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The Heirloom Art of the Sewing Machine

Lead 960

The Atlantic examines the place of the sewing machine in today’s society.

Both of my sewing machines come from my grandmothers, though neither taught me how to sew. The older one is a child-sized, antique Singer, which can no longer stitch a seam. The hand crank that powers it, however, still turns, and the presser foot still lifts. The other—a plastic electric model from the 1970s—runs well, for now. It’ll eventually go the way of my mother’s machine, a workhorse that outlived the manufacture of replacement parts. When it does, another will take its place, and I’ll have to learn a new set of motions for bobbin-winding and needle-threading.

In much of the Western world, sewing was done by hand for centuries as a cottage industry—a handicraft and trade passed from mother to daughter or master to apprentice. The Industrial Revolution brought innovations in all things textile. The Spinning Jenny, power looms, and similar machines mass-produced thread and fabric. Wheels, gears, and power did the work previously done by human hands. It was only a matter of time before sewing itself would succumb to automation. Sewing machines have replaced many artisans, but they owe their existence to the skilled laborers whose bodies first mastered the task of stitching.

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