I need to give you a bit of preamble to explain how I heard about this museum first of all. I’ve been a member of the V&A (Victoria and Albert museum of decorative arts in London)…bear with me…since the early part of last year [so I could keep going to the McQueen exhibition but that’s a whole other story!] One of the benefits that goes with membership, along with unlimited visits to temporary exhibitions, is the chance to attend talks by speakers in the Lecture Theatre and external visits to places of interest. These are many and varied and some are of more interest to me than others-the best I’ve been to was an ‘in conversation’ with milliner, Philip Treacy, totally fascinating and engrossing. Anyway, the new list of upcoming events was sent out and it featured a visit to the London sewing machine museum-who knew such a place existed? I didn’t! I managed to get myself a ticket (easier said than done because the website went down-demand for tickets was high LOL) so I was all set.
The museum is in Tooting Bec, south London and very easy to find, Tooting Bec tube station (Northern Line) is only a couple of hundred yards away.
We were greeted by Joe and Lauren who I can’t fault for their knowledge and enthusiasm. The cramped entrance area is filled with extraordinary machines, including the biggest sewing machine I’ve ever seen, it was about 6′ long and HUGE, they used it for making ships sails apparently.
Once everyone had arrived Lauren and Joe took us upstairs where an absolute Aladdin’s cave awaited! [I should point out there’s no lift so anyone unable to manage stairs would find it difficult, or impossible]
I’ve never seen so many different machines for different purposes! Basically, if it needs sewing together then there’s a sewing machine to do it. As well as clothing they sewed gloves, shoes, corsets, handbags, boot-patchers, buttonholes, leather and fur. There were 4-needle machines for sewing corsets, blind stitch machines for curtains and hemming, waistbanders, early zigzag machines and cornelly embroidery machines (fiendishly difficult to operate by all accounts…like the others looked really simple, not!)
One of the things that struck me was just how beautiful many of the machines were. They were so ornate in their decoration, lovely objects as well as functional, not like today’s homogenised offerings. Many featured Mother of Pearl or even 24ct gold.
The first room contains the industrial machines, along with an old workshop left much as it would have been since it was last used.
Space is cramped in this area and we were a reasonably large group but we were free to look, and touch, for as long as we wanted. Many of the machines still work to one degree or another and Joe was able to demonstrate several of them for us.
There were also two small side rooms which contained all sorts of fascinating bits and bobs, like old pattern books and patterns, a display of needles, masses of instruction manuals for soooo many different machines
Once we’d finished in this room Lauren took us through to a second, larger, room which contained lots of domestic machines as well as the gems of the collection and a recreation of the original shop front.
Lauren’s enthusiasm for the telling us all about the machinery in this room was infectious and her interest in her subject was clear, she told us how Ray Rushton was a hoarder, an ‘accumulator’ of ‘stuff’ so the room also contains the last licensed barrel organ in London (we had a go, no monkey though) Another interesting fact is that Ray supplied over 3500 sewing machines to go in the shop windows of the All Saints clothing brand, as well as the machine used in episodes of Downton Abbey. Queen Victoria’s sewing machine from 1865 is here (she never actually used it, a Nanny did for many many years) it still has all it accessories and, intriguingly works left to right, not front to back.
The museum also contains the rarest sewing machine in the world, one of only two known to still be in existence. It’s wooden and dates from somewhere between 1829 and 1839, long before Isaac Singer patented his machine design.
There’s a fascinating story attached to it as well, having been discovered in a store room in Argentina! incredible that it survived at all because it doesn’t look much like sewing machines as we know them and could have been dismissed as something else less important.
The foot pedals on the treadle machines were lovely too.
So that’s a very brief idea of what this enthralling little museum contains. Clearly it’s rather specialist but if you love sewing, have been doing it for as long as I have and if you don’t live a ridiculous distance away then it’s well worth a visit. This was the first time the V&A had organised a visit and I’d urge them to repeat it before too long, We were made very welcome by Lauren and Joe (who I feel I must point out were very young -compared to most of the group-and not doddery 90 year-olds as you might expect!)
As I’ve mentioned earlier, the museum has limited openings but it’s regularly open on the first Saturday of the month. It’s free to enter but they welcome donations to their favourite charities. The Sewing superstore [another fabulous selection of fabric/haberdashery/machines etc] is just along the road and we were treated to refreshments in here afterwards before we all wended our way home. Judging by the reactions of a number of people I chatted to we’d all thoroughly enjoyed our visit.
As ever, I’ve not received any payment or inducements to write this-I bought my own ticket! I just think that with the resurgence of interest in sewing and dressmaking there are probably many of you out there who, like me, didn’t know the museum existed and would be interested in visiting. If you do, I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and if I’ve publicised it a little more then that’s good.
You can find out more about it here