Chris Do you recognise this sound? That’s the hum of a Singer sewing machine. A machine like this used to be found in homes around the world, making and mending clothing and creating beautiful decorative arts like quilts. For many families, it was essential for managing the household budget, especially those who couldn’t afford the latest fashions. They relied on inexpensive cloth and cheap patterns to make new items and patches to extend the life of well-worn clothes. In some cases a sewing machine even helped supplement the household income, by making clothes to order for better-off neighbours.
Even if you don’t have a sewing machine in your home, you may know someone who does. But in this age of fast fashion that is inexpensive and quickly thrown away, the whirring sound of a Singer may seem to belong to another era. Instead of the hum of domestic industriousness and thrift, today it might be the sound of nostalgia. For my student Min, it sounds like home.
I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot, the podcast about the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
In this episode I focus on a single object – a sewing machine that bound a family together for three generations but today stands idle. I journey to the heartlands of Singapore to hear the machine for myself, to listen to the history of this object, and to understand the commitment and sacrifice of a woman for her family, channeled through her Singer sewing machine.
If your sewing machine is collecting dust, I hope this episode helps you see it in a new light. Perhaps you’ll even plug it in again and make it hum.
In 2010 the British Museum and BBC4 radio collaborated on a simple yet powerful project: A History of the World in 100 Objects. In a series of short radio episodes played over 20 weeks, museum director Neil MacGregor presented a short detailed history of just 100 items that gave listeners some of the highlights of the artistic and technological achievements featured at the museum.
This project inspired one of my favourite homework assignments.
If you had to choose one object that signifies home, what would it be? When I ask my students this question, I get all sorts of answers, from family photos and quilts passed through the generations, to less obvious items like a video game console shared by a pair of brothers.
For Min, home is a sewing machine. As she put it eloquently in one of her papers, “the sewing machine is where the memories of my childhood and the intense emotional relationship I share with my Ah Mah (my grandmother) is materialized.” The machine bound the family together, especially in its role making clothes for the family celebrations like weddings and Chinese New Year.
In fact, Min compared her grandmother’s sewing machine to the hearth, which Martin Heiddegger famously suggested was the focal point of all homes. This was the center of all social relations in the home, the home fire that provided comfort, safety and a sense of belonging. For Heiddegger, as long as the fire is burning, there is a home. For Min, as long as the sewing machine is whirring, there is home.
What I particularly loved about Min’s essay was her emphasis on the sound of the machine’s motor. As she wrote “one of the most memorable times of my childhood was where I would sit beside Ah Mah playing with my toys while listening to the sound of the wheel being spun by the electric motor as she sewed and tailored all day. The sound has always been a reminder and affirmation of Ah Ma’s presence and the immense love and affection she bestowed upon us”
One can almost feel the vibrations traveling from the machine to a 5-year old Min playing on the floor nearby. Even without seeing her grandmother at work, the hum of the motor assured her that she was safe and that her grandmother loved her. She felt the security and comfort of home.
Sadly, in recent years the sewing machine has sat increasingly idle due to her grandmother’s arthritis and worsening eyesight. Now every time Min visits her grandmother and walks past the abandoned machine, it nearly breaks her heart. She writes, “The absence of the mechanical drone, whenever I go over to Ah Ma’s house, jolts me into a sense of unfamiliarity and discomfort where home does not feel like home anymore.”
She cannot help but feel nostalgic, longing to hear the whir of the sewing machine and to see her grandmother deep in concentration, creating something beautiful. It feels like the thread that tied the family together is slowly unravelling.
Since I first read Min’s paper, I wanted to hear that motor. For a while it appeared I wouldn’t get my wish. When I approached Min last year about sharing her story for this podcast, she told me her grandmother was in hospital, recovering from a recent fall. I feared I was too late.
But a few weeks later Min told me her grandmother was back home and doing well. In fact, she was excited to show us her sewing machine and invited us to visit.
So Ryan and I set out on a Friday afternoon, to record the machine I’d only heard in my mind for two years and to meet the amazing woman who we learned had used her sewing machine to provide so much for her family.
Min Ah Mah!
Chris After living with Min and helping raise her for years, Ah Mah now stays with Min’s aunt and helps care for her three youngest grandchildren, aged 4, 6 and 11.
Min … is sick
Chris Yeah, I see the thing on her forehead.
Min Yeah, she has a fever. That’s my grandmother.
Ah Mah Boy, go upstairs, sleep.
