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 appliqu├ęd 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.