Well, COVID finally caught up with us, and February’s reading and writing plans all went out the window! I was lucky enough for the symptoms to be mild – and to be double vaxxed, although not boosted – but there were times when it felt like I couldn’t string a sentence together (getting my excuses in early in case this post is incoherent) and for quite a few awful days even reading was a challenge. At such times, we reach for what Karl Coppack once called ‘cosy reads,’ not necessarily that the subject is cosy, but books we know so well that stepping back between their pages feels like catching up with old friends. Fans of Karl’s choice The Crow Road will also enjoy the cosy read I turned to for this The Sewing Machine review.
The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie is a layered, multi-generational story of two families in Clydebank, Leith and Edinburgh in Scotland. It begins with a strike at the Singer sewing machine factory and an individual act of defiance from a young woman called Jean, before she takes a dramatic step that will cut her off from the familiar surroundings of home and work. Meanwhile, in a modern-day story, Fred has inherited his grandparents’ old flat and needs to make some big decisions about what to do with all the stuff it contains, including his grandmother’s old sewing machine. The machine holds the keys to an array of family secrets and mysteries that will see the slightly rootless Fred find his place in his own community and his family’s history.
Fred’s search for machine parts and know-how sees him cross paths with Ellen, an artist who takes apart old sewing machines to create something new – working on jewellery and decorative arts – and as she gives him her funding ‘pitch’, she makes the point that the machines represented so much more than just a pretty antique:
The sewing machine has provided work in manufacture, eased work in the home and facilitated work when there was none to be had. By designing with the individual components of a discarded machine, I connect with the hands of the workers who built it in the factory, and with the people who used it in the home. In doing this I acknowledge those whose experience and determination paved the way for the working life we have now.
If you liked reading Homegoing or The Crow Road, you will enjoy Natalie Fergie’s writing, with no-nonsense women like Ruth, Ellen, Connie and Jean at its heart, women who take everything that life can throw and keep on going. I have come back to this book again and again because it is a great pleasure to spend time with them. Theirs is a history that often gets overlooked – that of working and lower-middle class women in the industrial cities of the 20th century – very like the Liverpool women whose feet I grew up getting under!
As a child, I always wondered about how the history learnt at home from relatives was treated differently from the one that was in the books at school – but now I know that it shouldn’t be. Talk of precarious employment and housing, getting by, making do and facing horrors from war to disease with not much more than the ability to keep putting one foot in front of the other has never been more relevant. Those women could be hard at times and they kept their secrets well – too well at times, perhaps – hiding behind a ‘No one wants to know that old stuff,’ until it was almost too late. But they built us up, hoped we would never experience the losses they suffered and that we would have chances they could only dream of. The Sewing Machine is testament to all their quiet strength and fortitude.
The Sewing Machine was published by Unbound, a site that allows readers to pledge to support books before they are published and then follow them through the publication process, with their name in the back of the book or other rewards based on the amount pledged. It would make a great read for the final week of Reading Independent Publishers month (which the hosts have extended to 15 March!) There is more from Natalie Fergie on the inspiration for The Sewing Machine and her own collection of vintage machines on her website.
If this The Sewing Machine review has made you keen to read the book, you can purchase it from an independent bookshop close to you via this affiliate link. I may receive a small commission if you do – thank you!