Measure twice, cut once

My mother could make a dress in a couple of hours and wear it out on a Saturday night. She didn’t use a pattern, she cut straight into the material. She was born in Dowlais in south Wales in 1922. Did most women of that time and place have these skills? I have no idea. She died in her thirties, so what I have left is the memory of her black and gold manual Singer sewing machine – you turned the wheel by hand to make it work – and also the pinking shears that she bought with some excitement: they made seams so much easier, but at the time they must have been a bit of an investment. She wouldn’t attempt anything complicated. When she wanted special things for me – a dark green velvet party dress. or a scratchy dark green wool winter coat with a yellow lining – she went to a professional: Mrs Caswell, who lived nearby in Wimbledon and would come in to measure me up or have me try on the half-finished garment. I didn’t enjoy this process. If you moved, you were likely to be scratched by one of the pins holding everything together at that stage. Also, I didn’t like dark green. But I had curly red hair, and my mother was adamant that this was my colour.

singer_66_redeye_sewalot

I wonder what happened to that green velvet dress? Passed on, most likely, once I grew out of it. And that sewing machine?

I sat down meaning to write about the garden. Measure twice, cut once: that’s the process when attempting an amateur back yard redesign. After talking to Karen Sutherland I found myself confident, up to a point, in beginning to reduce the size of the lawn, remove some of the larger plants, and shift soil around. She gave me the overall shape of the reworked garden, and for me it was a little revelation. I produced a pretty good circle for the lawn, using a tape measure, a plant marker for the central point, and bricks for the edge, but then I had to stand back and look at it for a few days before doing anything irrevocable. And when the heavy lifters – partner and son – offered their time at the weekend to shift the bluestones that functioned not very efficiently as an edging for a built-up garden bed, and they asked how far round they should go, I was suddenly unsure. With the blokes standing there ready to start, I realised that on one side there were problems in lowering the height of the garden bed: the apricot tree, and the grave of a much-loved cat who died about twelve years ago, marked with a single bluestone. He’s still down there, with a rusting tin of cat food, his old red collar with bell, and a string to chase in the after life. So they stopped half way and I’m still thinking.

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Karen suggested a metal lawn edging, and gave me the name of a good supplier. As a professional, she was perfectly right: this would be a durable barrier between grass and other plants, and it would give a neat, elegant finish. But as I thought about this, over a week or two, I didn’t feel comfortable with that particular solution. We have bricks from the old chimney that was demolished last year; why can’t I make a brick edging? Because it will look messy, that’s why, and it’ll let the grass out of the lawn to ruin the lives of every other plant nearby. Ah, but I can sink a plastic barrier into the soil around the lawn, and put the bricks on the other side. That might work. And messy isn’t always bad. And, of course, if it ends up looking terrible, we can change it. I’m not going to lay concrete for those bricks. Maybe there should be a base of gravel? But that’s all. For the time being, the challenge is to get the plastic barrier sunk deep enough into the soil that it’s almost flush with the lawn, or, alternatively, to find a narrower plastic barrier – the lazy solution.

lawn circle

She also suggested a complete replacement of the lawn, laying a roll of turf in the spring. Again, if you want the professional result and you’re starting with beaten earth with a few green sprigs sticking up, this is the sensible thing to do. But I am about to get rid of several square metres of lawn, and parts of it aren’t in bad nick. It’s more or less winter now, the right time to heave chunks of turf out of the soil and drop them into the biggest of the bald patches. We won’t have a perfectly smooth circle of grass next summer, but if we feed it and water it and mow it, it should at least  be green.

Measure twice, cut once. Accept that you can’t always see the end of the project from the beginning. Take things just as far as feels comfortable, and stop. Stand back. If in doubt, make sure your work can be reversed.

Meanwhile, I have nearly finished the stripey blue dress. Where Marcy Tilton suggested shirring the front, I saw smocking. Looked on line. Found a tutorial at the Cutting Corners College website. Couldn’t be bothered to do a sample: just launched straight into things. How hard could this be?

smocking

I think it’s lovely, but a skilled sewer would be horrified. You can see the stitching getting tighter as I work my way down and begin to realise the importance of finishing off each little segment with a double stitch to prevent the thread slipping. I’m afraid this garment may need on-going maintenance as the thread slides about. By the way, this particular combination of fabric and thread – stretchy cotton and lycra, with two strands of embroidery thread as recommended by Cutting Corners – was almost impossible to undo when I took a wrong turning. I spent hours trying to backtrack just a few stitches. But I got there. It doesn’t look too bad. One day I might do this again and get it perfect.

