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Fashion History: The Orphaned Singer Sewing Machine, Sewing Workrooms and The Culture Of Sewing Book

June 23, 2017

This week Harvard’s online Magazine published an article about a treadle sewing machine.

The title was An Orphaned Sewing Machine and it was written by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The link’s there if you’d like to read it.

Ulrich and her colleague Ivan Gaskell were given an old Singer treadle sewing machine as a means of teaching their students about one of the most important inventions of the 20th Century.

That’s the sewing machine, in case you need a hint.

Treadle Sewing Machines 

The article has a big picture of the donated treadle machine at the top. It’s like this one.

It has survived the intervening 100 years sitting in a colleague’s office very well indeed and has all the features of a ‘Traditional Treadle.’

The treadle sewing machine had no electricity running through it so it was up to the sewer to power the mechanism.

They did this by rocking their feet to and fro on the plate near floor level.

The wheel would be nudged into a turn with their hand to set it going apace and it was a mixture of doing both things that would drive the needle up and down.

Ulrich’s article describe why the authors felt the treadle was worthy of display in a learning situation but what followed countered their message about its importance.

Having been given the treadle no museum or cultural organisation wanted to adopt it by making it part of their collections. They tried and tried but were turned away.

After many attempts it was no dice for finding its historic, permanent home and so it became their orphan.

The explanation of the process they went through is fascinating because it touched an intellectual nerve.

The Culture Of Sewing Book 

It’s discussed throughout the excellent book The Culture Of Sewing, edited by Barbara Burman.

Chapters 14,15 and 16 look at the sewing machine in context of homeworking, from factory to home and it also being a thing of beauty.**

It sets out the sewing machine in context of its historical value; both in terms of industrial design and commerciality for the Singer company and the widespread affect it had on women’s lives too.

The Harvard article talks of the international reach of the Singer machines. They were exported across the globe where they were widely used, sometimes still being used even today.

It was a phenominally impactful invention but their article holds great irony – in the country Singer operated from the machine can find no archival home today.

The House of Mirelle – interdisciplinary research  

Research into The House of Mirelle stretches across many different disciplines: history, social history, the creative and artistic trades, the female economy and local history too.

Like the orphaned machine,  interdisciplinarity makes it hard to place The House of Mirelle into its niche, its home.

Research has highlighted the relevance and place of treadle machines in women’s lives. The phrase ‘treadle’ hasn’t been heard once, it’s been heard many times.

Usually it’s mentioned by a seamstress or tailoress but it happens when talking to daughters or sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren too.

Singer treadle sewing machines in Hull 

Singer treadles were not a pretty Edwardian artifact. They may have been made in that era but they were used right up and into the 1960s and it didn’t stop when electrical machines became widespread.

Treadles were high value pieces of kit both economically and culturally.

Thornton Varley and Bladons in Hull ran alteration departments in their stores, as did many others. Many of the women who worked or were applying for jobs there describe the location first then the type of machinery used second.

“Bladons had an alteration department, they used treadles there,” said one. The working tee’s and cee’s, teamwork or type of sewing carried out was far down the list of priorities mentioned.

The history of dressmaking and tailoring 

Why is a Singer treadle sewing machine so important? Well, until the early to mid 1950s it was common to make your own clothes or to have them made or altered for you.

There was a thriving home-based industry of dressmaking and tailoring also and those things brought economic, social and creative freedom to women.

The treadles, as with all sewing machines, made it possible to ‘make up’ – that’s a phrase meaning ‘create an item of clothing’ – at work or in the home.

Sewing skills were recognised as important enough to be taught in schools and colleges and through acquiring those skills, women had access to industry, business and working from home.

This was valuable in an era where women married younger than the norm today and were more likely to give up work afterwards.

Changes to home dressmaking in the 1960s 

Only in the 1960s with the advent of mass production and social changes that affected women’s lives do we start to see a gear-change in the amount of sewing done at home or required in the retail workplace.

Disposable fashion as we know it today was well on its way by the late 1970s. With the removal of sewing from the UK curriculum in the same decade the skills that our female ancestors regarded as essential not only for the home, but also for money making, were slipping through our collective fingers.

Talk to women who know sewing and their response to seeing pictures like the treadle is heartfelt and brings new conversations about culture and history into the mix.

