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The Secret Life of the Sewing Machine

Posted by James Wolfensberger on

In 1988, British public television aired a series called The Secret Life of Machines, created by Tim Hunkin.

Hunkin is something of a Renaissance man - a cartoonist, author, artist, and engineer, who has long been active on the Internet where he shares his eclectic mix of professional work, interests and personal endeavors.

The first season of Hunkin's series focused on common appliances - the vacuum, the fax machine, the washing machine and others. Compared to modern productions with whizzing graphics and slick production, The Secret Life of Machines has a retro 70s/80s feel and is more like spending time with your mild-mannered, brilliant uncle wandering around workshops and unexpected locations in a bygone era.

Hunkin is nearly emotionless and completely fascinating. Imagine a John Lennon type discussing the invention of the telephone in a soothing and philosophical manner. Hunkin's docile style becomes comical and endearing as he struggles to operate antique manual vacuum cleaners, commenting wryly on their miserable performance, yet always respectful of their historical importance. As an inventor and engineer himself, it's clear that Hunkin has a passion for machines and their benefits in spite of his dry delivery.

Illustration by Tim Hunkin.

The 26-minute episodes are laced with Hunkin's own animated cartoons which are informative as demonstrations, but also provide tongue-in-cheek insight into the hilarious side of human folly interlaced with the moments of brilliance that propelled humankind forward with inventions like - you guessed it - the sewing machine. His cartoon of a mob of angry tailors destroying Thimmonier's sewing machines in 1841 includes silly grunts and crowd noise that give comic relief to what was really a quite awful event.

The Secret Life of the Sewing Machine includes an interview with Maggie Snell, one of the original members of the International Sewing Machine Collectors Society and an important figure in the organization.

Tim Hunkin encourages the free use of his series. The best page I've found that offers all the episodes in a tidy format is available at this link - you can even download the episodes freely.

If you haven't seen The Secret Life of the Sewing Machine yet, give yourself a half hour of uninterrupted time to watch. I think you'll enjoy it.

Interested in more about vintage sewing machines?

Try our documentary, Still Stitching, the only feature-length film of it's kind. The 100-minute production features interviews with Joseph Brennan, Karen Castor, Danna L. Fore, Scott Kennedy, Will McCann, Renato Pace, Terry Craword Palardy, and Cathy Racine - plus dozens of beautiful machines, technical details, and history.

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