The day they got the Singer
my grandmother wouldn't touch it.
The clacking of its single tooth
terrified her, and the way it opened,
tipping over its hinge
so the bobbins, spikes and belts
of the gold and black carapace
almost fell into her lap...
The Singer ~ Henry Shukman
Just occasionally a new poetry collection arrives and I am enchanted from the moment I open the book. Others take time for me to 'know' them, but when Archangel by Henry Shukman arrived, The Singer was the first poem I read and I knew I was in the door.
Archangel (to be published on March 7th by Jonathan Cape) is an exploration of Henry Shukman's heritage and family history charting something of which I knew nothing....
'In 1917 several thousand Jewish tailors were deported from London and shipped back to Archangel and the Russian Empire they had recently fled, ostensibly to fight on the Eastern Front. They arrived just as the Revolution was unfolding and the old regime was collapsing into chaos. Among them were Shukman's grandfather and great-uncle, and these poems chronicle their four-year struggle to return to their wives and children in London.'
More about the collection when I have come to know it better I feel sure, but in the meantime it jogged a big memory and this weekend in particular, feels like a very good time to write about sewing machines, specifically my mum's Singer 201K ....why ever not, and the Tinker will understand why too.
I have recently discovered a blog I am loving, and if you don't know TomofHolland, and you are interested in tradition and sewing and knitting, then you might like to pay a visit. Tom van Deijnen knits and stitches and darns and is reviving long-forgotten skills from the days when make-do-and-mend were the norm. He loves 'doing things that take forever, and technical detail, tradition and narrative' inform many of his projects.
You have to see them to believe Tom's home made and beautifully tailored woollen trousers or his rescued darning machine or his invisible tailor's patch on the vintage Aquascutum coat.My Singer 201K Treadle Sewing Machine and there it was, my mum's sewing machine in the exact same cabinet that I still use, the original machine long gone from mine which now homes my lovely Bernina.
But how well I remember the gold and black Singer, and its underbelly that so frightened Henry Shukman's grandmother, and the noise it made and my mum powering away on it as she made all our curtains and clothes.
And the day, home alone with my brother, I sat down at it and thought I'd have a go while the grown-ups were out at Evensong. I have never forgotten the panic when just a few treadles later the whole thing seemed to have unthreaded itself, tangled the bobbin and made a complete mess of the cotton.
It was this very instruction book, which I still have, that an eight-year old (ish) me then turned to in an effort to try and put this thing to rights, and in the hope my mum wouldn't notice. Can you imagine the panic...
Nothing was ever said, and I doubt I would have been in trouble, but I can't believe my mum missed it. I was soon initiated into the ways of the sewing machine, cutting, patterns, darts, setting in sleeves, collars, hemming, button-holes, zips, you name it my mum showed me. The first thing I ever made, a tiny teddy bear's romper suit with a collar, the pattern in a book I had borrowed from the library. Let's not mess about with a handkerchief or something simple, no let's start as we mean to go on.
Suddenly fabric and paper patterns all made sense, Simplicity, Weldons, Butterick, McCalls and encounters of my own with the well-thumbed catalogues in Allders in Croydon, and the rather stern-looking women who commandeered the pattern drawers and would mark the purchase with that 'Patterns Cannot be Exchanged' stamp, simultaneously flashing you a glance that said 'Don't even think about it.' I was soon off into the land of making things, blouses with puffed sleeves out of Rose & Hubble fabrics and flared skirts to match come to mind, and falling with joy upon an electric Singer Merrit sewing machine of my own for my eighteenth birthday as if I had been given a car.
I eventually replaced that with a New Home swing needle and my mum did likewise. Hers fitted perfectly onto the hinges of the Singer 201K cabinet as if made for it, and heaven knows where the old machine ended up, it weighed a ton ... the Tinker will probably tell us. After my mum died (sixteen years ago this weekend) the Tinker gave me the cabinet and I slotted my own machine into the self-same hinges as if to carry on where my mum left off.
And from the New Home (some years ago given to a new home with someone who reads here) I upgraded (thanks to Father Christmas) to the all-singing, all-dancing Bernina Quilter's Edition, which truth be told I have been a little lazy with and only really ever asked to dance one dance... the backwards and forwards in a straight line one. I will have time to properly extend its repertoire now I think.
I am, I discover, most resolutely attached to the modern when it comes to sewing machines, but I will always treasure the Singer cabinet which sits primed and ready for use in the corner of the kitchen. I decided some time ago that a sewing machine needs to be out all the time if space allows, and it is now a lovely juxtaposition of the old and the new.
With its original rubber mat making an ideal non-slip surface for my pedal..
...and the two-tiered, swivel opening work-box on the inside of the door..
...and the way that the lower tray holds some of my mum's sewing notions (such a lovely word for all those bits and bobs) which rest in perfect and comfortable harmony with my new ones and more of hers...the beeswax, the thimblebox on the top layer... as if we are still sewing together.