AS A young message boy in Clydebank’s Singer factory, Willie Sweeney recalls being sent to the storeman’s room.

“I walked in and couldn’t believe my eyes – lined up on the shelves in front of me, row after row after row of them, were old sewing machines,” he grins.

“There must have been hundreds. I remember thinking – what on earth are we keeping all these old, broken machines for?

“Fifty years later, I saw them again in Clydebank Museum and I realised why we had kept them. They were part of history.”

That history is now in the spotlight once again, thanks to a new exhibition exploring the sewing machine and its links to Clydebank and West Dunbartonshire.

A Stitch in Time: The Story of the Sewing Machine runs until May 13 at Clydebank Museum and Art Gallery.

The exhibition explores the history of the sewing machine from its invention in the mid 19th century, to its various uses in all manners of manufacturing, from dresses and boots to feather boas.

It also showcases rare examples of early sewing machines by various manufacturers, including the Singer Number One – the Singer Manufacturing Company’s first commercial sewing machine.

The story of the sewing machine has long been connected to Clydebank.

Millions of machines were built by tens of thousands of people at the Singer Manufacturing Company’s Clydebank Factory.

In turn, Clyde-built ships transported sewing machines all around the world. Between ships and sewing machines, West Dunbartonshire played a major role in driving the global economic and social changes brought about by the invention of the sewing machine and it’s a story that still resonates today.

For Willie Sweeney, the exhibition brings back many happy memories.

He left school at 15 to become a message boy at Singer before beginning a five-year apprenticeship as a toolmaker for the company.

“I still remember my interview,” he smiles. “My dad was a milkman, and I helped him on his rounds. He used to deliver to the local barber, whose brother was the apprentice supervisor at Singer.

“One day my mum came in and told me to get off the van, get washed and go to Singer for an interview – to this day, I don’t know whether I got the job on my own merit or because my dad delivered my boss’s milk!”

Willie adds: “Being a message boy was brilliant – I got to know every corner of the whole factory because I got sent all over the place.

“Being an apprentice meant I stayed in the one place, but I loved it. I started off repairing the machines and moved on to making the tools which punched out the sewing machine parts.”

When he was 21, Willie left Singer’s to work for the Ford car plant in Dagenham, but it was a short-lived experience.

“I lasted six months – I missed being at Singer’s,” he says. “I came back, and I was there for about 22 years in the end.”

He laughs: “I know some people won’t agree but I thought it was a fantastic place to work. I thought people died and went to Singer’s. I loved it.”

Willie recalls with some sadness the day the factory closed down.

“It had been coming for some time of course, though many people said it would never happen – they could never close Singer’s,” he says.

“I remember at the union meetings they would read out a list of names, and they would be the people they were letting go that month. It was ‘last in, first out’, in those days.

He shakes his head. “I couldn’t believe it when I finally heard my name – to get paid off from the job I loved was a real shock. It was a shame, but I have such happy memories of my time there, and they’ll stay with me always.”

As well as a collection of machines from West Dunbartonshire’s Recognised Collection of National Significance, the exhibition includes a series of beautiful dresses and accessories including some on loan for the first time from Glasgow Museums.

Councillor John Mooney, Depute Convener of Educational Services, said: “It really is remarkable to see how far technology developed during the 19th century, to allow for the creation of such beautiful fashions. This stunning exhibition brings together a wealth of history which I know will be appreciated by many generations of families in the area. My mother worked at Singer’s for many years, and I used to volunteer in the sewing machine archive. I would encourage people to come along and enjoy the variety of garments and sewing machines on display.”

The exhibition is open from 10am to 4.30pm, Monday to Saturday, until May 13. Admission is free.