Chris Go upstairs sleep. Leave us alone! This is adult stuff.
Min All 3 of them have fallen sick.
Ah Mah Aiyoh. Small Aunt has brought Ah Zeph to tuition.
Min Ah Mah, this is Teacher. And this is a friend.
Ryan Hello Aunty.
Chris Hi Aunty.
Min He bought bananas for you.
Chris Today the youngest had a fever. So while her parents went to work, Ah Mah took her to the doctor.
Min No need, no need.
Chris Hi. Sick.
Ah Mah See doctor, come back. Yaya!
Min Hi, do you want to say hello to my teacher and my friend?
Chris She met us at the door. She seemed excited to show us her sewing machine and talk about what it means to her.
Min Ah Mah, teacher bought bananas for you.
Chris It’s nothing, a very small gift.
Ah Mah Thank you, thank you.
Chris You’re very welcome.
Ah Mah I don’t know talk, Chinese…
Chris Don’t worry about it.
Ah Mah Ah Min, do you want drinks?
Min Oh, do you all want any drinks? Water, or…
Chris Thankfully, Min was there to translate her grandmother’s unique blend of Mandarin, Teochew and English.
Ah Mah “I, I, I, my husband. This one big son, this one small son. This one husband.
Chris This is your husband? He’s so handsome!
Ah Mah So handsome, die already [laughs]
Chris Despite the language barrier, Ah Mah made two things clear right away: she loved her family and she was proud of her work as a seamstress.
It wasn’t just that she did beautiful work. That was obvious from the wedding gowns and other clothes she pointed out in family photos. But, as we soon learned, she was even prouder of the fact that her sewing had contributed to the family income and substantially improved its well-being. And importantly, she could do this work at home. She could keep up the childcare and housework expected of her as a wife and mother.
Ah Ma’s pride in her work was obvious almost as soon as we walked in the door. She quickly steered us to her bedroom to show us her pride and joy. The sewing machine sits just inside her bedroom door, where she can watch the grandchildren in the next room. Since it doesn’t get much use these days, it’s covered with plastic bags full of intricate cloth buttons she made in the past for cheongsam, a dress commonly worn during Chinese New Year. She gingerly moved the bags to reveal her precious old Singer, with its original wooden top and iron treadle-driven base. The treadle is that metal plate you push with your foot to run the machine. That’s how she first learned, but years ago she attached an electric motor. The result is a hybrid machine that takes advantage of both the sturdiness of the original Singer frame and the convenience of electricity.
I could barely control my excitement.
Chris Let’s hear the sewing machine first.
Ah Mah This machine… Auntie zhuang. A lot of money, zhuan, zhuan, zhuan. But it’s of no use now. It’s already very old.
Chris It’s very old right? Zhuan, zhuan, zhuan. Old, old, old.
Ah Mah More than 50 years old.
Chris 50 years old.
Ah Mah I… before I was married ah, buy this one.
Chris Before you married.
Chris I’m not a Mandarin speaker. If you are one, you know I guessed incorrectly. Ah Mah wasn’t calling the machine old. I mean, yeah, it is old. How many household appliances do you own that are more than 50 years old?
But she had been saying zuan, which means the machine earned her a lot of money during her lifetime. –
But when she first acquired it around 55 years ago, she had no training and no idea if she would be any good. Plus, she couldn’t afford it. So how did she get this beautiful, sturdy machine that made her all this money over the years?
Ah Mah I bought it first, then I learnt how to make clothes and sew from other people
Min I think she said, she bought this first, then after that she learnt. So she already had the intention to learn, but decided to buy it first.
Chris But it’s a big investment. Without knowing if you’re gonna use it.
Min Was it expensive?
Ah Mah 330.
Min It was around 300 dollars. That’s counted as expensive, right?
Chris That’s a lot of money.
Ah Mah But you pay 15 dollars a month.
Min Oh, they pay by monthly installment. 15 dollars.
Ah Mah And at that time… this machine was Singer. It was very expensive.
Chris You paid or your parents paid?
Ah Mah Oh. Yeye [Grandfather] paid
Min Yeah, paid for the… Oh my grandfather paid for it
Chris 15 dollars a month installment
Min When they were dating. And then she told my grandfather…
Ah Mah At that time I knew how to make clothes, but I didn’t take the lessons so I didn’t know how to sew. But when I was dating yeye I told him that I wanted to learn how to sew.
Min Then he said he would buy it for you?
