Somewhere retail: The London Sewing Machine Museum When I mentioned the London Sewing Machine Museum in passing last week, little did I imagine I'd be walking through its hallowed portal over the weekend. The museum's only open for three hours a month, so the chances of ever finding myself in the vicinity were quite frankly minimal. But when eleven-to-one shot Wandsworth emerged from my random jamjar on the first Saturday of the month, I decided I had to visit. It took two attempts to get inside because the website doesn't reveal any precise opening times (two til five, as it turned out). But I'm so glad I made the effort, because the experience was unforgettable.
To Tooting Bec station, then a brief stroll north along the Balham High Road. There are two large sewing-machine related buildings to pick from (I know, what are the chances?) but ignore the Sewing and Craft Superstore at number 300. You want the premises of the Wimbledon Sewing Machine Company Limited at 312, a very ordinary-looking two-storey block industrial block [photo]. The ground floor houses the workshop, still very much a going concern, with scores of tabletop machines laid out amid shelves piled high with thread and spare parts [photo]. The working week ends Saturday lunchtime, and once a month manager Ray hangs around afterwards to welcome visitors to his upstairs collection. It's a whopper.
Even in the downstairs lobby there's a strong hint that somebody around here is obsessed with sewing machines. A variety of old machines and assorted ephemera litter the floor, balcony and stairwell, each lovingly presented. An antique industrial machine spooled-up and ready to sew, a metal advertising panel for the French branch of Singer, even a 1981 receipt for spaceprobe insulation. Climb higher, because you ain't seen nothing yet.
On the first floor I entered a room filled with more sewing machines than I'd ever seen in my life [photo]. Shelf after shelf, with more laid out on tables across the floor, every space filled, every machine dutifully labelled. This room's home to the more workaday machines, mostly black, once commonplace in homes and factories across the country. Before all our clothes arrived via imported sweatshops, Britons were clothed only thanks to these machines and the skill of their operators. I looked in vain for the precise model my Mum used to own, although the Silko reels and coffin-top carrying cases seemed eminently familiar. A brief video in the far corner told the story of the museum, information which was also detailed in a 13-page stapled handout freely available to take away.
One of the curators wandered over for a chat - friendly but intense - and his devotion to the cause shone through. Much of the collection has been sourced from closed-down businesses and household clearouts, and it was clear that the loss of even a single chucked-away machine hurt him deeply. He directed me through to the second room at the rear (ohmigod, a second room) where the antique machines were housed (blimey, hundreds more). Glass cases this time, in front of plush curtained walls to emphasise the rarity of their contents. Many of these were delicate machines for delicate Victorian ladies, the highlight being one especially ornate Wheeler & Wilson device given to Queen Victoria's eldest daughter as a wedding present [photo]. Members of the International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society would be so overwhelmed they'd need several visits to take everything on board.
The collection has breadth and diversity - it's not all sewing machines. Threads and needles and pattern books, obviously, plus a delightful wind-up marionette merrily sewing away beneath a glass belljar. One corner has been given over to recreating Ray's dad's sewing machine shop along the Merton Road, a poignant display of labelled merchandise from an era I can almost remember myself [photo]. There are antique clocks too, plus a proper barrel organ that plays music hall tunes which the curator willingly demonstrated to the watching crowds. Not terribly large crowds, admittedly, but the Australian trio and myself were duly appreciative.
I learnt several things during my hour in the museum. Firstly not to take my clothes for granted - somebody somewhere sweated to put all those seams in my trousers, and my great-grandparents would have thought nothing of doing it themselves. Secondly that anything can be made interesting if presented with sufficient love and flair - even a floorful of domestic appliances. Thirdly that the museum's owners are enormously generous of their time and resources - admission is free, but owner Ray still popped in with a tray of chilled wine glasses mid-way through the afternoon. And finally that you really ought to visit, especially if handicrafts, technology or the quirkier side of London float your boat. 2pm, Saturday 1st August - start forming the queue now. by tube: Tooting Bec by bus: 155, 249, 355
Somewhere sporty: Tooting Bec Lido Perfect day for it. A dip in Britain's largest freshwater swimming pool, all one million gallons of it, was packing them in on Saturday at the eastern end of Tooting Bec Common. Opened as the Tooting Bathing Lake in 1906, this outdoor pool evolved into a lido in the Thirties and is a notable survivor of Wandsworth council's relentless cutbacks. The public are allowed in between May and September, while the South London Swimming Club have exclusive access during the often-freezing winter months. One 100 yard-longswimming pool, one much smaller paddling pool, a café and a bit of grass for sunbathing on - these are simple pleasures. Not that I was getting inside for a look. The lido's deliberately screened behind an earth bank and various rows of trees, so that snooping is pretty much impossible. Turnstiles bar the way at the entrance, as well as a sulky guard, and on Saturday morning additional security was being called in to cope with the burgeoning crowds. Alas I hadn't brought a towel or my trunks (do swimmers still wear trunks or is everything baggy Speedos these days, I wouldn't know), so getting inside would have been pointless. All I could see through the gap was the bright blue shallow end and a gushing weddingcakefountain. A walk around the perimeter proved difficult, not least because the lido was built right up close to the East Croydon mainline. But I did eventually catch sight of a few of the Lido's trademark primary-colouredchanging booths through the trees, across the railway. Sorry, I wasn't attempting too look like a pervy stalker lurking in the undergrowth. But why should swimmers have all the fun? by train: Streatham by bus: 249, 319