THE WORK HORSE
31st August 2017
Forty three years ago in 1974, when we had been in Australia for only a few months,
we made two important purchases. Both were top of the range: one was a Pioneer stereo record player with two speakers and the second was a 'Bernina 802' sewing machine made in Switzerland. We had a kitchen table and chairs, sheets at the windows and a double mattress on the floor, and had very little money, but we considered that if we bought the best quality, they would last a lifetime; we both loved music and dancing, and the sewing machine would be used by me to sew everything a family needed sewing, so it made good sense to us. They were both very expensive, we paid off the Bernina 802 in $7 instalments for a couple of years. I have a photo of Gerald and I taken with it on the first night we brought it home, like new parents, beaming in pride and delight.
The Pioneer was eventually replaced by CD player, but it played most days for twenty six years. We gave it away to a stranger, as nobody we knew was interested in 'turntables'. It was an important part of our family history and is probably a collectors item today - and we still have boxes of records - so I regret that.
But the Bernina is another story. For thirty five years, I used it to make all my clothes, family mending and alternations, made gifts, dozens of aprons, and all the curtains, bedspreads, cushion covers, table cloths and napkins for five of our homes. In busy times, it was used daily, for hours on end, as I sewed up yards and yards of curtains. In quieter times, it was used perhaps only weekly, or monthly and when my parents came to Australia a few years after we did, my Mom and I would sit on either side of the dining room table, she with her Singer sewing machine, and me with my Bernina, the floor littered with pins and threads, sewing to our hearts content. Those were very happy times for us two, with Joshua playing beside us, or in later years at kindy or school, we would talk candidly of everything in our lives, light each other's cigarettes, roar with laughter and drink so many cups of tea that the kettle never got cold. There was always a strong loving connection, of a shared purpose, working on whatever project it was together, and the thrill of seeing the completed curtains hanging, the dress worn, or the cushion adorning a room. I loved her deeply, and those times were a gift to me - and I know to her too - sewing was a gift to me, a gift she gave me.
She taught me to sew as a when I was a little girl in Northern Rhodesia. I remember the first dress I made for my doll Patricia, I made a mistake and attached the gathered bodice to the skirt, but the raw edge landed up visible, on the wrong side. I was ten years old, but she made me unpick each tiny machine stitch, and resew it.
Not long before she died, she gave me a book my father gave her decades ago on her birthday : "Complete Dressmaking in Pictures", there is no author, but the Advisory Editor is Constance Howard, A.R.C.A., Published by Adams Press Limited, London. The fly leaf says: "All the little details of dressmaking are shown in clear, easy-to-follow pictures. Patterns of garments for all the family are included." My Dad wrote on the first page with his fountain pen in his distinctive artistic script:
"To My Darling Wife. A Happy Birthday. Tom. 17/12/53.
That book was to fuel her passion of sewing, one small book, made such a difference to her life. She attended dressmaking classes in Cape Town and was inspired and assisted by her best friend Lydia le Sueur, who was renowned for her incredible dress designing skills and made the most exquisite, elaborate wedding gowns for the wealthy, high profile women in South Africa. Aunty Lydia's sewing machine often ran all through the night, and sometimes my Mother's did too. That book was used well, and my Mom learned a great deal. I could draw her a picture of what I wanted my new dress to look like, and she could cut a pattern out of newspaper, then out of fabric, and then make it. She never made my wedding dress, but she made me the most stylish, colourful trousseau when I married in 1969. I could never sew like she could, but I did well enough, and I am so glad she taught me.
But back to the Bernina. I finally stopped using it eight years ago, after numerous attempts and many visits to the serviceman, when I could not get the tension right, and the thread kept snapping. My Dad and my Mom died in 2009 six months apart, and it moved house with us a year later, sitting untouched in a spare room. I didn't sew for several years, but I missed it; perhaps I was too sad to sew after my Mom died. But I had a pile of lovely fabrics I wanted to use, and lots of simple mending had piled up, and five years ago, Gerald bought me a new Janome machine for my birthday. It has lots of fancy features, the best one is that it automatically threads the needle: my eyesight is poor and trying to thread the Bernina had become a challenge. I went back to sewing, but never with the same passion nor frequency as I had sewn, when Mom and I sewed together.
