It has been a while since I read a piece of sewing-themed fiction but The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie did not disappoint.
Natalie Fergie is a professional textiles enthusiast who owns numerous sewing machines and was inspired to write this multi-generational saga after buying a century-old sewing machine, manufactured at the Singer factory in Clydebank. The novel consists of four interwoven threads.
1911 – Jean Ferrier works at the aforementioned factory testing sewing machines. At the Singer factory, a strike is brewing; Jean’s fiance, Donald Cameron, is strongly in favour of bringing the workers out to strike. Her support for industrial action, however, leads to her father throwing her out of the house. Consequently, she and Donald are forced to make a new start in Edinburgh but, before she leaves, Jean hides a message inside one of the machines on the last day at the factory.
This sewing machine, it transpires, is destined to pass messages between generations.
1954 – 33 year-old Connie Baxter lives in Edinburgh with her mother Kathleen, a seamstress. Kathleen works on an old Singer machine and keeps meticulous records of every sewing task she completes in little notebooks. Following a family loss, Connie, who has been employed as a typist, finds a new job working as a seamstress for a hospital. Here she meets a young nurse, Ruth Watkins.
1980 – Ruth Watkins, single and pregnant, is in Edinburgh trying to finish her nursing practicum before it is discovered she is pregnant. She approaches Connie to see if she can help her alter her uniforms so that they will not be so tight and help hide her pregnancy.
2016 – 35 year-old Fred, newly single and unemployed, inherits a flat (and a cat he names ‘Crabbie’) from his grandfather, Alfred. Fred keeps a private blog which he uses as a sort of diary in which he records his task of clearing out the flat, only to find himself keeping most of what he discovers, not least an old Singer sewing machine. Within the machine he finds numerous old notebooks recording everything made on the machine and telling the tale of his family history, one stitch at a time…
The narrative flows naturally, even though it is split into the stories of these four main characters. Without it seeming forced or contrived, the author reflects the social attitudes of each of the four generations via the sewing machine; it feels so authentic.
The strength of this book likes in the accessibility and of each of the characters. Through the sewing machine and the links it has to each of the characters in this story, it will be hard for any sewing enthusiast not to identify with their circumstances and choices. This is an accomplished piece of writing about ordinary lives and extraordinary secrets.
It’s also a book about times when frugality was part and parcel of sewing has inspired me to be more mindful about refashioning fabrics that are not being used in my wardrobe and my home.