Clown pants (1)

Learning to sew sometimes involves progressing from the simplest patterns to more complex garments. The first curved seam that doesn’t wobble at its most visible point is a matter for celebration; later on, a steady hand on the machine is taken for granted.

There are one or two very basic garments, however, which just go on and on. One of the first sewing books I bought was Simple Modern Sewing by Shufu To Seikatsu Sha, translated from Japanese. It contains eight patterns, each with several variations, which taken together could form a wearable, casual wardrobe. I am still coveting the wrap-around dress, shown in blue linen, and the button-front shirts in various lengths. (Buttonholes? Umm… not quite in my skill set, yet.)

simple modern sewing

There’s one pattern in this book which I’ve made over and over again. Pattern 4, Pull-On Pants, is given in different lengths, with or without patch pockets at the back, and even with a petticoat-style frill which should be forbidden to anyone over the age of about 14. I have made this pattern up in various lengths in blue cotton, blue denim, red linen and black linen, and all these trousers are worn whenever the weather is right. Another pair of blue ones – maybe patterned? – was on my to do list.

So this grey-blue cotton canvas from Rathdowne Remnants in Victoria St, Brunswick, looked perfect.


Until, that is, the trousers were cut out and sewn together, when they began to look worryingly like clown pants. Not possible: this is a familiar pattern, it has never let me down. I carried on, folding over and machining the top to form a waistband, and forcing elastic through the resulting tube of fabric.

They still looked like clown pants. Enormous.

The problem, of course, was the canvas. I’ve used different weights of fabric and everything worked – but the canvas, which is beautifully heavy and stiff, just does not behave like the others. It’s too bulky around the waist, and the waistline is mysteriously lower in this than it appeared to be in lighter fabric. Basically, the trousers looked terrible, and also they were going to fall down after about thirty seconds.

There will have to be a new waistband in order to raise the waistline. I unpick the existing waistband and unfold it; with a new band attached at the top, it should work well. It will need belt loops, as the elasticised waistband is likely to need a bit of help in keeping this heavy fabric in place. First, however, there’s the problem of the bulk around the waist.

Pinching the material to one side, it appeared that there was easily room to reduce the amount at the waist by about 12 cm. Divided between the four seams, this would mean 3 cm per seam. This is the point at which I take to tacking: hand stitches, easily removed, in a contrasting colour, so I can see if my theory works.

canvas trousers side seam

Here is one of the side seams, with the proposed new seam in yellow – backstitched rather than tacked, so it won’t pull apart when I’m trying it on. Unfortunately, even with all four seams reduced by a total of 12 cm, the garment is still baggy, and it slides over my hips with the greatest of ease. I don’t want to get those patch pockets any closer to the side seam, so I take in another 6 cm or so at the back and front.

canvas trousers back seam

Here’s the back seam, now with two proposed lines of stitching. We are getting there now, things are looking a lot more wearable. At the front, however, the second seam appears to be in about the right place, but the fabric bulges lower down. Further adjustment needed.

canvas trousers front seam

I start a third seam from part way along the second seam. effectively adding a curve. When I try it on, the whole thing looks just about all right.

Tacking is wonderful. My mother could make a dress in an afternoon without a pattern, and she put it all down to tacking. Tacking, done carefully, will not damage the fabric (leaving aside silks and other exotica, which I have not yet worked with). It allows you to try an alteration on and reverse your decision in a few minutes. It acts as a guide for machining, and as long as you’ve used a contrasting colour, it’s easy to remove afterwards.

That’s enough sewing for one day. Next: machine those new seams. Then: how to construct a waistband. I have several patterns which include waistbands and belt loops, and enough fabric left to make a few more mistakes before getting it right.


Digisphere or workshop

‘Hyper connected political tragics will know the results of the latest Newspoll have been thundering through the digisphere since late last night.’ That’s the wonderful Katharine Murphy in the Guardian this morning, limbering up for a full day of surreal goings-on in Parliament. Hyper-connected political tragics: that is the Making and Thinking household in a nutshell, for whom politics has been bread and butter since its formation. Breakfast involves a dissection of the morning’s headlines. Domestic conflict can generally be resolved by an appeal to solidarity against the common enemy, usually the government of the day. One resident has actually programmed their mobile phone to ring a little chime when any particularly dramatic news comes in. Massacre in Turkey… double dissolution in Canberra… so important to be one of the first ones to know.

