The Sewing Machine
March 21st 1911
‘There is going to be a strike!’
Jean heard the words as they flowed around her, nudging at the edges of her mind. She tried to put them aside. From across the workroom, the foreman watched her. Every so often he took the pencil stub from behind his ear, an action out of kilter with his recent promotion, and made a mark in his new notebook. Until a few weeks ago he had been one of them, and she wondered if he had realised how things would change when he took on the new job.
The long workspace resembled a schoolroom for a hundred and twenty pupils with individual tables arranged in groups of eight. She didn’t know why it was called the Testing Flat, any more than the reason why the needle making workshop was called the Needle Flat - it had always been that way.
To many of the women in the workshop, the foreman was still the little boy with the sticking out ears who once lived at the poorest end of town. He was the child to whom they had given thick slices of bread when they saw him playing with their sons in the street, the lad who always smelled of stale pee. They weren’t bothered in the slightest about his new position, but he wasn’t part of the group any more.
He cleared his throat and spoke decisively, as he had been instructed.
‘Can you not test this machine, Miss Archibald? Is there a problem?’
Jean resisted the need to push her shoulder blades down and together, to stretch her neck and ease the stiffness of four hours sitting at the bench. She knew, because she had been counting, that this was the seventh machine this morning which had needed more than a twist of the tension screw to right or left by way of final adjustment and she speculated whether they were being given to her on purpose.
She didn’t waste time looking up but kept her eyes on the machine.
‘It’s the needle, I just need another one’
He tapped his important new watch. ‘You need to work faster, this is unacceptable.’
She sighed quietly and watched him move away in search of a different victim.
The whispers continued to ruffle past her but she remained purposefully deaf to them and reached across to the toolbox shared with the other seven women at her table. To her left, tall windows reached upwards to the high ceiling and the plainness of the walls was broken only by a peripheral blast of colour from outdoor coats and bright scarves.
‘Definitely the needle’ she muttered to herself, and with the screwdriver in one hand and the faulty steel gripped tightly, she removed it. She closed her eyes and ran the fine shaft between her fingers. The steel was smooth, like a piece of spring grass just before it’s chewed for the sweet sap. A tiny burr at the tip confirmed her diagnosis. She replaced it with a fresh one and proceeded to make the required number of stitches on the white cloth with more deliberation than usual, watching the needle punch down through warp and weft, one stitch after another. She checked the stitch length and the underseam, and when she was happy with the results, she wrapped the snapped off thread around the spool pin to signify the test complete.
Only then did she allow herself to listen.
The current of words was now an unruly torrent.
Frances, her neighbour at the big table for the last five years, gave her a forceful nudge and nodded towards the end of the long room where a man had appeared at the open doorway. He searched for Jean in the candlewick of hair braids and tightly pinned buns.
His heavy boots drummed on the wooden boards as he marched without fear of consequence past racks of machines on the left and seated women on the right.
Everyone in the room knew that Donald Cameron and Jean would soon be wed. He ignored the protesting foreman and strode onwards, making far more noise than was strictly necessary, until he arrived at her table and leaned towards her, close enough to kiss.
‘You’re visiting then?’ she said.
The smell of him was in every breath. The heat of his skin. The leather apron. The freshly burnt ginger hair on his arms where smelting sparks contributed daily to the snowscape of tiny scars.
‘Not for long’ he replied.
She looked at him with the eyes of the women who worked alongside her.
Rough blue canvas trousers held up with a thick leather belt, and granite heavy boots. A sweat-stained collarless shirt covering broad shoulders, the sleeves rolled tightly to the inside for safety, twisted into a knot and tucked securely in place at the bicep. What her friends were unable to see was the brown triangle on his shirt-tail from that day last December when he had held her in his room-and-kitchen tenement flat and asked her to marry him and she had said yes, and they had spun around so quickly she had become giddy, leaving the flatiron to scorch.
He grasped together his heavy gauntlets in one enormous hand and she noticed again the firm, rounded muscle between forefinger and thumb, enlarged from wielding a hammer day in, day out. Her favourite part of him.
She strained to hear to him above the noise of a trolley going past, delivering the next batch of machines.
He repeated the words the others had spoken. ‘There is going to be a strike.’ His confidence gave them life and purpose.
‘Three women in the Polishing Flat have been moved, and the dozen who are left have been told they must complete that work as well as their own.’
‘Piece rate workers suffer again.’
‘How did you hear about it?’
‘Two of them came to see me. Walked into the foundry as bold as you like.’
This was not strictly true. The women had stood at the main door and hesitated at the blast and ferocity of the place, but he thought them courageous and it would do no harm to let people know of their determination, especially with that foreman lip-reading his words from across the room.
Jean was aware that those close to her were listening to every word. ‘What happens next?’
She scraped her chair backwards, not caring about the noise, and walked over to the tall windows. In the yard below a few dozen women were already gathered and as she watched, they were joined by a ribbon of figures emerging from the stairwell. ‘It’s started already?’
He was close beside her. ‘It has. There’s a meeting after we finish. Tell your friends. Tell everyone.’
And then he marched back along the room, right past the foreman, and was gone.
She went back to her place and took her seat, feeling the eyes of the whole room upon her. The department manager, a salaried, slicked down man with clean fingernails who reeked of cologne and knew Jean only by her works number, came out of his glass windowed domain and observed her. The scrutiny was a regular occurrence. She allowed him this, but when he returned to his office she finally freed Donald’s instruction and watched, her hands stilled in her lap as it pleated around the room.
‘There is a meeting tonight when we finish. Women are being laid off and the union have called a strike. Be there.’
There was a danger that the words might become unravelled and rewoven into something new after so many softly spoken passes, but anger had bred an engineered precision into the swell of vowels and consonants, and there was no confusion at all in the message. Within minutes Jean could inhale the energy in the room.