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A Lockdown Love Letter to the Sewing Machine

There’s a song by Alan Jackson called Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning) and for many of us at the end of March it did seem a bit like the world had stopped turning. At one point we joined over half the world’s population in being asked to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19 and save lives.

So what do you do when the world stops turning? I met the challenge of working from home and juggling childcare by introducing my two year old to some classic cartoons from my childhood! At the same time, while continuing my day-to-day work, I was pleasantly surprised by a new stream of e-mails arriving in my inbox. I came to realise that people all over the world were having a good old fashioned clear out. It was spring after all.

As Collections and Engagement Officer for WDC’s Arts and Heritage Team I’m responsible for looking after the Council’s heritage collections, which includes The Sewing Machine Collection and Singer Archive – a museum collection recognised by the Scottish Government as being of national importance. It’s also the second largest public collection of Sewing Machines in the world after the Smithsonian Institution in the USA. We have over eight hundred sewing machines in our collection, along with a vast archive relating to the Singer Sewing Machine Factory in Clydebank. The factory was one of the largest sewing machine factories in the world and a major employer in Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire and Glasgow from 1884 until its closure in 1980.

So what has any of this got to do with global lockdown and spring cleaning? Well, since the middle of March I have been receiving emails from people across the globe who want to donate their sewing machines to our collection. Emails have come from as far afield as Iraq, South Africa, France, Spain, Malaysia, Australia and the USA, to name just a few.

The sewing machine is one of the only household appliances to make memories that stay with people forever. Maybe the old Singer that sat in the corner of the sitting room made your first school uniform, or the first pair of long trousers you were allowed to wear. Maybe it made the first dress you ever wore to the dancing, or your wedding dress. And when you got married, maybe you were given a sewing machine as a wedding gift and later used it to make your own child’s clothes, christening gown, first communion dress – and then their first outfit for the dancing!

For many people all these memories come flooding back when they look at the sewing machine in their family home. And it’s clear from all the emails that I’ve read recently that this feeling of love and affection for the sewing machine is a global affair.

Andrew Graham

When people are clearing out they can’t just put their old sewing machine in the bin – it’s too special for that. They want it to go somewhere it will be cared for, and loved, so they get in touch with me to see if we would like it for our museum collection.

Now sadly, when you already have over eight hundred sewing machines you have to be very strict about what you can take in. It’s a bit like when I was younger and collected football stickers – you don’t want a doubler. With the sheer volume of sewing machines produced in Clydebank I’m unable to accept the majority of machines that are offered to me, and it always saddens me when I have to decline a sewing machine that belonged to someone’s late mother or granny. But I’m always keen to point out that there are charities across the globe who will take old sewing machines (especially machines that don’t need electricity), and who recondition them and send them to community projects in the developing world. It’s good to be able to tell people that although I can’t take the sewing their family has cherished for decades, it can go on and have a new life helping people who are not as lucky as us. Perhaps giving them some hope and a chance of making their own memories on a Clydebank made machine.

So what was I doing when the world stopped turning? It turns out I was learning a lot about families from across the globe and sharing in their love for a sewing machine that was made in Clydebank.

Andrew Graham

Lead Officer Collections and Engagement, West Dunbartonshire Council