One of the most eye-catching window displays in recent years has been the batallions of old sewing machines mustered by the All Saints clothing chain. These well-worn antiques represent the style of All Saints’ washed-out looking fashions, but the machines are also a reminder that All Saints started life in Spitalfields, the historic tailors’ and silk weavers’ part of London.
The label opened its first store an All Saints Day 1997 in Carnaby Street and their outlets now number around 75 worldwide. All of them have an industrial air, with scrubbed brick, wood and steel floors and stairs. In May 2010 their US flagship store opened at 512 Broadway with windows displaying 493 antique sewing machines. It included an old cashmere loom and 11 large Singer sewing machines from the former sail loft in Chatham dockyards, and The New York Times wrote of the store’s “scavenged-looking” mechandise.
Classic Machines, Like the Bicycle
Glistening with “japanned” black lacquer and gold decoration, there is something about these wonderful antiques that people cannot help but stop and admire. Dating from the second half of the 19th century and lasting well into the 20th century, they are classic pieces of machinery, representing manufactured goods at their most elegant. And along with the bicycle, they are probably the last piece of technology whose workings everybody actually understands.
Many were made by the Singer company, with a distinctive logo of a red letter ‘S’. Started by Isaac Singer in 1851 and still going strong, the company grew so wealthy that by 1908 it could erect the tallest building in the world – the Singer building in New York.
Machines were produced in vast quantities: by 1871, their biggest manufactory, in Clydeside, Scotland, was producing 13,000 a week, and most middle class families in Europe and America would have had one. So they are not difficult to find today. On eBay they fetch £10-100, and the site has an instructive guide to selling old sewing machines, some of which are brought back to life with a little oil and care.
Popular in Restaurants and Cafes
Machine tables with cast iron legs and a treadle to power the wheel have fetched up in many cafes and restaurants, and they can make ideal tables for two:
El Gran Café in Barcelona, a former Singer workshop, has machine tables to dine on.
Another former workshop with antique tables is Singer, at Estery 20, one of the most popular dive bars in Krakow, Poland.
At the Sweatshop Café, 13 rue Lucien Sampaix, Paris, customers can rent a machine for 6 euros an hour to make and mend their clothes.
Unwelcome by Friends of Portobello
One might expect such antiques to be appreciated in places such as the Portobello Road, the popular antiques market in London’s Notting Hill Gate. But the arrival of the shop in January 2010 with hundreds of machines glittering across ten widows and lining its interior walls, divided the locals, who objected to a “chain shop” taking over what had been an antiques arcade of 150 traders.
Robina Rose, a founder of campaigners Friends of Portobello, told the London Evening Standard: “To sell Portobello down the river means it will be gone in less than five years.”
Nevertheless people regularly stop to admire and take photos of the window displays, attesting to the aesthetic of these once-ubiquitous machines.