Expertise: the gardener

Now that the PhD is done and dusted, and now that the builders – restumpers, sanders, painters, shed builders, water tank installers etc – have finished extending the life of the house we live in, the garden has reached the top of the To Do list. Its current state was dictated long ago by our need for a small-scale football/cricket pitch and battlefield on which small children, resident and visiting, could use up a little bit of excess energy. Now that the child is thoroughly grown up, the ‘lawn’ – a balding patch of soil with clumps of grass, clover, violets, oxalis, chickweed and other more or less desirable plants – is no longer essential.

The sunniest part of the lawn, which used to be burnt into extinction on the first hot day every summer, has now been smothered under a raised garden bed. We filled it with a mix of soil bought from Inner City Garden supplies in Brunswick (they filled the back of a small truck with a couple of cubic metres, and delivered it down the narrow lane to our carport – tipping it with enormous care just inside without damaging the door – bravura performance), plus pea straw, cow manure, chicken poo, compost and I’ve forgotten what else. Everything grows well. There are a couple of in-ground worm farms in there, disposing of a careful selection of kitchen scraps every week.

That leaves the shady area. It is bordered by beds which have only partly worked: underfed, not much sunlight, uncared for and weedy.

Over the last few years, I’ve been visiting other people’s gardens courtesy of the Open Garden Scheme, in transition now after the abolition of the national program. One of them stood out: Karen Sutherland’s Pascoe Vale garden.

edible eden

It’s a small shady jungle of food plants, chooks, beehives, fish and all sorts of passing wildlife, which even spills out onto her nature strip. She is a trained horticulturalist who used to work at the zoo and built up her soil with interesting manures including elephant. She is now a professional garden designer and consultant. Paralysed by the hopeless state of our back yard, I asked her to come round for an hour and think aloud about where to go from here.

It was an intense hour, and it took me days to process everything she came up with. She thinks a little bit of lawn is a good thing, especially if you’re thinking of getting a dog, as it’s soft on human feet and on paws and cooler in summer. Looking at our odd-shaped space, she could see that a smaller, round lawn could be surrounded by a mix of direct plantings and smaller round raised beds. She explained that a shady fence may actually be a good place to grow some climbing berries, and that there are now varieties which are almost thornless. I asked tentatively about avocadoes, having heard of people growing them in Melbourne but never having seen one here; she was enthusiastic, but stressed the need to prepare the soil extremely well, digging a metre deep if possible, adding manure and compost, and leaving it all for a month or so before planting. Apparently avocadoes quite like a bit of shade. She talked about less familiar plants: strawberry guava, youngberry.

garden before we start

Here is the messier side of our garden; you can see the shadow of the big plum tree on the north side. Newly painted weatherboards, new tin fence, picturesquely aging garden bench which may have a few years left in it but not more, untidy planting beds edged amateurishly with bluestone which came from one of the last bluestone dunnies in Fitzroy, in the garden of a house formerly owned by friends. They used the stone to build raised beds and we got a trailer load. There’s an apricot tree which we planted on our son’s first birthday, which is going just fine and gives us loads of jam every year, and a climbing rose on the carport to the left. Madame Alfred Carriere, which is almost always out of control but quite beautiful on its best days.
mme a c rose

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is an extremely badly planted Peace rose, which spends its days trying to run away from home. Mostly visible from the lane. We are going to have to move it somewhere nicer: a huge job for the middle of winter.

Peace rose no 2

There is also a smoke bush (cotinus corrygia?) which I planted after a trip to the UK, where we housesat a garden that had one: a massive round dense purple bush which I loved. Ours couldn’t cope with a hot day in Melbourne, so I moved it to an area where it would just get a bit of morning sun, and it now hasn’t got enough light.

smokebush

Look at this scrawny thing. Karen suggested, very cautiously, that maybe it could go.

