Thursday, 4 November 2010

On a Zip and a Prayer

I’m like a child in a sweet shop with sewing shops; nose squished against the window, breath frosting the glass, saliva drooling down my chin over the colourful, unattainable treats inside.
Then I remember the door.
Recently, I went to see Roz, at Sew Much Fun. You can’t just ‘pop in’ with her - once you cross that threshold into a land of fleecy cupcakes, flat-packed owls and cosy chaos it’s impossible to leave. I just wanted a couple of buttons and ended up staying all afternoon. Some, making whole outfits, have been there for years.
I love it. It’s not cheap, but you can always get what you’re looking for, or a good enough substitute. Orange buttons? Here’s a jarful.
As I rummaged looking for three identical ones (there were two of every single kind, just not three) we got into a conversation about cutting corners. Hard though it is to admit it, I’ve done with sewing what I always do with any new project. Learn a few basics, rush in, make a little headway and then hit a wall which I won’t be able to climb unless I slow down and learn to do things properly.
Like putting in a zip. I’ve been either winging it so far or avoiding the necessity of putting one in (nothing wrong with pulling something over your head, is there? Even if it does give you a flat face). I don’t even use the zip foot because it’s far too scary and, well, it’s just easier not to so I use the normal foot instead and it can’t get anywhere near close enough, leaving a huge margin.
Then there’s tacking. I know that, like pension plans and Brussel sprouts, the laborious needle and thread system is there for my own good. It’s just much quicker to skip the tacking and go straight from pin to sew. Who’s going to notice the odd bit of bunching here and there and, honestly, why would they even care?
The trouble is that I notice and I care. I know where the faults lie, and I know they’ll just get worse. Take the three orange buttons, and by extension the dress they were destined for. It had started off so well. I bought the fabric on a day out in a little shop in Brighton’s lanes, a lovely bright blue linen/cotton mix. For the pattern I borrowed a dress from someone at work that I’d always loved (the dress, not the person), made with triangles and hanging down to asymmetrical points. From this I made a rough newspaper pattern and a diagram that could pass as instructions.
The problem came when I tried to assemble it. Because my pattern was so haphazard the triangles didn’t meet up. The bodice was too wide and I had no idea how to attach the straps. Oh, and the zip was a disaster – one line of stitching far wider than the other, and such an ugly mess. It served its function, ie doing up and undoing, but was pretty shoddy workmanship.
You know how you always know when a cake is homemade because the top slopes to once side and you can see knife marks in the icing? Well, that’s what the dress ended up like, even with the addition of orange buttons. Surely the aim is for people at least to assume you bought the dress in the shops. If the dress quite clearly isn’t fit for sale then should you even be wearing it in public…
One comment made me laugh though.
‘You’ve done the zip really well!’. Ha! Which either meant the person hadn’t looked at it properly. Or they were being kind. Or they honestly thought that was the best I could do.
Whichever it was, it was time to go back to the drawing board. Less time staring into shop windows. More, shudder, zip time.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The bag lady

I’m really not much of a bag lady. Some ladies have hundreds, I have just a few and tend to stick to only one, small shoulder bag with enough room to squeeze the bare essentials and a book into. That was my bag lot and I was content with it. Then I was given the Cath Kidston ‘Sew’ book for Christmas which came with a free bag to make, complete with cut-out fabric, buttons and even label to sew on. It was practically ready made so, even though the prospect didn’t thrill me, I thought I’d assemble it and see what it was all about. The pattern was incredibly simple, but clever, and looked almost professional. It came out much smaller than I’d imagined, certainly not book squeezable, and with a distinctive Cath Kidston floweriness that isn't really me.
I wonder, I thought, bag lust suddenly seizing me. Perhaps I could make a bag similar to this, but bigger, and use fabric that I actually like…
I dug around in the material bag and pulled out some vivid, Fanta orange corduroy that saw brief light of day once in the antlers of a moose. It was quite flimsy fabric compared to the original, so I decided to add a green floral lining and, in a fit of daring, to incorporate an internal zip for valuables. The actual making of the bag was easy. Trying to slot in the zip was a nightmare that I quickly regretted, but persevered with anyway. I sewed the whole lot together, added a few woolly flowers for good measure, and hey presto. A bag truly fit for a bag lady.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The minty paradise dress

Gardens and Mazes

The last time I went to John Lewis to look for fabric I was disappointed. Then I heard that Peter Jones had a good selection and trotted down to Sloane Square to investigate. First impressions didn’t live up to the vast, Aladdin’s cave of floor-to-ceiling splendour that I’d imagined, but there were quite a few fabrics that I liked, and two that I just couldn’t choose between. Both were Amy Butler and both were green – one, Garden Maze, was an eye-boggling geometric pattern while the other, Paradise Garden Mint, was a psychedelic jungle of swirling hippy dippy flowers. Unable to resist temptation, I bought them both, thinking to make a dress from one or the other.
I thought, and thought, and then decided, scary though the idea was, to take the leap. The last (and only) time I had made a dress I’d had training wheels on, so to speak, as Mum was on hand with advice, Diet Coke and the Unpicker. Now I would be going solo with nothing to stop me spilling out of the saddle.
A daunting prospect but I leapt anyway, taking the whirly swirly material and unfolding it onto the floor. With so much going on, a simple pattern was best, and I dug out one that once upon a time yielded my blue haggis dog dress – just two panels, front and back, a zip and a couple of darts.
At the time it was just a disposable, tongue-in-cheek summer dress but I ended up keeping it much longer, so long in fact that the haggis dog, from being just a humble Scottie, had been adopted as the symbol of handbag-and-shoe-emporium Radley, giving my frock an unasked for expensive allure.
I digress. I hadn’t realised, when buying the fabric, that I’d spend quite so long landscape gardening it – trying to get a line of flowers dead in the centre on both sides. Having done that, I sewed in the zip first, still too nervous to use the zip foot and ending up with a much-too-wide margin. After sewing darts into the front, I tacked the two pieces together and by some miracle it was more or less the right size. The hardest, fiddliest, awkwardest part was the straps. Supposed to be about 2cm wide, I sewed them slightly narrower than that and was faced with the almost impossible task of turning them inside out. I had a long, barbecue skewer-like implement with a hook on the end designed to help, but the fabric proved too thick and resistant. In the end I had to pull it through by finger, millimetre by unyielding millimetre, a job which took several hours of my life that I’ll never get back and ruined my nails.
Done, in the end, the straps were sewn on, when, to my horror I discovered that one of the straps was thinner than the other. Fat strap, thin strap. And don’t say you’d never know, because I know. And so do you now.
But still, it could have been worse. Whilst not quite a utopian paradise, I’m still quite pleased with my minty garden. It’s not perfect, but it’s wearable, and I doubt I’ll ever see anyone walking down the street wearing exactly the same pattern-fabric-strap combination. It inspired me to keep up the gardening… now I just need to figure out exactly what to do with the maze.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

My Own Label

Talking of labels, Mum gave me an envelope the other day with an excited expression on her face.
‘I couldn’t wait until Christmas,’ she said.
‘I’m glad,’ I replied, given that it was over six months away at the time, and, no matter what the envelope contained, that was far too long to wait to find out.
I tore it open and shrieked. It was my very own set of Moose and the Machine labels! Professionally made, just like the ones we used to sew into PE kits, strip after strip of of curly purple writing and even a little design of a sewing machine on the side! Much as I loved the Honour Original ones I’d inherited, they paled at the sight of these; mine, my very own precioussssss.
I sewed the first one into my new brown skirt, the second into my sister’s red skirt. The rest I’ll sew into other things, as yet unmade, unplanned, non-existent – yet no longer anonymous.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Pink becomes red

