One morning, Rohan’s elderly, hand-me-down sewing machine wouldn’t start. In her search for a cause she found a tiny screw and several metal pieces loose in the lower bobbin case – the chamber into which the machine’s main needle dips to pick up a second thread. Neither of us could screw the pieces together again and soon the machine, with its loose bits, was being taken to be repaired. It was not any old repair shop; it happens to be one of the oldest and largest in London, if not in the UK.
In 1946, Mr Thomas Rushton, a bus conductor who dabbled in things mechanical, started buying old sewing machines, doing them up and selling them on. His repair business grew and became even more successful when his wife joined him selling haberdashery from the same shop.
Their joint venture later became too large for its original Wimbledon home and in the early 1980s they moved into three adjacent buildings in Balham in South London. It is the middle one of these, a once grand 1930s double-fronted shop set back from the street, that houses the haberdashery-cum-repair store to which we took the machine.
The modest entrance gave no hint of what was to come. We opened the door and walked into a haberdashery dream. Whether in sectioned-off alcoves or dotted across a vast floor space, there was nothing but splashes of colour. On tables, walls and shelves and in umpteen display cabinets, there were textiles, material for upholstery or for making curtains and hats, beads, buttons and jewellery, umpteen ribbons, piping and hanks of wool, cotton reels, threads, textile paints, cake-making equipment, doll’s house furnishings and the quaintly named ‘fat quarter’ bundles (see the first illustration), and so it went on. Even though I don’t sew, the array was captivating.
Wandering around the store were customers scrutinising and choosing goods and asking advice and I soon discovered that many had been shopping there for ever; one women told me how, fifty years ago she was brought to the shop by her father – himself a regular. I learned that the faithful return because the shop has such a vast and varied stock, because the staff are friendly and know their business – all of them are crafters themselves – and because materials can be felt and matched and then bought in bespoke measures rather than in pre-packaged amounts. In all this, on-line shopping can’t compete!
Of course, we were actually there to deliver Rohan’s broken machine and in one corner we found the repair and sales counter. After some questions, the assistant told us with pride the shop’s history and then suggested that, if we collected our repaired machine next Saturday afternoon – although it was old it should be done by then – we could visit the shop’s sewing machine museum – “It is only open on the afternoon of the first Saturday of the month. You’ll find it upstairs in the building next door’. And that is what I did although then I was without Rohan who had a prior commitment.
On the pavement in front of the building was a makeshift board announcing that this was the museum and that it was open. Inside, sitting at a table in a cramped, poorly-lit lobby was a woman counting visitors in and directing them to a steep and narrow wooden staircase behind her.
I climbed the stairs which led to four rooms packed with 800 machines built from 1829 to 1950 – the first, the French Thimmonier was made of wood! The machines, which were collected by Ray Rushton, the founder’s son, came from all over the world and in the period covered there were none from Japan or China – how things have changed!
Most of the machines were in floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted cabinets covering the walls, others were dotted across the floors mounted on their original stands (see the second illustration) or on work tables.
It was an extraordinary collection and, apart from me, almost all of the visitors were connoisseurs who walked slowly round taking photos. In keeping with the company’s ethos, the museum supervisor also served in the main shop!
Being there, surrounded by so many beautifully displayed machines was exhilarating as it had been earlier when seeing the myriad goods in the haberdashery. That one couple of limited means could build two extraordinary establishments which nearly eighty years later were attracting people to unimposing buildings in an everyday high street in South London, is inspiring. How lucky we are!
The first illustration shows a photo of shelves at the Sewing and Craft Superstore in Balham stacked with ‘fat quarter’ bundles (packs of say six remnants for quilting). The second illustration is a photo of a 1928 Singer sewing machine, one of around 800 machines displayed at the London Sewing Machine Museum.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Lauren, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.
15 thoughts on “Feasts for the Eyes”
What a treasure! Thanks for sharing this. I feel I must go there!
Thank you for your comments. Both the museum and the shop are well worth a visit. Although they are in Balham, it is best to get off at Tooting Bec station (Northern Line) and walk north. They are about 200yards up on the left. Love, Joe
Joe!!! What a wonderful place to discover, well described, congratulations. I would love to visit this place , how did you discover it???
Sounds like bliss!! Thank you!! Love ELONA x
Dear Elona, Thank you for your comments. We asked around and Sarah told us about the repair shop. The two shops are indeed worth a visit. Love, Joe
Dear Merrily, Many thanks for your generous comment. Dare I suggest that you go to the museum and shop with Andrea on the first Saturday afternoon of one month. If you do, I will try to meet you both there and perhaps eat afterwards. Love, Joe
A startling revelation of an Aladdin’s cave, with a wondrous tactile library of materials woven around an inspiring historical backdrop. And all discovered in the unlikely setting of Balham – fondly recalled as “Gateway to the South.”
Dear Alan, Thank you for your generous comments. You should go and see them for yourself. Yours, Joe
Looks fascinating and given you description made me wonder about succession planning for looking after this unique collection. I don’t think it is a registered charity?
Dear Ian, Thank you for you comments. You should go to the store/museum and talk with someone about your ideas. It would be best to make an appointment beforehand. Love, Joe
Absolutely fascinating… another unexpected Collier adventure!
Dear Carolyn, I am so pleased you like the piece. Love, Joe
Dear Carolyn, I am so pleased you liked the piece. Love, Joe
Really enjoyed this post Joe!
I discovered this treasure trove of a shop many years ago. I still visit at least twice a year to buy sewing machine needles for my seamstress, Helen, who owns a small tailoring business in Nanyuki, Kenya. She is always extremely grateful for the little brown paper packet of goodies!
Many years ago, I took my grandmother’s old Singer to be serviced (in those days the repair department was where the museum is now) and then I took the Singer out to Kenya where, as far as I know, it is still in service.
Balham has changed over the years and I do wonder what will become of this prime real estate. Here’s hoping that the owners keep the Wimbledon Sewing Machine Company going for many years to come.
Dear Lucy, I was so pleased to read your comments. As you say, it really is an extraordinary haberdashery/repair shop. Love, Joe