The HomeWork Machine
In this age of fast fashion, the whirring sound of a Singer may seem to belong to another era. Instead of the hum of domestic industriousness and thrift, it might be the sound of nostalgia. For my student Min, it sounds like home. In this episode I highlight a sewing machine that bound a family together for three generations, but today stands idle. We travel to hear the machine and its story, in order to understand one woman’s commitment to her family and how this machine dissolved the barrier between home and work.
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Chee, L., Lei, Y.B, & Tan, B.T. (Producers), & Lei, Y.B. (Director). (2014). 03-FLATS [Motion Picture]. Singapore: National University of Singapore & 13 Little Pictures Production. (https://www.03-flats.com/film).
Chee, L. (2017). “Unhousing sexuality: Sexuality and singlehood in Singapore’s public housing.” Sexualities at Home: Experience, Politics, Transgression, eds. B. Carnell, R. Scicliuna, B. Campkin and B. Penner. London: Bloomsbury, 35-51.
Finnane, Antonia (2016). “Cold War Sewing Machines: Production and Consumption in 1950s China and Japan.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 75(3), 755-783. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021911816000607
Gordon, Andrew. (2011). Fabricating Consumers: The Sewing Machine in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hochschild, A. R., & Machung, A. (2012). The second shift: Working parents and the revolution at home. New York: Penguin Random House.
Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality (2016, December 5). The Second Shift: Arlie Hochschild [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvzE6zYkEQY
Additional links to sewing machines
– A Love Gift from Joseph Linus to his wife @ National Museum of Singapore:
Treasured Tales: The Narratives Behind the National Museum’s Revamped Spaces. Retrieved from https://www.psd.gov.sg/challenge/lifestyle/out-of-office/treasured-tales-the-narratives-behind-the-national-museum’s-revamped-spaces
– Nefertiti Sewing Machine, Collecting Modern Egypt exhibition @ The British Museum:
Collecting modern Egypt. (2017, July 13). Retrieved from https://blog.britishmuseum.org/collecting-modern-egypt/
Summary of my interview with Andrew Gordon:
What sticks with me most from our conversation is what he alludes to in his book title, “Fabricating Consumers.” The sewing machine, a mass-produced object imported from the United States, introduced new fashions and even new ways of sewing directly into Japanese homes. But more importantly, Gordon argues that when Singer first sold sewing machines directly to customers in 1900, it helped create the modern Japanese consumer. Of course, he doesn’t mean there were no consumers before this. He means the way people bought sewing machines, on credit and with monthly instalments, meant they consumed in a different way.
“As it did the world over, the sewing machine played a role generating selling practices to reach–and indeed create–the modern consumer, … someone engaged in a world of branded goods who satisfied both needs and desires by the regular and disciplined use of credit” (p. 6). In other words, it wasn’t just what she bought, but how she paid, that made the modern Japanese consumer different from her early modern version (importantly, Gordon emphasizes in his book that much of this new consumption was done by women, thus the she and her in the previous sentence).
A few weeks after this interview, when Ah Mah said she bought her Singer with monthly instalments, I flashed back to my conversation with Gordon and imagined the sewing machine may have helped shape Singaporean consumers, too.
Incidentally, despite the fact that sewing machines are usually seen as objects used by women, Gordon and I wrapped up our conversation discussing how we both learned to sew while growing up. This theme emerged again a few weeks later when Min’s grandmother lamented that Min took no interest in sewing, but that she had taught Min’s brother to sew and bought him his first machine.