Things that go on for ever

This blog came out of a perfect little storm of life changes. A thesis got to the point at which it could be submitted for assessment, fingers crossed and no guarantees that it won’t come roaring back with curt demands for rewriting. Meanwhile, Telstra’s deadline for closing down the mobile phone network on which my ancient Nokia relied is next November. And the young bloke is now second year uni: just about grown up. What next?

My old phone has been laid to rest. This kind of phone has been known locally as the poet’s phone: owned by impoverished scribblers and used almost entirely to send and receive messages.


The new phone is an astonishing little box of tricks, hypnotic. There are days when I stumble out of bed to the kitchen dizzy after a full hour of exploration of its small screen. Not a good way to start the morning. Apparently I can expect it to last for a couple of years before it needs to be replaced.

At around the time I bought the new phone, I saw a job ad. Now, I’m not looking for a full-time job, but this one was my kind of thing: working for a local council on streamlining their communications, internal and external. I had all the qualifications except one: familiarity with social media. And I realised that if I’m going to look for paid work, even part-time, I need to join the 21st century.

So I revived the moribund Facebook page, learned how to post photos and messages, and started this blog, with help from a friend (thanks, Barb!). Last time I tried this, a few years ago, it seemed impossible to go on Facebook or set up a blog without compromising myself somehow, in terms of privacy or self-promotion or whatever. Now it seems straightforward. I don’t know what’s changed. The last couple of weeks, I’ve been a social media tragic. Next challenge: Instagram (which, incidentally, I am told, is the platform of choice for artists these days).

Then the same friend showed me how to use Pinterest, and this week we’ve been exchanging pins. She picks the most colourful images from my monochromatic clothing collection, and I take the most austere of hers. This, for example: a top made from a Katherine Tilton pattern (Butterick 5891) by the blogger of the Destashification Project.  Bringing together a small collection of images you like is surprisingly interesting: it tells you things about yourself. With our different tastes in clothing, Barb and I both think this is lovely.


But the poet’s phone is redundant. It’s my first ever mobile phone, and it’s been going for, let me see – over eight years? There’s nothing wrong with it apart from a chip on the case and the fact that it has no camera and almost no memory. I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away.

But that set me thinking: what have we got that goes on and on? Would it be tempting fate to start listing well-used possessions – the ones that don’t need replacing?

Here’s one. Out in the back yard this sunny, cool morning, hanging washing, I was trying to apply one of the lessons I’ve learnt through sewing: don’t rush, take your time, allow random thoughts to occupy your mind as they put in an appearance and you may find they aren’t random at all. And there, right in front of me,  is a classic long-term possession: the extendable washing line, which was here when we moved into this house about twenty-three years ago and is still going strong. It’s so old, the manufacturer’s label has fallen off the front. It has never moved from this spot, except when we put up the wooden lattice to hide the carport, many years ago.


So, in the spirit of Marie Kondo, who thanks her socks for keeping her feet warm and the saucepan for its part in making her meals, I want to thank the washing line for quietly getting on with the important business of drying our clothes using energy direct from the sun, with no technological interface, week after week, year after year, without ever letting us down.


You think that’s a grater? Now this is a grater


Every time I have to throw something away, it hurts. Some manufactured object (manufactured = made by hand, and most of these things are made by machine, but there was great human ingenuity put into the production) has reached the end of its life and heads off for landfill.

Take the cheap laser printer which is essential for the university student in the house. It runs out of ink and you need to buy a new cartridge, at $69. Here’s the old cartridge.


It’s a high-tech bundle of plastic and metal, probably including a smidgeon of the rare metals which we are all going to run out of somewhere down the track. And it’s useless, all you can do is chuck it. Would it be completely out of the question to redesign the laser printer, so that the refill, instead of being a $69 package of non-renewable resources, was just a little bottle of ink powder, which could be decanted straight into the printer? Oh no, that wouldn’t work commercially, it would destroy the manufacturer’s commercial model, wouldn’t it. How silly of me.

Of course we recycle. Three bins: rubbish, recycling and green for garden waste. The recycling bin contains a mix of newspapers, plastic containers, milk cartons, tins… and it’s picked up by a special recycling truck. I’ve always wondered how much of that stuff actually ends up in landfill. The council doesn’t publicise the end of the recycling line. And green waste goes off in a special green truck. I would love to believe that all our rose cuttings, tree prunings and noxious weeds find their way to a giant compost heap that reduces everything to lovely healthy compost in a few weeks, but I’ve heard awful rumours that our council can’t actually deal with the quantities of green waste that its residents supply. Hopefully this is just urban cynicism. There’s no way I’m going to abandon the ritual of sorting stuff for the bins. We time the pruning of fruit trees by the dates of the green rubbish collection, which happens every two weeks. About a third of the apricot tree just went off; the big apple tree is next.

A few months ago, our ancient box grater gave up the ghost. The rivets that held it together along one edge failed, and this household is not capable of riveting anything. No skills, no tools. We needed a new grater immediately, and found a similar one, a bit smaller but very cheap, at the supermarket. It’s on the left in the photo above.

