches lay snug together, not overlapping, and emulating the circumference of a human eye. Years of cross-stitch and design stitching had taught her the incremental adjustments needed to pull this off …

Unlike humans—who produced natural variation by virtue of training, oversight, preference, or simple idiosyncrasy—the sewing machine could achieve uniformity, evenness, and consistency because its construction “trained” it to repeat endless copies of the desired stitch length …

For my grandmother and others, the inconvenience of time spent negotiating the slippery garment fabrics and stitching buttonholes was apparently worth more than the convenience of designing a fit unachievable by the standardized garment industry … In the U.K., mechanization had certainly put individual artisans out of work, compelling them to seek factory jobs in crowded industrial centers like Manchester and London and condemning many to poverty.

Today, information technology makes a similar threat to supermarket clerks and educators alike, given the ability of machines to learn and execute tasks previously requiring human participation. Sewing machines, too, exist in computerized form; some can be hooked up to computers and programmed with a pattern of choice, be it embroidery or more. What once came from shared knowledge now exists in code.

But hand-crafting is experiencing a resurgence. Young women are learning knitting and crocheting, spurring the rise of Stitch ’n’ Bitch crafting circles. One need not go to a specialty shop to buy fabric or notions; Walmart carries both. Still, most people sew for leisure rather than necessity, making specialty items more often than complete wardrobes …

As her memory fell away and dementia advanced, my grandmother hallucinated that she had a baby. Her mind, unable to retain names or medicines, returned incessantly to this imagined infant. Only physical representations of a baby she could care for relieved her anxiety. For her own sake, I used her sewing machine to make her a doll. Body, clothes, hair, cap—all forged on the old white Singer she’d given me. …

Read Heath’s complete essay at The Atlantic.

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