By Natalie Fergie
It is hard to imagine today a world in which plastics did not exist, where people used and re-used parts of everything, machines included. Yet this was part of everyday life until recently. The Sewing Machine is set in Scotland in the years just before and during World War I, in the mid-twentieth century, and the present day. Tracking changes in living standards in the past century through the food, clothing and technology her characters use, Natalie Fergie transports us to this world. She starts with an actual historical incident, the Glasgow Singer Sewing Machine factory strike of 1911.
It was an unusual strike in these years before widespread trade unionism because it was huge – involving eleven thousand workers – and because it was a strike on behalf of women workers. At the time British women did not even have the right to vote. In the novel, Jean Ferrier, an eighteen–year- old whose job it is to test the bobbins on the machines, is forced to leave the city with her strike leader boyfriend, Donald Cameron, when he loses his job. The action in the story then shifts to mid-century Edinburgh, where Kathleen Baxter and her daughter Connie sew and mend almost every garment they wear. Connie gets a job at the city’s major hospital as a seamstress. Yes, in those days, British hospitals had a sewing room. All the gowns, nurses’ uniforms, sheets, drapes, and towels were sewn in-house. The third protagonist in this story is Fred Morrison, who, in 2016, inherits his Nana Connie’s old sewing machine, as well as the tenement house in which she grew up.
The sewing machine and the tenement house are so vividly rendered they are almost characters in this story. People live without modern conveniences and in close quarters. Laundry was (and still is, I gather from this book) dried in this damp climate on a pulley in the warmth of the kitchen. Neighbors look out for one another. The old fashioned house which Fred has grown up in and loved is contrasted with the all-white sleek and modern apartment of his girlfriend in London. They work together until he’s made redundant. She visits him in Edinburgh and is so appalled by the old-fashioned house he’s attached to that she dumps him by text.
Living conditions change over time but human nature does not. Disappointments, betrayals, and new beginnings weave their way through this book. I have to say that I loved it.
As someone who has never had the patience to thread the needle on a machine I found some of the technical discussion of bobbins hard to follow. Nevertheless, I loved it. I love the idea of researching and restoring old technology. I especially loved Ellen, a subsidiary character who takes old sewing machines apart and repurposes them into jewelry and art objects. And I loved Kathleen and Connie, who sew into exercise books fabric scraps of every item they make. Record keeping as art. I also enjoyed the time markers indicated by the food the characters ate – broth and bread at the beginning of the twentieth century, stodgy meat pies in the middle, and in the twenty-first, daily treats of sweets and cakes and a bottle of champagne kept on hand.
The story structure alternates between the three time periods, allowing the reader to reflect on societal changes for good or ill. The sewing machine, a product of the industrial revolution, was a godsend to women the world over, who were freed from the daily task of hand-stitching every item of clothing their families wore. It allowed women to earn a living on their own. For Fred, the male protagonist, twentieth century technology allows him to use email and text to communicate and to seek work. Yet this also creates a sense of isolation he must work hard to overcome.
This unusual story was for me, a page-turner. If you like books in which the female characters are strong, not in the sense of being warriors or rebels but simply because they see a problem and take action to fix it, you will like this book. Natalie Fergie is a gifted writer.