It occurred to me, after straightening out my leaning green skirt, that I hadn’t seen my sister wearing her leaning pink one for ages. Perhaps she, too, had got fed up with that persistently falling over feeling and dispatched it to the charity shop, thereby leaving a gap in her wardrobe for something slightly hippy but not wonky.
I know… I thought. I’ll make her a new skirt for her birthday! Granted, she would perhaps rather have had something commercially made and with a label on it, but the idea, once in my head, stuck. This would be a first… making something for someone else. Something they actually might wear out into the wide world – a very different matter from me parading my creations around my more narrow world where people, regardless of what they privately thought, would at least be forgiving. But she had no such dispensation, and also has a serious job, for which she needs serious clothes. The pressure was on…
What colour? She had probably outgrown pink by now. Brown isn’t her colour. I flitted through the rainbow and kept coming back to red, which she wears a lot of. Not the safest bet, but then it was a gamble anyway. The problem was where to buy red cord – most places I looked stocked only muted shades of green and brown. Which reminded me of a game we used to play as children, having discerned that a certain type of man, quite often although not always a Frenchman, always wore a certain type of trouser. Corduroy trousers, to be precise; slightly baggy and either bottle-green or mustard-brown.
The game (exciting childhood that we had) worked on a points basis. I had bottle-green while Nats had mustard-brown and we would score a point whenever we spotted our particular colour.
The game, as far as I am aware, is still ongoing (I’m in the lead by several pairs) but onto red cord now. I found it, eventually, at Cloth House, in Soho. It was expensive, but a lovely, vibrant shade of red with thick, wide pile.
Using my greaseproof paper pattern I cut out more triangles, bigger ones, to make the skirt slightly longer (serious job, like I said). I lined it with red satin, added funky buttons I’d found at All the Fun of the Fair and then worked my fingers to the bone trimming the hem with blanket stitch, the fabric, if possible, even stiffer than before. It came out OK, I think, although I haven’t seen her wear it yet. So there you are. Her pink cord skirt turned into a red one; my green one become brown. If you’ve really got nothing better to do, there might be a game in that somewhere.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Leaning Towers

Three months – where did they go? Oops. I can’t really explain what happened there, so let’s just forget about it shall we. Ahem. Now where were we… Skirting the issue perhaps? That’ll do. For a long time one of my favourite items of clothing was a slightly askew skirt I found in a back alley in Camden. I had taken a wrong turn whilst looking for the Vietnamese noodle bar and found a shop selling a whole array of asymmetrical clothing. I liked the skirts so much I bought two – one in green for me, one in pink for my sister. I wore mine through several dark winters, until in a slightly OCD way I realised I was more and more bothered by the fact that the left side of the skirt was longer than the right, which made me feel like I was perpetually leaning to one side, like a human Tower of Pisa. No one else noticed, of course, it was all in my mind. But that’s the worst place for anything to be.
One day I woke up and thought ‘no more’. I took the skirt out, spread some greaseproof paper over it - not with a view to baking, but with the vague notion that I was ‘taking a pattern’. Instead of following the asymmetric lines though I made sure that both sides were even. The skirt still went down into a point at the front and back, but points that met between my legs and not somewhere left of my thigh.
I could feel the stress inside me easing even as I cut out my nice isosceles triangles from brown cord and stitched them together. The feeling of relief continued as I added a lining of yellow floral cotton (last seen inside the disastrous attempt at a hat), a bright orange zip and sewed on a few coloured buttons for good measure. Then I switched the telly on to re-runs of Friends, and spent a lazy sofa afternoon sewing lime green wool into blanket stitch all along the hem. Up at the sides, down to the points, up again. It took ages and my finger pads were numb for a whole week from pushing the needle through the heavy fabric, but I quite liked the finished effect. Not wonky but still slightly hippy; not so much leaning tower as flower power.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


Oh, and I made my own label to sew onto the beanbag. Just in case it ever ended up in an identity parade.

The Deep Blue Beanbag

Long time no blog. I blame the weather. Make hay when the sun shines they say, not useless draw string knicker bags. Even ones with red frilly ribbons.
Anyway, I’m here now, and, harping back on the game show theme, it’s time for a quick recap on blogs past.
Contestant Number One is the Pirate Beanbag: painstakingly put together, lovingly presented yet ultimately rejected in favour of Contestant Number Two… Nothing.
Yes. The unhappy truth is that a beanbag shaped hole in the living room was preferable to my tangible yet puerile offering. Rejection hurts. But time heals, and, reluctant though I was to admit it someone (Sam), somewhere (here) in the great beanbag balance sheet was still owed a Christmas present.
I approached the task gingerly. No fripperous fabrics this time; grown-up velvet would replace the Jolly Roger. Bromley market provided 3 metres of dark blue, the colour of the deepest seas where light doesn’t penetrate and those strange fluorescent fish with eyeballs on stalks live.
Lessons learned from the last attempt, such as making the zip on the cover big enough to get it over the inside beanbag, made the process infinitely easier this time. Less haste, less unpicking was another point of wisdom. And of course the universal truth that you can never have enough balls. I ordered a 6 cubic feet bag from the Internet, which was as voluminous as Santa’s sack but deflated sadly when you sat on it. I topped up with another two cubic feet but still the beanbag – no matter how sophisticated – was saggy.
In the end I swapped the insides with those from the more amply stuffed Pirate Beanbag. A small sacrifice so that our two contestants, so wildly different in character, could live together happily ever after.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Just pants

I’ve thought of a good question for Family Fortunes, that grand old Wensleydale of cheesy gameshows:
What do people commonly put in bags?
Eeeeeeeeh. Shopping? Correct. Rubbish? Correct. Teabags? Er, sorry, I don’t think you’ve understood the question. Teabags, by definition, come with bag already incorporated.
Oh, OK. Knickers then?
Knickers? Why would you put… er… security… over here please… This family are having a laugh.
Dearie me. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea after all. I thought the knicker bag might be a nice thing to take away on holiday, a slightly classier means of stowing away your unsightlies than just shoving them into a plastic bag. I must be wrong though. It’s pants.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

From name tag to label

Ah the days of name tags, sewn into every garment you owned – even socks if I remember correctly. In blue, red, black, always on white tape: each tag turning the most mundane pair of pants into your very own personal fashion label. The purpose back then was to stop loss/theft (you laugh, but someone stole my wet swimming costume once). As we outgrew the need for branding, Mum was given her own set of grown-up name tags by a friend, to sew into her own homemade fashion house clothing. Twenty years down the line, I proudly sewed one of these into the green dress.
It felt like a historical moment. And, with any luck, should keep the wet cossie thief at bay.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Cushions, bags, aprons; these were all a distraction, a play for time, an avoidance tactic from the big scary, hairy thing waiting under the bridge… the making of a proper dress. Something I might actually wear in public. To work. On the tube. To meet ageing celebrity games show hosts.
Brown dress, your time has come…
I dug out the pattern, still marked in pen with my 20-year-old outline, pin-holes in the butterfly-wing paper where the brown cord had been speared so many moons ago. For this latest outing, I’d chosen green cord. Impossible to recreate the same, perfect dress; resurrection would come in a different colour.
Needing moral support, the Machine and I went to Mum’s house for the weekend and installed ourselves, in a bizarre face-off, on the table opposite her new Quiltmaster Nimbus 2000 (a million functions and it can also fly!).
Barely believing it was possible to construct something socially acceptable from the lifeless expanse of fabric in front of me, I re-pinned through the pin-holes then cut, crunch, crunch, sharp scissors eating the green cord.
‘Pin that bit. Tack this bit.’
The arcane instructions came thick and fast. Not a complicated pattern, but each jab of the needle making the difference between wearable and unbearable - with some parts more crucial than others. Inside hems, not worried about. Sewing the lining onto what would be the neck-line, and therefore requiring more than an element of symmetry had me holding my breath. As did sewing the longest zip in the world down the back.
With Heart FM playing in the background and frequent Diet Coke breaks, a whole day disappeared into a vortex of pinning, tacking, tailor-tacking then unpinning, untacking, willing the unwilling. Some sewing. Some unpicking. An overnight pause and back with a vengeance in the morning.
Having assembled the bulk of the dress, it was the finishing touches which took the time. Squaring up the shoulders, making sure they were the same width. I’d always thought there was some magic formula to dress-making. You got everything into its correct position and beeeep, that was it. The reality, I think, is it’s about trial and errror and retrial and even then the finished garment will never be mathematically precise and perfectly symmetrical. Which must be part of the charm - they say people with wonky faces have the most character. Perhaps not quite as wonky as Picasso would have, but an element of individuality must be good.
So here it is. The green dress. Not as perfect as the brown dress, and with no memories attached to it yet. Except of course the whirr of sewing machines, the buzz of music and chatting, the chink of wine glasses, the satisfaction of a weekend well-spent. Which isn’t such a bad start to life really.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Time Travel