Things are not often made in the Making and Thinking household, apart from the sewing obsession of the last few years. When the fabric of the house needs work, experts are called on for help. When something wears out, it’s replaced rather than repaired.

There are other ways of being in the world. Driving down to Wilsons Prom, we stopped off in Fish Creek and discovered a workshop / gallery full of recycled tin and timber, offering floor lamps, vases, jewellery, huge carved animals, furniture… and an open workshop, through which visitors are welcome to stroll.

wild goat workshop lathe

The place is packed with tools, jars of nails and screws and  found materials ranging from bright sheets of plastic to a massive iron chain that must once have held a ship at anchor. The artist moves between workshop and gallery, followed by his dogs.

wild goat workshop tools








We came away with a piece of tin that has been rusted to make an Australian outback landscape: red earth and a bleached sky.


Back home, with a long round of major domestic repairs almost complete, I measure up our newly constructed tin and timber shed for shelving. The builder thought it would be best to hang shelves from the walls; I thought we could buy ready-made metal shelves that would stand on their own four feet. He was right, of course. None of the ready-made shelves will fit the awkward spaces of our lovely new shed. We will have to ask him, very nicely, if he could possibly come back. If all goes well, we will end up with a big dry space in which to store camping gear, garden tools, our small collection of hammers, drills, screwdrivers and so on, and several bikes. But it won’t be a workshop like the one in Fish Creek. That would take a lifetime of learning.

Andrew McPherson’s work is on display at He can be contacted at 5 Falls Road, Fish Creek, Victoria 3959.


With a camping trip coming up, we swing into action. Print off the Things To Take document. Has anyone cancelled post and papers? What about new camping chairs, after those unfortunate incidents with the old deckchairs last time? What to cook and freeze? Chili con carne to share with everyone on the first night. Hummus. Maybe a curry? A block of solidly frozen food will keep for several days in an esky. And what about the esky – is it time to replace the pretty little IKEA one that never has quite enough room?

We are efficient. OK, maybe we’ll still struggle to put up the old tent, which should be second nature by now, and the fuel stove won’t light properly the first time, but in general we know what to do and we do it without dramas.

Meanwhile back at the house, there are dusty cardboard boxes full of papers, bric-a-brac, photos… We have sorted and passed things on and binned stuff and still there are all these things taking up space, only partly identified. They aren’t rubbish. They are the archive, and we haven’t been taking care of it.

Bluestones (continued)

Monday morning. Our lane is still blocked to traffic, with an open gully part way down the middle. There is still a row of big bluestones along the side of our house (and our weatherboards are still apparently undamaged). There are still several blokes in high-vis jackets at work. At least one of them has a mallet, bashing a stone into place as some other bloke might have done 130 years ago: the mallet and stone ring together like a small bell.

Like the pockets on my dress, however, the bluestones are not behaving, and the men have brought in the big guns. There’s a powerful circular saw at work, running intermittently. While it’s running, our upstairs room is uninhabitable, blasted with raw noise. We survived weeks of bricks being cut for the lovely curved walls of the new houses next door, and that wasn’t pleasant, a shrill, dentist’s drill sort of noise, but bluestone offers much more resistance. The machine roars. They’re just trimming the edges to fit.

It’s all very well for me to look at those men at work and imagine their competence and control, compared to my panicky response to a challenging bit of sewing.  But they’re dealing with the same kind of thing. They took those bluestones out of their bed for the first time in a very long time, and the damn things just won’t go back into place.


Blue linen, again

Somebody once explained the difference between someone who is a beginner at sewing and someone who’s pretty experienced. The beginner throws the offending project on the ground, swears loudly, paces the house for half an hour demanding sympathy from anyone within earshot, and then starts unpicking the badly made seam. The expert just unpicks the seam. I am not an expert.

Basically, there were two strategies for dealing with my imperfect cocoon dress.

The perfectionist route.

