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!

Monday, 15 February 2010

The Sound of Sewing

I remember the sound of sewing vividly. I grew up in a quiet residential street of matching white stucco houses, red rooves and handkerchief gardens in the far suburbs of Paris. Being a rrrresidence, it came with its own set of rrrregles, which the residence committee delighted in elaborating, pondering and pontificating upon in the clubhouse at the bottom of the road. A sub-set clause on lawn mowers meant they were only to be used on certain days, and in our house that was the sound of Saturday morning; a high pitched screeching to accompany the smell of frying bacon and eggs emanating from the kitchen.
The sound of Saturday afternoon, after the lawn mower had been put away, was the nauseating green bla of football - still hate that - while Sunday evenings brought on the industrious drone of the hoover, signalling the end of the weekend and the drab darkness of school in the morning.
In between all this was the sound of the sewing machine, unregulated by the residential panel and free to make as much noise as possible.
'Can you get the machine out of the wardrobe,' we'd be instructed and one or other of us would have to drag the deceptively heavy bulk from its home in the wardrobe where its plastic casing was stroked by the skirts and dresses it spawned, wedged into a corner by the dolls clothes, the handbags, the dressing up outfits for the cat.
It's hard to describe sound, but, like smell, a distinctive sound can transport you straight back in time and for me the sewing machine is the late 1980s. After the chunk of metal cheese falling on the floor the gentle whirr then, gathering momentum, building up to a steady drumming and finally, as both maker and Machine settle into their stride, the madcap sprinting and squealing and whining as the machine devours yards, acres, miles of fabric per second, all the time threatening to take off or self-combust in the pure excitement of the moment.
An annoying sound yet strangely comforting. The sound of childhood.

Metal Cheese

The Machine arrived. And sat in a corner of the box room.
'I knew she wouldn't use it,' my dad said, ruing the loss of £100. Truth be told I was scared. If I turned it on, it might blow up. I mean look at it - how scary is that? A mechanical monster waiting to drill holes in my fingers, tangle me up in its threads, eat me all up and spit me out hemmed, trimmed and button-holed.
However if I didn't turn it on, the photography craze might peter out and the machine be removed from my possession before I'd had a chance to switch it on. I went upstairs one Saturday, closed the door and lifted the Machine onto the table. Still heavy, after all these years, the pedal, a wedge of metal cheese, landing with a clank on the floor. The plastic casing slid off smoothly, plugged to ON. The sound of a sewing machine coming to life, a sort of mechanical chirrup of welcome and then silence, expectant, taunting, waiting for me to put my foot down.

Introducing the Machine

This is the machine. And I am the moose. Sorry, this is the Machine, because if any sewing machine deserves a capital letter it's this one. It is a veteran, a survivor; the purveyor of clothing to ungrateful children, a husband and sometimes even the cat. But I'm rushing... let's start at the beginning.

SEWING MACHINE FOR SALE, £100. So went the advert. And it was true. The Machine was for sale. Thirty years of relentless service and it was to be cast aside, replaced by a newer, younger model. The same age as the children it had clothed, now in their thirties, and how many skirts, dresses, trousers made? How many adored, how many rejected, the woeful misinterpretation of an unattainable dream. How many passed on, lovingly, to siblings, nieces, nephews, worn into oblivion, too tired even for the charity shop.

'But...' my mum said. 'Maybe one of the girls would like it.' Girls who had been coutured to their whole lives. Not lifting a finger to turn up their own hems, alter their own waistlines, the niftiest seamstress already at their beck and call. What need had they for the Machine?

Still, the sale was put off. A six month residency in one girls house where it stood no chance against a keen interest in photography. And then a sudden recollection from the other girl. 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. And now, as then, an awakening - not yet curiosity - but mild intrigue. What did the machine look like, out of its cupboard and in the modern world? Did it still make that noise, the noise of childhood? And what invisible clothes were waiting to be made on it - garments to clothe our family, surely, not some random stranger.

Thus the moose acquired the Machine. And a new chapter in both their lives began.