Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Quartet of Singers

I like old things.

I have four Singer sewing machines. They range in age from over a hundred years old to just over twenty-five years old. They all work great. Not only that, each machine has sentimental value. Each one belonged to someone else before it came to me. There’s something comforting in knowing that loving hands lifted the presser foot, or adjusted the stitch length decades before me.

Twenty years ago, when I struck out on my own, I realized that one of the appliances I couldn’t keep house without was a sewing machine. I didn’t like the new plastic ones. I wanted an old, heavy metal Singer machine like the ones I’d learned on. So I combed the paper looking for old machines for sale. I found what I was looking for in an estate ad. When I went to take a look at the 1970’s made Singer Creative Touch 1030, the seller confided in me that she wasn’t a seamstress. The machine and table had belonged to her mother. After her death, she’d had little use for the machine, but wanted it to go to a good home. It was love at first sight for me. Any plastic on it had yellowed with age, but Grandma had bought all of the accessories for the old machine, and she had everything I needed to do any sewing I might want. It was the best twenty-five dollars I’d ever spent. I got the machine, the decrepit old table, and all of her accessories. Best of all, I got a well cared-for machine that has served me for twenty years.

When my oldest son was born, I would take my little stitchery projects to my mother’s to show off to my mom and great-aunt Gladys. You see, Gladys is the one who taught me to sew. She’s the one who put me on the old treadle machine with scraps of fabric and turned me loose. Hers was the 1950’s-era Singer 403A that I’d learned on. Hers was the model I’d been looking for when I went searching for my own machine. In her eighties by that time, Gladys offered me her old Singer. I eagerly accepted. Though what I’d do with another machine, I didn’t know. In the end, I made my daughter’s bassinet skirt on it. Gladys couldn’t have been prouder of my skill.

The oldest of my quartet is a Singer 127 treadle machine with Sphinx decals circa 1922-24 that once belonged to my great-grandmother, Mama Boley. It once held a place of honor in her kitchen, beside a window. Though the house had electricity and indoor plumbing, Mama Boley never saw any need to upgrade to a modern machine. It doesn’t do fancy stitches, but what it does, it does well. When I was a child, I learned to sew on it. The gentle sound and motion of the old treadle machine is a soothing contrast to the whir, thump and hum of a modern electric sewing machine. I enjoyed spending hours in that old kitchen, finding the rhythm with my feet and watching the needle rise and fall leaving neat stitches in the fabric. My mother likes to tell of Mama Boley singing hymns while she sewed, keeping time by rocking the treadle with her feet. When Mama Boley passed away, her belongings were divvied out among the family. As one of the youngest, and a lesser grandchild, I had little say on where her things went. But when my grandmother passed the old Singer along to my sister, I was happy to be able to visit it frequently. Years later, when I moved into my century-old house, my sister offered it to me. I accepted without hesitation. You see, one of the reasons I fell in love with this house is that it reminded me very much of Mama and Granddad Boley’s house. Her machine seems very much at home in my long center hallway, and a few other pieces of Mama Boley’s furniture have found their way into my home to keep it company.

 Says a lot for the durability of Singer sewing machines, doesn’t it?

Gladys passed away less than a year after my daughter was born. My mother made sure I inherited her vast collection of vintage sewing patterns, as well as all of her accessories and the fourth machine. In the early 1980’s, Gladys, her husband Brooks, and I went shopping. Though she did little sewing anymore, Gladys couldn’t pass up a display of modern sewing machines. Sears had a new Singer 1425N that she fell in love with. Inside of a tall armoire, the sewing machine rose into sewing position at the flick of a switch. This camless machine would do just about everything she could ask. I remember it was an expensive piece, as much furniture as appliance.
I still haven’t brought myself to clean out the armoire and fill it with my own sewing implements, many inherited from that unknown grandmother, many purchased over the years, and still more passed down from family members and friends who didn’t sew, but wanted their mothers’ and grandmothers’ tools to find a loving home. But as my children get a little older and I find more time to knit, sew, and do needlework, my thoughts turn more to Gladys’ armoire. In the mean time, I have spent the last few days refurbishing her old sewing table, a folding card table with a cut out in the top that’s just the right size to hold her old Singer. There is a pile of mending in a basket in the corner, and an old Singer sewing machine, ready to go to work once more.

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