I’m truly delighted to introduce bespoke dress designer Faith Caton-Barber to my regular sewing-machine-memoir feature, My First Sewing Machine. Faith and I have had adjoining stalls at each and every It’s Darling! fair in Bath to date (the first one was a year ago), which has been a very great pleasure — for me, at least. I’ve coveted her rich, jewel-coloured silk slips, purses, capelets and corsages. She’s been so tolerant when my clutter has encroached onto her territory, and very generously offered me many a gem of sewing wisdom too (there’s always, but always more to learn) and I’ve been able to watch her painstakingly hand-sewing corsets etc during the occasional afternoon lull between visitors. If you haven’t been to an It’s Darling! yet, you’re in for a treat. The next one’s all set for Saturday 16th July from 9.30am-5pm in Bath’s Guildhall (head for the Brunswick Room off the entrance hall). The room is beautiful, and the event is relaxed, friendly, full of lovely stuff, and (even better) FREE to get into. Without further ado, on with the interview!
Scrapiana: Tell me about your first sewing machine, Faith. What was its make, model and colour? Did it have any distinguishing features?
Faith: My first sewing machine was an old black cast iron Singer, remarkably similar to many on display in the windows of All Saints. It had (and still does have) the lovely gold writing familiar to many. The main distinguishing feature on that machine is that it had been converted and modernised at some point in the 1960s or ’70s with an electric motor and placed in a mildly unattractive bluey-grey plastic case. It only does straight stitch, doesn’t reverse, but boy can it go at a rate of knots! Long seams were a doddle and pretty much every pair of curtains in every home I lived in up to age 19 were made on that machine.
Scrapiana: Was it gifted to you or borrowed? If you learned to sew on another machine, but then got your own, feel free to describe both.
Faith: My machine belonged to my mother who very generously shared it with me. It was a friend to both of us, producing so many things from duvet covers to pretty party dresses. It was such a familiar part of the furniture that no-one seems to quite remember when it arrived and where it came from. There were so many women with sewing machines (and some men too) in my mother’s family and we have always been a swapping and sharing kind of clan, with various bits of furniture and sewing machines getting used and passed around, some losing their provenance and some gaining an almost mythical status. For example, my maternal great-grandmother May had a big old cabinet treadle machine which she had upgraded in the 1930s with an industrial motor so that she could do even more sewing in her spare time to earn extra money. This meant she was able to supplement her factory earnings enough to buy her own home, something almost unheard of in her class and generation. It also meant that my grandfather and great-aunts and great-uncle had to lend a hand with hems and alterations too… you could say the sewing is in our blood! That almost revolutionary sewing machine seems to have disappeared and yet my little anonymous Singer is still around, waiting patiently to be used again.
Scrapiana: Who taught you to sew? Were they a good teacher?
Faith: My mother Helen taught me to sew although I don’t recall her sitting me down to teach me, I just remember us sewing together and her giving me tips as I went along. Clearly she did a good job as she got me interested and it all felt perfectly normal to stitch. I particularly remember her reminding me to leave a seam allowance, and to measure twice and cut once when I was trying to make doll dresses. I’d completely failed to do either. The thought of the wasted fabric still makes me feel uncomfortable now, even though it must only have been small scraps from Mum’s sewing projects. Mum often sewed my dresses and knitted all sorts of things so there was always a textile stash to rummage through.
When we did a sewing and embroidery project at school, aged 8 (I appliqued and embroidered a sailing boat which my mother still has in a frame), I was pretty confident and didn’t need much ‘teaching’ except when it came to French knots (who doesn’t need reminding about those from time to time?). When I stayed with my grandparents in the holidays I do also remember sewing with Irene, my grandmother, although that was always by hand as I didn’t learn how to use her beautiful 1920s treadle powered machine (something I mean to change next time I visit). Grandma used to have a cupboard full of fabric that I’d go through again and again imagining what I would make with each piece. I still do that with my own fabrics, although I’ve got a lot more than a cupboard’s worth!
Scrapiana: Oh, yes, I think I’d need a quick how-to reminder before embarking on French knots.What’s your earliest memory of using that first machine? What did you make? Do you still have any of your early creations?
Faith: I don’t really remember my first machined creations although I do remember making some summer dresses and a recreation of an 18th century bodice from one of Janet Arnold‘s books, complete with a patchwork diamond stomacher of my own design. My textiles teacher didn’t think much of it, she seemed to want me to make cushions. I find it difficult to part with anything that I make so I have all sorts of odd bits and pieces knocking around both in my flat and at my mum’s secreted amongst her sewing things.
