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The woman and her sewing machine – portrait of Indian middle class mother in 70s-80s

The Singer sewing machine is a cultural symbol from a bygone era. Every woman or man has their own memory and story around the Singer machine. My mom’s story begins when at the age of 11 she lost her mother. The sound of her mother working on the singer sewing machine till late night, when the kids were asleep, was one of the strongest memories she had left behind for my mother to hold on to.

When my parents were newly married and setting up their new home, mom wanted to relive her mother’s memory and so wished to buy a singer machine of her own. Back then all the finances at my parents house were being remote controlled by my paternal grand parents, although they didn’t stay with us. So the permission to buy a sewing machine had to be obtained from my grandfather who insisted on buying a steel almira instead of sewing machine. My grandmother objected, she was of the opinion that every woman should have a sewing machine. So with her mother in law on her side, my mom brought home the lost memories of her dead mother, a Singer sewing machine.

But the machine just came home and rested at a nice place without much use for quite sometime. Mom didn’t take up tailoring seriously until the day my grandmother reprimanded her for wasting the machine, not being proactive in learning to stitch and sew, and not being productive in her free time.

My grandmother was a very enterprising woman and she expected everybody to be active and resourceful like her. From what I remember of her, she was less likely to judge her daughters and daughters-in-laws for not cooking and cleaning enough than for not reading, writing or being intellectually and creatively productive enough.

So my mother took it up as a challenge and attempted to make a frock for me although she has never learned tailoring. She would put one of my readymade frocks on a piece of cloth, cut it along the out lines and a bit of innovation and stich them. That’s how she made the first frock for me. Our neighbour’s daughter, who was almost the same as my age, used to get all her dresses stitched from Kolkata’s posh market, New Market. Mom would often borrow her dresses to learn the design and style and make my similar dresses for me.

Soon, stitching became one of her strongest passion and hobby. When we grew up mom became comparatively free from child care so she joined a dress designing, embroidery and cutting tailoring class at a small time vocational training institute. Her passion for tailoring only grew from here. From our dresses to her blouse, petticoat to the curtains, pillow covers, table cloth mom was always stitching something. Just like she in her childhood, I too would always sleep at night to the whirling sound of my mom still working on the machine.

She mainly stitched for hobby but she also did some tailoring on order, she made designer embroidered suits and lehengas on order which people wore in their family weddings. She would often visit Sarojini Nagar and buy dress designing stuff like lace, ribbons, buttons, small mirrors and a whole lot of stuff I don’t even know the name of.

I started wearing dresses stitched by mom when I was one, and it was not until I was out of college that I wore anything else. My friends found it odd that I was still wearing dresses made at home, and not the popular branded clothes, but for me every year during Durga Puja, the best dress would be the one made by mom.

The Singer sewing machine was my mother’s constant companion. She derived a great amount of self-confidence, empowerment and identity from the machine.

Eventually of course we moved to the Westsides and Ws of the world, shopping moved from middle class Sarojini Nagar to the upper class shopping malls and mom moved from stitching to writing.

The sewing machine started gathering dust as it was now replaced by the computer.

Recently, mom passed on the legacy to my sister’s nanad (sister in law), a young student of Home Science. These photos were taken on the day we picked up the machine from the dumps and after a bit of cleaning my sister carried it to Dehradun.

It still remains one of our favourite possession and I hope someday when my niece would grow up she’d be able to trace her grandmother and great grandmother’s memories from this machine.

4 thoughts on “The woman and her sewing machine – portrait of Indian middle class mother in 70s-80s

  1. I had seen this through one of your posts on Facebook, liked it instantly. But didn’t have enough time to read through the long post. Later on Riya told me about it and of course she added a personal touch to this story. I was amazed and elated to have received a narration of this kind which is very much part of our own household and at the same time goes beyond to touch the lives of several women.
    I would like to complement you for having portrayed this account of Ma’s life and I share your sentiment that the sewing machine which is now with Soni and making very good use, is perhaps her most valuable and treasured possession. The entire narration is quite vivid and heartening. Thank you.

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