The sewing Machine by Natalie Fergie
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 100 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.
Q) For the readers, can you give a summary of yourself and your debut novel The Sewing Machine?
A) 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 100 years after his grandmother’s sewing machine was made, Fred discovers a treasure trove of documents. His family history is lad 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. That’s what is on the back of the book and I think it’s perfect.
If your Mum or your Auntie or your Granny had a black Singer sewing machine, or if you like looking at old things at jumble sales and charity shops and it makes you wonder who might have owned them, this book is for you. Me? That’s a hard one. I avoided sewing at school and spent a whole term telling the teacher I had left it at home. I prefer cheese and crisps to chocolate or ice cream. I can’t sing for toffee, not even in the shower, but I can coil a sixty-metre climbing rope without thinking about it. I have a motorbike licence and I can build dry stone walls. I’ve been a shop assistant, a barmaid, a nurse and a hand-dyer of wool, cotton and linen threads. I have two grown up sons and I live near Edinburgh with my husband and a black Labrador called Boris.
Q) The novel opens in 1911, What was significant about this era for you and your inspiration behind the setting?
A) I collect old sewing machines. There are currently nine vintage machines dating from 1898 to 1963 in the house, and as they arrive I try to find out as much as I can about the history of the period in which they were made. In the drawer of one of the treadles, alongside a receipt for wedding flowers (Sweet Peas) from 1931, I found a Singer catalogue from 1929, in which all the models for the time were listed. I started to research each one in turn and when I came to the 99k, I saw that it was first produced in 1911. When I did an internet search for “Singer Factory 1911”, the first page on google was full of websites about the strike, and that was the start of the story. It was a time before women had the vote, a time where many were in private service as housemaids and a time when all women, whether they worked in factories or in shops, were paid far less than men for doing the same job. It was a different world. The book is set in Clydebank, where the Singer factory was, and in Edinburgh and Leith. I live just a dozen miles from Edinburgh so it was easy to get into the city and walk around all the locations.
Q) Within the novel we learn Jean is to join the mass strike at the Singer sewing factory. With hints of feminism and inspirational women of the past. I have to ask who are your favourite feminists and inspirational women?
A) If we are talking about famous women, then Victoria Wood is definitely on the list. She made me laugh in Dinner Ladies and Acorn Antiques, and made me cry on Comic Relief, and again when she died. She did the Moonwalk, and spoke in a documentary about how she was raising money and awareness so that women didn’t have to sit in a breast cancer clinic on a horrid plastic chair, alone. That horrid plastic chair image really hit home, and the next year I did the Moonwalk too, with one of my friends. We weren’t very fit and we got blisters and could barely walk down a flight of stairs for a week afterwards. But it wasn’t anything like as hard as sitting on a plastic chair. For me though, the most inspiring women are the ones I know in real life. Many of them have dealt with personal challenges with grace and honesty. I think it’s important to understand that some people are talkers (online or in person) and others are more private. None of us have lives which are totally straightforward or Instagram-perfect. I’m sure that we all have friends or colleagues who will never know how much they have quietly contributed to our lives, simply by being there.
Q) The novel spans four generations, was important to you to have characters with exceptional depth and detail?
A) Yes, although I have painted each character’s appearance with a light brush. We know that Alf is tall, that Donald has muscular arms from working in the Foundry and that Kathleen has long hair, worn in a twist at the back of her neck. However, I quite deliberately kept the details to a minimum. I want the reader to create Jean and Fred and Eva from how they behave or speak rather than from a long-winded physical description from me! I think of the characters as my friends now. I chose the locations carefully, and let my friends sort of settle in. Sometimes they are add odds with their environment and on other occasions this dissonance brings them alive. We’ve all been to car boot sales on a cold day, sticking our hands in our pockets because we left our gloves at home. Most of us have strong likes and dislikes; Marmite, porridge, jam roly poly pudding, carrot cake. I allowed my friends to reveal themselves in other ways instead of just describing their ears or their freckles.
Q) Your debut novel The Sewing Machine was published by Unbound on 17th April this year. So I have to ask, are you working on a new writing project? Can we have any hints?
A) I have a notebook labelled Book Two. The buying of the notebook is a statement of intent, I suppose. And there’s a file on the computer which is called Book Two Research. And I have the kernel of an idea for Book Three (but no notebook). I can’t give you more than that yet, I’m afraid.
*Huge thanks to Natalie for taking part in this Q&A on my blog. I wish you much success with the release of your novel.
Photo Credit: Alison Gibson
Instagram: www.instagram.com/theyarnyard (lots of photos of locations and objects from the novel)
Twitter: www.twitter.com/theyarnyard @Theyarnyard
amazon link https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06XWWM7TG/ref=sr_1_cc_1
(It can be ordered from amazon, or from any UK bookshop. It may not be on the shelf, but it can be ordered.)