Sewing Machines – fabulous in form and function

8 July 2020

In this current time of staying and working at home, certain objects have become increasingly important to our lives. We are advised to use certain objects, for example soap, hand sanitisers and masks. These objects have become vital to how we live. 

In our homes, certain objects may have become particularly significant as their use supports our different and changed ways of living. The kettle, the washing up-liquid bottle and the tin-opener may be used more frequently and their efficiency and ease of use can make things that little more comfortable. We may find that we are revisiting and reviewing our acquaintance with certain objects: that we are increasingly reassessing their use and value. For example a range of plastic and glass packaging and containers, such as lidded plastic yoghurt pots and large plastic milk cartons, may now be readily kept, repurposed, upcycled and used again throughout the home as their value is reconsidered. We may discover an object long stored away and long overlooked that can now be used readily with greater purpose as our needs shift. As such the padded coat hanger and the Swan Brand stainless steel teapot are convenient designs that may now see greater use. Some items can be used across different contexts, for example the bulldog clip is a useful item to clasp paper together in the home office whilst being a rather handy tool to hold other things together more generally, including to help seal food packets and to nip back loose clothing and curtains. 

Interestingly the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current project ‘Pandemic Objects’, and the accompanying blog, explores ‘objects that have taken on new meaning and purpose during the coronavirus outbreak.’ Some of the objects identified include chairs, skipping ropes and toilet rolls. The blog’s short texts discuss the significance of the objects in the pandemic and they also provide some thought-provoking personal insights and facts about the objects. 

The Victoria and Albert museum include the sewing machine as a pandemic object in its pandemic objects blog as sewing machines have seen increased use in the home in recent months, and the sale of machines has increased significantly since the onset of lockdown. The Japan Times reported in April 2020 that ‘Demand for sewing machines jumps on rise in DIY face masks’ and that sewing machine manufacturer ‘Brother Sales Ltd. saw a 30 percent rise in orders for sewing machines in February and March compared with last year.’ Sewing machines have become particularly popular as people make things and as author Knott (2020) comments ‘From a quick online search, sewing machines are currently out of stock – or in very limited availability – from most major UK suppliers, as many people have sought to buy one during lockdown’. 

Like others, I have rolled out my preferred sewing machine: a 1903 hand cranked Singer with golden decorative transfer designs; a machine that operates using a shining bullet-like shaped shuttle bobbin case; and a sewing machine that is housed in what is called a coffin case (owing to its particular box design). I delight in its smooth functionality and its sturdy reliability. This old object, that only sews one type of stitch, just keeps on sewing for miles and provides hours of entertainment whilst reassuringly serving important needs. 

To search out old sewing machines is an enjoyment in itself and the website for AUB’s Museum of Design in Plastics, includes some interesting examples manufactured in plastics. For example the E-Z sewing machine MoDiP artefact aibdc-000798 made in China c. 1998, is a small hand-held design that offers easy sewing (Fig. 1). The text on the machine’s accompanying box (Fig. 2) states that the design is for ‘doing super jobs on the spot’ and proclaims ‘The most fantastic tool that you’ll ever own’. Likewise, the RoncoTM cordless portable sewing machine, c. 1973, sold in UK Woolworths stores is another example of an inexpensive machine for quick and undemanding work. 

Fig. 1. E-Z sewing machine, c.1998. Image: copyright MoDiP.

Fig. 2. E-Z sewing machine box, c.1998. Image: copyright MoDiP. 

MoDiP’s sewing machine and sewing-related collection includes the portable electric sewing machine designed by Ernst Fischer that is part of the Plastics Historical Society (PHS) collection that is held by MoDiP (artefact number PHSL : 225) (fig. 3 and fig. 4). According to the Museum of Modern Art (USA) online collection listing (2020) this intriguing design was manufactured by VEB Ernst- Thälmann-Werke, Suhl, DDR East Germany in the c.1950s. The sewing machine, made of steel, has a clever fold out design and its brown plastic carrying case ‘which converts to a working surface, is made of compression moulded phenol formaldehyde and has a leather carrying handle.’ (MoDiP). This design would serve many a home well today perhaps with its compact unobtrusive design. 

Fig. 3. Portable sewing machine designed by Fischer, Germany. Image: copyright MoDiP. 

Fig. 4. Portable sewing machine designed by Fischer, Germany. Image: copyright MoDiP. 

So the rise in sewing has seen a greater interest in sewing machines, and designs old and new are enjoying greater use today. Increasingly we may see greater reappraisal and reuse -or further use - of design objects within the home to help make our lives more efficient, comfortable, safe and reassuring. Maybe we will see the popularity of other objects flourishing as our needs and preferences change and develop.

As a design historian with a passion for design and object-based learning (OBL) I am researching how the use of objects in the home is developing and changing within the context of the current pandemic. I welcome anyone who would like to work with me on this intriguing journey – please don’t hesitate to contact me: 

In the meantime, I am back to my treasured old Edwardian era Singer sewing machine to keep me happy in the evenings .... whilst I wonder where exactly I can track down a 1950s Fischer portable sewing machine to buy...... 

And if you are revisiting your sewing machine and would like some guidance on how to maintain it, have a look at this blog 'How to oil a sewing machine: a step-by-step guide'.


Dr Kirsten Hardie, Associate Professor, Arts University Bournemouth


Dr Kirsten Hardie is a UK National Teaching Fellow and is Associate Professor at Arts University Bournemouth. Kirsten is recognised internationally for her object-based learning pedagogic practice and research. Kirsten created Arts University Bournemouth’s original design museum and is an avid collector of design.


The Japan Times. (2020). Demand for sewing machines jumps on rise in DIY face masks. April 21. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 13 June 2020]. 

Knott, Becky. (2020). Pandemic Objects: Sewing Machine. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Museum of Design in Plastics. (2020). E-Z sewing machine. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Museum of Design in Plastics. (2020). Fisher Sewing Machine. [online] Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020]. 

Museum of Modern Art. (2020). 

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2020). Pandemic Objects. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 12 June 2020].