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What's the big deal with these old sewing machines anyway?

You may have noticed I have a slight obsession with vintage sewing machines. The old metal ones. You know, the one your nan/mum/great auntie used to have. Funnily enough, although I hear that from pretty much everyone I talk to about my machines I never hear “my grandfather used to have one of those.” That's because sewing machines have traditionally been seen as a woman’s thing and therefore they aren't valued in society as much as a classic car is, for example. I firmly believe that sewing machines are a part of the story of women in recent history and are therefore important. Sewing machines changed the world. The invention of domestic sewing machines meant women, who were expected to make clothes for their family, were able to sew a shirt in a couple of hours. By hand, it would take some 14 hours. Women suddenly had more time. In fact, the rise of the sewing machine can be linked to the women's rights movement and W.J.Harris & Co even released a handcrank machine name Defiance in support of their movement (I need to get one of those!) How do you think the suffragettes made all those sashes? 

But that's not the whole reason I love them.

Over the last few years, I have suffered with poor mental health. Learning to sew, and connecting with an age old creative task is like a form of mindfulness for me. I get the same feeling when I am working on one of these old machines. I never thought that fiddling with old stuff would be something I could do. But it turns out you just have to get started and see what happens - all I started off with was a screwdriver. One by one, i took all the screws out of my first machine and totally forgot to make a note of how it all went back together (That one is still in pieces!)

Every time I take one apart I learn something new, and thats great for me. I always need to feel like I am learning something and every different machine that comes to me teaches me something new. Having children has made me appreciate the struggles that women still face today especially in the workplace and how women can end up feeling devalued. 

Sewing, and working on these machines gives me a sense of achievement outside of my day job. 

My favourite machines are ones where they come to me with a backstory. If I know the name of the woman who used it. Or what she used to make on it. Every time I work on one of the old machines, I feel connected to the women who used it before even if I don't know who they are, and every thing I do to the machine is adding to it’s history. I know that it only really matters to me. But these old machines were so important to the women who used them, I get such a sense of achievement with every machine I manage to get working again. I love it when I receive one, and it’s still threaded with the last sewer’s thread as though she has just put it away, ready for the next project. I wonder what the last thing it sewed was?

Finally, these old machines are beautiful, with their rich gold decals against black paintwork. Some of them have mother of pearl inlaid into the base in intricate patterns. Shiny metal faceplates which are usually rusted and dirty which is so satisfying to clean up. Some have floral designs, some have sphinxes, or eagles. Some were made to commemorate events. Modern machines are so samey. All white plastic. Utilitarian, not beautiful. So many of the old ones end up at the dump or in a skip because they don't have a place in this modern world. However, these beautiful old machines each tell a story and show us a side of human history that is being forgotten, the story of how they helped to empower women and the stories of the individual women who used them. 

I love hearing “my nan/mum/great aunt used to have one of these”. I would love to hear about the sewing machines and the women who used them in your family - please do leave me a comment!

If you also love vintage sewing machines, be sure to take a look at our Sewing Machines page - lots of fabulous pictures of machines I've rescued and restored (I even have some available for sale).


  • Frank Burrows

    Regarding singer sewing machines, my Grandfather really did own one. He was in the Navy. I still have it and it is in working order. I have made curtains and cushions over the years. It is the earlier spindle type. Sorry I have no picture but can take one if you are interested.

  • Martine

    My Dad was a tailors cutter, my uncle and grandfather were tailors , all in ladies tailoring, and they had a shop in Mare street Hackney before, during and after the 2nd World War called Orchy Modes, which derived from our surname. All had and used singer sewing machines. I learnt to sew on a treddle machine. My daughter now continues with children’s clothes. .

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