The Sewing Machine

The Sewing Machine

by Natalie Fergie


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'A tapestry of strong characters and accomplished writing' Herald Scotland 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 a hundred 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783527489
Publisher: Unbound
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 194,423
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Natalie Fergie is a textile enthusiast, and has spent the last ten years running a one-woman dyeing business, sending parcels of unique yarn and thread all over the world. Before this she had a career in nursing. She lives near Edinburgh.

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Secrets are hidden in the fabric and creases of the old hospital. They turn up on a daily basis, but their importance is not always recognised by those who discover them.

The joinery apprentice is tired and hungry. It's been hours since he ate his packed lunch – provided by his mother every day without fail – and he just wants to get home. Unfortunately, the foreman has other ideas and has been on his case all afternoon, giving him irritating bits and pieces of work to complete which amount to very little. The last task of the day is a perfect example of this and once again it means he is working on his own. When he thinks about all the people who died in this place it makes his skin wrinkle. He was born a stone's throw away in the Maternity Pavilion, one of the first buildings to be torn down, but feels no loyalty to it. The rest of the site is being repurposed, transforming it from a grand Victorian infirmary into an upmarket lifestyle location stuffed with photogenic cafés and shops, and with apartments he will never be able to afford without a serious win on the lottery. The long medical wards overlooking the Meadows are being converted into flats, and glass-walled towers infill the spaces where once there were closely-mown lawns or, more recently, semi-permanent Portakabins for Clinical Chemistry and Medical Physics.

On Lauriston Place the stone buildings of the Surgical Hospital are empty. The blind-windowed turrets, which used to be home to bedpan washers and baths, are still infested with silverfish. Here, the planned renovations have barely started and the black-and-white chequered corridors are almost silent, no longer trafficked by trolleys and wheelchairs and the occasional high-tech bed with bleeping alarms and flurries of anxiety. The aromatic blend of morning porridge, disinfectant and visitors' flowers has been replaced by plaster dust, and essence of decaying pigeon.

In the former Orthopaedic ward, the smell is of old timber as the fittings are removed. The apprentice has been told to dismantle the small walk-in cupboard which once housed the ward telephone. It doesn't seem like a joinery job to him – it's more like demolition – but he doesn't question the instruction. One of the first things he learned in this trade, before anyone even showed him how to use a chisel, is that there is no merit in being a troublemaker.

On the soundproofed wall of the booth is a printed card, barely held in place by amber Sellotape.

FIRE 3333


He shivers at this brutal reminder of mortality.

Just below chest height is an empty shelf, strung with disconnected telecoms cabling. He bashes the wood from below with his fist. More dust. He should be wearing a regulation face mask but it's nearly knocking-off time and he can't be bothered to go and get a fresh one. He puts the curved claws of his hammer into a gap in the simple frame, which has held the shelf up for fifty years, and holds his breath as he levers it downwards.

The tongue-and-groove panelling creaks under his effort and then comes away suddenly, forcing him to take a step backward to evade the swords of splintering timber. He waits for any small, furry creatures to scurry away in search of a fresh hiding place. Goodness knows how the mice survive here now, he thinks. It's not as though there's any food for them.

He nudges the pile of debris with a steel toe-capped boot. Nothing. Mummified rodents are almost worse than live ones, but he wants to be sure and gives the mess one last scattering kick before he bends over to investigate properly. At the bottom of the heap is a Manila envelope. He picks it up and tries to read the address but the strip lights in the poorly lit corridor are broken and it's impossible to make the words out. He abandons his half-completed task and opens the door opposite, marked Doctor's Office.

Like the rest of the hospital, the room seems to be inhabited by new life and there is a rustle from the corner as he walks in. The tall windows are festooned with cobwebs and one of the blackout blinds is falling off its roller. He holds the envelope up to the compromised sunlight and wipes the green stamp carefully with his thumb. Twelve pence. He wonders how long ago the postage for a letter was twelve pence, and peers again at the address, trying to decipher the handwriting.

As he stands there he hears the main ward door open, and he stiffens as the foreman shouts to ask if he is finished yet. He instinctively puts his hand in front of his mouth to muffle his reply and conceal his rule-breaking, but decides not to respond. The last thing he needs is a health and safety lecture. He listens until he's sure he is alone, and then pulls out a chair and sits down at one of the desks. He sets the envelope on the surface in front of him and starts to go through the drawers, but they yield nothing more than blank sheets of paper and dried-up ballpoint pens. Disappointed, he lifts the handset of a push-button telephone and sits up straight.

'Yes, this is the doctor speaking.'

