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net.wars: Dead technology

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 September 2009


The (lack of) longevity of today's digital media is a common concern. Less than 20 years after the creation of a digital Domesday Book, a batch of researchers had to work to make it readable again, whereas the 900-year-old paper-based original is still readable.

Wendy M Grossman

Anyone maintaining an archive of digital content knows that all that material has to be kept up to date and transferred to new formats as machines and players change.

On friend of mine, a professional sound engineer, begged me to keep my magnetic media when I told him I was transferring it to digital formats. You can, he argued, always physically examine a magnetic tape and come up with some kind of reader for it; with digital media, you're completely stuck if you don't know how the data was organized.

Where was he in 1984, when I bought my sewing machine, [above, right] a Singer Futura 2000?

That machine was, as it turns out, one of the earliest electronic models on the market. I had no idea of that at the time; the particular feature I was looking for (the ability to lock the machine in reverse, so I could have both hands free when reverse-stitching) was available on very few models.

This was the best of those few. No one said to me, "And it's electronic!" They said stuff like, "It has all these stitches!" Most of which, to be sure, hardly anyone is likely ever to use other than the one-step buttonhole and a zigzag stitch or two.

Cut to 2009, when one day I turn the machine on and discover the motor works but the machine won't select a stitch or drive that motor. "Probably the circuit board," says the first repair person I talk to. Words of doom.

The problem with circuit boards is – as everyone knows who's had a modern electronic machine fail – that

  • they're expensive to replace; 
  • they're hard to find; 
  • they're even harder to get repaired.
  • People don't buy sewing machines to use for a year or five; they buy them for a lifetime. In fact, before cars and computers, washing machines and refrigerators, sewing machines were the first domestic machines, they were an expensive purchase, and they were expected to last.

    You can repair – and buy parts for – a 150-year-old treadle Singer sewing machine. People still use them, particularly for heavy sewing jobs like leather, many-layered denim, or neoprene. You can also repair the US Singer machine my parents gave me as a present in the mid 1970s. That machine is what they now call "mechanical", by which they mean electric but not electronic. What you can't do is repair a machine from the 1980s: Singer stopped making the circuit boards. If you're very, very lucky, you might be able to find someone who can repair one.

    But even that is difficult. One such skilled repairman told me that even though Singer itself had recommended him to me he was unable to get the company to give him the circuit diagrams so he could use his skill for the benefit of both his own customers (and therefore himself) and Singer itself. The concept of open-sourcing has not landed in the sewing machine market; sewing machines are as closed as modern cars with what seems like much less justification. (At least with a car you can argue that a ham-fisted circuit board repairman could cost you your life; hard to make that argument about a sewing machine.)

    Of course, from Singer's point of view things are far worse than irreplaceable circuit boards that send a few resentful customers into the gathering feet of Husqvarna Viking or Bernina. Singer's problem is that the market for sewing machines has declined dramatically.

    In 1902, the owner of Eastleigh Sewing Centre told me, Singer was producing 5 million machines a year. Now, the entire industry of many more manufacturers sells about 500,000. Today's 30- and 40-year-olds never learned to use a sewing machine in school, nor were they taught by their mothers. If they now learn to use one, they're more likely to use a computerised machine (a level up from just "electronic"). What they learn is graphics: the fanciest modern machines can take a GIF or JPG and embroider it on a section of fabric held taut by a hoop.

    You can't blame them. Store-bought, mass-market clothing, even when it's made out of former "luxury" fabrics like silk, is actually cheaper than anything you can make at home these days. Only a few things make sense for anyone but the most obsessive to sew at home any more:

  • textile-based craft items like stuffed dolls and quilts, (and embroidered images);
  • items that would be prohibitively expensive to buy or impossible to find, like stage and re-enactment costumes;
  • items you want to be one-of-a-kind and personal such as, perhaps a wedding dress;
  • items that are straightforward to sew but expensive to buy, like curtains and other soft furnishings.
  • The range of machines available now reflects that, so that you're stuck with either buying a beginner's machine or one intended for experts; the middle ground (like my Futura) has vanished. No one has the time to sew garments any more; no one, seemingly, even repairs torn clothing any more.

    But damn, I hate throwing stuff out that's mostly functional.


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    Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).