By Victor Sullivan © 2015 Sewing Machines
The Puxley family annually invited friends and business acquaintances to stay at Dunboy Castle for at the beginning of the trout angling season. To be invited to a day's fishing at Glenbeg Lake with the Puxleys was a highlight in the social calendar of the area. Susan kept Johnnie informed about the pending arrival of serious trout anglers, via her friends who had family members employed at the castle.
When the time was right, Susan proudly and nervously undertook her first journey, alone, to Dunboy Castle to deliver the neatly packed sets of Johnnie's trout flies. She also carried another fully-functioning clock. As instructed by her father she introduced herself at the gate-house as 'Gill's daughter, Susan, with an important packet and a repaired clock for The Castle from Johnnie Gill.'
The flies and the fishing were an outstanding success, proof, if needed, was provided by a note declaring that '…such fishing was never before experienced at Glenbeg. Our guests were astounded by the effectiveness of your flies." Johnnie nailed the note to the low ceiling above his Cell where it remained for decades. (Remembered by some elderly family members but now lost).
Following the Glenbeg Lake successes, Johnnie's fish lures quickly gained a reputation among the aristocracy. In addition to the Puxleys, clients requesting his Flies included Lord Landsdowne, Lord Bantry and the Commanding Officer at Bere Island Naval Base. Advised to set a high price for his lures by the Estate Manager, even for those ordered by the castle, Johnnie was soon earning money and he began to see a more independent future for himself than being waited on for ever by his mother and sisters while incarcerated in The Cell.
Seeking more reliable sources of high quality silk offcuts for his fishing flies, Johnnie dispatched Susan to talk to some dressmakers in the area. The outcome of that expedition was not merely a small bundle of silk off-cuts but an astounded Susan trying to describe a sewing machine she had witnessed being demonstrated to the dressmaker by a salesman.
"Dan the Tailor has just bought one. That's what I heard the salesman say." she added.
Johnnie had read the sewing machine description in the incomplete manual salvaged from the castle rubbish heap and longed to see one working. Dan the Tailor lived and worked not far from Dunboy. Now to persuade his father to tackle the horse and take him to meet the tailor and see his marvelous newfangled sewing machine for himself.
Not wishing to appear gullible, Johnnie's father decided on a 'casual' visit to Dan the Tailor first and see if there was any truth in the story about the machine that could sew. The one-legged tailor was not only surprised but clearly embarrassed by Thomas Gill's request to see the sewing machine.
"More fool me to have listened to that salesman. Yes, I bought the sewing machine but I can make no hand of it. Quicker with a common needle and thread. It puckers everything up and makes no sense to me. The result of my trials are over there in the corner. Waste of money."
Thomas Gill picked up the crumpled fabric from the floor.
"Can I have this?"
"Much good may it do you! You wouldn't be needing a new suit soon by any chance?"
"I might begin thinking about that before long.”
That evening Johnny pored over the illustrated account of a sewing machine in the tattered and stained remains of what had been rescued from the bonfire. The front cover was missing but it appeared to have been the instruction booklet for a Singer sewing machine. He carefully studied the faulty stitching in the samples brought home by his father from Dan-the-Tailor. Wrong thread tension feeding down to the needle he deduced. Whatever way Dan's machine had been set up by the makers it was not suitable for the coarse material Dan had tried to sew with it, or so it looked to Johnnie. By next morning he had, to his own satisfaction, solved Dan's problem, in theory if not yet in practice.
"Take me to Dan-the-Tailor as soon as you can. I know how to fix his sewing machine!" Johnny declared and that same evening his father lifted him into the cart. But it was Susan who drove the horse to the tailors workshop. Problem: How to get Johnnie out of the cart on arrival. Dan had only one leg and was disabled in other ways also after a life-changing accident with blasting powder at Allihies Copper Mines. Dan suggested tipping the cart up and letting Johnnie slide onto the road.
"Wait! What hurry is on you?" snorted Johnnie, "Susan, hold Nancy by the head. Belle can get me down." he added, uncoiling a coil of rope he had prepared for the journey. He had tied one end to the front setlock of the cart and now he threw the free end over the rere of the cart where it reached the ground with several feet to spare. Gradually, with much grunting and position changing, Johnnie Gill worked his way to the back edge of the cart floor. Grabbing the rope with both hands he rolled off the cart and lowered himself gently to the ground, hand over hand, by the rope he had named Belle.
And so it was done that way for ever after.
Dan-the-Tailor, himself no stranger to physical handicap, watched in admiration.
"Does he always get out of a cart that way?" he asked Susan.
"I've never seen him do it that way before," she answered as she tied the horse to the feuschia bush beside Dan's house, "but I have seen him throw that rope over a tree branch and climb up very fast to get a good view of the ships in the harbour. His arms are very strong from breaking sticks for the fire and…"
"Never mind all that." growled Johnnie, "Where's the sewing machine that's bothering you?"
