Busia’s Sewing Machine

Greg Kowalski, Hamtramck Historical Museum, with Grandma Brodackis sewing machine.

Hamtramck Historical Museum director Greg Kowalski with Busias sewing machine.

I parted with Grandma Brodacki’s Singer sewing machine last month. It was difficult because it’s been in my home since I was born, first in our farm house near Romeo, then in the little Rettell house on 32 Mile Road, then to apartments in Romeo, then on to my Detroit house and then to Chicago. Now, it’s back where it started; I donated it to the new Hamtramck Historical Museum.

Grandma, or “Busia” as we called her in Polish, was an expert seamstress, proud of the fact that she came to this country prepared to work. Although she ended up working in a cigar factory in Hamtramck after she arrived from Poland in 1913, she told me that being a seamstress, a woman with a profession, is part of what got her to America. As we would say now, she had a “marketable skill.” I remember sitting by her side as a small child while she sewed, making aprons and dresses. I never remember her making clothes for me, presumably because my mother was not about to have her boy walking around in “feed bags.” So when we went to the farmer’s elevator in Armada, we usually came back with flour sacks, which Busia fashioned into the house dresses and aprons she wore every day except Sunday, when she would don her store-bought dress for church.

As a young mother, however, her skills were much more useful. When she wasn’t working in the fields or barns, she sewed clothes for her seven children, and that is what they wore for most of their childhoods. Little wonder my mother was determined to be an American woman and became quite a clothes horse. At 17 she flew the coop and never wore anything that even remotely resembled a feed bag again.

Busia’s sewing machine shows all the signs of wear that a well-used machine should show–holes and scratches, chips and mars–but the machine still operates, its familiar clackity-clack just as a I remember it. I learned to sew by watching Grandma at the machine, and then imitating her. I remain amazed that the sewing machine required no electricity, no power source, except Busia’s legs.

Read about the museum and watch a video interview with Greg Kowalski, chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission, in the September 29, 2013 issue of the Detroit Free Press.

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