Scrapiana: I’m pleased that you persevered, in spite of your teacher. Do you still have your first machine? If you got rid of it, did you give it away to someone you knew? Do you know where it is now?
Faith: The old Singer is currently somewhere in the depths of Mum’s garage as it hasn’t really been needed since the advent of the Janome XC33 Special Edition with fancy computer beeps and 30 odd stitches and many interchangeable feet. The Janome was such a good machine that in 2002 when I was in my final year at University, I got another one all to myself.
My mother and I may have matching machines of a similar vintage, but mine has been much more heavily used, and it shows, with scuffs and dents from being carried about for jobs as well as the many costumes, corsets, wedding dresses and whatnots being sewn together. I hate to think how many miles of sewing it has done in only 9 years! I am very happy with it and there are only one or two points that mark it down for me. I am going to reclaim the Singer as soon as it can be excavated from the garage so that I can get those long seams done in half the time. The Janome is a great machine but the top speed is not great when, for example, making 1950s style ruffled petticoats with around 80 linear metres of seams to stitch and bind with ribbon. It takes an absolute age. Still, it’s faster than handsewing…
Scrapiana: What did your first machine do especially well, or especially badly? Did you like it or loathe it then? What do you make of it now, with hindsight?
Faith: The Singer didn’t have an arm which meant I could take fewer short cuts when making things (no machine finished cuffs on sleeves for me) so I learned from an early age about proper hand finishing of garments. I still stuggle to do what I call mass production finishes although I am learning that there is always a time and a place! I liked the Singer but it was pretty limiting only doing straights stitch. When the Janome arrived with the zig zag, blind hem stitch and automatic buttonhole (I could go on), life became a lot easier.
Scrapiana: What machine did you get next? And can you run us through your subsequent machines and their merits?
Faith: I have a Janome 9200D overlocker that I bought in 2009 which turned out to be one of those ‘why didn’t I do this YEARS ago?’ moments. It’s easy to use and thread, it doesn’t take up much space, and has made working with both lycra and duchess satin, to name but two fabrics, much easier. When I’m in a hurry or tired, it starts to play up and that’s when the threads continually snap and the tension won’t do what I want, but then all machines are like that aren’t they?
Over the years I have used many different machines both domestic and Industrial whilst studying and working in various theatres. 1970s and 1980s Berninas pop up a lot because they seem to be pretty good work horses but I’ve never had the urge to get one as I’ve heard the quality isn’t as good as it was and they are generally just plain ugly. One machine I have used that is both pretty AND performs well is my dad Mike’s Brother machine. He got it from some friends of his that clearly had barely used it since they bought it back in the late ’50s or ’60s. It is baby blue, with lots of different useful stitches and still has it’s proper carry case and instructions. It’s a dream machine and raced through the sewing I did on it whilst still maintaining a feeling of control.
Scrapiana: Do you have your dream machine? If not,what would that be, if you could wave a magic wand and money were no object?
Faith: In Warwick there is a fantastic sewing machine shop that has loads of beautiful old cast iron machines that I yearn to own. The man who runs the place said his collection had got so big he couldn’t justify not selling them although I imagine he is like a book seller who does everything he can to avoid making sales of his treasures! He also had some amazing modern machines, that while not looking as beautiful as the machines that drew me in in the first place, could do some amazing things. I would love to have a machine that can do programmable embroidery although the four figure prices means I can’t justify it just yet. If money were no object I would like to say I’d get a fancy bespoke machine built for me but to be honest, I’m happy with a good old sturdy machine that can be relied upon. If a fairy godmother gave me a sewing wish, to be honest, I might wish for a magic wand like hers because sometimes I really get tired of the back ache and eye strain that often come with sewing for hours.
Scrapiana: And finally, I have to ask this…have you named any of your sewing machines? Do you talk to them – or even swear at them if they’re behaving badly?
Faith: I haven’t named my sewing machines and yet the close relationship between woman and machine suggests maybe I should, after all I’ve named my musical instruments whose ‘voices’ I hear less often. I wouldn’t want my trusty machines given names that associate with or suggest unpleasantness, weakness, tragedy or failure, that might be tempting fate when it comes to my sewing. Sewing rooms are often where I’ve heard the worst language and most awful abuse hurled at the poor machines. A poor workman blames his tools but bad days happen to us all sometimes. Well, my self imposed anti potty-mouth rule really does become more of a flexible guideline. What’s the point of having a rich Anglo-Saxon based language if you can’t fully make use of it from time to time, when under extreme duress?
Scrapiana: Thank you, Faith, for sharing your sewing-machine stories! It’s wonderful that sewing has played such an important role in your family history; I can see it’s definitely in the blood. See you at It’s Darling!