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.