The Sewing Table
March 18, 2020
The Franklin Long Shuttle Sewing Machine Model No. 117.52 has sat in the upstairs hallway for at least ten years. Like unmoved furniture tends to do, the antique sewing table all but blends in with the walls of my childhood home at this point. If you had asked me a week ago what it looked like, I almost certainly couldn’t have told you, but, if I needed to navigate my old house in the dark, I can guarantee that I’d know exactly where it was and how to step around it.
The machine itself is rather unassuming. Two heavy, iron legs support a dark wooden frame, weathered and scratched with age. The treadle, a large, iron pedal with room for both feet, is wedged in between, attached to a rotating wheel that runs to the table’s interior. Tucked away inside are all the makings of a late 1930s sewing kit, but, at first glance, one could easily mistake the machine as nothing more than a battered old end table.
Before it was swallowed up into the depths of the hallway, the sewing machine was just that: an entry table by our front door. Here, it saw more regular use. Picture frames, flower vases, even a household aquarium at one point all sat atop it. The table didn’t make it out unharmed though; sharpie marks from a curious younger sibling and scattered pieces of fish food for a long-dead pet are just a few of the scars and souvenirs that the table carried with it to the second story.
I have never seen the sewing table used for its original purpose. It’s always been a part of my home, and from a fairly young age I had an understanding of what it was, but I always struggled to imagine the machine in use. I’ve only ever seen my grandmother sew, and, for as long I can remember, she used an electric machine. No, as the chargers, socks and dust that now fill its drawers can attest, the 1939 Franklin Long Shuttle Sewing Machine has not done any stitching for quite a long time.
But before—before the crystal handles chipped off, before the iron rusted, before the dark wood chipped and lost its color—the machine was used all the time. My great-grandmother, Flora Bell Coleman, was its original owner. Born in 1907 as one of nine children, Flora, by all accounts, lived a very difficult life. As a child, she was beaten by her father, and as a poor, uneducated woman in rural West Virginia, Flora spent most of life just barely scraping by.
I, of course, don’t remember much of my great-grandmother. She died in 2002 at 95 years old. I had not yet turned 5. Instead, these stories come from my grandmother, Flora’s daughter, who sat and watched her mother use the sewing table for decades.
Growing up, the only thing my grandmother ever had to wear were homemade dresses made on this very machine. When Flora’s four children grew old and there was no longer a need for clothes, the aging woman turned to quilting. She only stopped using the table when her frail, aged fingers could no longer thread a needle.
Two days ago, I returned to my childhood home with little idea as to when I would again leave it. A global crisis, the first and biggest of my short life, has broken out across the world, and I, like most everyone else around me, am scrambling to find meaning, safety and comfort in a world that, for the time being, seems averse to giving it.
Coming home is never easy, but one specific thing that’s always bothered me is that my room here has no desk. When I’m only visiting, this is rarely an issue, but seeing as my academic, social and professional life will be contained within these walls for the foreseeable future, I knew I needed a dedicated work station. There just so happened to be one outside in the hall.
I lugged the old antique table into my small room and pushed it into the only corner in which it would fit. I cleaned it off and began to place some belongings on it: a lamp, my laptop, some scattered knick-knacks to make it feel more personal. I weaved a power strip through its iron legs, ensuring that my old television would stay on through self-isolation. I then turned, grabbed a chair, and sat down, placing both my bare feet on that cold, iron pedal below.
To my amazement, it turned with no resistance. The treadle pushed, the wheel rotated, and the metalwork surrounding my legs roared to life. I know for a fact that the machine has not been used or refurbished in my lifetime, but it worked like a charm. I’m pretty sure that, if I had the faintest idea of where to start, I could thread a needle right now and get to work on my brand new quarantine hobby.
My great-grandmother was 22 years old at the outset of The Great Depression. As I write this, 22 myself, I'm looking down the barrel of what will almost certainly be the largest recession of my generation. When World War II broke out in Europe, Flora Coleman was sewing clothes for her three-year-old son, using the same table that I now have set up as my quarantine desk. These were the crises that defined her life, and this sewing table was there the whole time. The treadle has been pressed for 81 years now. It has seen crisis after crisis, and it has kept ever turning.
My own mother has a story that, when she was pregnant with me, Flora appeared to her in a dream and told her that everything regarding her pregnancy was going to turn out alright. Placing my bare feet on the same machine that has now been in my family for four generations brought me a similar sense of comfort. To know that this tool and any who have used it have weathered every storm so far, gave me, however briefly, the courage I needed to face the coming one.
This sewing table has been the only source of clothing for a poor, struggling family. It gave an old, aging widow a joyful and fulfilling new hobby. It has been the recipient of many a stubbed toe for any guests who don’t happen to know the layout of my upstairs hallway. And now, as I anxiously push the pedal up and down, writing for my life and wondering when I will next be able to leave this room, it will serve me in a new, different, and equally important way.
Somehow, all these years later, the original instruction manual for the machine has remained intact inside the desk. “The object of this book,” it reads, “is to provide you with complete directions for operating this machine. We are extremely anxious that your investment returns the utmost in satisfactory service.”
I’d say it’s been a worthwhile investment.