Over the last few weeks, the new grater has been deteriorating. Little patches of orange rust have appeared on the main grating areas – they look exactly like the remains of grated carrot, which is why I tried to wash them off when I first saw them. I can’t think of any way of saving this thing: off to the tip it will go.

These days I buy kitchenware on line, after several debacles in the city department stores. (Myers and David Jones, I’m talking about you.) Of the various graters on offer, somehow I ended up ordering a much more expensive whizz-bang object with a solid plastic handle at the top and a removable plastic base to catch your gratings so (in theory) they don’t go all over the place. It arrived this morning, and has yet to be put into action.

I found myself justifying the expense, first to myself and then to my partner.

(1) If the last grater cost $5 and lasted three months, that’s $20 a year, which over three years is $60, which is more than I’ve spent on the new grater. The new grater is supposed to last for ever, more or less.

(2) We haven’t got a Kitchenaid mixer and we do most things by hand, so we need good equipment. And a good grater is much cheaper than a Kitchenaid mixer.

(3) We just sent a bit of useless metal to landfill after three months, which is bad for the environment and a waste of non-renewable resources. If the new grater lasts for ever, it will justify the use of the metal and plastic of which it’s made, and stay out of landfill.

(4) If we have a really good collection of graters, that will stop me coveting a Kitchenaid mixer. And we don’t really have room for a Kitchenaid mixer, and they cost a fortune, and embody and consume a lot more energy than a hand grater, or even a set of hand graters. You are allowed to have a good hand grater. (These arguments are beginning to become circular, and are clearly driven by guilt, both environmental and financial.)

Did I say ‘set of graters’ just then? Oh yes – I also ordered a fine microplane grater at the same time. After all, the postage and packing weren’t going to cost any more.

The title of a book by the British science writer Fred Pearce comes to mind. Confessions of an eco-sinner: travels to find where my stuff comes from. I haven’t even travelled to the outskirts of the City of Moreland to find the giant compost heap where I hope the prunings from the apricot tree are being turned over in a rich mix of earthworms and microbes, to end up in our local parks. Or not.


I think I’ll get back to knitting, and to the extremely difficult business of picking up dropped stitches.



Slippery slope

Knitting has mostly defeated me. No patience. Some little thing goes wrong, and after a short struggle the new balls of wool are abandoned and eventually passed on to someone who can’t believe I’m getting rid of them. ‘But this is really good wool,’ she says, astonished, and gets to work, and a couple of weeks later she’s made something lovely. I give it a rest for another three or four years, and then I try again.

I love watching a good knitter at work. I love the sight of a half-made garment in interesting colours hanging from her needles. I love the feel of the finished jumper: strong and soft, stretching in all the right places. There are sewing bloggers (like Pegsewer of Deconstruct Alter Create) who also make gorgeous knitted shawls and jumpers. I’ve seen women knitting Fair Isle patterns in fabulous colour combinations, while paying attention to what’s going on in a meeting and interjecting from time to time while their hands carry on with needles and wool. How do they do it?

Last year I came across some extraordinary wool. There’s a craft market outside the Melbourne arts centre on Sundays, and there, in among the jewellery and children’s clothes, was a table covered with brilliantly multicoloured skeins of wool. Sue Flynn of Hawthorne Cottage in Sebastopol, outside Ballarat, keeps and shears her own sheep and spins and dyes her own wool, and it feels like silk. She sold me a couple of rainbow skeins, lumpy and gorgeous, and told me I’d need enormous knitting needles:

I took it home and started knitting. No idea how many stitches to make a scarf. It soon became clear that 25 was too many – 20 was too many (a lot of ripping apart of my painfully slow work) – and I settled for only 12 stitches. The resulting scarf was light and warm and oddly shaped, and the colours were so lovely that the lumpiness hardly mattered. I wore it all last winter.

Meanwhile my friend Celia in the UK lives in an old mill that was built well before Australia was colonised by the British, and it gets seriously cold in winter. So the next time I passed the craft market I bought a couple more skeins of Sue Flynn’s wool, even more brightly coloured than the first two. Knitted up another scarf and sent it off to Celia.


This is incredible. Not only have I successfully knitted myself a scarf, I’ve knitted one for a friend and she seems to like it.

So when my son mentioned casually that he’d quite like me to knit him a jumper, of course I said yes.




Out of my league

Some kinds of sewing are beyond me, probably for ever.

A standard business shirt, for example, male or female. Look at the collar: the precision of the points, the stiffness, the way the left side looks exactly like the right side, only in reverse. The cuffs. The conventional but complex seams. All those little buttonholes, just the right size for their tiny buttons. It’s the outcome of an industrial process: the pattern based on god knows how much  market research, the fabric stamped out of the roll by some vast machine, the pieces sewn together by people – women, almost definitely – who have spent years doing this, getting faster and more accurate as they go. You could not possibly compete at home.