My pocket Oxford Mini dictionary from 1986 (name inscribed at the front in fountain pen, bless) defines fabric as cloth or knitted material.
That’s the mini definition. The maxi one encompasses texture, colour and – clasp those donnish mortar boards – time travel.
Yes. Like a Tardis, fabric sucks you into a twisting, swirling, musical kaleidoscope of madness before plonking you back in your past, in my case that usually being sometime circa 1980.
I got just such a nobbling recently. I was walking along, minding my own business when there was a flash of blue and white and whoosh, 25 years vanished and I was deposited back in the school playground.
What material could have such power? Gingham of course. Those blue and white checks that will forever be school summer uniform, heralding, with the first hint of warmth in the air, the end of heavy winter clothes and the arrival of short sleeves.
I never knew exactly when the changeover would happen – it seemed to be yet another of those adult mysteries – but it was always a moment of joy, the bringer of good things to come. Of sitting cross-legged in the grass slitting and threading the sticky stalks of daisies. Of playing outside in the long evenings when the sun never seemed to go down. Of the soft, distinctive squeak of rubber-soled sandals that you wore with white ankle socks.
It was the end of wool, the start of cotton; winter itchiness replaced by summer freshness; long jumpers giving way to bare arms. Only a matter of weeks until the long summer holiday and life couldn’t get any better.
There was one dress in particular, just a plain shirt dress with big white buttons down the front that I remember fondly. It was the days before uniform uniforms, when any gingham would do, and no one – absolutely no one - had the same dress as me. It was cool and comfy with something of the nurse’s uniform about it, making me feel like someone of importance as I doctored my daisies to death.
If I still had that dress, and was still age 6-7 clothing, I’d probably wear it now. I’m not sure the same could be said for our other time-travelling fabric of the day, which I discovered in my bag of off-cuts.
White cotton with a spattering of blue cherries – dum dum dum dum – peel back the years to unveil a little girl, all round red cheeks and shiny white hair in her version of gingham, with smocking down the front and thin straps on chubby arms.
Not me, my sister Nats, who, not yet at school, had her own uniform in the cherries, almost good enough to eat. I’m sure she wouldn’t wear it now, but back then it was the height of cuteness – and fashion. Life was so much simpler. Sigh. I’m going to start a campaign to bring back smocking. And gingham. And yes, I might even get a dog called Toto.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Patterns in Time

What’s the French for beanbag, I wonder? Surely not 'sac d’haricots', as google would have me believe, literally bag of beans. I think ‘fauteuil de poire’ (pear sofa) is more likely, or the universal ‘pouf’ – not that I think Mémé would ever have made one. She was born in 1898 and lived through two world wars. Googling would have been as alien to my great-grandmother as the details of her daily life would be to me and I suspect she had very little time for messing around with polystyrene balls. From what I can glean she didn’t have much time for anything – living with her very strict grandparents in Sidi-bel-Abess during the weeks while her parents Juan and Antonia Aguilar stayed on their farm in the Moroccan countryside, she and her sister Antoinette were forbidden to play, being taught to sew, knit and crochet instead.
It must have been a relief when she met Grandpere (she was Spanish, he was French – what language did they communicate in?) at a dance and married him on March 6th 1922. He was employed by the Chemin de Fer Marocain, and the couple moved around from Rabat to Marrakesh to Fes, finally settling in Oujda. Along the way Mémé gave birth to Mauricette, my grandmother and, needing material to make clothes, used to go to the fabric markets in Rabat. As this was before sewing machines were widely used, everything had to be made laboriously by hand.
Then, so the story goes, when Mémé was in Oujda in 1933 she won some money on the lottery and bought her first sewing machine, a Singer treadle. The same machine was used to teach her daughter how to sew, and Nanny still has it, sat downstairs in her house in south of France – just like I now have Mum’s Machine, sat, reassuringly, just across the hallway.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Wrong Beanbag: Part II

From inauspicious start to catastrophic ending. Whilst not as fiddly as the apron, the beanbag proved much more technical. Cutting out the side panels so that sea and sky joined was an exercise in precision, ending, sadly, in the death of a few whales and some loss of limb amongst the pirates.
Sewing them together was finicky and laborious whilst fitting the top circular panel into the not quite circular gap left for it could only be described as ARGGGGGGGGGGHHH.
After battling with pins for an hour I machined it up only to find, on turning it rightside, that the fabric had formed ugly, wadded bunches. Your casual observer might not notice but I knew and did the decent thing: threw it across the room.
Then I got the unpicker out. More by luck than judgement, the second attempt was better. I moved onto the zip, only to discover it was – a vital – 10cm too short. Still I forged on, hoping for the best. It was only when I’d finished the beanbag cover, and tried to insert the stuffing that hope started to die.
Push and heave as I might, the inner beanbag just wouldn’t go through the too-small zip hole. Huff and puff and strain, it was stuck fast. Until there came a horrible ripping sound and the stitching gave way and…
Congratulations, it’s a beanbag!
‘What do you think?’ I said, zipping it closed and presenting it to Sam. He seemed pleased when he saw what it was. Then he clocked the pirates, the seafaring giraffes, and his face fell.
‘It’s lovely,’ he said. ‘It would make a perfect upstairs beanbag…’
He hated it. I’d sort of suspected he might. After all, he’d never made a secret of being an adult. And was perfectly within his rights to think the Treasure Island theme wrong for a grown-up living room. Furthermore he had no idea of how difficult it had been to make the damn thing. Of the nail-biting frustration and tedium. The hours and hours I’d spent ridding the house of polystyrene balls. The years of my life that I’d never get back…
I relocated the offending article upstairs, where I used it for reading. Sam, from having a slightly ratty but otherwise perfectly acceptable beanbag, ended up with no present and nothing to sit on.
There’s a lesson in this somewhere.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Wrong Beanbag: Part I

I had an idea to make a beanbag for Sam. One Saturday when he was going to be out all day I unzipped his sun-bleached, ratty old one, curious to see how it was put together. A cascade of polystyrene balls tumbled out, caught on a draught and floated around the room, sticking to the walls with static and wedging themselves comfortably into the deepest fissures of the floorboards.
I decanted the rest as best I could into an assortment of garden sacks and eco-shopping bags but still ended up ankle-deep. The good news was the pattern didn’t look too complicated – one big circle bisected by a zip at the bottom, six leaf-shaped side panels and a smaller circle at the top.
I took some approximate measurements and, feeling almost in control, headed for John Lewis at Brent Cross
Disaster. I’d hoped for a canvas-type fabric in a grown-up neutral colour; navy blue, perhaps, like its predecessor, or bottle green.
All the haberdashery department could offer was red and yellow felt.
‘Try soft furnishings,’ a nice lady told me. ‘We only stock fabric in Oxford Street now…’
Downstairs, next to the ready-made curtains, I found rolls and rolls of material. Somewhere in there was a beanbag - my beanbag - never before in the field of human history made in exactly the way I was about to make it.
I could soon see why. No one else would bother. Of all the mileage of fabric, not one was suited to my task. This fabric too heavy. This fabric too pink. This fabric too child-like. Nothing for your grown-up man’s beanbag.
But then, I thought, rapidly re-evaluating, perhaps that’s where I was going wrong. Surely a beanbag by its very nature wasn't serious. It was just a sack of airy balls, a fat cloud of fun, a burst of laughter in a silent world. Whilst I’d thought all along that what Sam wanted was a sober, sombre accessory to grace the living room, in fact he was actually screaming out for colour, adventure, escapism… and I’d found just the fabric for that.
Treasure Island. Pirates in hammocks, giraffes in boats, azure-blue seas filled with friendly whales – what better gift for a nautically-minded boy in his mid-forties?
I bought three metres and escaped before the voice of sense could catch up with me.
Back home, though raring to get stuck into Long John Silver, I decided first of all to make an inner beanbag to contain all the wayward balls. Cutting out an old sheet, I pinned the pieces together and started sewing the lot into a giant pear-shape. Then I got a text.
Home in half an hour.
The kitchen was a crime scene of polystyrene, the old beanbag disembowelled on the floor while Treasure Island had landed in the living room. I dashed off the final stitches before madly funnelling balls into the sheeted inside case, watching it expand through puppy fat to big boned to morbidly obese. With seconds left I stuffed the shifting, formless mass inside the old beanbag cover, zipped it up, put it back where it normally lived and frantically started the clean-up. I was prising the last ball from the last crack in the floorboard when Sam walked in.
‘What you been up to?’
‘Not much.’
Later that day.
‘Why are there polystyrene balls in the hoover?’
Sometimes it’s the only explanation.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Le Sweat Shop

A café crème, a croissant – and a spot of couture, s’il vous plait. France has just opened its first sewing café in Paris, called le Sweat Shop. The idea is you can sew whilst enjoying a piece of chocolate cake. A lovely idea. Marie Antoinette would definitely have approved. But as someone who can’t have her cake and eat it without getting it absolutely everywhere, I’m slightly sceptical.

