‘Singer’ humble machine symbolises life or associative strokes create potrait of time

National History Museum is good place to exhibit sewing machines

Victor Mikhailov

My mother was a good seamstress; although she didn’t work professionally, her talent was recognised locally. I have no idea where she learnt her skills but lots of people came to our house with orders, sometimes travelling dozens of kilometres.

Life in the village was difficult in the remote post-war years, since working in a kolkhoz (a collective agrarian farm) didn’t generate revenue. Moreover, after WW2, most people, including my ancestors, had to live in dug-outs, since the fascists burnt down settlements during their retreat. My mother told me that she used to sew at night, by the light of a kerosene lamp. Near dawn, someone would often wake and ask in surprise: ‘Irina, haven’t you gone to sleep yet?’ (several families usually shared a dug-out).

It wasn’t difficult for my mother to sew. By reworking clothes (there were almost no new clothes at that time) she brightened people’s lives; they were able to find some happiness in small joys. The ‘Singer’ sewing machine was my mother’s faithful assistant, serving her throughout those years. I don’t know how it appeared in our house but it was treated like a ‘sacred cow’, always carefully covered when not in use. My mother used a 1930 ‘Singer’ machine to sew my first denim outfit (copying a photo from a magazine). Long after her death, this machine remained in our home, in her memory.

I always wondered how that sewing machine (boasting a famous brand) appeared in a remote village. Even in those times, it was a kind of symbol of life. ‘Singer’ sewing machines, as well as those of other trademarks, had an air of sophistication. It isn’t important how such machines arrived in villages but it is interesting to think how greatly each would have been connected with the personality of its owner and their family.

Each had its own history and expressive individuality. In fact, Belarus (like other countries) was home to sewing machines from all over the world: from legendary ‘Singer’, ‘Pfaff’ and ‘Kaiser’ to rare and little known trademarks. Today’s exhibition at the National History Museum details the development of home crafts in our villages and towns from over 50 years ago.

This original exhibition has been prepared by the National History Museum, jointly with the Belarusian Union of Designers, with assistance from private collectors Dmitry Sursky, Pavel Statkevich and Sergey Shilo. Around 40 sewing machines are on show from the National History Museum’s own archive and from private collections. Visitors can learn about the major world sewing machine producers from the 19th-20th century while inspecting various tailoring items: dummies, scissors, press irons and textiles from the past. There are also unique, illustrative materials on the history of fashion.

Each time has its own style, with tailors primarily responsible for expressing major trends. They were both designers and stylists and relied on their reputation to find work. Today’s exhibition connects the past and the present via an invisible thread. We pay tribute to the technical genius of the humble sewing machine and ponder the skills of our ancestors, for whom ‘Singer’ was the comfortable supplement to their ‘golden hands’.

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