The zen of gold medals

All week we’ve been watching the Olympics. I sat up till about two in the morning while the women’s marathon unfolded along the streets of Rio, remembering what it was like to be able to run easily and for a long time – so light, so fast, such a long time ago. The three fastest women were a Kenyan, a Kenyan running for Bahrain, and an Ethiopian. This morning I found myself in front of the men’s weightlifting, dominated by Uzbekistan. We followed the highs and lows of the Australian swimmers: an unheralded teenager bursting through in the final lap to take gold, heavily fancied world beaters missing out. Now we’re on to the post-mortem: public whingeing about the Australian public being let down by too many of the team. If you don’t pull out a personal best to order, you should not feel good about yourself. I won’t name the former Olympic gold medallist who was pushing this line on the radio this morning, but I will say he was not a swimmer or an athlete, but a shooter.

Earlier on, in the run up to Olympic selection we had our chef de mission setting ambitious targets for gold medals, while at the same time effectively excluding potential medallists because of their perceived attitude problems. Not only are you expected to perform like a machine; you have to behave like one as well.

As our swimmers embraced their more successful rivals, and came out of the pool to be interrogated by a Channel 7 reporter (‘How does it feel to come seventh, when you swam the fastest time in the event this year before the Olympics?’), they spoke, one after the other, about the need to run one’s own race, to do one’s best on the day as far as possible, and to move on if things don’t go as well as hoped. They were gracious and mature: no tantrums and very few tears. No excuses. This is what elite athletes are taught. Don’t pay too much attention to anyone else; do your best, identify areas for improvement, work on them, try again. Meanwhile the nation is singing a different song; they’ve let us down and they should be ashamed of themselves.

You wouldn’t think there were athletes in other parts of the world who were working their guts out and planning to peak at Rio. There seems to be a weird sense of Australian entitlement – not in relation to all sports, but in areas in which the country has been traditionally strong.

And we seem to forget that swimming is a First World sport. You need a good water supply and good swimming pools to develop elite swimmers, and that costs money. Why are our runners outclassed by Africans and West Indians? Partly because it doesn’t cost much: a decent pair of shoes and some reasonably flat lengths of road will get you going. There’s a level playing field. In twenty years time, maybe some of the more prosperous African countries will be producing their first generation of world class swimmers – and Australian journalists and ageing Australian gold medallists will be complaining about Our Boys and Girls not working hard enough.

Gold, gold, gold for Australia? That mentality doesn’t even help you win, for godsake. It stops you running your own race, it destroys your concentration. Athletes don’t need pep talks about the nation’s expectations: they need the zen of swimming.

And in that spirit, I will acknowledge the glorious work of other sewing bloggers. How could I ever achieve the heights of Rivergum of The Insouciant Stitcher? This tunic is made of silk that she dyed by hand, and she gives a generous account of the technical details on her blog. For me, this is medal-winning work.

jean genie

Carolyn of Handmade by Carolyn assembled this dress out of old jeans – her children’s plus her partner’s for the longer panels. Already I am regretting the old Levis I sent to the Brotherhood a couple of months ago. She has used the different shades of blue so beautifully – and just to rub salt into the wound, she also made her shoes out of old jeans, and has been wearing them for a couple of years. There is no point even trying to compete.

However. I have now successfully quilted the silk lining to the wool mix of my jacket. This is a first for me, along with the first handmade buttonholes and the first attempt at cutting and sewing silk. What’s next? Should I remove the braid I sewed to the cuffs, because of the little problem with the lining being shorter than the outer fabric, so I can cut them both to the same length? Maybe I’ll sew braid to the main part of the jacket – more hand work – and be careful not to place it too close to the edge. At some point I have to incorporate the shoulder pads that Bill gave me during his class, which are not part of the Vogue pattern, but which he says are absolutely necessary. At some point I have to cut the lining and turn it under and sew it to the buttonholes. So much work still to do. It will be good to have the whole thing assembled and find out if it actually fits. No point thinking about gold medals, now or ever.