And then he remembers his meeting with the careers advisor at school. He replaces the receiver carefully. 'In your dreams, pal. No chance of that,' he says.

He gets up from his seat to have a closer look at the cabinetry and the abandoned equipment. The X-ray viewer is a familiar feature of TV dramas and he walks over to investigate, flipping the switch beside it. There is a loud buzz and it flickers into life. He cannot turn it off fast enough. On the blackboard beside the door, someone has written

GOODBYE 1st MAY 2003

in white chalk. He pulls out his phone and takes a photograph of the message to show to his mum.

The envelope is still lying on the desk and he picks it up and shakes the dust off it before stashing it in one of the many pockets in his work trousers. After a final look around the room, he heads out of the ward, back along the chessboard corridor to the exit, and out into fresh air. He leaves his hammer behind, certain that he'll be back on Monday to finish the job.

It's not until he is sitting on the top deck of the bus that he remembers his find. It had been drummed into everyone on their first day at the hospital that all such items must be handed in at the Site Office. As he gets off the bus near his girlfriend's flat, he sees her and shouts her name. She looks up and smiles. The red pillar box is six paces away and with barely a pause he pulls the letter out of his pocket and posts it, before running to meet her and wrapping her in his arms.

It's Friday night and the weekend is already looking good.



21 March 1911

Singer Factory, Clydebank

'There is going to be a strike!'

Jean heard the words as they flowed around her, nudging at the edges of her attention. She tried to put them aside. From across the workroom, the foreman watched her. Every so often he took the pencil stub from behind his ear – an action out of kilter with his recent promotion – and made a mark in his new notebook. Until a few weeks ago he had been one of them, and she wondered if he had realised how much things would change when he took on the new job.

The long workspace resembled a schoolroom for a hundred and twenty pupils with individual tables arranged in groups of eight or ten. No one knew why it was called the Testing Flat, any more than they knew the reason why the needle- making room was called the Needle Flat. It had always been that way.

To many of the women in the workshop, the foreman was still the little boy with the sticking-out ears who once lived at the poorest end of town. He was the child to whom they had given thick slices of bread when they saw him playing with their sons in the street, the lad who always smelled of stale pee. They weren't bothered in the slightest about his new position, but he wasn't part of their group anymore.

He cleared his throat and spoke decisively and formally, as he had been instructed. 'Can you not test this machine, Miss Ferrier? Is there a problem?'

Jean resisted the need to push her shoulder blades down and together, to stretch her neck and ease the stiffness of four hours sitting at the bench. She knew, because she had been counting, that this was the seventh machine that morning that had needed more than a twist of the tension screw to the right or left by way of final adjustment, and she speculated whether they were being given to her on purpose.

She didn't waste time looking up but kept her eyes on the machine. 'It's the needle; I just need another one.'

He tapped his important new watch. 'You need to work more quickly, this is unacceptable.' Satisfied with his instruction, he walked away in search of a different victim.

The whispers continued to ruffle past her but she remained purposefully deaf to them and reached across to the toolbox she shared with the seven other women at her table. To her left, the windows reached upwards to the high ceiling. The plainness of the walls was broken only by a peripheral blast of colour from the collection of outdoor coats and bright scarves that hung in the gaps between each tall glazed rectangle.

'Definitely the needle,' she muttered to herself, and with the screwdriver in one hand and the faulty steel gripped tightly, she removed it. She closed her eyes and ran the fine metal shaft between her fingers. The steel was smooth, like a piece of spring grass just before it's chewed for the sweet sap. A tiny burr at the tip confirmed her diagnosis. She replaced it with a fresh one and checked that the bobbin had enough thread for the test. Not too much, not too little. Finally, she made the required number of stitches on the white cloth with more deliberation than usual, watching closely as the needle punched down through warp and weft, one stitch after another. She checked the stitch length and the under-seam, and when she was happy with the results, she wound the snapped-off thread around the spool pin on the top of the machine to signify the test complete.

Only then did she allow herself to listen.

The current of words was now an unruly torrent.

Frances, her neighbour at the big table for the last three years, and at eighteen years of age, her senior by just a couple of months, gave Jean a forceful nudge and nodded towards the end of the long room where a young man had appeared at the open doorway. He seemed to be looking for someone in particular as he searched the candlewick of hair braids and tightly-pinned buns before him. And then he found her.

His heavy boots drummed on the wooden boards as he strode without fear of consequence past racks of machines on the left and seated women on the right.

Everyone in the room knew Donald Cameron. At twenty-five years old he had the presence of a man of forty. He ignored the protesting foreman and strode onwards, making far more noise than was strictly necessary, until he arrived at Jean's table and leaned towards her, close enough to kiss.