(Having said that, however, there are sewing bloggers out there who do precisely that. Check out Peter Lappin in New York, and his Male Pattern Boldness blog. He’s constantly developing his skills, and this lovely piece of work is only the latest of many classic shirts he’s made.)

Shoes. OK, there are make-your-own-leather-sandals classes out there – but I’ve got a pair of leather sandals bought from the maker on some market stall years ago, and they don’t get worn: no cushioning on the soles, and they jar my aging skeleton with every step. Like business shirts, making a good pair of comfortable shoes seems to be a high-tech enterprise.

(But then again: here is Carolyn in Western Australia, who never shies away from a technical challenge. Clearly she has got tired of producing immaculate versions of Issey Miyake, and of projects using entirely local materials, right down to thread and fastenings – because here she is at work on sneakers, and aiming for a pair of leather shoes for winter. I’m gobsmacked, as always, by what she does.)

A tailored jacket. Now, I don’t wear tailored jackets on the whole. I like my clothes loose and comfortable. Look at the construction of even the cheapest synthetic office-y jacket from Target – like a business shirt, it is a complex object, knocked out by the tens of thousands no doubt in some Chinese factory, but based on an immense amount of experience, from design to execution.

But there’s a Vogue pattern by Claire Shaeffer which I’ve been thinking about for a year or two now: a Chanel jacket.

V8804, Misses' Jacket

Shaeffer is a pattern designer, a teacher and the author of Couture Sewing Techniques, an excellent book which is oddly reassuring for the unskilled clothes maker. Sewing machine won’t produce predictable buttonholes? No worries: make them by hand, which is what happens at the highest end of the market anyway. Seams won’t lie flat? Go to Chapter 3: ‘Shaping the Garment: Seams, Darts and Pressing Techniques’. Somehow over the last year, partly under Shaeffer’s influence, I have begun to pay attention to ironing, after a lifetime of crumpled clothes.

Shaeffer’s Vogue pattern gives very detailed instructions, far more than you’d get with an ordinary pattern. I’ve read them, and it was almost as good as taking a class. A Chanel jacket requires a specific kind of wool: boucle, so that you can run a line of stitching across it, quilting the lining to the outer fabric, and because of the raised texture of the fabric the lines of stitching will barely show. There was a roll of boucle wool at Rathdowne Remnants a while ago at $45 a metre, and every time I went in I’d stop and stare. Soft black wool, with little bits of pink, red, green and blue woven into it. I was trying to restrict the exponential growth of my stash at the time, not to mention non-essential spending, and resisted temptation. This was a big mistake.

Because that roll of wool isn’t there any more. And a Chanel jacket, oddly enough, uses remarkably little fabric. In its own way it’s probably an industrial product, designed for economic use of expensive materials. In my size, that Claire Shaeffer design would need 1.5 metres – plus a good quality lining and lord knows what little extras in the form of braid and buttons and bits of canvas to hold things in place out of sight. But I could have had my length of wool for under $70.

Not being a Chanel jacket kind of person, I’m clearly living out some kind of fantasy here. Has it got anything to do with the cool blue motorbike helmet dangling from the model’s hand? Her matching blue leather gloves? Quite possibly. But if that boucle wool ever reappears in Rathdowne Remnants, I’m afraid I won’t be able to resist it. And that will lead to a whole new drama: sewing so far outside my comfort zone it won’t be funny.


Clown pants (2)

Here they are. Nearly done.

Clown pants

The hems are still only tacked into place. The front seam bulges a little, a bit below the waist, so there’ll be more tacking there until it’s right. I think there’s still a bit of yellow cotton thread sticking out of seams, here and there.

But the planned belt loops weren’t needed. The new waistband – constructed out of a 12 cm wide strip of fabric, with a wider piece of elastic than before – is perfect. It sits comfortably and securely around my waist, and doesn’t feel as though it’s going to let me down any time soon.

Now we have a heatwave on; so the clown pants won’t be worn for a few days. What to wear with them? Boots. And a close-fitting top of some kind, or I’ll look like Michelin Woman.

The whole episode has been a lesson in fabric choice. I should have known that this lovely stiff canvas would not gather easily on an elasticated waistband. And it should have been perfectly obvious that the weight of the fabric would tug the whole garment downwards, if a relatively light elastic was used.  I like my new trousers and I think I’ll wear them once autumn really gets going – but this morning I found myself thinking: wouldn’t this canvas have made a lovely hat?

Rather like the blue linen dress – which really should have been blue linen trousers. I’ve found a medium-weight cotton at Rathdowne Remnants which I’m planning to use for my third version of the Inari Dress – maybe this time, once I’ve tweaked the pattern to make the sleeves fit properly, there’ll be a good balance between pattern and fabric?

There will be more of these trousers. Just hoping to find another remnant of really heavy dark linen on some bargain table. Clegs? Rathdowne Remnants? Tessuti? Or maybe it’s time to travel further afield, to GJ’s, which used to be round the corner and has moved a long way east, or even Darn Cheap Fabrics, which is so far away I’ve only ever bought from them on line.