Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie

The Sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie has the description: One Sewing Machine. Two Families. Three secrets. Four generations.

The author was a career nurse turned fabric dyer and textile enthusiast. She was inspired to write this novel by a Singer 99K found near the Singer sewing factory where it was made, which she purchased for 20 pounds.

The Sewing Machine was crowd funded by subscription and published through Unbound. Readers can pledge for a book at unbound.com.

I thought it would be interesting to read a book that was published this way, and of course the focus on home sewing was a perk.

The story, set in Scotland, begins in 1911 and jumps across the century to 2016.

The world of each time setting is described, from the fortnightly shampoo and set to the refillable compact for woman’s facial powder, the rise of unions and WWI. As character Connie thinks, "the constant push to re-do and change was overwhelming sometimes." Characters must adapt as the century brings huge changes. Nurses leave off starched hats and cuffs and pinned aprons for zipped uniforms and paper hats. I never considered the huge learning curve required when the hand cranked sewing machine was replaced by electric.

As an American, I was Goggling a variety of things to find their American equivalent. I got that a broadside was a newspaper and understood the concept of a boot sale. (That is not about low prices on winter books, but a flea market out of car trunks!) I had no idea of what a kirby grip is: it is a bobby pin.

In 1911 the Singer sewing machine factory workers in Clydebank, Scotland, organized for a strike. Factory worker Jean’s boyfriend Donald is a union organizer. Scientific Management was the new business model with its emphasis on efficiency and profit. The result was decreasing the number of workers thus increasing the work load.  Jean’s father is anti-union and he turns her out of the house. When the strike fails, Jean and Donald leave town. But first she hides a secret note, wrapped tightly around a bobbin that is inserted into a new sewing machine. During WWI Donald "takes the king's shilling" and joins the service.

In 1954 Connie, a nurse, is living with Kathleen, who has always sewn on an old Singer sewing machine which her first husband purchased for her. It outlasts the 1963 electric model bought by her second husband Alf. Connie decides to seek employment in the sewing department for the local "co-operative" hospital.

In 1980 Ruth is a nurse at the hospital. Unmarried and pregnant, she has been rejected by her parents. Jean has an accident and ends up in the hospital. She has a letter to be mailed and Ruth agrees to handle it. Meantime, a woman from the sewing department helps alter Ruth's nursing uniform to hide the pregnancy.

In 2016 Fred has inherited his Granda Alf’s tenement apartment, complete with a cat and an old Singer sewing machine. Three generations have lived in the flat. Fred is unemployed and when he considers keeping the flat his girl dumps him. He learns to use the old Singer to remake Granda’s clothes and shoe bags for the neighbor kids.

The multiple time and story lines are a bit confusing at times, but this kind of plot structure is not unusual today. The scenes are full of period detail, told with a loving nostalgia about the old ways. Mysteries and relationships are revealed in the end, all tied to the Singer sewing machine.

Readers who are sewers will particularly enjoy this book, but also those who enjoy historical fiction, woman's fiction, and character-driven plot lines.

I revived a free book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

from the publisher:
It is 1911, and Jean is about to join the mass strike at the Singer factory. For her, nothing will be the same again. Decades later, in Edinburgh, Connie sews coded moments of her life into a notebook, as her mother did before her. More than 100 years after his grandmother's sewing machine was made, Fred discovers a treasure trove of documents. His family history is laid out before him in a patchwork of unfamiliar handwriting and colourful seams. He starts to unpick the secrets of four generations, one stitch at a time.

Sewing Machine
by Natalie Fergie
Unbound Digital
Pub Date 17 Apr 2017