Last month, a group of women led by Katrina Underwood launched 'Boomerang Bags, Berry"
"Boomerang Bags" is a national project which hundreds of women have been working on for months around Australia. The Berry group are led by Katrina Underwood and are determined to have Berry become a plastic bag free zone, and they are doing their bit to save the planet from strangled by plastic bags. For a year they have been making colourful fabric bags, which are distributed amongst twelve outlets in our village; instead of packing your shopping in plastic, you can use one of the Boomerang Bags and return it to the store. A fantastic concept.
At the launch I met some inspiring women who have worked so hard to get this project off the ground, and talking to one of them, Samantha Campbell, who told me that she uses a Bernina 802. My ears pricked up immediately. "An 802? How old?" I ask. "About 43 years" she says "you can't break those machines, they're made of steel and they just go and go and go, a real workhorse, and fantastic Swiss engineering!" I'm excited and almost shout "I have a Bernina 802! Do you have tension problems?" She told me that it had been a problem, but she had worked out how to fix it, and had a great Bernina repairman locally. I felt like I'd met an old friend catching up after several years and discussing what has happened to our now grown young babies. And I felt a little ashamed that I had 'given up' on my 802.
I told the story to Gerald and had a seed of an idea, that I should donate my Bernina 802 to Boomerang Bags in Berry. There were so many good reasons: Samantha has the tension problem sorted, they're short of machines, they have newcomers who don't know how to sew, and this would be such a simple machine to learn to sew on, it's unbreakable and a workhorse. My 802 could have a whole new life! Saving the planet! Making bags! Helping women learn to sew! I rang Katrina and made the offer, she was delighted, and she too had a very close relationship with her Mum, she knows about mothers and daughters, and she understood when I told her how deeply sentimental I felt about the machine, that it represented my Mom and our relationship.
A few days later, Gerald lifted the heavy red box on to the table, and I opened it for the first time in eight years, as reverently as a mother unwraps a baby. The first thing I saw were two invoices dated September 2009 from a sewing machine repair shop in Nowra, indicating that a Bernina 802 and a Singer sewing machine were to be serviced, at a cost of $85. My mother had written on the bottom of one "PICK UP ON 2ND OCTOBER". She did pick them up, and she died very unexpectedly eleven days later. I felt a shiver down my spine, and my eyes welled up.
I had forgotten about this entirely. My Mom had taken both our machines for service, mine to get the tension sorted (again) and hers because she was giving it away (she had three sewing machines) to a newly married young Canadian woman, who had just arrived in Australia, with very little. She also gave her a queen sized bed and bedding, a dining room table and chairs, a standard lamp, and a number of other things. Why? Because she was a generous, kind soul, and because on 3rd October, the day after the pickup of the machines, she was sadly moving out of the home she had shared with my Dad, and into a small unit in Nowra, where she lived for only ten days before her death. I believe she went to join my Dad who had died just six months earlier, she was broken hearted and couldn't live without him.
Tears rolled down my cheeks and I stroked that Bernina like it was her face. I felt her presence so powerfully, and knew that giving this machine to Boomerang Bags was exactly what she would have done, exactly what she would have suggested. Had she been alive, she would have met with those amazing women every fortnight, gunning her machine, making hundreds of bags. I looked at that machine with fresh eyes, and found a soft cloth and tenderly dusted her down.
We had a plaque made:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
SEWING QUEEN AND OUR MOTHER
LOVE SANDRA AND GERALD GROOM 2017
Gerald attached it with great care, and I delivered the machine the next day to Katrina at the Annual Quilt Show in Berry, who accepted it with grace and gratitude.
I saw her two days later and she told me that the service man who took "Vera" (as the Bernina 802 is now called) away to be serviced, had called her. He explained that the machine was in excellent order and very clean with minor problems, and that when he saw the plaque, he was so touched and got very teary; hence, he was waiving the $85 service fee he would normally charge. Katrina said she to teary too, hearing this story, not only for his kindness, but because Boomerang Bags were wondering how they would pay for the service fee.
So the Bernina 802, the Work Horse, the One That Cannot Be Broken, will keep on going, making good things happen, just like my darling Mother. I miss her terribly still, and this is just another demonstration of her magic and her love still making a difference in the world.
NOTE: Is it a coincidence? I just realised that the original invoices for servicing two machines from 2009 indicated a fee of $85. And the kind man who serviced the Bernina last week who waived his fee of $85.