Stuff and Nonsense

As well as aprons and bags, Christmas was also a time of cushions. One, in shades of purple, for a work colleague fond of forty winks under her desk. The other for a sister-in-law whose cats are partial to a snooze. For this I used the fabulous cow fabric from Etsy, careful to shear through the psychedelic herd as gently as possible. It was strange to make such a gigantic cushion after the bijou one we made in Roz’s class. And slightly tricky, remembering which bit to sew where and at what point to attach the ribbon ties. It also took great thirsty armfuls of stuffing, entire cumulus clouds of squidgy white disappearing into the dark interior but still the cows on the outside remaining limp and flaccid. The purple cushion, much smaller, was less greedy and only nibbled at the remains of the giant sack of polyester candyfloss. Mum used to call it ‘kapok’ although technically that only applies to the natural fibre from the kapok tree. I think we used to have both types, the natural fibres softer and more oily against the dryness of the man-made polyester but both with the same ultimate purpose of giving dimension to whatever school projects were on the go back then… a tartan elephant, as I recall, and a cat with a neck like a giraffe and – is that a cry of horror S? What’s that? Soft toys are the spawn of Satan?? Don’t be so melodramatic – other assorted plush animals.
Stuffed to the gunnels, the two cushions were dispatched to their respective new homes - one now doubling up as a cat basket in Bromley while up in the city the other adds a touch of comfort to a hard office floor.
Which leaves us with the perennial post-Christmas problem of what to do with the cold, leftover stuffing. Another cushion? Perhaps, but I think I’ve got something that will go down much better. Something with a hard button nose, beady glass eyes, grasping, clasping claws and soft, soft fur…

Monday, 12 April 2010


An apron that can’t be used is as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot. Which brings us nicely onto an equally ridiculous item: the tea bag bag. I think I may have invented this concept. In fact I’m sure I have, as the idea of making a bag to contain a box that in turn contains bags seems gratuitous at best, a Kafkaesque nightmare at worst, like being sewn into the baby blue knickers of a Russian doll.
That said, I’ve become rather fond of the tea bag bag. Yes it’s a tautology - resisting the pun, resisting... - but one with the best of intentions.
To make it I returned to familiar ground and adapted the draw string bag to give it a square bottom wide enough to hold a packet of PG Tips and padded sides for industrial strength. In a previous incarnation our little bag of tricks was used to hold that most wild and soaring of emotions: excitement. Now it was destined to house something far more humble yet universally warming.
‘More tea vicar?’
Why not. Why not indeed? A bit of fun, a bit of frivolity, a bit of function. And one in the eye for the fashionistas. Posh Spice may have £1.5 million worth of bags but I bet she doesn’t drink her Pu-er out of a tea bag bag.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

An Apron for a Chef

Spring is here. Blossom like a wiggle-waggle of white bunny tails up in the trees, everything shiny and peachy and new. The obvious time then to return to the dark, dank days of last winter. Why? To talk aprons, of course.
An ugly word – apron – and not the most attractive of attire either. In my experience, aprons tend to fall into one of three categories.
A) Functional aprons. Laminated in plastic, these come with bits of prehistoric egg welded on from long ago school cookery classes.
B) Novelty aprons. More of a boy thing, these generally feature bosoms and other rude bits to titter over into your late night boozy fry-up.
C) Ann Summers French maid imitation aprons. Sacre cordon bleu.
None of these, it must be said, could be classified as haute couture. They might keep your clothes clean but frankly, wouldn’t you rather a dash of tomato sauce on your jumper?
Thank goodness then that there is another apron out there, one that is beyond mere categorisation – a lesser spotted, polka-dotted joy of an apron.
As soon as I saw the pattern in the pages of Sew magazine I just knew I had to make it. All green dots and red flounces, it was classy and classic and cool - the perfect Christmas present for a kitchen goddess that just screamed out Nats at me.
Given that this was pre-Roz and I could barely thread a needle you might say I was putting the cart before the horse. Not that my sister is a horse, of course. Let's quickly rephrase - putting the apron before the chef. Better? Uh-oh, what now...
Fashion before flavour combinations!!! I hear John cry, whilst beside him Greg places his shiny dome in his hands in despair. But Masterchef is over for the season guys. This is moosterchef, and we set the rules.
The pattern didn’t look too difficult in essence although three metres of bias binding did seem inordinately long. Not quite as long as it should have been, given that I melted the first dozen centimetres to the ironing board but still long enough to tie me in knots.
With a global drought on polka dots, I earmarked my baby blue Rosie Dot fabric for the job and it all looked lovely laid out at 10am on an optimistic Saturday morning, pink bias binding like frosting on a fabric cupcake. Fast forward to Sunday afternoon and my eyes were swivelling around in my head.
Cutting out the basic pattern was simple – just the apron front, a frill and a heart-shaped pocket. Attaching 2m 88cm of bias binding was not easy. At several points I missed the fabric altogether and found myself stitching empty air.
Sewing doesn’t get tougher than this.
We got there in the end. The bias binding was pink and cute and pretty, the icing on a candy-coloured cake. Two flouncy bows gave a saucy finish and the apron was ready for the catwalk.
Wherein lies the rub. Haute cook-ture doesn’t mix with dried egg and splashes of tomato. There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to have to make Nats an apron to keep this one clean.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

A Tale of Two Fabrics

There are so many fabrics out there to choose from; different patterns; different textures; different origins - Japan, America… where do you start?
The answer is that sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you just sit back and wait for the fabric to choose you. You’ll see it, and know it is absolutely, completely, faithfully yours. Because although still invisible, contained in that fabric is the essence of a skirt, dress, pin cushion that you will adore. It’s just a question of cutting it out and sewing it together.
This happened to me after a colleague introduced me to Etsy – another mind-blowing world of choice. Not exactly knowing what I was looking for, I typed in cow fabric. This brought up a lot of unusual bovine articles – and a bolt of fabric so bold and bright and funny it just moo-ed buy me. So I did, plumping for a conservative metre and wondering what I’d let myself in for. Three weeks later a brown paper parcel arrived from Turkey containing acres of fabric covered with hundreds of cheery green and black Jersey cows all splattered with orange flowers. It made me smile then, it makes me smile now.

Cows and Dots

My second foray into Fabric Land was made with an idea in mind. This time I was doing the choosing, and what I wanted was blue with white polka dots. Easy enough I thought . Who was to know that, like asparagus, there is a ‘season’ for polka dot fabric? And with typical bad-timing, I’d landed in the middle of a polka dot desert? Not even Cath Kidston, the queen of all things dotty, seemed to have what I was looking for.
Then I had a Confucius sewing moment: sometimes what you’re not looking for is better than what you are.
I went to Sew Much Fun and Roz showed me her nearest polka dot approximation – blue fabric, white dots and a motif of roses. It looked like two bolts of Cath Kidston fabric rolled into one but was actually by an American designer, Tanya Whelan, who lives in Belgium (see her blog)
Rosie Dot. The fabric called out to me. I had no choice. I could already see clearly the outline of what I’d be making from it.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Tidings of Excitement and Joy

After my sewing course, Christmas loomed around the corner. A perfect opportunity to test run the Machine. Any socks and handkerchiefs that found their way into Santa’s sack in 2009 would all be handmade. By moose and Machine.
On the first day of Christmas we wondered what to make for the lovely Kat, Dan's girlfriend. A tough one this. What to give the girl with the perpetual smile; who could find excitement in an empty paper bag and whose idea of heaven is a square of brown cheese? The girl who spontaneously combusts each morning just through the sheer joy of being alive? The girl who wouldn’t know cynicism if it picked her, pickled her and turned her into an agurk?
Kat's Little Bag of Excitement, that’s what. Filled with hand-stuffed, hand-selected morsels of joy and exuberance. To make sure that the joy never, ever runs out. Spiffing.

A Moose is Born, November 2005

The next best thing to being a moose is having your own moose. So when it came to a 30th birthday present for a beloved best friend, the answer was simples. A life-sized stuffed moose. But where would one find such a beast? The answer, for anyone reading this far, should be obvious.
I must stress that I was very much the deputy in the making of this monstrous moose. As well as providing cups of tea, I did some pinning and tacking in addition to expert consultant advice on how to make the antlers stand erect (insert chopsticks) and what facial expression to have (perplexed). The bulk of the work fell, as usual, to our long-suffering seamstress who – if she’s reading this today – I wish Happy Mother’s Day. And thank you for the moose.
It truly was a creation of genius. If not quite the majestic king of the forest, at least a smaller, cuddlier version less likely to hurtle over your car bonnet and crash land in your passenger seat, alive, and perplexed. Yes, this has really happened. Though not to me, sadly. Or to our moose, which lives happily in a log cabin just outside the M25, its antlers drooping only slightly with the passing years.

