Meet Josephine. She was my mother’s sewing machine, the one I learned to sew on. I was nudged to dig her out of the basement and dust her off by this blog post.
Poor old Josephine has seen better days. Second-hand by the time my mother got her in the 1970s, she never struck me as especially pretty. In fact, quite the opposite. She’s led a hard life (witness scratches and scars), and was converted from treadle or hand-crank to electricity some years after manufacture; that’s when she acquired her clunky housing and cardboard case. I imagine some cowboy sewing-machine repairman performing this atrocity, a cigarette butt clamped ruthlessly between his teeth throughout the ordeal. Piling insult onto injury, I’ve neglected her and half meant to get shot of her for years – well, her charms aren’t immediately apparent, unlike her petite cousin, the 221k – but I’m beginning to change my tune. Especially as I know a little more about her now. I’ve even discovered her birthday.
The joy of today’s internet is that you can look up serial numbers of yesterday’s Singers and discover when and where your machine was made, and the model type. The model type is very handy if you don’t have the sewing machine’s original instruction booklet. Free pdf downloads of instructions can be found out there, so it’s worth searching a little. Otherwise, they can be had for a small fee. It’s useful to know how your machine is supposed to be oiled, how tension can be adjusted etc.
From a quick dip into the Singer site I’ve learned that Josephine was one of 30,000 99k machines registered on May 20th 1946 in Kilbowie, Clydebank, Scotland. That date was when the entire batch was assigned, so I imagine she was still a lump of metal at that point and didn’t gain her final gleaming-gold-decal form for days, weeks or months. Anyway, it’s nice to have an anchoring date. Maybe next year I’ll bake her a cake and Singer happy birthday (ouch).
By the time Josephine came to us, she already bore the marks of a hard grafting life, the scratches of myriad pins passing by on miles of fabric, a thousand scissor-nicks from hurriedly clipped curves. Her motor bears the installation date of February 1956. When we first got her, she had to be plugged into a light socket. This meant that every sewing experience was preceded by a perilous clambering above the dining room table to extract the bulb and insert her lead into the pendant fitting. I’m amazed that no-one was electrocuted in the process.
The absence of ceiling light made it pretty hard to see what you were doing, and eventually someone in the family changed her plug to a regular three-pin wall variety. It was slightly annoying that she had no light source of her own, but my fresh eyesight didn’t seem to mind that at the time, and I enthusiastically made up a lot of patchwork and a number of Laura Ashley dresses on this machine. She worked reliably, until I got her out a couple of years ago and found, to my horror, that she ran manically without her foot control being activated; this seems to have been a simple case of ‘sticky pedal’, and I’m happy to report that she’s fine now.
My mother wasn’t an enthusiastic needlewoman, just a utilitarian one. Same with all handicrafts. It was my maternal grandmother who’d been the real crafter of the family, and perhaps my mother naturally rejected that role as one generation tends to react to the previous one. She’d gone to college and pursued more academic pursuits. She typed fast, played piano well, but the sewing-machine isn’t something I can picture her at. It was at school that I was instructed in how to operate a sewing-machine. Home Economics hadn’t been chased off the curriculum in those days, and we learned from rather joyless, stern teachers (“unpick that again”) on rows of hand-cranked machines. But that’s another story.
I’m seeing Josephine in a slightly different light now. A no-nonsense post-war workhorse from an age of austerity, her few redeeming features (such as her surprisingly decorative face plate, the pleasingly robust bobbin-winding facility, and the houndstooth-patterned paper inside her case) stand out all the more. One last detail: in the spirit of make do and mend, she still carries a piece of masking tape on her needle plate, marking some long-forgotten seam-allowance I once used. No fancy screw-on seam guide for her.
Now I’m wondering where all of Josephine’s 29,999 siblings are. These 99ks strike me as real survivors. How many are still sewing? How many have been melted down for scrap? Where are they now? If you happen to have one, I’d love to hear about it. I”m also wondering what your first sewing machine was like? Was it basic or luxurious? Do you still have it? What did you make on it? Show and tell.