The PHD student and her treadle sewing machine 

Recently I got to know someone new. They are a PHD student in the UK hailing from Denver, Colorado.  Tucked away in their student digs under a pile of papers is a box, a shiny wooden box.

Sitting in a disorganised space, its hard dome top belied what was inside – a 1920s Singer.

It had not been chopped off at table level, rendering it unusable and it still had its treadle attached.

She said she found this machine in a shop in Guildford. I didn’t ask her how she’d got it back to her digs – it’s a large unwieldy object – but it was mesmerising to watch as she opened it up, slid one of the plates to the right and produced a collection of bobbins.

The bobbins weren’t like those we use today. They were made from torpedo shaped steel and as I held one, it was cold to the touch.

She showed me a paper pattern she had created for a laced corset.

I baulked at the idea of trying to sew boned seams on a machine not powered by electricity but she was confident it would work.

As I mused on the then-and-now aspect to creating an item of clothing worn at the time the machine was invented, I asked her:

“how did you get into sewing in the first place?”

While she was still holding the bobbins she turned and explained. Her mother wasn’t into sewing, but she could have been. Her grandmother was a tailoress and made all the family’s clothes as well as sewed for the neighbourhood. It was how she made her money.

“It skipped a generation to you then,” I said.  She said “sort of,” then she continued to explain why her mother didn’t make clothes.

“It was the 70s and everyone was into different sorts of fashion, jeans, shirts, women and men’s fashions were starting to double up”, she said her Mum said.

“She didn’t have the time, she was doing her own doctorate. She was too busy scrambling around The Grand Canyon and,” she added, “she was sort of my shape too, so she couldn’t get anything in the shops, she wore men’s shorts to work with and that suited her.

“She, well, she didn’t have the time,” she finished before turning around and placing the bobbins back into the special place they lived in.

Sewing machines as a cultural object as important as the motor car 

Reading about The Orphan this week made me think about that conversation again.

If instead of an antique treadle Singer, it had been that other great mechanical invention – a car – would museums have approached it in the same way?

I played with that scenario for a while, imagining approaching a museum with a 1920s Austin 7.

Is a car more of an important invention than a sewing machine?

Why would it be?

A car transports people to and fro.

The mechanics and design may be more complex than a foot- driven machine but its larger impact is not as complex as that of a sewing machine, particularly in the home.

Sewing machines represent much more than the industrial design; they represent an economic and cultural history that is unique and in the main, about women’s lives over generations.

My first Singer treadle sewing machine 

I cannot recall my first encounter with an electric sewing machine; there was always my mother’s 1960s Singer in the house that whirred like an engine from the upstairs rooms, juddering to a halt at the end of a fast row of stitching.

But I do remember my first Singer treadle.

As a young child there was a gully that ran around the foundations of the village church. The gully had raised beds of grass all around its sides until it met the back wall where it stopped.

I used to explore and play around it left and right until I was stopped by a large object in the way. It was a wooden thing, with iron underneath.

I wriggled between it and the gully walls and took a closer look. The ironwork was painted black and the wood was a sort of dark colour. The lid was open and there was a black sewing machine set into the top.

I ran my hand across the machine. It was cold and it had gold designs across it. The gold had the same word as that set into the ironwork at the bottom.


I looked and looked at that machine. I asked what was going to happen to it, why was it there?

“Oh it’s being thrown out,” someone said. “They just aren’t used any more and there’s no space for it.”

I looked at it some more until one day it had disappeared and the space was as it always had been, ripe for playing. But I’ve remember that machine ever since.

The things within our homes can be every bit as impactful and important to our cultural heritage as those in museums.

They may not reside there –  yet – but we should take the opportunity to preserve them until they will be.

© HouseofMirelle.uk 2017

Watch this You Tube video of a woman using a 1910 treadle.

It’s in Spanish and it shows the beauty and reach of a machine made so perfectly it’s lasted over generations.

Look how important it is to her too. She’s dressed beautifully.


**Chapters in The Culture Of Sewing: Gender, Consumption and Home Dressmaking  as follows:  

Chapter 15 Homeworking and the Sewing Machine in the British Clothing Industry 1950-1905 by Andrew Godley

Chapter 16 The Sewing Machine Comes Home by Tim Putnam

Chapter 17 A Beautiful Ornament In The Parlour or Boudoir: The Domestication Of The Sewing Machine by Nicholas Oddy

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