Deal with the tight-fitting sleeves. This is currently outside my skill set, to put it mildly. However, Andrea Schewe has a brilliantly clear explanation of how to do this on the Threads magazine website, complete with historical parallels and advice for dancers who just have to have mobility in what they’re wearing. See Faced with a badly fitting, half-made garment, the perfectionist unpicks the sleeve from the armhole and inserts a custom-made gusset to give more movement. (Ideally, of course, the perfectionist would have identified the problem earlier and adjusted the pattern before cutting the fabric, but that option is now history for this project.)

Those protruding pockets. Probably they should be replaced with pockets in a finer fabric. I might even have some blue Japanese quilting cotton stashed away which would do.

The baggy torso. The perfectionist goes back to the size 14 version of the pattern and grades the size 16 pattern down, below the level of the arms, to the smaller size.

The non-perfectionist wants her cocoon dress now, and also she wants to make it again in a different fabric. With the tight sleeves, it’s all or nothing: live with them or attempt a gusset, in a relatively heavy fabric, with no guarantee of success. The pockets: well, if you unpick the ends a bit and sew everything back together by hand, checking your work on the right side of the fabric, they might pass muster. You can oversew those lumpy ends by hand on the right side of the fabric if necessary: one good thing about very dark blue linen is that the stitches are almost invisible. The baggy torso? This is heavy linen, very good quality. It will soften with age and washing. Baggy linen dresses can be lovely – look at Tina Givens’s patterns, massively draped and layered. These are all perfectly legitimate short cuts. The dress is just not quite what I expected.

But it’s nearly finished. Last night I sat up late machining the neckline and hem. All that’s left to do is some hand finishing of the seams inside. (The instructions suggested finishing the seams before assembling the garment, but I didn’t do that.) It looks quite good. It’ll be cool on hot summer days. The colour is very dark, but with, say, a bright necklace it’ll be fine. And next time I make the dress, in a paler linen, a little bit more light weight, I will follow Andrea Schewe’s instructions about how to loosen up tight arms.

Also, this is resilient fabric. If I discover my inner perfectionist somewhere down the track, I can take the dress apart, even after many wearings, and alter it.




On not joining the army

In the Saturday Paper today, the artist Grayson Perry is interviewed by Miriam Cosic.


At school, he was in cadets and planning to apply for Sandhurst military college. This is hard to get one’s head round. Grayson Perry as a professional soldier? However. His art teacher took him aside. ‘I think you’d do well at art school.’ Sounds like Perry, and the army, had a narrow escape.

Later on, he was sharing a squat with sisters Jennifer and Christine Binnie, ‘founders of the Neo Naturist art group’. No, I don’t know what a Neo Naturist is, or was. Christine was a trained potter and dragged him along to an evening class. ‘Come on, it’s cheap, the teachers are okay, it’s really close…’ So he went. At the time he was into drawing and collage, but pottery was something else. ‘I liked the idea of making an object that used my skills. And then I’d have an object and I could sell it; it would be a saleable thing. Christmas was coming!’ Once he’d found pottery, he worked very hard for a long time, developing those skills.


Chance, luck, serendipity, an innate sense of direction that says YES when some opportunity presents itself… But my god, if you really knew how random life can be, you’d never get out of bed. Does Grayson Perry ever look back wistfully at his soldier self that never quite made it into the real world?* Does he imagine another existence as a quietly eccentric printmaker not quite making ends meet in a damp Suffolk cottage, appreciated only by a small group of fellow artists, unable to get the roof repaired until he has a reasonably successful exhibition in a local gallery?


  • * Yes. A few years ago Perry had an exhibition at the British Museum, which he called ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’. And by the way, there should be captions to the not very good photos above. (1) Fridge magnet by Perry, ‘Humility’ motorbike. (2) La Tour de Claire by Perry (flint, wood, found objects, 1983). (3) The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman by Perry (cast iron, oil paint, glass, rope, wood, flint hand axe, 2011). And when I have worked out how to add captions and footnotes to this blog, and also how to take better photos of images in books, I will improve the appearance of this post.  I might also add an image of one of his ceramic works. I thought the Tomb was partly earthenware, but it isn’t.

Blue linen

For the last two or three years I’ve been trying to learn to sew. The general aim is to make things that are comfortable and stylish, which will be worn regularly until they wear out, at which time I’ll make another one. This is not a simple matter.