Susan, with what little assistance Dan could contribute, dragged the sewing machine from the dark interior of the workroom into the daylight just inside the doorway where her brother stared up at the under-side of what looked like a small table on an ornamental cast-iron frame. Johnnie stroked his chin to give the impression that it was just another one, and not the first and only sewing machine he had ever seen. It had a treadle driven wheel, similar to a wood-turner's lathe. The drive belt vanished up through holes in the table-top to turn whatever was to do the sewing above.
"Well, I can't do much for it from down here, can I? Susan, get Belle for me."
"Get Belle. Get my rope from the cart outside."
She returned with the rope.
"Now I want Dan’s kitchen table brought over here beside the machine."
Johnnie tied the rope to the top of one table-leg and threw the coil across the table to the opposite end. Dragging himself along the floor beneath the table he grasped the dangling rope and hauled himself up until, with a few powerful swings and grunts, he heaved himself up onto the table. Susan, familiar with the technique and anticipating that the table might tip up, added her own weight to the opposite side. Before him was the Singer sewing machine. It was not exactly like the one in the booklet he had rescued from the castle bonfire, but it was near enough. He turned the wheel gingerly with one hand. The needle moved up, then down. A reel of white linen thread surmounted the machine and Johnnie's eye followed the thread's route down to the needle. It was as he expected. He moved the wheel again.
"Some scrap of material to sew would help." mumbled Johnnie, holding out a hand without taking his eyes off the needle. Dan responded with a strip of grey cloth.
Johnnie fed the material under the needle and slowly turned the wheel by hand and was rewarded with a very crude stitch. For a long time he studied the machine's movements. Then he began to make changes.
"It IS the tension that's wrong." declared Johnnie, gently pulling thread while turning a spring-adjusting knurled nut, his confidence growing.
"Is that bad?"
"Nothing that some careful adjustments can't fix." replied the young 'expert' as he altered the feed tension spring's setting.
He turned the wheel slowly again and again while peering closely at the needle's descent through the scrap of fabric. His audience watched in silence as the machine produced a much improved stitch; then a better one; and another even better still. More fine adjustments, better stitches each time.
"Get me two strips of cloth to sew together. Black would be best. It would be easier to see this white thread against black."
Dan swung away on his crutches in search of scraps of black material.
"Will you be able to get it to sew better than that?" whispered his sister anxiously.
The reply was a scornful glance.
"I'll get you to sew with it first. That should prove to Dan, as well as to yourself, how easy it is to use."
Not sure whether she should feel flattered or offended, Susan did not reply.
"You have great patience." commented Dan, returning with the black test strips.
"'Patience and perseverance would take a snail to Jerusalem.'" quoted Johnnie, "Now we'll try a quick run across those scraps you've got there."
Like the wake behind a ship the white stitches flowed across the black material as Johnny turned the wheel by hand and the needle bobbed up and down, slowly at first, then faster.
"Jaysus! You've got it working!" said Dan delightedly.
"Susan, turn the machine around so you can sit and work the treadle with your feet." Johnnie ordered, "I want to watch how it is sewing from the other side."
His sister, happy to play her part in the operation, obeyed. She had operated a treadle before on a spinning wheel and her first sewing attempt produced a reasonably straight line of white stitching. Then she turned the material around and stitched her way back until the needle ran off the end of the strip of material. Dan, grinning in anticipation, yet still unsure about demonstrating his own expertise in the presence of two people who seemed to be little more than children, hesitated when invited to take over from Susan to add another row of stitches. Susan got up.
“Go on, try it!”
Dan tried it, operating the treadle with his one leg. Soon the piece of black trial fabric was covered with lines of white stitching. Dan cut it free from the sewing machine and tried to pull the stitching apart.
"Jaysus! That's great! That's bloody great sewing! … Perfect on both sides and it does it so fast too."
Dan watched thoughtfully as Johnnie dragged himself across the damp, muddy ground to where Susan had tied the horse. Susan re-attached Belle to the cart and Johnnie heaved himself up from the ground.
"You must get awful dirty dragging yourself around like that all the time!"
"Keeps me from getting delusions of grandeur!"
"Good luck! Thanks again for fixing my sewing machine."
By next morning a bleary-eyed Dan-the-Tailor was boasting that he and his machine 'could out-sew any seamstress in the county.' No money had changed hands but Johnnie Gill's reputation as a fixer of sewing machines was assured.
A week or two later a strange object was delivered for Johnny. Made mostly of soft leather, it took quite some time to determine its purpose. It appeared to be a sort of overall or protective garment. Suggestions how it might be worn came from every member of the family. It was tough, waterproof, had many pockets, openings, straps and buckles. The strong, wear-resisting elbow pads and sliding strips of heavy leather provided the final clue. As well as tailoring, Dan-the-Tailor also made and repaired horse-harness. His thoughtful assessment of Johnnie's unusual life-style and the obvious need for a special protective 'coat' resulted in the creation of the unique leather garment. Johnnie named it 'Cromwell' and he wore it with pride and gratitude. Well done Dan!