Ah Mah No la, I told him I wanted this, so he bought it for me.
Min So when they were dating, she told my grandfather that she wanted to learn, and that’s why she asked him to buy one for her.
Chris So not her father, but your grandfather, her husband.
Min When they were dating.
Ah Mah Husband! Ya! So I told him that I wanted to learn, and I learnt for two years.
Min Learn for two years how to measure.
Ah Mah When I first went in, I didn’t know anything but after that I finished the first, second, third lessons and I finished learning everything else, so the married clothes, and the traditional costumes needed for weddings, I know how to make all of them
Min Before they got married, she learnt how to make all of this…
Chris I hate to interrupt this touching story of a lovestruck boyfriend who bought a sewing machine for his future bride. In fact, the reality is not quite that cheesy. One week before airing this episode, I sent it to Min and asked her translate some of her grandma’s comments for the transcript, which you can read on our webpage. When she heard the interview again, Min quickly emailed me to say there had been some misunderstanding that day. She says her grandma actually purchased the machine, while her boyfriend paid for her 2 years worth of lessons. Min apologized for the confusion, but I assured her it didn’t change my opinion of the couple. They were still adorable. Ah Mah showed her commitment to their future by purchasing the Singer. Her boyfriend showed his commitment to their future by paying for her courses. And she spent the next 50 years proving her commitment by becoming skilled enough to earn money through her sewing.
Chris So when you first used it, did you get paid by people? You made things for people in the neighbourhood…?
Min He said, when you first started making things for people, were you paid?
Ah Mah Have, very cheap. 1 shirt, $1.50.
Min For one shirt, 1 dollar 50 cents. So it was very cheap, she made, yeah.
Ah Mah But after many years, now I charge $70 for one set.
Min So after many years, she accumulate her skills. So one… for about 70 dollars.
Ah Mah I make cheongsam, flowers all that… those would be more expensive.
Min The flowers, the intricate things on the cheongsam. It was more expensive. But the basic shirt…
Chris Unlike some of her friends who gave up, Ah Mah continued to improve, eventually charging up to $70 per shirt. In fact, she became so good that she could use her sewing machine as a tool to give her family a better life.
Chris Compared to your friends and neighbours, were you quite… like the highest level?
Min Ah Mah, teacher asks you… at that time when you used the sewing machine to make clothes, were you the best? Among your friends, were you the best? Or were you the only one who knew how to sew?
Ah Mah They went to learn together with me, but all of them gave up halfway-
Min A lot of them gave up halfway. She’s one of the few (who didn’t)
Ah Mah I want money mah. So my daughter, my son can go school, go piano. Min ah, you tell them that Ah Mah just wants to give them a lot of money. Ah Mah no school, so Ah Mah wants to give her children school.
Min: She wanted to send her kids to education, to school, so she needed the money.
Ah Mah 4 ah. You want piano, you want anything, I can give. My husband ah, he dotes on the kids a lot. Anything they wanted, he would give. As long as they studied a lot.
Min My grandfather loved his kids a lot, so whatever they wanted to learn like piano, soccer, whatever, he would just let them go and like learn. That’s why she wanted to make more money so that they can learn.
Chris Her husband, who drove a taxi during the day and a fire engine at night when they first met, never would have earned enough to give their four children the advantages they enjoyed. Her sewing helped pay for their education, piano lessons, and more. Unfortunately, these days her arthritis and poor eyesight prevent her from sewing, so the machine sits idle.
Ah Mah Cannot already.
Chris I’m so sorry.
Ah Mah No good!
Chris I wish I could help you.
Min Very stiff, and her eyesight…
Chris Can you see me?
Ah Mah Can!
Chris After hearing her story and seeing her skills, I finally understood why Min feels such an uncanny sense of loss when she visits her grandmother and walks past the idle sewing machine. She can no longer make her Singer sing. As we said our goodbyes, we asked Min’s young cousin to take our photo.
Younger cousin 1, 2, 3 – 1, 2, 3
Min Okay, thanks.
Chris You can be a professional photographer. That’ll be your next job.
Younger cousin Just now when I take you move a bit.
Chris Very good. It’s alright, we moved a little bit. That looks great. Thank you.
Ah Mah Okay la.
Min You know she was so cute. She knew that you all will be coming so she asked my aunt to bring her to the hairdresser to cut her hair and perm her hair.
Chris Even if you have pain, you went to the hairdresser, for us!
