Tuesday 24 March 2009

Ada Lovelace Day

and I have pledged to blog about women and technology... So I am going to talk about sewing machines. Because that's what I know, and because I have a sneaking suspicion that, had I been born with different plumbing, I would have been an engineer by trade, not a sewist.

Picture here was taken in 2003, at a meeting of Old-Sewing-Machine Fanatics at my workshop. I have just worked out how to thread and adjust an 1880s machine of great beauty and charm, still working and doing it's bit after 12o-odd years.

When the sewing machine came into general use, in the 1860s and 1870s, it changed the world. Before this the average household would have had very few new clothes; what was made was made by hand and passed down and repaired until nothing was left. After the advent of the domestic sewing machine, came Fashion, Consumerism, and relative plenty. Household linenes could be made at speed. Clothes did not have to have several owners.

As the machines were too expensive for most people to afford to buy one outright, there was a system of "hire purchase" - not new but uncommon till that time. From this we directly get the Car Culture, because that too needs a time-delayed system of payments for ordinary people to be able to play. And sewing machines were pretty much mass-produced, on assembly lines, in factories, with a workforce dedicated to just that one job. Compare this with bicycles - also offered as a great liberator of women and the working classes, but mostly made in small workshops not much different from the village blacksmith's smoky hovel.

Then there is fabric. If you have a small market, hand-woven and hand-dyed will suffice. If the demand increases 100 or 1000-fold, than you must make factories to make fabrics, printing must improve, dyes will poison the river, and another workforce arrives. My grandmother was a mill hand in Lancashire, England at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. She was well-paid, independent, and was regarded as having "let herself down" by marrying and giving it up. She ran huge, dangerous, dirty machines on a shift system, and, at 13, was a supervisor (doffer) over a whole floor of other (mostly female) workers.
Thread must be much better quality, so spinning mills must be made which can produce this. Needles and thread can be quite crude for hand sewing, but machines require precision...
And the Computer was, of course, preceded by the Loom... The first Punch Card systems were for weaving cloth, not crunching numbers..

My conclusion? Without the Sewing Machine Revolution, we would have so much less of out modern world. Maybe good, maybe bad, some of each perhaps, but different..

And me? I love machines. I like screwdrivers, oil, precision; things which work as they should. I like my car, love my bicycle, would not live without my sewing machines...