I was drawn to an item recently on the STV evening news about an event taking place in Clydebank Town Hall called the Singers Stories Festival. It was the first such event to take place and teams of volunteers had gone around to collect personal stories about Singer sewing machines and about life in the Singer factory in Clydebank, from people who had worked in what was once the largest sewing machine factory in the world. It opened in the 1880’s and closed in 1980, employing up to 16,000 people, and the reason I was drawn to this item was that I myself had worked in Singers for a short time after leaving St. Mungo’s Academy. I had at that stage decided to pursue a career in accountancy and I was lucky to get a job as a costing assistant in Singers which permitted me day release to pursue my studies in what was then called the Institute of Cost and Works Accountancy (ICWA). This was in 1969 but then, unfortunately, I was made redundant from Singers in 1970.
It was a good job at the time because I could walk to and from work each day from Drumchapel where I lived and save money on bus fares. The department I worked in was called High Volume Cost which had to do with the costing of smaller items that were used in high quantities, like screws, in the making of the machines. I had very long hair at the time because I was playing in a folk band and my boss, a good Orangeman called Archie, would tease me endlessly about my hair, and about my being a Catholic and a Celtic supporter, but in truth I believe he liked me and was never anything but extremely kind and encouraging to me and, when I was made redundant on a last-in, first-out basis, he was very sympathetic.
Of course, just because I worked in Singers, doesn’t mean I know the first thing about sewing or about sewing machines, a fact that could sometimes be lost on some very good friends in Dublin who were obsessively into sewing and into textile art, quilt-making, book-making and the like, and who did wonderful and creative work for us in Mount Argus Church. When they would start to talk about these and related things, though, they just couldn’t help themselves until, after regaling me for ages with the intricacies of Mola and Hawaiian Applique, would suddenly notice that my eyes had begun to glaze over and decide it was time to stop.
The quilt-making was used to good effect when, occasionally for Good Friday, we would make a blanket of pain. This consisted of people throughout Lent handing in pieces of fabric that represented some difficult experience in their lives, especially in the year gone by, and these pieces of fabric would then be woven together to form a kind of patchwork quilt that was carried up on Good Friday and placed near to the Cross, linking our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ. Whenever we did this it was always very moving, and when this idea was first put to me I was informed that Native American Indians were deemed to be the best quilt makers in the world, and that often the memories of a tribe would be woven into their beautiful and colourful quilts, which were then used in their religious ceremonies. Every quilt however, by design, had to have some flaw. They could easily have produced the perfect quilt, but they went out of their way to introduce a flaw because, since for them the quilt was a representation of human life and the human condition and, since no human life is perfect; every human life is flawed; it was deemed important that the quilt should reflect this. At the time that struck me as very beautiful, very powerful, and very true.
By the way, I went on to resume my accountancy studies with Olivetti in Queenslie, and I know absolutely nothing about typing (except with two fingers) or typewriters either. Here is a traditional American Indian Prayer that seems to mirror St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
As I walk, as I walk, the universe is walking with me. In beauty it walks before me. In beauty it walks behind me. In beauty it walks below me. In beauty it walks above me. Beauty is on every side. As I walk, I walk with Beauty.