On screen a woman from the Bahamas runs the 800m from the front and collapses across the line fractionally ahead of the American favourite, who was hoping for her fifth Olympic gold medal. The woman from the Bahamas wins gold, but she doesn’t get up. There are other women on the ground. They gave everything. Somebody had to lose – but how could you ask any of them to do anything more?

Climbing a mountain

 

What with Brexit, and the dismal state of the British Labour Party, and the recent Australian elections, and all sorts of other bad news worldwide about which I can do almost nothing, it seemed a good time to fall back on acquiring new skills. I picked an advanced sewing class at the Melbourne Council for Adult Education. Bill Woodhouse, who has worked in the fashion business all his life, is now semi-retired, but shares his knowledge of couture sewing techniques from time to time. A bunch of us with varying levels of sewing experience turn up with our projects and get down to work, and he circulates around the room dispensing advice, lending a helping hand, and occasionally summoning the class to view, say, the insertion of an invisible zip or a neat way of gathering fabric on a sewing machine without using a special foot.

No point taking something easy along, I thought. There’s a pattern by the American designer / teacher Claire Shaeffer that caught my eye some time ago: Vogue 8804. I bought it in one of their on-line sales, had a look at the instructions and decided to wait. I’ve written about it before. It’s a  Chanel-style jacket, photographed of course on a slim young woman – and I think what first caught my eye was the motorbike helmet dangling from one of her hands. That classic jacket has somehow acquired a bit of biker cool. I haven’t got a motorbike, and I will never wear shoes like hers – but that jacket became desirable, in that photo.

 

 

Ideally, you’d use a lightweight boucle wool to make this. I missed out on one last year at Rathdowne Remnants. Somewhere south of the river somebody was selling exactly what I wanted in a glorious dark blue, on line. But it cost nearly $90 a metre, and this project was so far outside my skill set that it would have been vandalism to embark on cutting out such an expensive fabric, knowing that disaster mostly likely lay ahead. I found a beautiful and affordable green wool/silk mix on Sydney Road, Brunswick at $18 a metre and started the search for an appropriate lining material. Then I discovered a piece of floral silk in my stash, which came I think from Rathdowne Fabrics on a good day, but it didn’t go well with that green. And THEN I realised I had a wool mix in my stash already: a brown / blue mix which came from a warehouse sale in Stewart Street, Brunswick, very cheap, and it looked great with that silk. So the green fabric has joined the stash.

Bill’s course took place over three Saturdays. Knowing that I was about to be seriously out of my depth, I got going early: cut out the main fabric and hit the ground running. Over two and a half weeks, I followed Claire Shaeffer’s written instructions, asked Bill for help, learned some useful short cuts, and watched everybody else’s projects move forward at high speed. Mine, at the end of the final class, had progressed considerably, but it was still in pieces.

 

jacket sleeve assembled

 

Here is the outside of a sleeve. It consists of three pattern pieces, which have been sewn together here, and I have added a trim. I walked all round the city trying to find something that toned in with that difficult greeny-blue pattern in the wool, and eventually found the right thing in Lincraft. The trim should have gone on top of a ribbon, but I decided to take a brisk Bill-like executive decision on that one, and not bother. I sewed it on by hand, with some difficulty, especially on the corner.

 

jacket sleeve lining assembled

 

And here is the over-the-top floral lining for that sleeve. Really, this silk should have become a floaty summer top, but there is something about a bright, surprising lining in an otherwise conventional jacket that lifts my heart.