It was a relief to be told this – to be given permission to admit to failure! Also on the hit list are a badly shaped correa underneath the apricot tree, a banksia rose which regularly gets into our neighbour’s gutters, a native climber with blue flowers that has never done very much and could make space for a raspberry, and a very small lime tree already half dead after a citrus wasp attack.

The circle marked with garden edging on the non-lawn is one possible position for the smaller, better cared-for lawn. It’ll leave a lot of space for planting.

One or two things she suggested were not quite right for us, or for my half-worked-out ideas about this particular back yard. I don’t want to develop interesting differences in the level of the garden, if it means having to protect the side fence from raised soil. There will have to be other ways of doing it: more freestanding raised beds, perhaps, or some tall wicking pots (I have a couple of oil drums ready for conversion), which amounts to the same thing.

And I realised that if we aren’t expecting a professionally smooth small lawn, I don’t need to buy in turf, because I have all the materials to hand to patch up the existing one. I can take healthy chunks of grass and soil from the areas of lawn which are going to go, and just stick them into the bald bits of the lawn we’re keeping. It’s the right time of year to do this, and we’re having some lovely wet weather. By spring, with a bit of TLC, I reckon it’ll all look fine. Sort of.

I’m thinking that to begin with, we’ll frame the lawn with peastraw bales, as opposed to the permanent garden edging that Karen recommended. Some friends did this as a temporary seating place in their back yard, and it lasted for years. It would have the advantage of being easily adjustable if we get things a bit wrong.

And I’m thinking that we can run a little path through the new wide planting areas, using our small mountain of bluestone. Crazy paving or stepping stones.

This is what happens when you get advice from someone who really knows what they’re doing. It clears your mind. It shows you how to get started, and makes space for a bit of your own thinking. It’s not about control.

One toe into the blogosphere

There are some rituals in the sewing blogosphere that seem designed to terrify the beginner. Me Made May, for example, which is in action right now. The idea is that you wear something you’ve made yourself every single day this month. It’s aimed at encouraging makers at all skill levels to get their handmade garments out of the wardrobe and into action. Many participants photograph themselves – or have someone else take a pic, for best results – in a stunning range of garments, often beautifully colour-coordinated. The blogger of How Good is That is not only documenting her daily wardrobe but training for a half marathon at the same time. In theory I could join in – with the wardrobe photos, not the half marathon – but does anyone really want to see the various well-worn items in my range of cropped trousers, mostly developed from Simple Modern Sewing, a wonderful but very basic Japanese pattern book?

Then there are the sewing competitions. I doubt if I’ll ever reach the heights of the finalists in the Tessuti annual competition; the standards are so far out of reach it’s not funny.

Tessuti winner 2014

This astonishing garment, which won in 2014,was constructed by Emma of the Ernest Flagg blog. No, that isn’t some kind of op-art fabric – it’s a plain black-and-white stripe, cut into strips and reassembled to create those eye-dazzling patterns. I think that’s twenty segments just for the front of the dress. There is no way I will ever attain such precision in driving a sewing machine. Forget it. Not going to happen.

One of these on-line gatherings is tempting, however. The fabulous Spygirl blog, subtitled ‘seeing life on the bright – and pattern-mixed – side’, has been organising linkups based on colour. Last month featured colours in the purple range, and bloggers posted a wild and wonderful range of garments which included that colour. Although I do have a length of purple knit fabric in my stash, I was unable to think of a good way of using it within the time limit.

This month, however, Spygirl is featuring – wait for it – BEIGE. This is probably the least likely colour to be found on her blog or in her wardrobe. She’s managed it, however.

spygirl beige

This beauty  was made from a Target (US) scarf. And yes, apparently there is beige in there. Look very closely.

spygirl beige 2

There is so much inspiration in this challenge. Surely by the end of May I can detect a trace of beige in something I’ve made, get someone to take a photo of me wearing it (I hate having my picture taken – but just this once…), post it on this blog, and link it to Spygirl? I might even have an old scarf somewhere, containing a hint of beige, just waiting to be turned into the front panel of a tunic? Go on, don’t be shy – get out there and show your face…