Steampunk Singer and Contemporary Textile Industry ‘Ustopias’

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (www.mysingerstory.com)

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (www.mysingerstory.com)

‘Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because in my view, each contains a latent version of the other.’

(Margaret Atwood: “The Road to Ustopia”, The Guardian, 15.10. 2011)

In 2011, to celebrate the 160 years of the company’s commercial success, Singer launched the 160™ Limited Edition Machine. The design reflects back on the years of the brand’s worldwide growth and if unaware of the image source, some of us might suspect this machine belongs among the last creations by “Jake” von Slatt of steampunkworkshop.com. Thus, a temptation arises to ask: What is Singer® trying to communicate by this Victorian retro design? And why right now – with its 160th anniversary? Wouldn’t such a nostalgic look back on the company’s famous history have been more appropriate for say the 150th anniversary?

Without a doubt, over the years of its existence, Singer® has become synonymous with home sewing,
self-sufficiency and individual creative expression. Singer machines have from the time of the patent issue for the first Singer brand machine in 1851 enabled many a woman around the world to make her fashion dreams come true for an affordable price. “Singers” have also been helping families to get by on limited resources, and, very often too, a home sewing machine would have been a source of some extra income for those able to offer their sewing skills to repair, alter or even make clothes locally.

Coming from a post-communist country, I remember how these skills were still essential for households there thirty years ago. I learned how to make my own clothes for the simple reason that to make one’s own was much cheaper than to buy them from a shop. Also, not less importantly, what was actually available from shops, would hardly ever please anyone’s eyes… With all this in mind I then recollect a story of a friend, who shortly after the fall of the communist regime, went to visit her family in the United States. At one point of her stay, she asked her hosts to advice where to buy a nice fabric that she wanted to bring back home to make a skirt. They seemed rather puzzled by her enquiry and asked with a great surprise: Why would you bother with making a skirt if you can get one for $15?

This story certainly isn’t meant to glamorize the make-do attitude rather unfortunately imposed on people by the communist regimes. Yet, I believe, it points to one of the crucial roles craft has to play in re-thinking the contemporary textile industry. No one who has ever tried to find and buy the material, made or copied the pattern for and sew a skirt, would ever expect it to cost $15.

In this sense, our lost skills make us unaware of the real cost of things and enable the ever expanding textile industry to produce garments sold at $15 whilst polluting lands and waters worldwide and employing very problematic work policies in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, China or India (and many others).

Here, Singer® comes in again. The economic report of Singer India Ltd from early 2004 announced:

New Delhi: Singer India Ltd is restructuring its business operations which would see it generating more revenues from its non-care area of consumer durables in future. As the domestic sewing machine market is stagnating due to changed consumer aspirations, Singer is now focusing on home appliances and consumer electronics while entering the industrial sewing machines business, which is expected to boom in the coming years due to the Indian garment sector…
(Economic Times, January 16, 2004)

At the same time, during the last couple of years, Singer domestic machines market in the US or the UK has been gradually growing. Craft writer Cat Rossi in her thought provoking post ‘All Sewn Up: Antique Singers and (De) Industrial Aesthetics at All Saints’ (29.1.2012) draws attention to the UK clothing brand All Saints that uses displays of vintage Singer sewing machines (mostly imported from India) across its shops as a branding signature. Rossi proposes that the philosophy of this branding strategy might aim to ‘to show off the fact that in an increasingly intangible world and service-led economy, All Saints actually make stuff, that they rely on craftsmanship and old fashioned quality manufacture.’ This then serves to ‘suggest a redundancy of the mass, industrial production in which these machines were complicit and the oft-cited advent of a new, localised, small-scale manufacture system.’

Is it possible that there was a very similar rationale behind the Singer®’s launch of the retro Singer 160™ Limited Edition Machine on the occasion of the company’s 160 years anniversary in 2011? And if so, what does this [so far] wishful trend for a shift from quantity to quality mean for the future of the textile industry?

In fact, can we really look forward to better quality clothing and more sustainable textile industry when most of us desperately lack the practical experience that would help us distinguish between the well and the poorly made and between good and poor quality material? Most importantly still: Are we ready to pay for clothes the price they are really worth? Or would we still rather own pairs and pairs of ill-fitting $15 mixed fiber jeans instead of a pair of real denim pants famous for their comfort and durability?

