Nina’s Sewing Machine.

Я не знаю про предмети, але в мене було дитинство, я його добре пам’ятаю.
(I don’t know about objects, but I did have a childhood, I remember it dearly).

чому це спадає на думку?
(why does that come to mind ?)

бо в мене був такий.
(because I got to have one).

My grandmother glanced back at me through the screen monitor. The past hour settling in her aching joints as she shifted in her house robe. She told me about the life of a female engineer in the Soviet Union, she told me of national symbols, she told me of storks. I try to ask her about objects of importance, she keeps replying family. Because family, for her, came to be a prized possession, not many had the privilege to belong or to be part of a bustling household. Many lives were lost around her. So childhood, motherly love, came to be the most important possession she held.

I was getting lost. I asked her - how would you hold that in your hands?

I can’t, she replied, we didn’t have much, but I loved to peek at my grandmother’s sewing machine, it was the only thing we knew was her’s.

Great-great-grandmother Nina’s sewing machine was a legend in my family. As far as an ordinary object could be a legend to us anyway. I have never seen it and the story lives off of whispers who did. A heavy thing - ancient, grisly, clacking.

We worked through photographs to determine the model, and came to settle on an early 20th century table top Singer machine.

The singer style treadle sewing machine (fig. 1) was mass produced and affordable in the early 20th century. It had a hefty pedal mechanism and a thick overarching neck which spanned to the left, encasing a removable needle. My grandmother remembers the manual wheel squeaking slightly as the needle arm clacked up and down. It might have had golden details, and the body was painted in black. It only sewed straight, did not have removable bobbins, and was appropriately heavy due to the metal body. These models became available in Europe when the Singer company opened a manufacturing plant in Glasgow. They became extremely popular, and travelled to Ukraine as a result of economic relations between Imperial Russia and the Prussians. In бабуся Nina’s small Ukrainian city at the time, a household with an adequately earning man could afford such a machine. Her apartment showcased it on a table by the window, surrounded by other respectable items and furniture. At the beginning of the Second World War, the exact same sewing machines were used by Jewish forced labourers in German occupied Poland. Major work factories housed these sturdy models to produce uniforms for the German army. At home in Ukraine, Nina used the machine to hem a KGB uniform for her husband before he left for the front.

Before that time, Nina’s machine stitched the torn trousers of neighbourhood children, made dresses for her daughters, and hemmed dainty curtains for her neighbours, which were delivered with an extra helping of baked goods and well wishes.

In Autumn of 1939, German troops closed in on Nina’s small city. As a wife of a KGB agent, her relations with the Nazis would have ended promptly with a firing squad.

A day before the Nazi arrival, her neighbour, who relished her generosity and creative hands, confessed that he was a German informant who was aware of the impending attack. He gave the warning as a return of kindness to Nina, who was then firmly advised to collect the essentials and hide within the next outbound milk delivery truck. All of her belongings in the apartment were left to the neighbour, save for the sewing machine, which her girls helped carry and hide in milk crates. Her survival during the rest of the war relied on the sewing device, earning food and coins from tailoring. Until the end of her life, the machine stood proudly by a window in a rickety cottage on the outskirts of a village. The device was a survival companion, and became a symbol of female strength, kindness, and perseverance. It held a sentimental reminder of the bleak times that Nina endured, whose generous nature and strong will gave my grandmother the childhood she relished. The sewing machine became a hero by association , and was symbolically passed down through generations of women on my mother’s side, until it was unceremoniously stolen in my early childhood.

що б ти зробивa? времена важкі.
(Well what would you do? Times are tough.)

I was at first struck by my grandmother’s melancholic apathy towards this description of the precious item, so resolute in losing such a revered object. But within the lives of my ancestors, constant relocation and Communist mindsets allowed for such immateriality. They were a response to the shifting tides of “the business of the everyday”, reminders that things are abandoned all the time, and there are always nearly identical copies waiting for us at the next residential compound. It was difficult, my grandmother often said, to feel proud or attached to things, when so much of what you grew to be proud of crumbled, Soviet paradigms shattered, objects lost or in deficit.  Nevertheless, Nina’s Singer treadle sewing machine pushed through the cracks in some way, leaving behind its material body and living as a symbolic representation of the sparks of hope that many still carried. It found its way into many of my family’s lives — my grandmother sewed, my mother hemmed shirts when she was a poor college student, she then became a textile designer. I, by the humorous universe, inherited the last name Shevchenko (which translates to the English Tailor). Although Nina’s sewing device did not carry a material presence in my family’s recent history, it lived on as a representation of a carried female tradition - a manifesto — to value even a single thread, to hold it tight — so that one day, it can be used in a device, to stitch together where we are torn. 

Fig. 1


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Rosefielde, Steven. The Illusion of Material Progress: The Analytics of Soviet Economic Growth Revisited. Soviet Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, [Taylor & Francis, Ltd., University of Glasgow], 1991, pp. 597611,

“SINGER’S SEWING MACHINE.” Scientific American, vol. 7, no. 7, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1851, pp. 49–49,

"Singer style treadle sewing machine table of the type used in Łódź Ghetto”. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,