'You're visiting then?' she said.

The smell of him was in every breath. The heat of his skin. The leather apron. The freshly-burned ginger hair on his arms where smelting sparks contributed daily to the snowscape of tiny scars.

'Not for long,' he replied.

She looked at him along with the eyes of the women who worked alongside her.

Rough blue canvas trousers held up with a thick leather belt, and granite-heavy boots. A sweat-stained collarless shirt covering broad shoulders, the sleeves rolled tightly to the inside for safety, twisted into a knot and tucked securely in place at the bicep. What her friends were unable to see was the penny-brown triangle on the tail of his shirt, which had been there since that day last December when he had taken her in his arms in the one-room tenement flat he rented and asked her to marry him and she had said yes, and they had spun around together so quickly she had become giddy, leaving the flat iron to scorch.

He grasped his heavy gauntlets together in one hand and she noticed again the firm, rounded muscle between forefinger and thumb, enlarged from wielding a three-pound hammer day in, day out. It was her favourite part of him. She strained to hear his voice above the noise of a trolley going past, delivering the next batch of machines.

He repeated the words the others had spoken. 'There is going to be a strike.' His confidence gave them life and purpose.


'Three women in the Polishing Flat have been moved, and the dozen who are left have been told they must complete that work as well as their own.'

'Piece-rate workers suffer again.'


'How did you hear about it?'

'Two of them came to see me. Walked up to the foundry as bold as you like.'

This was not strictly true: the women had stood at the door and hesitated at the blast and ferocity of the place, but he thought them courageous and it would do no harm to let people know of their determination, especially with that foreman lip-reading his words from across the room.

Jean was aware that those close to her were listening to every word. 'What happens next?'

He pointed at the windows. 'Look outside.'

She scraped her chair backward, not caring about the noise or the scrutiny, and looked down into the yard below. A few dozen women were already gathered and as she watched, they were joined by a ribbon of figures emerging from the stairwell. 'It's started already?'

He was close beside her. 'It has. There's a meeting after we finish. Tell your friends. Tell everyone.'

And then he marched back along the room, and was gone.

She went back to her place and took her seat in silence, feeling as though the eyes of the whole room were upon her. The department supervisor, a salaried, slicked-down man with clean fingernails who reeked of cologne and knew Jean only by the works number on her brass tally disc, came out of his glass-windowed domain and made it obvious he was watching her. It was a regular occurrence these days. She allowed him this, but when he returned to his office she finally freed Donald's instruction and sat with her hands stilled in her lap, as the words pleated around the room.

'There is a meeting tonight when we finish. Wages are being cut and the union have called a strike. Be there.'

There was a danger that the words might become unravelled and rewoven into something new after so many softly spoken passes, but anger had bred an engineered precision into the swell of vowels and consonants, and there was no confusion at all in the message. Within minutes Jean could inhale the energy around her.

The factory horn signalled the end of the day. Workers gushed down the wide stone stairs and the sounds of lathes and saws were replaced with chatter about football and children and new dresses and rent due. Jean wanted to bottle the conversations, tighten the lid, and take them home with her to feed upon later.

Outside the huge gates, they mingled in the street as the afternoon light faded, heads still thrumming from the noise of the machinery. Jean and Frances forged ahead, arm in arm, with three generations of joiners, printers, needle-makers and painters. The saltiness of graft filled the cool evening air.

Behind them the main building resembled a cake in a bakery shop window with two layers of pale stone frosting recently added to the top. The vast industrial campus was spread over more than a hundred acres. Jean had school friends and neighbours in every department and between them they turned pig iron and timber into ten thousand sewing machines every single week.

They waited.

'What do you think will happen?' Frances asked.

'Who knows?'

'What will your father say about it?'

Jean pushed a few loose strands of dark brown hair behind her ears.

'He will be for the company. He always thinks they know best.'

'And Donald?'

'My Donald thinks that every single one of us should be in the union.' There was pride in her voice.

'Must be hard, that.'

'Not for me, but it makes for an interesting Sunday. I'm surprised you can't hear them at your front door two streets away.'

They felt the crowd begin to shift and move as a group of men made their way through, tapping shoulders and parting the sea of workers. At the front a wooden crate was pushed into position and Donald vaulted onto it; he was surprisingly light-footed for a big man. He raised his arms and gathered the crowd, all talk of dinner and home silenced.


Excerpted from "The Sewing Machine"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Natalie Fergie.
Excerpted by permission of Unbound.
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