Steampunk Singer and Contemporary Textile Industry ‘Ustopias’

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (

Singer 160™ – Limited Edition Machine (

‘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 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.

The Best of Both Worlds: International Collaborations in Craft & Design

Readers (and writers) of Journal of Modern Craft in Delhi are welcome to attend this public forum.

The Best of Both Worlds: International Collaborations in Craft & Design
Saturday 22 October 2011 5-7pm
National Institute of Fashion Technology amphitheatre Green Park, New Delhi, India (see map)

Trent Jansen 'Sign stool' from reused road signs (limited edition)‘The Best of Both Worlds’ considers the increasing number of transnational partnerships being forged between craft and design. How can we combine the free-wheeling possibilities of modern capitalist world with the grounded meaning of cultural traditions?

Typically, a designer from a wealthy Western country seeks to produce something handmade using skills of a traditional artisan. While this does seem to reinforce global inequalities, it is often the best alternative for those seeking to sustain their craft. So how can designers and artisans work together in product development as a fair partnership? How can designers work with artisans in a way that respects their unique contribution? What is the role for Indian designers in these new transnational supply chains?

This forum is part of Sangam: The Australia India Design Platform, which is a three year program of events designed to promote creative design partnerships between Australia and India. It includes roundtables, forums and workshops in Melbourne and Delhi, Sydney and Ahmedabad, and Brisbane and Bangalore. To support partnerships, a code of practice for creative collaborations is being developed.

Come join in a public forum to consider the opportunities for craft and design through international partnerships. Hear from leading innovative designers and craftspersons in Australia and India, including Trent Jansen, Ishan Khosla, Matthew Butler and Sandra Bowkett. Consider the role of ethical consumerism in generating opportunities in craft, fashion, design and social justice.

Sangam (‘confluence’) is a strategic initiative of the Visual Arts Board (Australia Council) and supported by the Australia India Institute. It is located in the Ethical Design Laboratory, a research area of RMIT Centre for Design. Visit for more information and register for updates.

Review of ‘The Object Of Labor: Art, Cloth & Cultural Production’

By Jasleen Dhamija

'The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production' ed Joan Livingstone and John Ploof, School of Art Institute, Chicago Press 2007

The Object of Labor is a publication, which brings out the very quintessential elements of creativity in a very wide sense, not only for those who create, but also those who use it creatively. My initial response to the publication was of dismay at the rather over-crowded cover, with a collage of unattractive images. The main title also struck me also as incongruous. In fact, neither the cover design nor the title does justice to the wide and excellent coverage offered by this publication.

The Indian theory of aesthetics is based on the rasas, the very essence of emotions and of creativity. The Rasik or Rasika, the one who derives the very essence of pleasure, is an essential part of the process of the act of creation. Thus art is expressive of the holistic view of life and the editors say so correctly. “Originating with the history of survival, cloth manufacture and its accompanying division of labor, expands to impact all spheres of culture and power” and go on to say “crossing between arenas of function, craft, art, and ritual, the meaning of cloth from its most banal to its most splendid form affects our daily lives and welfare in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, invention and technology, commerce and work”.

The book comprises of a range of articles written by people with varied backgrounds from folklorists, interdisciplinary artists, writers and curators, cultural activists, anthropologists, designers, media specialists, educationalists and community workers. In addition there are practicing artists, whose sensitive creative expressions are excellently reproduced. The most evocative is the work of Anne Wilson, entitled “Damask”. This is a sensitively created embroidery on the textured damask fabric with the use of hair. Darrel Morris “I mean this” is an extraordinary expression of contemporary art forms using embroidered forms and textures to make powerful statements. The two expressions are so distinct and yet each appeals to our sensibility.

The other interesting contribution is by practicing artists and researchers, who combine the knowledge of the practice and the years of research on the subject as in the case of Janis Jefferies and her article “Laboured Cloth: Translation of Hybridity in Contemporary Art”

The contributors span many cultures as does the location of the study. The article on Sujani of Bihar is written by a team of writers, including Viji Srinivasan, an Indian socio-economist and activist, Laila Tyabji, a designer and organisor of the crafts sector, who heads one of the most important NGOs of crafts in India, Skye Morrison, a Canadian folklorist, designer, educator and curator and Dorothy Caldwell, a texture artist, teacher and curator, whose work incorporates North American Stitching. It is an interesting study of the work of women who were initiated in this work by Viji, as a means of income generation. Viji used the Sujani tradition, which belonged to Dharbhanga, a culturally rich area of Bihar, which has very strong Maithali cultural traditions. They took inspiration from the Maithali tradition, but the women carried this tradition into the contemporary world interpreting their lives creatively.

Amazwi Albesifazane echoes the voices of women gathered together in an embroidery project. Peer groupings of women work together and speak of the hidden and repressed aspects of personal, cultural, and political history. This difficult process is facilitated by trained coordinators drawn from the geographic area of operation for whom the conditions and the culture is familiar. This historical information is written in the original indigenous language, then translated into creative work and is presented by Andries Botha, a sculptor and cultural activist.

Sadie Plant’s “Ada Lovelace and the Loom of Life” is a superb piece of research and writing, which looks at the origin of weaving and brings us to an appreciation of jacquard loom weaving being the origins of the computer, which has revolutionised the world today. It comes as a surprise that in the mid nineteenth century it was a woman Lady Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who was a mathematician and who made an extraordinary contribution along with Charles Babbage, who created the first fully automatic calculating machine. The publication is full of such gems of information.

The consistent theme of this books is the quest to retain identity following major upheaval. This preoccupation is not limited to those disposed and driven away from their original habitat, but also those whose land is always changing. Immigrants are very distinct from nomads. The immigrants initially negate their traditions, while nomads surround themselves with expressions of their cultural traditions, so as to demarcate their own space. The very fact that amongst the nomads of Iran the mobile tent has the same name as the women’s outer cover, the chador, indicates the importance of defining their own space with the use of a fabric.

This publication touches upon a number of subjects and is a pleasure to own. Every time one opens its pages some new insights enliven the mind.

Jasleen Dhamija is an Indian craft writer and author of Living Tradition of Iran’s Crafts, Handwoven Fabrics of India, The Woven Silks of India and Indian Folk Arts and Crafts