Friday, 12 March 2010

From Legs to Fishtail

Cast out into the wilderness, the moose went back to the Machine. It was a strange reunion, like being beamed back to the clunky, rather resentful mothership after a modern, state-of-the-sewing-machine-art interlude on Planet Roz.
'Where have you been these past six weeks?', the Machine seemed to say.
We were on a break…
Awkwardness. Clumsily fumbling with the bobbin, struggling to thread it in the guilty silence. Why are relationships so difficult? To make the peace, something needed to be made. What though? I’d been so used to being told what to do, handed bits of paper or fabric that I was suddenly at a loss.
Then my eye alighted on The Unpicker. One of the trusty trinity. And an idea sparked.
Sometimes sewing isn’t about making something from scratch. Sometimes it’s about taking one item and transforming it into another. Just like you can turn a prince into a frog (try harder) you can turn an old dress into a new top.
My friend Helen has been doing this for years, I was surprised and ashamed to discover.
‘Yeah, I’ve been sewing since I was little,’ she said. I’ve known her for years. I felt I should have know that.
‘Weird isn’t it. It’s something we never talk about.’ Until now. You can’t walk past any cafe-cum-purveyor of very expensive teas without seeing groups of thirty-something women busily waving their knitting needles or embroidery thread around. Normally when Helen and I meet for wine, talk is of men, work, Amazonian jungle treks. What would it mean if we talked of sewing machines and charity shop finds instead? A sign of the times? Or just another step towards the zimmer frame??!
So transformers, robots in disguise. I knew what I wanted to adapt. They'd been in the cupboard for years, waiting for the change. Well now it was coming. I've always liked jeans turned into denim skirts with the zig zaggy effect of splayed out seams. Surely my beloved old baggy black trousers would make that perfect little black skirt I've always felt was missing from my wardrobe.
I started with a surgical removal of the legs. Ten years of good walking, summarily chopped off. Next I picked up the Unpicker and started to unpick.
Unpick pick pick pick, pick pick pick pick, unpick the whole day through.
It was tough work. I'd never realised how much reinforcement goes into the crotch of a pair of trousers. It was like breaking into Fort Knox. A double layer of stitching made twice the work - funny; I always thought destruction would be easier than this. To top it all, I felt like a pervert, scrabbling away in such an intimate area.
Finally Fort Crotch lay open. I cut two long V-shapes to fill the gap between the flapping splayed-out legs and pinned the lot together. Then, black thread into the bobbin, I sewed it all up and used my new hemming skills to neaten up the now mid-thigh length. Curtain call...
'Look at my new skirt!'
'Why does it have a tail?'
It did. A weird sort of fish-tail poking out the back. I'd put back too much material, and now I was the Little Mermaid, in a neat reversal of the fairy tale. Still, that's the joy of sewing. Creation, transformation; you can change anything you put your hand to.
Why hello your Royal Highness.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Two cushions twenty years apart

Two hours a week for six weeks. Cutting, ironing, pinning, trimming... If sewing hadn’t quite become second nature, it was getting to be at least fourth or fifth.
Just one task remained before our beginner status expired and we were unleashed into the world on our training wheels.
The cushion. We’d already made a teeny tiny cushion for pins. Now we would make one for actual people-sized people. From scratch. Inner cushion pad, cushion case, nifty ribbon tie, the lot.
Excitement levels ran high. For most, this was a stuffed furnishing first.
Strangely though, in the completion of a circle that began a long, long time ago, I wasn’t one of them.
Reader, I confess: I am not a cushion virgin. To find out the whole, sordid tale, we must unwind the bobbin twenty years or so, to sometime around 1987.
A memory of a bored summer’s day, a whirr of machinery and a fleeting moment of triumph, lost and forgotten in the intervening decades.
It was one of those endless school holidays you can only dream about now. Having exhausted all creative possibilities with toilet roll interiors (Dougal from Magic Roundabout with glued-on wool strips having been the apotheosis of the art form), I needed a new outlet. I don't know why I chose the Machine; perhaps just because it was there. And it felt naughty. And it was better than the lawn mower.
I dragged it out of the cupboard and switched it on. A full bobbin of white thread lay waiting. Now I just needed some material. As chance would have it, the first item I rummaged out of the Material cupboard was a lovely bolt of soft pink silky fabric. Perfect. I cut a big square from the middle (a legitimate use of the Sewing Scissors) and matched it with a white square of sheeting.
Onto that I carefully cut out and assembled a rather fetching motif of a mouse, I thought, complete with frilly lace tail and round felt nose. Then, in a rush of euphoria, I pressed the pedal on the Machine and appliqued my design onto one side of what I'd now decided would be a cushion.
It was uneven, wobbly, snarled stitching but it did the job. As evening drew on, I sewed my two squares of my fabric together, turned them inside out and stuffed them with kapok.
And there it was. The cushion I made earlier. No zip, no ribbon, a rather raggedly-looking creature on the front, more akin to a whiskered slug than a rodent but a cushion nonetheless...
‘It’s lovely,’ Mum said, swallowing hard. ‘I'm sure I can get another piece of that very expensive pink silk I was saving for a blouse.'
Oops. Still, as childish projects go, this one had a long and happy life. Surely longer than a blouse, subject to the whims and fads of the fashion world. We reminisced about it recently.
‘Remember that cushion you made?’ Mum said.
‘Which one?'.
I thought, having expanded my repertoire, she might mean the pin cushion.
'You know, the hedgehog cushion.'
'Ever such a lovely hedgehog.'
'It was a mouse...'
For my next attempt I also chose squares of expensive silk, purple this time – and not earmarked for any higher sartorial purpose than that of the humble head rest.
I matched the fabric with a gaily spotted ribbon, and, as the clock hit 9pm on our last ever class, I turned my silken case inside out, slipped it over its handmade stuffed interior and gently tied it up.
Sophisticated, elegant and with colours to make you smile. I hugged my cushion tightly to my chest as we said our goodbyes. And with that, the course was over. We were on our own.

History comes alive...

It would seem the last tango is for Stella McCartney. This is in her Paris collection as featured in the Independent today... it's the orange dress reborn!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Last Tango

As a teenager, having outgrown the poncho and needing something else to hide behind, I adopted a uniform of the plainest, dullest clothes I could find. Black jeans, man-sized black T-shirts and a green cardigan that had been washed so many times it was see through, its cuffs frayed and chewed hungrily - the chocolate cake that formed my staple diet apparently not sufficient.
Thank goodness for editorial control. All photos of those dark years have been destroyed. When one surfaced, like a black, brooding blob, at my 30th birthday party it was quickly shoved down my trousers and then on into the bin.
In the knickers of time.
Not that I didn’t like colour; I did. Just not on me. I loved colour for what it was, pure and uncomplicated and mood-changing. Purple was always my favourite, majestic, chocolate-flavoured purple. I longed for something purple. But no, back to black it was, day in, day out. Which made the bright Tango slap at the back of the cupboard even more dangerously fascinating.
A sleeveless mini-dress hand-knitted in orange scratchy wool with a ribbed turtle neck and marmalade satin lining. Many, many sizes too small for me, it truly was the forbidden fruit.
Sigh. Who could wear such a frivolous, beautiful thing?
Mum, that’s who. It was her mini-dress, made when she was a slender size eight teenager by her grandmother, my great-grandmother, the formidable Meme.
Which was odd in itself. Elegant old ladies, especially devout Catholic ones, were supposed to crochet doilies weren’t they? Perhaps frilly head rests at a push. Not glorified boob tubes.
It made me wish I could have known her properly, been old enough to have a proper conversation but she died when I was still a child. I only had the bare bones of family history to work with - the story of how one Trinidad Bonifacia Aguilar, of Spanish descent and one Rene Devise, a Frenchman of lugubrious face and twirly moustache, met and married in pre-war Algeria and, by the circuitous hands of fate, ended up with five modern English great grandchildren.
Our lives couldn’t have been more different. Yet there were some common threads. Black, for instance.
In every photo of the tiny elegant Meme with her fine cheekbones and salt and pepper hair she is wearing black. OK, so hers was crepe and lace and she was in mourning whilst I was just in hiding but still, it was a thread nonetheless.
A thread that if you tugged on, might unravel more secrets.
‘She had immaculate taste,’ Mum told me when I quizzed her. ‘All her clothes were beautiful.’
Before Grandpere died, what did Meme wear I wondered. What beautiful dresses did the young Trinidad dance the tango in whilst war rumbled in the distance? How long were her hemlines and sleeves, before children or grandchildren or even great-grandchildren came on the scene?
The dress can’t tell me. One day I actually managed to squeeze into it, hoping perhaps for clues to the past. But the wool was itchy, the orange unflattering; more than anything it wasn’t my dress. It was made by someone else, for someone else and I had no place wearing it.
Back in the cupboard it went. Whoever the last tango is for, it's not for me.