The decision is ours to take. Denim jeans might then once again become a symbol of freedom and revolt against the status quo.

Social practices and technical disorder in the 19th Century

Departing from whiggish grand narratives of innovation, the special issue of the Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle will analyze the social uses and processes of co-construction of technology and society.

Although historical literature has mostly produced views on the rise of new technologies, recent studies have offered new perspectives on the social uses of things and the role of technology in the everyday fashioning of social order. Inspired by the sociology of science, the SCOT programme (Social Construction of Technology), based on the study of individual items, greatly contributed to this new point of view, discussing how technologies were socially defined and constructed. This constructivist turn, which took place in the 1980s, strongly influenced French pragmatic sociology, with greater attention on actors and their agencies. In this context, technology became a new and richer instrument to understand the social and political order. New research in social science, questioning technological practices, has flourished (Gilbert Simondon, Bruno Latour…). However, it paradoxically remains underrepresented in 19th century studies, technology being appended to economic and industrial history.

Yet, the nineteenth century underwent a fast-growing spread of technological equipment, as well as faith in technology and its liberal endowment, which thus became characteristic to advanced capital societies. In addition, 19th century everyday life was dramatically changed by technological items.

Internalist studies of structures and “technological systems” (BertrandGilles) have become one way to analyze technology experienced in everyday life, through the analysis of social actors, representations, practices and negotiations. Social studies used new methodologies, such as direct or participant observation, frame and interaction analysis, or had recourse to family or life histories. Historians developed new thinking on tools and methodology implied by technological study: it supposed the taking into consideration of common people’s creativity and the ongoing tricks they employed to make their way into the crowd of goods (Michel de Certeau). In this perspective, technological items and their systems dynamically acquired identities through their uses and forms. Contrasting with the dominant perspective of possession, dominant in material culture studies until recently, consumption studies have recently analyzed the successive mutations of artefacts, from their trade to their social uses, and, extending 18th century studies on uses of technology, have underlined their marketing, retailing and publicity.

In terms of space, devices circulated between the public and domestic spheres, with that of labour. It also circulated at local or international scale, in rural areas, colonial or extra-European regions. The special issue aims at presenting new ways of writing the history of technology, between technological theories and social practices. Methodological shifts and original documentation – private and trade archives – or new approaches to classic sources for historians of technology – adverts, textbooks or patents.

Three main areas, as well as cross-sections, will be privileged:

Social practices and technologies at work

Diversions, bypassing, odd jobs and other social practices that shaped the daily uses of technologies in workshops, factories, canteens will be analyzed.

  • Invisible or discreet innovations (adaptations of machines to singular uses, diversions of normalized procedures…)
  • Technologies of order and disorder in workshops (clockworks, bells, fences and others tools for the control of behaviours)
  • Noises and smells of technology; hygienic artefacts
  • Gender and generation differentiation in the tools and machines’ -Work on the side, resistances, recoveries…

Practices of artefacts in the domestic sphere

Questions about technologies in the domestic sphere can also help to think about daily life social practices:

  • Home artefacts (sewing machines, washing machines, amateurs’ machines…)
  • Building apparatus (hygienic equipments, heating systems, lightings, safety devices…)
  • Body and medical equipments, clothing (corsets, opera hats…)…
  • Technological and scientific toys
  • Attempts for reforming daily life, in particular in utopian experiences (phalansteries, familistères…)

Techniques and narratives

Following Stephen Bann or Jonathan Crary, papers will analyze the numerous cross-sections between the arts, shows, narratives and technology.

  • Copy, reproduction… (tour à portraits, photography, oleography, Collas’ system of reduction, photosculpture, casts…)
  • Machinery of art (pantographs, cameras, photographic devices…)
  • Narrative machines (stereoscopes, magic lanterns, cinematographs…)
  • Writing and printing (writing, filing, counting, copying, duplicating…)
  • Amateurs’ artefacts (pyrography, cameras…)
  • Communication apparatuses (the telegraph, the telephone…)
  • Sound and music tools (phonographs, pianola…)…

Contributions will be sent to Manuel Charpy and François Jarrige : [email protected] and [email protected]

· February 28, 2011: deadline for proposal submission (5,000 characters max.)

· September 2011: workshop in Paris, with discussants · Publication: late 2012