13 January 2011

Our throw away culture

I am blogging today from The Gambia in west africa. I walked through a craft market on route to the internet cafe, and was struck by the sight of around 7 tailors sitting sewing in the sunshine on Singer pedal operated machines. It harks back to an era when electricity was unheard of, yet hear in 21st century Africa they still sew on machines that are 100 years old. It's made me think however that these fabulous machines are still working and doing the job for which they were created. How many of the modern tools we use today will be around in 100 years? Even my lovely new sewing machines will not stand the test of time. The tailors here in the gambia can keep sewing even when there is a power cut, the mechanics of the machines are simple and with regular cleaning and servicing would probably survive another 100 years!

I had a pedal sewing machine whilst training at the welsh college of music and drama, and yet despite it serving me well when i had a power cut the night before a deadline, i couldn't wait to upgrade to a shiny new electronic machine. I am still, to this day seduced by delicious shiny new sewing machines with more whistles and bells than my previous machine. I am not alone in this, our society as a whole worships at the altar all things new. Manufacturers don't make things to last, because we don't really want them to last, we move onto something new long before the product becomes unusable.

So do i think that you garments being made on these old singers are as good as any made on a modern machine? Sadly the singers have only a straight stitch, so the seams are either left unfinished or pinked or have seam binding attached. This makes them unlikely to withstand the rigours of modern washing. They aren't suitable either for stitching modern fabrics like jersey or lycra which requires a stretch stitch.

Although the sight of the singers being pedalled in the sunshine is deeply nostalgic, I will not be returning home and swapping all my new janomes and pfaffs, and elnas for vintage singers- i do like all the fabulous advancements that have been made since the pedal singer, and could not do my job without them. I will however keep using them until they can no longer be repaired, and not trade in for a shiny new version in a year or so.

My morning was spent leisurely reading Making magazine- a luxury i rarely have with my busy schedule back home. Sewing in the west is seen as a primarily female occupation. The tailors working outside in the sunshine are all men, and in fact the tailoring industry in the uk is still very male dominated, so i wonder how come it seems that sewing is viewed as such a female pastime? Maybe it is still a remanant of the victorians where nice ladies sewed purely decorative objects like samplers, whilst only men cut patterns and produced the functional things. -Interesting thought... i will think on this some more.

Back to the beach for me- this time my reading is a crime book, another rare treat...


  1. what an interesting piece. I think the "throw away" culture is justified by the speed in which technological improvements come around these days and the fact that the whole capitalistic system relies on us "upgrading", "changing" our stuff. However, these days, I am actually trying to slow down that process. Not only for eco reasons (why create more trash), a kind of a moral bothering (as in how can I throw this away when there is people who can't afford even one of this which is still in perfect state!) but also because I think now I rather buy a bit more expensive but lasting items, than the cheaper "made to last a few months" kinda thing. And I even crave for older machines that 60 years later still work... just as pieces of technology if you want.
    Gambia mas be an interesting place to be, right?
    Good luck with your books!

  2. Ohh it seems like you're having such a great time! You deserve it ;) Throw away culture does make me sad but nowadays it's usually cheaper to buy new than to repair old. And like Florcita says technology advances so fast it pushes us to upgrade, buy new and better. I know I'm at fault and it doesn't make me proud but there it goes. I often crave a easier simple way of like in which we cherish what we have and make it last but...not sure if we ever get that again.