The Best London Museum You've Never Heard Of: The Sewing Machine Museum

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 16 months ago

Last Updated 23 January 2023

The Best London Museum You've Never Heard Of: The Sewing Machine Museum

Walking up to a massive warehouse on the edge of Tooting and Balham, the nerves start to hit. We're beginning to think we've come to the wrong place. Clearly, when we put 'Sewing Machine Museum' into Google Maps, it got confused and has taken us to a crusty old sewing machine warehouse instead.

We walk up to a door with a sewing machine sitting outside. There's no mention of a museum anywhere. We pop our heads in just to make sure, and spot a small sign that reads 'Museum Upstairs'. It's like they don't want you to find the place, especially when you consider it only opens three hours a month.

The somewhat inauspicious entrance.

Finally we clamber up the stairs, and find ourselves transported back in time. The Sewing Machine Museum is a snapshot of the past, one where stitching rules.

As the name suggests, sewing machines dominate everything here. They line the walls and cabinets, and many of them sit on desks, begging for visitors to get hands on with them. And you often can, as long as they're not kept behind glass.

Information is sparse throughout the museum. There's a folder lying next to one of the early 20th century sewing machines, which gives a brief overview of the technology and its history. There's a resident expert on hand to chat about the machines, and a TV plays a (quite dated) clip from the '90s about the museum on loop.

Even without knowing the background, it's fantastic fun to study the many machines that come in plenty of shapes and sizes, to see how the technology progressed through time. Nearly all the machines in the museum are still functional — a sewing machine's calling card is its durability.

A reproduction of Ray's father's shop.

The museum is the personal collection of sewing machine salesman Ray Rushton, and he kindly allows the public to get a look at it once a month. His family's lineage in the sewing machine business becomes clear once you step into the second room. There's a full reproduction of his father's sewing machine shop which was on Merton Road, about two and a half miles west of here.

This room contains some of the more precious sewing machines, kept safely behind glass away from prying hands. Two stand tall beyond all others. First there is a machine made by Pollack & Schmidt from 1865, which was presented to Queen Victoria's firstborn daughter, Vicky. Later in life she gave it to her child's nanny — who was the one who'd used it the most — and her family kept it for many years. Eventually it went for sale at auction, garnering £23,000.

Queen Victoria's daughter's sewing machine.

That's peanuts compared to the tall wooden beast sitting a few cabinets down. It's called Thimmonier, named after its creator Barthelemy Thimmonier who many believe to be the inventor of the sewing machine, and this one of the first. The museum bought this one, dating back to 1829, for £50,000 at auction.

The Thimmonier, one of the world's first sewing machines

On top of those two, there are hundreds more historic sewing machines, and other bits of memorabilia stuffed in. It's well worth checking out for yourself.

The Sewing Machine Museum, 293-312 Balham High Road, SW17 7AA. Open on the first Saturday of the month, 2pm-5pm, admission is free but a charitable donation to either The Royal National Lifeboat Institution or Leukaemia Research is appreciated.