Chris The British Museum and the BBC’s original “100 objects” project explained the wider social and political context behind many of the objects. This helped each object become a lens for looking at more complex issues in world history.
Is there more to learn from Ah Mah’s sewing machine than just the feel-good story about its history and its importance to this family? I think we can use Ah Mah’s sewing machine to tell a more complex story about home. We can use the sewing machine to question one of the most persistent and problematic ideas about home: that it’s a space distinct from work; a space of rest and recovery away from work. Many scholars trace this idea back to the industrial revolution but it continues today. But this is just a convenient fiction we tell ourselves. The physical and emotional work done in the home is often unpaid, unthanked, and unmentioned. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t work.
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild made this point through her notion of the “second shift.” This refers to the additional time women spend caring for their families, doing laundry, cooking meals, and more after returning from their day jobs. The workload is so demanding and lengthy that many feel they are clocking in again for a second shift each night when they get home. This labour done at home is work, it’s just usually unpaid domestic labor. But paid labor is often done in the home too. Writing, accounting, artistic work, investing, tech jobs – all these and more can be done at home. And many companies allow employees to work from home, saving companies money and giving employees flexibility. So can we really say the home is a space separate from work?
Let’s get back to Ah Mah’s sewing machine. It’s a perfect example of how the line between home and work can be blurred or even non-existent. The machine allowed her to uphold the idea of a woman’s place being in the home. In fact, it might even seem like the machine became an anchor keeping her close to home and separating her from the outside world. The more skilled she became and the more the family relied on her earnings, the more she became tied to the machine. But it’s more complicated than that. The sewing machine may be located in the home, but Ah Mah used it to run a small business. It let her fulfill her obligations as a wife and mother – sure, but it also involved her in a wider community of family, friends, neighbors, and strangers outside her door. The machine even enrolled Ah Mah in a national project of economic growth and development, as both a producer of clothes and a consumer of the sewing machine in the first place. Remember how she paid for it? Monthly installments of $15.
Just like the HDB flat in which it sits, the sewing machine required a long-term financial commitment to both the home and in return, to the nation, as the couple pursued the Singaporean dream of providing a better life for their children. There’s nothing quite like a mortgage and other monthly payments for pricey consumer goods to limit labor unrest and keep people working hard for the promise of a better future.
In all these ways, Ah Mah’s sewing machine was not just a tool for earning money. It was a magical machine for erasing the walls between the private world of the home and the public space outside, as the aims of the family and the nation merged.
In August 2017, I was in London for an academic conference and I decided to check out the British Museum. While exploring the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery and most famous occupant, the Rosetta Stone, I was startled to find a sewing machine.
I had just visited Min’s grandmother a few weeks before and still had sewing machines on the brain. But somehow I didn’t expect to see one here, in the museum that inspired Min’s assignment in the first place.
The machine was part of a small new exhibit called Collecting Modern Egypt. It was first purchased in 1960s Cairo, around the same time as Ah Mah’s machine. As the description made clear, the Egyptian model was yet another example of a sewing machine whose history was sewn up with culturally-specific ideas of gender, modernity, and class ambition.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The sewing machine is just one of those objects that is durable and ubiquitous, intimately connecting homes to the wider world beyond their front doors.
This episode was written and produced by me, with research help from Chan Weng Kin. Our sound engineers were Ryan Ang and Stanley Chow. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Min and her sweet grandmother for sharing their complex relationships with the sewing machine and for inviting me and Ryan to hear it whirr.
Finally, I want to thank Andrew Gordon, Professor of History at Harvard University. He kindly spoke with me via Skype about his book, a history of the sewing machine in Japan called Fabricating Consumers. Unfortunately, the recording quality was so poor we couldn’t use it. I’ve included a short summary of the conversation and his book on our webpage: tinyurl.com/homeonthedot
In fact, while producing this episode I was astonished at how much scholarship is out there on sewing machines, including Gordon’s book. I’ve included many of these links online, but let me end by highlighting the work of Lilian Chee, a professor in the Department of Architecture here at NUS. In my mind, no one demonstrates the power of the sewing machine to blur the boundary between home and work, particularly in Singapore, more eloquently than she does, both in her academic writing and her architectural essay film titled 03-Flats. You should really check it out.
We’ve included links to her work and all the other work mentioned here on our website. We also have a link to the British Museum’s Egyptian sewing machine and a link to another sewing machine in another museum: a gift from a husband to his wife on display at the National Museum of Singapore.
Thank you for listening.