Out of the cupboard

The orange dress hangs on a lemon door

Elegant detail...

Look at the detail in the skirt. And the woollen belt that pulls it all in. Amazing.

Friday, 5 March 2010

The Jar of Buttons

I've always had a button fetish. Chocolate buttons of course, mmmmm. More especially though the obsession lay with the small round objects holding our trousers up, keeping our straining shirts closed and our chattering lips shut.
It all came flooding back when I saw the glass jar sat on Roz’s counter, filled with bright orange, green and pink sweeties just begging to be licked and sucked and gobbled down. But not so hasty please.
Connoisseurs of buttons will know that it's not pear drops, lemon sherbet or rhubarb and custard that will hit you. Pop a button into your mouth and your Masterchef flavour sensation will be flat, plasticky with a cold, hard edge. Not sweet, but wickedly moreish – ask any child - and all with zero calories.
Not so much the taste; it is the sound of buttons that is so evocative. Most sewing mums will have had a button jar. Ours was an old Birds Eye custard jar with a screwtop lid. I remember the chinking sound of ceramic on glass when you shook it, then the thundering rain as you poured the contents onto the carpet into bright, twinkling mounds. How many hundreds, thousands, millions? Impossible to guess, but if you did you won a goldfish.
Some buttons came in pairs, others in threes. Mostly though they were single, unique, leftovers from long ago sewing projects.
There were exciting buttons, shaped like umbrellas or toadstools. There were vivid red strawberries with raised edges you could run your fingers over. And there were cloth-covered buttons for blouses, soft and spongy and indolent.
On top of that there were big round buttons for coats, translucent, boring buttons for men’s shirts and a few clumsy wooden toggles kindly donated by Paddington Bear.
I’d play with the buttons for hours (yes, I was a special child), feeling the knobbly edges of some, the shiny metal of others. Dividing them into snow drifts, building great pyramids before knocking them down again. Scooping handfuls up like dragon treasure, like sand, like a Willy Wonka bonbon factory before letting them trickle slowly through my fingers back onto the carpet.
Sweet, innocent joy… and now, guess what? I have my own button jar! A Nutella jar, fittingly - into the pot of sweet stuff go the sweetie-like things. Not many yet, a goldfish estimator might say less than 100, but the humble beginnings of a new generation of umbrellas and toadstools.
Chinkety-chink, scoop, mmmm.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe

‘I need to buy some flesh-coloured felt,’ I announced one Saturday morning.
‘OK,’ said S. ‘Why?’
‘I’m going to make an old woman. To put in a shoe.’
I’d decided that, as a reward for many years hard sewing labour, the least I could do was dedicate my first project to Mum. Not that she’s an old woman. Or that she lives in a shoe. But she likes shoes, and has many, many of them.
I visualised a large, red stiletto taking pride of place and then, tucked inside, a little pepper pot doll. Realistically I knew I wouldn’t have time in the lesson to make bag, shoe and miniature mother so thought I’d ratchet the homework up a notch.
‘Swot,’ S said as we trawled first John Lewis and then Kilburn High Road fruitlessly. We eventually found a square of rather spray-tanned WAG coloured felt in Shepherd’s Bush Market, tucked amidst rolls of garish golden braid and trays full of glistening sequins and feather boas.
A happy afternoon followed, cutting out felt shapes, feeling like a contented child on a rainy Sunday. Then, like an overgrown teacher’s pet, I took the finished result in on Monday.
‘Ah, Vicky made a dolly,’ Roz said, holding up my teeny tiny offering clad in ‘60s shift dress and with matching bouffant hair.
The others had made flowers, flip flops, ships. Flip flops – what a great idea. Practical and funky.
Clutching my dolly sheepishly, I rummaged in the hanging baskets filled with rainbow fragments of fabric until I found what I was looking for. A piece of crimson red velvet screaming courtesan boudoir, with pile as soft as cat fur.
Stroking it hypnotically, my blood rushing at the discovery, I began to realise how sensual fabric can be; how exhilarating to find the exact colour and texture you hadn’t known you were even looking for.
We cut out our shapes and ironed interlining onto them to make them stiffer before zig zagging them onto the squares – in my case of calico – which would become our bags. Then, adjusting her hem to decency length, the shoe’s inhabitant was eased into her new home and her legs mercilessly sewn down. Property boom or bust, this is one dolly who won’t be relocating, relocating, relocating.
After that the sewing of the channel for the crimson red ribbon, and joining the two sides of the bag together was child’s play. No longer so scared of the machine; it, perhaps, not so scared of me.
And there we have it. A draw string bag. Possibly a little small for three-inch stilettos and rather unwieldy – the slightly overstuffed doll leaning forwards, rather as if she wants to jump out of the shoe and back into sanity. But it does what it says on the tin – string drawn open, string drawn closed – and Mum can rest safe in the knowledge that the next time she goes to PE class, nobody is going to take her bag home by mistake.

Monday, 1 March 2010

French seams and Pepper Pots

I started looking forward to Monday evenings. The secret knock on the shop
door and down the rabbit hole into a world of colour and chaos.
Roz would always be behind her desk with a big smile, sewing away at
something or other. Fairy wings for a dog one week, felt dolls in cute
‘60s shift dresses another. Is it freaky to covet the clothes off a
doll's back? Surely not. How could you not want a mini-dress the size
of a pepper pot?!
The next week’s class was all about seams. Open seams, closed seams,
French seams. Not the sexiest part of sewing, but as I've discovered,
you need the basics to build on. Otherwise you end up with the hat.
Maybe one day I'll understand the nuances a little more, perhaps it’ll even become instinctive but right now it's all part of one big jumbled puzzle that needs to be worked out. Every day a new piece of jigsaw slots into place which is exciting but also worrying; sooner or later I’m going to get stuck on the sky.
Valuable Sewing Lesson Number Three. As you sew, so must you iron. I’d had a horrible feeling that might be the case when I saw the ironing board in the corner of Roz's workship, the iron always switched on.
I hate ironing. Never seen the point of it – so what if clothes aren’t entirely flat? The world isn’t flat either.
Unfortunately, in the case of sewing, it would seem that flatness is desirable. Hems, seams, cuffs, all have to be prepared properly before being sewn, and that means being ironed - often many times over – during the course of the making. Fiddlesticks.
So it was to-ing and fro-ing, iron and machine, practising our seams before finishing the edges neatly with the trusty zig zag stitch, getting into good habits. The bits of calico we experimented on we took home to jog our memories the next time we had a mental block about what, alors, is a French seam.
Then onto the fun stuff. The two girls who’d done the course before had told me it was coming. The draw string bag! I haven't laid eyes on those since I upgraded my PE kit into a rucksack, sometime in the last century. Surely this was even more exciting than a pin cushion. Until Roz mentioned the H word. Homework? Aged 34?
Our mission, should we accept it (one of the joys of being an adult: choice) was to make a design for our bag, to be appliquéd on. It could be a flower, a pattern, an animal. Whatever it was, it shouldn’t be too complicated. I mulled it over as we packed away our scissors for the night. Then, perhaps inspired by the precocious little pepper pot dolls, I had a brainwave. It would take some preparation. But then preparation is what sewing is all about.
See… I’m learning.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Here it is

Not looking its best, could do with ironing but a nostalgic sigh nonetheless.

