Refrangible Episode Three: Sewing Machines and the Worlds They Make

By Dr. Sarah Anne Carter, CDMC Visiting Executive Director

Logo for episode 3 of Refrangible podcast showing a sewing machine on the sides of a cube.

With the methodical and busy sounds of her mother’s sewing machine as a sonic envelope, in this episode of Refrangible, Gianofer Fields invites listeners to consider what a sewing machine might mean to mothers and daughters, to makers and artists, and to consumers. For Gianofer the sewing machine may contain all of those experiences. It holds stories together and becomes a tool for making meaning both out of fabric and out of personal stories. Passed down from her own mother, who sewed for Gianofer and her siblings, the Singer sewing machine Gianofer uses today opens a window onto memories of the skill, work, and intention behind the clothes her mother created—from play clothes to their best Sunday outfits for church—for each of her children. 

In this episode we hear from Nancy Dorl, a lifelong seamstress who is constantly sewing for her community and for her own pleasure, and her daughter Catherine, who learned to sew from her mother and wishes she had more time to sew. Gianofer visits with Gee’s Bend quilter Sharon Williams and learns what sewing meant to her growing up and as an adult, now selling her beautiful quilts to museums.  The Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection recently purchased a quilt from Williams and it will be on display this fall in Politics at Home: Textiles as American History.   

scanned image of an old photograph showing a woman sewing at a dining table
Gianofer Fields’ mother sews at the table. Image courtesy of Gianofer Fields.

In these personal stories we hear about the creativity and connections sewing machines make possible. These process-oriented conversations focus on the power of making and the effort and pleasure of the time, the hours upon hours, it may take to create something. In contrast to thoughtfully piecing together scraps and making something meaningful from what exists, as Sharon Williams does, we also hear about the environmental and ethical challenges of “fast fashion” from Professor Majid Samardi, who cautions consumers to slow down and think about their purchasing choices and the true costs of those purchases. 

Throughout these conversations, the echoing rhythm of Gianofer’s mother’s sewing machine guides us as a reminder to slow down and to appreciate the power of making, creating, and connecting.  Perhaps you will feel inspired to return to your own sewing machine—or whatever tools you use to make—after listening to this episode, and create along with its stories.

Guests include:

  • Lifelong quilter Nancy Dorl and her Catherine
  • Gee’s Bend quilter Sharon Williams
  • Professor Majid Samardi, Nancy Dorl Rothermel Bascom Professor in the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Refrangible is a podcast from the Center for Design and Material Culture, hosted by the Center’s Producer-in-Residence, Gianofer Fields. Each episode explores the stuff of everyday life and what it tells us about ourselves, our world, and our values. From keepsakes to clutter, from tools to trash, the things we make, use, and save carry stories within them. Tune in for a closer look at the material traces of our past and what they might inspire for our shared future, and view all episodes here.