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Photo 2. Featherweight sewing machine. CSTMC artefact No.: AY0069. Photo: Tom Alföldi

The Sewing Machine of an Extraordinary Woman

The importance of an artefact to a museum collection depends as much on its history as on the material heritage it embodies, as the lovely Singer sewing machine that the Corporation has acquired for its collection attests.

This sewing machine was acquired primarily for its technological importance and to fill a void in the national collection. Furthermore, this light and compact model was very popular among Canadian women and the specimen on display is in very good condition. It was only in documenting the artefact for the collection’s catalogue that I learned more about the history of its former owner. And what a history that is! As a rule, in order to document an artefact, I conduct a great deal of research in books and online to obtain the technical information, as well as consulting the donors in order to find out the history of the people connected to the object. A comment in an email I received from a member of the donor family, Caroline Walker, piqued my curiosity: her mother-in-law, the machine’s former owner, Willa Walker, from Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, was the Wing Officer of the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force[1]. My online research enabled me to find a detailed obituary as well as the publicity issued by the publisher of her book. This is what I learned.

Photo 1: Willa Walker wearing her uniform in 1941. With the permission of Willa Walker’s family

Photo 1: Willa Walker wearing her uniform in 1941. With the permission of Willa Walker’s family

This popular Featherweight model sewing machine belonged first to a woman with an extraordinary past: Willa (Magee) Walker, born in Montreal around 1913. Willa’s life was unlike the lives of most women at the time – that is to say, a housewife primarily occupied with tasks like sewing for her family. When she was 20 years old, Willa was already travelling on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner as the postmistress. She was also private secretary to Lady Marlar, the wife of the Canadian ambassador in Washington. In 1939, she married David Walker, aide de camp to Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir. The beginning of the Second World War transformed their romance early on into a life of ups and downs that was worthy of Hollywood.

David was a prisoner of war for almost five years. Willa spared no effort to secure his release. She invented a system of codes that she used in the letters she sent to her husband. She even attempted to conceal the invasion plans in them, albeit without success. On returning to Canada, she once again joined the armed forces and, after undergoing officer training, joined the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force. She quickly climbed the ranks, becoming Wing Officer (the fourth highest rank in the military hierarchy) of the Women’s Division, which consisted of some 17.000 women[2].

At the end of the war, her services were rewarded when she received the honour of becoming a Member of the British Empire (MBE). Willa and David were reunited again in Great Britain. They lived in Scotland and later in India before settling in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, with their small but growing family. David Walker, who was as distinguished as his wife, wrote 21 novels.

This sewing machine was used to repair the clothes of their four young boys and to make bedding and curtains for the three cottages on their property, which Willa leased out during the summer. They sewing machine appears to have been purchased in about 1947.

Throughout her life, Willa was involved in many activities – sporting, community and social. She was also the author of No Hay Fever and a Railway, which was reissued in 2006 as Summers in St Andrews: Canada’s Idyllic Seaside Resort; there she tells about the places and families she had known since her childhood, when she spent summer holidays there with her family[3]. Willa Walker died aged 97 on 4 July 2010.

Photo 3. Willa Walker photographed by Karsh during the 1930s. With the permission of Willa Walker’s family

Photo 3. Willa Walker photographed by Karsh during the 1930s. With the permission of Willa Walker’s family

To be sure, not all owners of artefacts have such an exciting life as Willa Walker’s. Nevertheless, the mere fact that we are aware of the life of the individuals connected with an object enriches our understanding of the object and adds to the overall documentation concerning it.

 

(Artefact legend)

Featherweight Sewing Machine

Model 221-1

Singer Manufacturing Company

Elizabeth, New Jersey

ca. 1947

CSTMC artefact no. AY0069

_________________________________

[1] I wish to thank Caroline Walker for her gift of the artefact and for the digitization of family photographs.

[2] Her Uniform is located at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

[3] WALKER, Willa. Summers in St. Andrews: Canada’s Idyllic Seaside Resort, Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane, 2006, 192 p.