Me and Bob

Not a great picture - am trying to find a better one of the dress. The hair... omg

The Brown Dress circa 1996

Before continuing with our rock & roll adventures in sewing, a quickstep back through the decades. Just as the Machine was an intrinsic part of my childhood, so were the clothes it made. Many are long gone, recycled, disappeared in the fabric of time. Some, however, survived changing fashions and tastes and still hang in my wardrobe, triumphs of engineering and luck and none, surely, more triumphant and lucky than the little brown dress.
If ever a dress had magical powers, this was it. An uninspiring colour, not cerulean blue or vermilion red, just plain chocolate brown. Not filigree lace or spider’s silk, just cheap needle-cord. And yet there was fairy dust in the making of this simple shift that became first the Pulling Dress then the Party Dress and then the Respectable if Rather Too Short Work Dress.
Its journey started in the haberdashery section of a large French department store. In air heavy with perfume were rows of high desks laden with heavy catalogues – Butterick, Burda, Vogue – all stuffed with a bewildering array of skirts, dresses and blouses modelled by women with glossy hair and smug smiles.
The idea was that you weren’t only buying the pattern, but stylish perfection and elegance too. Except, sadly, on our awkward teenage bodies nothing ever looked quite like the ideal we’d bought into. It didn’t stop us trying though, drawn as much by the process, the joy of discovery and creation as by the finished product.
The brown dress could have been long, short, scooped or square-necked, belted or not. I often wonder what would have happened if we’d taken other routes, flirted with frills, embraced other colours and ended up with Not The Brown Dress. It might have been beautiful, but would the entire course of history have been different?
I loved that dress. So simple, just two panels and a zip up the back, but it fitted perfectly. I wore it all the time and it was there at the important moments of my life. Wooing back an undecided boyfriend who had started locking his bedroom door at night. Shaking the hand of Bob from Blockbusters at an awards ceremony. Meeting and being inspected by potential in-laws. Parties. Job interviews. Other boyfriends. Other in-laws. Sadly only one Bob. And so on, and on, through 14 winters and 14 summers and now, almost spring, it’s still there in the wardrobe. Showing its age, the fabric wearing thin, a smattering of wrinkles that won’t iron out. It has been altered over the years, let in a little, let out a little, the hem lengthened and shortened and now just a sweep shy of respectable but in essence, unchanged.
I still wear the dress but with a slight feeling of sadness, knowing that our days together are numbered. Then, with a lift of heart, I remember that somewhere, in a drawer, wrapped away in a fading fug of perfume and smugness, is the original pattern for the dress, waiting, biding its time…

Friday, 26 February 2010

A Trinity of Tools

Just like a gardener with his hoes and shovels and spades, a wannabe seamstress needs a bewildering array of implements before the sewing can begin. And even once you’ve got them, you want more, more more. Pins, needles, pin cushions, needle cases, threads, thread scissors, fabric scissors... the list goes on.
If, however, I were left on a desert island with the Machine (this desert island has a plug socket) and was only allowed to take three things from the list with me, the choice would be easy. Everyone likes a threesome. Like the three blind mice, the Star Wars trilogy (the sequel before the prequel) and desserts in posh restaurants, the best things always come in trios. Most people know about scissors, paper, stone but to be honest that’s a bit last decade. The ten-ties are all about Scissors, Tape Measure, Unpicker, the Holy Trinity of the sewing toolbox that takes us rushing us straight back into Capital Letter country.

The Sewing Scissors

Take the Sewing Scissors. I never understood why Mum got quite so angry when her red scissors marked Sewing Scissors, do not touch, got touched. I mean, what else was I supposed to cut paper snowflakes with? It is only now, years later, that I’ve come to realise those scissors were no ordinary snipping things. They were the tools of an elite trade, like a surgeon with his scalpel, or Mr Kipling with his exceedingly good pastry. If you used the Sewing Scissors to cut snowflakes, they got blunt, and all they were good for was cutting snowflakes. Which suited me perfectly at the time. Fast forward eighties, nineties, noughties and when my own newly acquired Sewing Scissors disappeared and reappeared suspiciously close to some newly cut paper I went ballistic. In that second I finally grasped the vital importance of the razor-sharp edge – and knew that I could never look a paper snowflake in the eye again.

The Unpicker

Moving swiftly onto the Unpicker. Not the opposite of the Picker, sadly there is no such thing. But what a lovely word, so simple and unpretentious and to the point. The Unpicker unpicks. Sometimes it unpicks tacking you’ve put in. Mostly though it unpicks the little balls of snared up threads, the lines of stitching that went mad, the hole you were meant to leave open for the stuffing but accidentally sewed closed. It’s there to undo the badly done so that no one need ever know what a total cock up you made in the first place. It soothes ruffles feathers, restores hope, takes suffering away - the Florence Nightingale of the toolbox. And so small you can tuck it handily away in your pocket, remembering to keep the lid on.

The Tape Measure

The Tape Measure concludes our trilogy although really it should come first. Before unpicking, you need to cut out the fabric. And before cutting out, you need to measure – see what I did there, linking everything up and tying it all neatly together in a beautiful circle, like Princess Leia’s hair going round and round and round and...
Not just any old tape measure will do. For a while I used S’s spirit level with its crudely marked inches. True, I always knew whether the fabric I was cutting was on a slope or not, but it didn’t necessarily tell me how wide or long it was. I then moved onto one of those metal tape measures that men always seem to have at least two of. They make a hideous screech when you pull them out of the case, and clank angrily while retracting. Not nice. No – what I needed was a practical, bendable tape measure – and one in a cute, furry case, as there was a danger, what with our grown-up scissors and all, that we might start taking life too seriously.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Penchant for Ponchos

So at a rough guess the Machine was bought when I was nine years old. What was I wearing aged nine? Pixie boots? Ra ra skirts? Nah. All I ever wanted to wear was my tartan poncho, a bizarre marriage of Peru and Scotland in glaring red and green with a white tassled fringe. I don't know which whisky-sozzled llama it originated from, but I adored it, and wore it over everything, though mainly over my beloved horizontal rainbow striped skirt.
As you can tell, I wasn't the most fashionable child; I just wore what I felt comfortable in. Even now I don't really 'get' fashion, but what I wear tends to be a little less Highland Andes, a little more Topshop.
Still, I mourn that poncho. Where was it for the big poncho revival of 2004? And for my pilgrimage to South America in 2008? Thankfully the poncho gap in my life was plugged by a sisterly gift of an alpaca wool poncho with an alpaca motif that was possibly even hand woven by a herd of alpacas squiffy on Scotch.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Rolls Royce

It seems I’ve done a disservice to the Machine. It’s not actually as old as we thought, probably by a good five years.
Before I made that discovery though I came across a rather upsetting blog. It featured the Machine – well, one of its siblings – being dissected, unscrewed and stripped down to the sum of its many parts.
Destroying the machine that creates… Be warned. It’s not pretty.
As far as I can make out the New Home Memory Craft 6000 – aka the Machine – was made circa 1984 so it’s actually nine years younger than me, a mere 26 human years.
In technology years that makes the Machine about a gazillion and yet it’s still going strong. At the risk of sounding rather aged myself they just don’t make them like that any more.
With four children and a cat to clothe Mum needed something reliable, and admitted to craving a Pfaff or Bernina - ‘the Rolls Royces of their day’.
After doing some research though, Dad found that New Home, an American company that merged with a Japanese company to become Janome, was highly recommended and the Memory Craft 6000 (what a name!) came with hundreds of different stitches, and an electronic memory to boot.
‘I can’t tell you how exciting it was,’ Mum said. ‘It was probably the first electronic gadget I’d ever had!’
It wasn’t quite the days of the mangle but there certainly weren’t any I-Phones, laptops, MP3 players… weird as it seems, back then a sewing machine was about as sexy as it got!
And you paid for that. The Machine cost around the £400 mark as a part exchange Dad thinks, a huge amount of money in those days. You can get a machine for a tenth of that price nowadays, and I’m sure they work perfectly well.
So do Skodas I hear. But I'd rather have a Rolls.

