When I saw the sewing machine standing in my mother’s bedroom in her now abandoned house, immediately the title of a book by the Dutch writer Theo Thijssen came to mind: Nagging Nuisance. Somehow its Dutch original – Het taaie ongerief written in 1932 – has more of a poetic wring. But there it is: the mystery of language.
In it Thijssen relates the story of a life in which clothes have continuously pestered his peace of mind. Being the fatherless son of a poor mother, this in a time when most people were already not all that well off, he was often clothed in stuff that was not of the best quality or not fashionable.
Writing about the dresses given to his sisters he ponders the issue:
I am simply not able to put into words the grievances I felt against these dresses. So I don’t say a thing, just registering the fact that Hank and I were the lucky ones. Just imagine that the boys would have been given a suit, which would have made us sour… Luck has it that what we received was not dangerous: for each of us two undershirts and two pairs of knickers; nobody could see those when you would wear them.
It is one thing, however, to have a poor mother buy you new or even second hand clothes, even though they may be a pain in the ass. It is a wholly different matter when – because immediately after The War we were also poor – my mother decided not to buy clothes but to make them herself.
This is what me mum did on her Singer Machine.
When I cleared out her house I also found tons of so-called coupons – often rather expensive rests of what had originally been whole rolls of such material. Unused, they must have been lying there for decades, now mildewed musty because of leakages in the ceiling…
A thirty two page instruction booklet belonged to it, done in fine print and richly illustrated. Reading it you feel that the woman – at the time only women were sewing – would first have to school herself to become a craftsman before anything like a garment could be produced.
Page after page with instructions and with endless little numbers indicating parts or movements. Boy! The Singer Corporation was founded by Isaac Merritt as ‘I.M. Singer & Co. 1851’. In the beginning there were lots of problems with patents. However, already in 1856 they sold 2.564 machines and in 1860 a cool 12.000. Womanhood had taken its place of the stage of history, in the process putting quite a few professional tailors out of work.
My mother owned one of the no. 66 series dated in 1931. Constant updating of the apparatus seems to have been the trick of the trade, even though each machine was made to last till the end of the world.
It is a beautiful piece of equipment, though weighing a ton. Nowadays most contraptions you buy are lightweight, but then you have to save the cartons in which they are packed in case something is wrong and they have to be shipped back to the factory…
They were decorated as works of art. My mother took great care of it, only using the finest oils as prescribed. Then again, as with the seductive body of a beautiful woman, her exterior should be cherished without the thought of its skeleton. The booklet however provides a picture which also shows you her scary carcass.
Awesome it is – the Sublime hidden in her Beauty. One feels like observing a drawing by Hans Bellmer of a look-through couple in heat.
Quite sure I am that because of its artful decoration and fine exterior construction my mother was convinced that whatever she would produce with it simply could not but turn out to be a thing of great beauty.
That is why – ashamed, as if branded with a Scarlet Letter – I would hoist myself in these outfits, go to school and run the gauntlet.
This is also why, a long time ago, I felt tears welling up when I came to read Thijssen’s novel on that tough, nagging pest. And even now – knowing all too well that its title is a serious understatement of the catastrophic effects such garment experiences may have on a child’s delicate mind.