Once Bill’s classes finished, my progress through Claire Shaeffer’s instructions slowed down. This afternoon, however, I sat down and read them through to the end, discovering en route exactly how one attaches lining to the back of buttonholes, and working out that there probably isn’t any one single step that is completely out of reach. The next major step, I think, is to quilt the lining to the outer fabric, which means basting along the lines for quilting and then machine sewing them very, very carefully. I will do what Bill kept saying to us, and experiment on scraps of fabric first. I will put aside enough time to carry the procedure out on the whole jacket, and not leave anything undone for next time, because – as Bill kept telling us – if you think you’ve learnt something, the next time you sit down to do it you’ll find that you’ve forgotten, and it’s better to do it all at once.

Once the jacket is fully assembled, I will try it on in fear and trembling. One or two little things have gone wrong along the way, including an inexplicable difference in size between the outer fabric and the lining – and as I discovered rather too late, you are supposed to leave wider seams on the lining, presumably because undersized linings are a Thing and need to be avoided. The only way to fix it at this stage is to make wider seams overall.

Through most of this process, my household was enmeshed in the drama of Masterchef, and I was barracking for Matt, who had a stylish manner with a kitchen knife and seemed slightly less squeaky clean than the rest of the contestants. In the final he was faced with an impossible dessert designed by Heston Blumenthal. It looked like an egg on a nest but it was made of chocolate among other things, and it took five hours to construct. He made one little mistake at the end, and the egg fell apart on the plate. He came second, after leading in the first two rounds of the evening.

 

Image result for masterchef australia  heston blumenthal dessert

 

So I’ve taken on board the motivational spiel of the Masterchef judges. If it’s not perfect, don’t give up, just make the best of it.  Think of it as a lesson and try and do better with the green wool / silk mix next time. If it doesn’t fit but turns out more or less wearable, give it to a slimmer friend. If it fits OK but all you can see is that dodgy buttonhole, hang it up out of sight for a few months and then have another look – you might be surprised. But get it finished. Just keep going, do a little more every evening, and you’ll get there in the end. Any day now, I’ll find myself looking in the mirror and chanting, ‘Every day, and in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

 

Quilt

About nineteen years ago there was an exhibition of Amish quilts at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. My friend B and I took our toddlers along. The children were just walking and about the same size; I remember my son was wearing shocking pink overalls with a big bright polka dots, a hand-me-down from a slightly older friend. The exhibition was busy but spacious. The kids loved the polished wooden floor and reverted to crawling and sliding to get around.  Several gallery visitors admired our sweet little girls and asked if they were twins. B, who is a long-time quilter, showed me how to look at a quilt, what kinds of workmanship are involved, the tensions between the immaculate, repetitive craft and the drive for colour and form.

It was a memorable day – that is, at the time it was probably just another good little excursion with small children, punctuated by accidents with drinks and the search for a child-friendly toilet, but it has stayed in my memory ever since. There is another memory, which must come from two or three years earlier, when my friend and I sat on a couch at some social gathering, sharing our grief at losing a pregnancy early on. And here we were at the gallery with our beautiful children.

Now those children are pretty much grown up: currently studying midwifery and music respectively. And there is another exhibition of quilts at the gallery – this time at the Australian wing in Federation Square. ‘Making the Australian quilt: 1800-1950’ is open until 6 November. How could we not go?

B still makes quilts. There’s one for each baby in her circle – not too precious, because baby quilts are often used to destruction. Then there are larger, more elaborate quilts for older friends or to hang on the wall. I still don’t make quilts; I’m struggling even to complete a knitted sweater, so how on earth would I cope with hundreds of little pieces of fabric, all needing to be sewn together with tiny, perfect seams? Repetitive crafts are not my thing.

