On Heather Bannister’s dining room table sits an 80-year-old sewing machine. Black with gold trimmings, it was made by English manufacturing giant Vickers, most famous for its Supermarine Spitfire aircraft, favoured by the Royal Air Force during World War II. Beside it, in pale green, is a machine by rival Messerschmitt – whose Bf 109E planes, piloted by the German Luftwaffe, battled the Allies during the Battle of Britain.

Flash forward to 2017, and Heather is using both contraptions to piece together her latest quilt. “You’ve got two companies whose planes were fighting each other in the skies in the war. And now we’ve got their sewing machine counterparts here, sitting together in peace and making beautiful things.” Heather loves a sewing machine with a story.

Her Masterton home boasts a collection of more than 100 vintage machines; some were made in the 1880s, her most contemporary date back to the 1970s, and there’s everything in between. Some play music when a crank is turned, some sound like “tractors starting up” and folklore has it that others were owned by British royalty. Continuing with the aviation theme, she has three industrial machines used by the Royal New Zealand Air Force to make parachutes for dropping supplies to Antarctica.

But, says Heather, a sewing machine is no use if it can’t be shared. Teaming up with Urban Dream Brokerage to help revitalise Masterton’s CBD, the mum of seven is setting up a living museum in town – where the public can use her keepsakes to stitch everything from cushions to ball gowns. Heather hopes the creative hub will help her community get in touch with their crafty side, and especially that the youngsters will have an opportunity to learn the almost forgotten art of “making do and mending”.

“My kids kept saying, ‘when you die, we’re going to start a museum with your machines.’ I said, ‘that’s nice – why wait ‘til I’m dead?!’”

Heather remembers when she was growing up, that “everybody’s mother was a sewer. Nowadays, kids’ grandparents don’t even seem to have that skill. But I think there is a yearning amongst us to learn these old skills, and make something out of nothing. It’d be lovely to pass that on.”

Heather was given her first vintage hand crank machine in 2012. Finding the historic appliances “lovely” to sew with, she began adding to her collection, scouring charity shops and TradeMe. “People cottoned on, and showed up at my door with machines. We joke that if you leave them alone, they breed. My husband keeps tripping over them.”

Early on, Heather struggled to find locals who could fix her vintage machines. Impressively, she taught herself, with help from YouTube and Facebook communities. Once “cleaned up”, the machines are as hardy as in their heyday – being made from cast iron, as opposed to the plastic parts of contemporary models.

Heather says the older machines are perfect for new sewers, wary of fast-moving electronic needles. “The machine stops when you stop turning the crank; you’re in control. I meet people who’ve had bad experiences with sewing. I’ll show them how to use a hand crank and, half an hour later, they’ll be saying ‘wow, I can sew!’”

Heather envisions the museum as a place where people of all ages can try their hand at tailoring – and for older folk, also a chance to reminisce. “There’ll be ladies in town who used one of these machines to make their dollies’ clothes. Hopefully, we can all have tea, and share memories.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Photography by Jannelle Preston-Searle