Take the current project. The Inari dress pattern from Named is for a beautiful sack-like garment, cocoon-shaped, with side seams that curve towards the front and are slit to above the knee, and the back hem slightly longer than the front. See I wouldn’t have known much of this from the photo, which shows a small, pretty model wrapped in a tight shift. There are other photos out there, however, and rave reviews from makers worldwide. See, for example, Randomly Happy’s blog, which gives a much better idea of the garment.

I downloaded the pattern, stuck the A4 pieces of printout together, traced a size 14 (my usual) and made it up in a light woven cotton. It didn’t work. First, the cotton had no weight to it, it didn’t hang well. Second, the little short sleeves were too tight for my middle-aged arms. Oh well, call it a (not very) wearable muslin and move on.

I had some heavy dark blue linen from the bargain table at Tessuti, which was going to become a pair of loose trousers. There was just enough for a size 16 Inari. Trace the pattern again, a size up. Add a bit of length at the bottom, 10cm should be enough. Add pockets, taken from Tessuti’s Eva dress pattern. What could possibly go wrong?


The pockets went wrong, to begin with. Pockets do my head in, but when they go right it’s worth it. These have not gone right. Is the fabric too thick? Should I have used quilting cotton or something else thinner than my linen? The pockets stick out beyond the seam, shouting ‘home-made dress’ to anyone who’s paying attention. I’ve taken them apart, tried again – nothing works.


The length is wrong. I’ve added too much. This one is easily fixed.

The sleeves are not quite as tight as in the size 14, but they are still tight. This is a size 16, for godsake. Is that shrimp-like model on the Named Clothing website trying to tell us all something? Like, don’t try this pattern unless you’ve got firm young arms.

The body of the dress, in size 16, just looks too big for me. Clearly what I need to do is to undo the side seams, forget about the pockets or make them again in a lighter fabric, cut a slice off the sides of the dress, using the size 14 pattern, and take it from there. The sleeves will still be a bit tight, but I haven’t got enough leftover fabric to cut them again. And I’ve been working on this dress for several evenings.

Also, the dark blue, on this summer dress, is very dark. Too dark. How could I not have known? I should have made trousers, and they would have been divine. Too late.

Maybe this is an opportunity for a bit of stencilling and embroidery, to lighten things up? I have one of Natalie Chanin’s books gathering dust on the shelf. Is it time for some inspiration from someone who really knows what she’s doing? Or should I cut my losses?



Men at work in the lane. Shovels on gravel. Affable voices. Transistor radio yodelling. Last week a fair-sized digger took up the central bluestones and the soil underneath to make space for cables for the new townhouses on the other side; at last our new neighbours, who have been camping out in their not-quite-ready homes, have got electricity. The trenches were filled in with muddy gravel, and the huge bluestones left carefully stacked along the side of our house. I’ve been checking them suspiciously. So far not one has touched our weatherboards.


Yesterday another digger took out the gravel with a lot of beeping and flashing lights. Today the men in their high-vis vests are putting the bluestones back. It’s a matter of fine judgement. One of them on his knees, a couple of others watching. Will this one fit, or is there a smaller one over there? Thump as the stone drops in. By the end of the day we should have our lane back to normal, hosed down and left to itself for a few more decades.


Chinese lanterns

At the beginning of the first world war, my Lincolnshire grandmother was at art school in Reading, Berkshire. Her paintings, drawings and prints are scattered around the family. There’s a country diary somewhere, a bound book carried on long walks, I remember a watercolour landscape showing enormous elm trees on a sunny summer day. Figure drawings, flower paintings.

maisie chinese lanterns 001

In the 1930s, mother of three teenage children, she studied design: textiles, wallpaper. I have some of that work, mostly squares of flowers, cleverly calculated so that they can be tiled into a never-ending pattern. They’re too big to scan at home; instead I’ve posted a print of some kind on very soft paper – one of two I have of this image. We used to call these flowers Chinese lanterns. Very pretty in England, and the seed cases are moon-like, flat and white, but apparently they go crazy in Australian gardens.

At the sewing group, Barb pointed out that there are ways of getting fabric designs printed up – Spoonflower in the USA will print your design on a range of fabric in smallish quantities, for example. My grandmother’s designs may see the light at last: roses or snowdrops or daffodils, on dress fabric or cushion covers.