I was expecting to see roughly made quilts using scraps from dressmaking or coarser materials, as part of the Australian pioneer tradition. On the contrary: most of the surviving early quilts use materials that would have been bought on purpose: flowery chintz, bright silks. There were some surprises.

quilt sailor

This is a tumbling block quilt, made out of tiny pieces of silk. The quiltmaker was a sailor, whose name is not known. He gave it to a young woman in Somerset, who sent it to her brother and his wife in Sydney. Why did I assume that all quiltmakers would be women? Sailors had to have sewing skills, in order to make and repair sails – but moving from sailcloth to silk would have been a considerable jump. This piece of work is immaculate. I am trying to imagine the maker sitting on deck in good weather on a long voyage, piecing his tiny diamond-shaped scraps of fabric together – but one little gust of wind and they’d all be overboard. He would have had to work below decks, in good light – or keep his materials in his pockets, and a firm grip on the piece of work in hand. The silks for his quilt would probably have been bought, or maybe acquired as scraps from a dressmaker? I imagine a sister making dresses for wealthy women, hoarding the leftovers for the next time her brother comes home.

Annie Tait (later Annie Percival), who was born in a tent in Silverton, NSW, in 1887, was the daughter of a man who became a successful publican in Broken Hill. When she was about 16, she collected enough silk ribbons from cigars to make a fabulous quilt of her own:

quilt cigar ribbon

She has cut up ribbons for the central square to bring together the manufacturers’ logos, and matched the outer ribbons ingeniously to form the broader pattern. Looking at it – the collage of found materials, the brilliant gold – I thought of Rosalie Gascoigne’s traffic sign assemblages, many years later. Annie lived to the astonishing age of 103, dying in 1990.

I found the pioneer quilts of my imagination later on in the exhibition. They are blankets pieced together out of a wild range of scraps – sacking, old sheets, anything that came to hand – in the hard times of the 1930s, and they were known as waggas.

quilt wagga

‘This is more my kind of thing,’ I said to B, approaching this striking object from a distance. Close up, it’s very rough, and the little floral border at the bottom is surreal – you could choose to read it as an ironic comment on the delicacy of the quilting tradition. But I think the thing was thrown together, because somebody was cold and the materials could be found. Maybe that floral edge would be softer under somebody’s chin than the other materials used, which are mostly wool. The maker’s name is Emily Forward.

I have to mention one other quilt.

quilt ww2

This one is also made out of materials that came to hand. Corporal Clifford Gatenby started sewing images onto his army blanket when he was a prisoner of war in Germany, 1941-5. He used wool and cloth from discarded garments, and made needles out of broken spectacles and old toothbrushes. He had clearly been fighting in Egypt; one of the images is of a pyramid. He is recorded as escaping from the camp in 1945 – quite possibly as the Allies advanced and the guards left their posts. He took the quilt with him, and is on record as having said, maybe in some exasperation, that it had been too much work to leave behind!

Waste materials. I have a sackful of fabric scraps from all sorts of projects over the last few years, and it’s hard to throw them away. B tells me it’s really difficult to use a mix of fabrics in a quilt, because they behave differently and won’t lie flat. As we saw in this exhibition, even in the early nineteenth century most high quality quilts used bought materials, and the rougher quilts probably haven’t survived. I love the cigar-ribbon quilt and the Depression-era waggas partly because they used what was available.

Last night we removed a ripped sheet from our bed – it’s a fitted sheet, and the fabric has worn thin over the years. I haven’t thrown it away, because my frugal self thinks there might be a use for it – as lining for some project, or in the garden in some way. My frugal self, however, is pretty close to my hoarder self, and together they are capable of creating and sustaining domestic chaos. My rational self, on the other hand, doesn’t want to have the house cluttered up with possibly useful things more than absolutely necessary. I’ve put the sheet in to wash, and will think about this later. I know that if I do throw it away, I will be needing a few strips of plain white cotton some time soon, and I’ll have to go out and buy them, and then I’ll be sorry.

Perhaps one answer is to sort and classify the scraps, so that a particular piece will come to hand when it’s needed, instead of just shoving everything into a big bag?

Meanwhile I am engaged in my most ambitious sewing project to date: a Chanel-style jacket. I’m proud to be able to say that my stash contained both a length of wool mix and a length of silk, and that they go nicely together. All I’ve bought are the trimmings: interfacing, organza, buttons… Watch this space.