The Sewing Machine

Natalie Fergie

Unbound, £9.99

THE growth of crowdfunding may have seemed like a modern take on vanity publishing at first (although it’s as old as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary), but it is bringing a great deal of talent to light which might otherwise have remained undiscovered. There’s nothing second-rate about The Sewing Machine, which would fit comfortably into the catalogues of any major publisher.

Natalie Fergie is a professional textiles buff who owns numerous sewing machines and was inspired to write this multi-generational saga by the purchase of a century-old machine manufactured at the Singer factory in Clydebank. Appropriately, given the subject matter, it consists of four interwoven threads, the earliest of which begins in 1911 at that very factory, where 17-year-old Jean Ferrier works testing sewing machines. A strike is brewing, and Jean’s fiance, Donald Cameron, is strongly in favour of bringing the workers out. Her support for industrial action, however, leads to her father throwing her out of the house, so she and Donald make a new start in Leith, but not before Jean, on her final day at work, hides a message inside one of the machines.

This sewing machine, it turns out, is destined to pass messages between generations. In Fountainbridge in 1954, Connie Baxter gets a job as a seamstress in the sewing room of the Royal Infirmary. Her mother, Kathleen, has been using her Singer for years to do little jobs for friends, all of which she records in notebooks. In the wake of her husband Alf’s death, Kathleen reaches the point in her grieving process when she can bring herself to cut up Alf’s clothes to reuse them. As she does so, Kathleen starts to open up to Connie about her past.

In 2016, again in Edinburgh, we find Fred, whose grandfather has just died and left him his flat, making him a first-time homeowner at 35. Laid off by his employers and dumped by his upwardly-mobile girlfriend, he realises that his high-flying days in London are behind him and that this community will be his home from now on. One of the items he has inherited is his grandma’s old sewing machine, which he fills his jobless hours learning how to use, and which contains, in a compartment, his grandma’s old sewing notebooks.

Each time we stop off in an era, enough is revealed to illuminate what has gone before and to entice us to know more, and a final strand, set in 1980, is the link that finally ties it all together – along with an old envelope which we’ve been teased about since the opening chapter. Without it seeming forced or contrived, Fergie reflects the social attitudes of each generation she focuses on, and this venerable warhorse of a sewing machine witnesses the struggles that, from the factory worker of 1911 to the blogger of 2016, are essentially the same: work, bereavement, identity and the uncovering of family secrets. In a way that befits the subject matter, Fergie adroitly weaves it all together in a tapestry of strong characters and accomplished writing.