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The Only Thing That Keeps Women Quiet

August 29, 2010

Shuster family handmade linens, Singer advertisement showing sample stitches in woman's dress

My granddaughter came to spend a few weeks with me, and I decided to teach her to sew.  After I had gone through a lengthy explanation of how to thread the machine, she stepped back, put her hands on her hips, and said in disbelief, “You mean you can do all that, but you can’t play my Game Boy?”  ~Author Unknown

An old family photo  recently caught my eye.  The picture was of a group of Slovak women in Vojvodina outside, some sitting in front of sewing machines.  In front of them sat very young girls, each with their own miniature machines.  One child held a sign that said “Singer Sewing Machine”, written in Croatian.  The year was 1929, and in that picture was Karolina (Pauline’s sister in law) holding her one year old son, Branko.  I was intrigued and I wanted to know more.

Intricate Slovak baby outfit in Vojvodina; Branko and Karolina in 1929 - see arrow; Baby Branko 1929

Pauline taught me how to sew on her foot powered Singer when I was five. I was mesmerized by the beauty and the power of the handsome machine that sat in the upstairs hall in Pauline’s house on Queen Street in Leamington.  The table and case were made of rich dark wood that sat on a wrought iron stand and the machine was powered by a foot pedal.  After watching her sew for countless hours, I begged and begged her to teach me how.  Finally one day she relented, and after several false starts and some extraordinarily hairy thread jams (which she had to spend hours disentangling for me),  I got the gist of it.  I fell in love with the rhythm made by the up and down motion of the pedal and the symmetry of the stitches.  She taught me how to thread the machine, fill the bobbin, piece two sides of the material together, where to place, start and finish the seams, how to keep the fabric taut and the stitching line straight.

When I was 18, Pauline bought me a portable Singer as a graduation gift from high school.  I remember that day in 1981 when she gave it to me: her smile stretched from ear to ear and her eyes sparkled with pride.  Even with it’s limit of six simple stitches, I still use the same machine today. Recently I took my daughter to the fabric store where together we stared in amazement at the computerized machines that sew dozens of fancy stitches and that can be fed patterns it sews on its own. I confess I covet them.

Jewish women in Serbia in front of a Singer store in 1920; Child's sewing machine ad in the US; Singer store in NYC

I own some beautiful handmade linen tablecloths and tea towels that Pauline and her relatives made over 75 years ago.  I’ve seen some intricately sewn traditional Slovak costumes from the same time period.  I’d never really thought about how Pauline learned to sew.   Who taught her, how old was she, and where did she get a sewing machine from?

How, I wondered, did these peasant women afford to buy sewing machines, not only for themselves, but for their children too?  How did they all master such a complex machine in a little Slovak village at a time when most girls didn’t go to school past 6th grade?  And what was Singer doing in the war torn Balkan villages of the 1920’s? And so began my research into the Singer Sewing Machine Company of New York…

You want to do away with the only thing that keeps women quiet – their sewing! Issac Singer, Founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    August 31, 2010 10:31 am

    Fascinating story and also re Singer. I wonder if this was part of US foreign policy after WW1. Somehow doesn’t fit with the military/industrial strategies, or was this so subtle we are missing something? Were the Singer salesforce doing more than selling Singer? I look forward to your further research on Singer and any nefarious links to whomever. The classified documents of that era should be declassified by now.

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