Back to school

I was nervous about the sewing course. Learning. It’s been a long time since I did any of that. My fears evaporated as I walked into our ‘classroom’, tucked underneath the Sew Much Fun shop in Primrose Hill. Brightly coloured fabric, boxes of thread, almost edible jars of buttons oozed dreamily out of every nook and cranny. A slight air of cosy chaos pervaded and there was no sign of a blackboard; this was school as it should have been.
‘Why are you learning to sew?’ Roz, owner of the shop and our new teacher, asked the five of us taking the course as we sat self-consciously in front of our matching machines.
All bar one, who was taking up sewing because knitting had given her arthritis, had the same reply.
‘We want to be able to make our own clothes.’ A little more probing and it emerged that all our mums could sew; we wanted to be able to do the same. Most of the girls - no boys – were in their thirties. Whatever the reason – credit crunch, creativity, nostalgia - it seems that for many younger women the Primark days are over. Buying cheap clothes is out; making clothes (more expensive and time-consuming) is in.
Ahem. Not quite there yet. For our first class we practised running stitches along lines on paper whilst discussing how clothes are made. It seemed that the simple tartan skirt I was wearing wasn’t just a skirt, but an assembly of component parts. Like a CSI, in order to properly understand it I needed to dissect it, analyse the hem, seams, buttons and all so that I could understand how it had been put together. Metaphorically of course. I still needed to wear the skirt home. But it was the first step to realising that I’d never look at clothes the same way again.
Still a bit wobbly on the old straight sewing, we then learnt how to zig zag the edges of a seam to neaten it, how to sew around corners and what ‘needle down’ is. A whole new world of vocabulary, terminology and techniques was opening up in front of my eyes, for background music we had the synchronised hum of five sewing machines and the occasional car crash juddering of snaggled thread.
It was lovely. A little sanctuary from the world above, deep in our warm, colourful bolthole.
And then we made a pin cushion. Something so simple, yet I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so proud. Sew three and a half edges of two pieces of calico, zig zag the seams, cut diagonals across the corners then turn inside out, stuff and hand sew the gap…
Hey presto. A perfect teeny, tiny pillow-shaped oblong, just waiting to be stuck with pins.
‘It’s too small,’ S said, laying his gargantuan head on it when I showed him that night. I could see he was impressed though. Just a teeny, tiny bit.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Bob bob bobbin

Bobbin. A strange word, usually used in conjunction with the word
robin. At least in my world anyway. Until now. Bobbin. A cute,
cuddly word for something so fundamental, so essential to the
function of a sewing machine, so ridiculously small and fiddly.
I'd always thought that, like the other kind of sewing without a
machine, you just threaded the needle - a tricky enough task in
itself. On the Machine threading the needle is a bit like winding
wool through the twists and turns of the Minotaur's den, the route
of thread from spool to needle a miniature metal labyrinth...
and that's the easy part.
Apparently - who knew? - there are not one but two threads in a
sewing machine. The other, unseen thread comes from the bobbin,
which hides in a snug little hobbit hole underneath the presser
foot and entwines itself with the needle thread when you start sewing.
Before this little romantic coupling happens, however, you have to
thread the bobbin - and this is the scary part. I inserted the bobbin
into the winding cog at the top of the machine and put my foot down.
Thread whirred off the big spool and started winding neatly round the
plastic wagon wheel of the bobbin. It was working. Big thread
transferring to little thread, more and more wrapping itself around,
a natural, flowing movement passed down from the dawn of time.
Nothing to fear here. Until the bobbin, apparently not secured down
properly, flew off its nesting point and took off into the air.
The bobbin that thought it was a robin. Whatever next?

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Two girls at work had just done a sewing course. They'd go to the pub first, after work, then spend two hours in an underground room with four other women and some sewing machines. It sounded like a sweat shop to me, albeit one in a beautiful, leafy street in north London.
After they'd been going a couple of weeks and emerging with big beams on their faces, initial curiosity about exactly what they were doing down in the bowels of the earth evolved into jealousy. A pin cushion? They'd made a pin cushion? Surely far more useful than the soufflee hat. Then a draw string bag, just like the ones we used to have for PE - ah the nostalgia. The cushion was the clincher. I've always had a fondness for a bit of a cushion. This one came with ribbon ties and an inside flap - how could I resist? Having already decided that a few lessons would stand me in far better stead than persevering in ignorance I emailed the lady running the course.
'Sorry, booked up for two months,' came the response. Whilst I'd been dallying around, the whole world had suddenly decided to learn to sew. Odd, given that five years ago it had been the preserve of seamstresses and old ladies and some, but not all, mums. Now it's back with a vengeance, although 'back', implying that it is a trend, a fashion that was 'in' once upon a time, is the wrong word; the reality is that this was a pastime born of necessity, something women had to do to clothe themselves and their families, not a hobby for modern-day city girls bored of yoga and wanting to reconnect with their roots.
I digress. Knowing that in two months my enthusiasm would have wilted, I thought about learning some basics from Mum. It was a lovely, romantic notion. She learnt from her mum, who in turn learnt from the formidable Meme, back in the misty pre-war days .
Sadly I knew my limited reserves of patience, and, in the interests of continuing that long and illustrious bloodline, thought it better to take my initial frustrations out on a stranger rather than my poor mother. I don't know if there's ever been a death by sewing machine - sewicide? - but certainly didn't want to be the first. Fortunately fate intervened.
'A place has opened up on the course starting next week, do you still want it...'

Like a soufflee that didn't rise

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


Valuable sewing lesson number one. More haste, more speed, not necessarily a good thing. Especially when it comes to making hats which - who knew? - are far trickier than you'd think. I take my hat off to the hat makers out there. Well, I would, if it wasn't several sizes too small and wedged onto my head.
The problem was that I overlooked several fundamental problems. Absence of interlining one. Absence of seam allowance another. Absence of any idea whatsoever about how to sew pretty much covering everything else. It started off fine. After I'd cut out the pattern I got out the pins. Nasty, vicious, poking things suddenly so helpful. I pinned the material, cut it out and trapped coinciding pieces under the machine. Then, deep breath and down went the cheese. We were off, the needle jerking erratically over the red cord as my heart thumped wildly.
Sewing. I was sewing!
Except I was doing it all wrong. In the absence of interlining I found a piece of foam previously used to make a crocodile and sewed it between the lining and the corduroy, making for a very stiff upright which I then attempted to sew the crown onto. Round circle onto flat surface... school maths just didn't equip me for that one. The answer, of course, was to put my foot down, riding rough shod over the problem and finally managing to attach the two parts together. OK so it was uneven and there were holes in the join. You got the gist though. And I made it. I made myself a... oh. I made a fez. An uneven, overstuffed corduroy fez. Apparently you were supposed to have a generous seam allowance so my hat came out many, many sizes too small and perched itself on my head so I looked like the reincarnation of Tommy Cooper.
‘What the fez is that?’ S giggled when I showed him my effort.
‘It’s not finished.’
As if by finishing it off, the hat would suddenly transform itself into the finest millinery creation ever not seen at Ascot.
Sadly the introduction of a wide floppy brim only emphasised the pea-headed nature of the teeny tiny thimble hat. It balanced despondently on top of my head, drooping sad yellow flowers into my eyes and whispering hints into my ears. Pattern... follow the pattern.
A disaster. A hat-astrophe. However somewhere deep within me a spark had ignited and was starting to burn. Two hours ago the hat was just flat material and thread. Now it was an actual thing, an object – and I had created it. With a lot of time and a lot of practice I think I might just get better.
First though valuable sewing lesson number two. Learn the basics.

Take One: The Hat

After the initial euphoria of switching on the machine and finding that it didn't blow up I needed something to do. Practicing stitches on a piece of material was sure to bore me into extinction; I needed to make something tangible; a THING.
When Mum brought the Machine over she'd left me with a few 'starter' patterns, old favourites she'd run up many times over the years. At this point I have to confess that I've always been scared of patterns, so gossamer thin like old ladies skin, easy to poke holes in. And the lines, and instructions, incomprehensible, like ancient runes.
Be brave.
Rustling through the selection I found I had a dress pattern. Not just A dress, but THE dress. The dress of all dresses. The brown dress. But more on that later. I also had a skirt. Another dress, summery. A seventies-looking blouse with high ruffled collar. And a hat.
‘That looks easiest,’ I thought. ‘How hard can a hat be?’
Mum - the Santa Claus of Sewing - also left me some offcuts of material and I found a piece of red needle cord, perfect for the job. And some flowery yellow for the lining. I even had some cotton on the Machine, which mercifully avoided any encounters with the mysterious world of bobbin-winding.
I gently unravelled the pattern and read it, pretending to know what I was doing. Material, check. Cotton, check. Interfacing? Sounded like a computer techie term to me. I had no idea what this was, but no matter, because I knew I didn’t have any of it.
I laid out the pattern, remembering how the thin sheeting catches in the air, so light, fluttering down like fairy wings to settle on the carpet. None of the pieces had been cut out, indicating that the hat had never been made before. Undaunted I started snipping away. A brief moment of pause when I wondered about hems - should I allow extra space for seams? Who knows. It'll all be fine.
I’m feeling so grown-up. A hat. I’m making a hat!