Alex Askaroff has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications worldwide.
Over the last few decades 'the sewing machine guru' has been painstakingly building this website to encourage enthusiasts around around the Globe to collect and treasure old sewing machines.
See Alex Askaroff on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-NVWFkm0sA&list=UL
Singer & Kilbowie
Forging metal has been a skill shared by peoples and cultures across the world for millennia. In 1850s America, as the fires of civil war rumbled ever closer, Isaac Singer and his business partner, Edward Clark had taken that skill and turned it into an art form. They went on to perfect the forging of metal to bring us the first exceptional sewing machine in the world, the Singer Model A. They also used cutting edge technologies to build factories, marching ever forward to become the largest multinational sewing machine company the world had ever seen.
By 1865, as the final weapons of war in America fell silent, Isaac Singer and Edward Clark were ushering in mechanization on a global scale. They had done it again, designing and building another amazing sewing machine. It would become a universal success, the fabulous Singer New Family Model 12. It would change the lives of millions and usher in a new era of mass production.
The factories needed to build this beauty would spread, firstly across America, then Europe, starting in Mott Street, New York, expanding to Elizabethport, New Jersey in 1872. The new factories included all the infrastructure, railways and docks, warehousing and container ships. This helped to kick-start the rebuilding of a shattered country, pushing America onward to eventually become the world’s first super power.
Singer would go on to invest millions, building factories around the world from St. Petersburg, Russia, Monza in Italy, Wittenberg in Germany, Bonnieres on the river Seine (not far from Paris) France, Brazil and the biggest of them all, Kilbowie in Scotland. The machines that built the sewing machines were so precise that parts from any factory could be shipped to another and would integrate perfectly with the sewing machines that were being produced there. It was the first true mass production on a global scale, forty years before Henry Ford had taken his first steps to make his Model T.
Kilbowie, built in the cold Scottish hills, was to change a rural valley, on the side of the River Clyde, into one of the greatest powerhouses of industry on Earth, employing at its peak (just before the outbreak of WW1) an estimated 14,000 workers. It would also bring prosperity to the lives of countless other families.
The Singer Company was on a boom after Edward Clark had cleverly devised the first official hire purchase, lay-away, part payment, or installment plan, allowing just about anybody that wanted a machine to buy a Singer. The call for their machines was growing at an astronomical rate. Keeping up with this demand, from all four corners of the world, was a major problem for the first ever multinational.
The original idea of factories in Europe was simply to overcome the large costs of shipping heavy cast iron machines from America and to get around any import levies or duties imposed by the European powers. In 1866 Edward Clark's cousin had been sent on a European tour to seek out areas for new factories. He reported back to Clark who narrowed down the ideal locations. In 1867 plans were afoot by Clark to send George McKenzie (who was general manager of The Singer Sewing Machine Company and later president) to Scotland to prepare the way for an enormous factory. The Kilbowie site had great potential, and as McKenzie was of Scottish descent, he was perfect for the job.
The factory needed as many natural resources as possible and Kilbowie offered these in abundance. Coal, steel, and seemingly endless forests for the cabinet makers to craft the wooden shells of the sewing machines. Then there was the mighty River Clyde, where huge ships could carry Singer’s stock across the world. Access to railways from the city of Glasgow and major road links to the rest of the country were another bonus.
An explosion in growth was to happen to the tiny rural hamlet as the factory came on line in 1882 with the Model 12. The factory was powered by the latest 'cutting edge' steam technology. Puffing chimneys would replace the tall pines and steel rails would bring screeching trains shuddering in 24hrs a day.
A population boom was to follow as farmer's sons left the hard toil of the land for the heavy thumping of the anvils, and the pouring of molten iron. The Singer models, 13, 15, and 17, soon followed, all for the first time with the Singer name emblazoned across the arm of the machine.
Unfortunately Isaac Singer, the little runaway who had lived on his wits, scraping a living from the dirt, was only to see the beginnings of a mighty dream being built in the north lands of Britain (by McAlpine's with their first major contract. McAlpine's went on to become Britain's largest road builders). Isaac died in July of 1875 at his palace in Paignton called Oldway. However his dream did not, eventually leading to one of the mightiest factories on earth at Kilbowie.
Kilbowie would survive two World Wars but not the ever creeping expansion of throw-away plastic from the emerging economies. The last sewing machine came off the assembly line in June of 1980. Later that year the great factory finally closed it doors. It was abandoned, then demolished.
The largest clock tower in the world, that summoned the whole valley to work each day, was melted down and sold as souvenir ash trays and other bits of tourist tat. Many of the workers (who had taken over from their fathers and their fathers before them), bought bits to remember the business that had brought employment to generations of working families. It was the end of an era, the end of a dream, and the end of the British sewing machine industry.
End of Empire
Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.
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Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work. I have spent a lifetime collecting, researching and writing these pages and I love to hear from people so drop me a line and let me know what you thought: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also if you have any information to add I would love to put it on my site.
I just wanted to drop a quick wee email to congratulate you on such a wonderfully written and informative article about the Kilbowie Singer factory.
I learned a great many things about my local history and where my machine was built.
Thank you for writing such an informative yet, enjoyable piece.
CharlieInUtopia Dressmaking and Costumery
Great work as always Alex. Keep it up.
I have to say the sewing machine history saga would make a wonderful period drama.
Thank you for sharing these wonderful bits of history with us!
Barbara G Dowdy USA
Great article...also I LOVE your informational videos on Youtube.
This work of yours needs to be taken to a movie producer! I know I'd love to see it on a big screen!
Thanks for sharing your wonderful work with us!
Thank you Alex for sharing your hard work and knowledge with all of us enthusiastic collectors and sewers around the world!
Alex's Book: Tales from the Coast
Fancy a funny read: Ena Wilf & The One-Armed Machinist
See Alex Askaroff on Youtube
Sir Sewlot, protector of the Sewalot Site
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new collector I have found your site
has increased my knowledge in
a short time to a degree
that I couldn't have