There is a current of love which hums between creative women and their sewing machines. Unlike appliances such as printers which are universally a source of frustration, unreliability and misery, sewing machines represent potential, self sufficiency, affordable embellishment, satisfaction and accomplishment.
The first sewing machine I ever used was my mother’s old Elna. From there a relationship began with that brand, a joy which even the nasty old primary school ‘manual’ sewing teacher failed to kill. When I think of that machine, which Mum still owns and uses today, I associate it with creativity, colour, fabric, ball dresses past and the feeling of love channelled through the act of making.
My mother learned to sew from her widowed mother who brought in much needed income for her family of four as a ‘tailoress’. Maternal family recollections are often based around outfits, fabrics and special occasions distinguished purely by the dressmaking skill which allowed them to feel lovely despite their lack of income. Even in recent times, when family income is not the problem it once was, one of the most beautifully dressed groups at my wedding was almost entirely outfitted by my Aunty Carol.
Skill with a whirring machine runs through that family. As a girl, my mother’s cousin Myrla was legendary for not even needing a pattern, but placing her (then) very expensive fabric on the floor and taking to it with her shears to cut out her garment pieces. There’s a definite unsung genius and quite a dash of derring-do in that course of action, which even now makes others draw in their breath and shake their heads.
As a child, late night shopping on a Friday would often feature the fabric shop with Mum, standing at the steeply angled pattern book counters and flipping through line drawings in the heavy Simplicity, Butterick and Vogue catalogues. Then, the fabric choice which involved wandering around the different fabric types giving each fabric a quick mean squeeze to see how badly it held a crease. We may well have been the scourge of the shop, leaving a trail of crumpled textiles in a behind us.We were regulars in the haberdashery shop, where Mrs Spencer would let me pat her dainty black pomeranian dog.
There’s poetry and history in the names of those fabrics: linen, crepe de chine, georgette, sandwashed silk, faille, grosgrain. And as much as we joke as a family about Mum’s colour fixation (and perfect colour memory), the distinctions between indigo and navy, french and royal blue became clear, evocative and significant. And why just get by with red, when you can revel in cherry or scarlet?
Lacking patience, precision and attention to detail, I can’t claim the dressmaking skills of my mother’s side of the family. I’m a ‘bog on in, give it a go’ kind of sewer. But I like to make gifts, home furnishings, uneven bed quilts and and pyjama pants, all which are more forgiving of an uneven seam allowance, and still enormously satisfying.
When I turned forty, my mother bought me an old Elna machine if my own. It suffered from age and being left in a room with a small boy who loved to twiddle its knobs and try to make it go when I wasn’t looking. For the past two years it has sat reproachfully in a corner. Every now and again I would think, ‘I’ll just fix/run up/make a…Oh’.
Yesterday I put my Elna into the care and custody of a sewing machine savant. Paul works out of his garage in Onehunga, his walls lined with old machines, each sporting its own manilla ticket featuring precise handwriting. The place has the tired but cherished feel of a doll’s hospital. The lady ahead of me was leaving her machine to be repaired. And although she was considering trading it in for a later model, you could see she really didn’t want to. She kept her hand on it through the whole conversation, and as she left she gave it a little pat, much as you might leave a loved dog with the vet.
When Paul saw my machine he smiled in warm appreciation, as he showed me how to shut the case properly for once. “Your timing is 25% out. Even if you haven’t broken that plastic gear you’ll still need to replace it with this nylon one. You’re still going to be sewing on this machine in forty years’ time. You wouldn’t get another like it under a thousand dollars”. I felt proprietorial and oddly proud.
“Just give me a week with it” he said as I left.
I gave my machine a small pat on the way out.