First Blind Machinist
by Graham Forsdyke
Issue No. 35
MEMBERS who were at the Harrogate regional meeting last year will remember Irene Coley telling us about her work with blind sewing machinists and showing specially-adapted models.
The idea of teaching the blind to sew by machine goes back to 1891 when Thomas Stoddart, the superintendent of the Royal Glasgow Asylum for the Blind, was discussing labor for the blind with George Henderson of the Singer Company.
Henderson thought it might be possible to coach one of the inmates and was introduced to Jeannie Jack as a likely pupil.
Jeannie, then well past her teens, had been totally blind since a childhood accident and had never seen a .
Henderson modified a machine simply by putting a guard over the presser foot and after a few hours instruction Jeannie was able to sew satisfactorily and also wind bobbins and thread the machine.
Soon more machines were purchased and by 1911 50 steam-powered machines were operating at the asylum.
Jeannie eventually left the institution to marry - her husband was also blind.
Experts called in to judge the work of the operators reported that the blind workers produced garments just as satisfactory as those made by sighted machinists at about 70% of the normal speed.
However, because of a highly-developed sense of touch, a blind person could thread a machine just as quickly.
Accidents and spoilt work were said to be as rare as at any ordinary factory.