I’m delighted to introduce another of my favourite makers to reminisce about her early sewing experiences in My First Sewing Machine. This time, Scottish artist Julia Laing of Materialised.
Julia Laing of Materialised
I first became aware of Julia’s exquisite embroidered brooches via Twitter (I think); her hearts with sometimes startling, emotionally charged adjectives and nouns caught my eye (see image below). I was soon charmed by the rest of her delightful, tenderly embellished pieces: purses, pouches and textile art created from recycled and vintage textiles.
Julia’s sells via Etsy and will be selling in person at Glasgow’s monthly makers’ market, Byres Road, on 30th April. You can also keep up with her via her Facebook page.
OK, I’m settling myself into my interviewer’s chair, propped (if only in my imagination) against one of Julia’s adorable cushions (which you can still nab from her Etsy store, if you’re quick).
Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Julia? What was its make, model and colour? Did it have any other distinguishing features?
Julia: The first sewing machine I ever used was a black hand operated Singer. Unfortunately, I don’t have an image of it, but that one on Flickr looks just like it. It was old but had been well looked after and the wooden case had a lovely patina. I remember the distinctive smell, as soon as the case was opened: a musty mixture of wax polish, oil, and dusty old threads. The key which locked the case had a piece of string threaded though it, which was always kept wound through the carrying handle for safe keeping. The string was worn through in places, which added to the well used and loved aura that surrounded the machine.
Scrapiana: Was it gifted to you or borrowed? Do you know its history?
Julia: The Singer had belonged to my gran, and after that my mum used it. I know some of it’s history. Mum told me stories of how, during the war her mother had taken suits apart, turned them inside out and painstakingly put them back together again – to get the maximum wear from the fabric! I’ve seen faded photos of Mum as a teenager, wearing beautiful 1950s party dresses her mother had sewn with it. My mum was also a great dressmaker. She made loads of clothes for me when I was young, and dolls too. Eventually Mum upgraded to an electric model, which left the old one available for me to use.
Scrapiana: Do you still have it? If/when you got rid of it, did you give it away to someone you knew? Do you know where it is now? Do you regret parting with it?
Julia: I inherited another machine, from my other granny, so then my sister used the old Singer, and I’m glad to say she still has it, although she’s now upgraded to an electric machine too. I wanted to take a picture of it, but it’s packed away, while her house is up for sale. I don’t regret parting company with it, because it served me well, but compared to a modern machine it’s capabilities are limited.
Scrapiana:So what’s your earliest memory of using it? What did you make?
Julia: My memory is hazy, but I remember using it to make sage green cord trousers for my favourite doll, and then I had a go at altering my own trousers. It was 1979, and I thought it was about time I had some new ‘drainpipes’ as my flares were so last Tuesday! I was 11 and was experimenting really. I don’t even know if I’d asked permission to use the machine (probably not) but I was happy enough with the results to want to keep on sewing.
Scrapiana: Oh my! I have matching flare-altering memories, Julia! Who taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?
Julia: Again, my memories aren’t crystal clear. I don’t remember being sat down and taught to sew, but because I was surrounded by a culture of making and doing at home (Mum was always knitting, baking, gardening and painting) it seemed natural for me to experiment. I’ve always been introverted, and was happy to spend hours on my own, drawing or sewing. If I had a problem with whatever I was making, Mum was on hand to help, but I’ve always had a stubborn streak so usually I’d just try to work it out for myself. We had compulsory Home Economics at High School, which included some sewing. I remember making a cushion cover, and then a cornflower blue, wool pencil skirt, which I teamed up with fuzzy purple knee high socks my gran had knitted for me…What was I thinking?! At school the emphasis was very much on doing it ‘right’ and exactly by the instructions, which has always been a struggle; even now I find the instructions on commercial patterns pretty hard to fathom!
In 2002 my passion for sewing was rekindled when I began a City and Guilds course in Creative Embroidery at Telford College in Edinburgh. It was so liberating! there was a strong emphasis on design and I learned loads of new techniques, including free motion machine embroidery. Although I didn’t manage to finish the course because of the cost and time involved, the teaching I got there was top class. I can honestly say I learned more there, in several months, than I did in the four years I spent at art college. That’s when I became very enthusiastic about working with textiles, and I started my own crafts business in 2005.
Heart brooches: to wear on your sleeve, perhaps
Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well or especially badly? Did you like or loathe it?
Julia: My old Singer machine was great to learn on. Because it was operated by hand you could sew at your own pace, so there was never any danger of it getting out of control and stitching through your finger! I liked how basic it was: it only did a straight stitch. If you needed to adjust the tension, it was just a case of twiddling a screw to tighten it, and because it was mechanical it wasn’t hard to figure out how it all worked. It was a wonderful design, which was hugely popular in it’s day. The only drawback was because you were using one hand to turn the handle it made it difficult to guide the fabric through the machine with much accuracy.
Scrapiana: What machine do you have now? Is it your dream machine? If not, what would that be, if money were no object? Here you can be fanciful: bespoke colour, extra fantasy features such as tea-making… OK, maybe not the tea-making.
Julia: The machine I use now is a Brother PS-31, which I’ve had for 9 years. I didn’t do a lot of research before I got it; if I had done, this probably wouldn’t have been the model I’d have bought! I was in a hurry when I went shopping because the machine I had been using at the time had an electrical fault. It was going to be expensive to fix, so I thought I might as well buy a new one. I went to John Lewis and the Brother was within my budget and available to take home on the day.
Julia's Brother PS-31
I’ve read reviews since which all agree with my experience – it copes badly with thick fabrics, in fact it often point blank refuses to sew. The tension is very temperamental, and it’s quite noisy. Having said that, it’s had a LOT of use, and is still going strong, more’s the pity! If it would just give up on me I’d feel justified in buying something better. I make a ritual of cleaning and oiling it regularly so that’s probably got something to do with it’s longevity. Reliability is the most important consideration because sewing is my livelihood. I don’t use most of the built-in stitches, mainly just the straight stitch and zig-zag. I often change the presser foot to a clear perspex hoop for free motion embroidery, but that’s quite straight forward. One thing that I’d like in a new machine is automatic bobbin winding, because with my Brother machine I have to take the bobbin out it’s casing, fiddle about with the thread, put it on a holder on top of the machine, turn a knob and then fill it up, which is tiresome if I’m sewing at full pelt! I’ll probably look for the best reconditioned machine I can afford next time around. I don’t have a lot of experience of sewing with other machines so it would be interesting to hear which brands other people would recommend for quietness and reliability.
Exquisite bunny brooches, sniffing the April air
Scrapiana: Thank you so much, Julia, for taking the time to share those evocative memories. I haven’t managed to winkle out precise model details for your original hand-cranked Singer, but maybe someone reading this will have one just like it and be able to tell us more about it. Guessing at the age of that machine, I’m assuming it’s possible that your grandmother had it from new? If so, how lovely that it’s remained in your family as a treasured possession! Thanks again.