A wardrobe that works

Got dressed and out of the house in a hurry, this cold morning. Phone call from son: the dog was refusing to leave the off-leash park, after a chance encounter with one of his favourite humans. The dog is nine months old, a lively pointer / beagle cross with perhaps a trace of border collie: friendly, playful and intelligent, but obedience is not his strong point. We are working on this.

If there’s only one of us trying to get him home, it can get very difficult. If another family member arrives, however, the problem evaporates. The moment he saw me, he was on the move.

On the way home, I realised I’d thrown on my current winter gear without a thought. It’s a scruffy ensemble in which I feel almost completely at ease. And this doesn’t come easy to me, after a lifetime of struggling to feel comfortable in my clothes. This blog might as well have been subtitled: ‘On not knowing what to wear’. Over the last few years, trying out one pattern / fabric combination after another, often failing and occasionally getting it right, I’ve moved towards an easier range of clothing: comfortable separates, worn so often they’ll probably need replacing some time soon.

This is what I found myself wearing.


There was a dark red padded vest from a Uniqlo sale last year, which has been worn constantly. Melbourne isn’t often cold enough for a full-scale winter jacket – I do have one, bought in England about seven years ago, and it’s been worn about twice this year. The vest goes on when I go out, and it often stays on when I come back in. Light and warm.

There was a Uniqlo T-shirt underneath everything else – pure cotton, becoming less common on the shelves of our local store, is it possible they’re moving over entirely to synthetics? Buy your cotton T-shirt now or else.

There was a grey wool cardigan which was an extravagance many years ago, bought at an Italian shop in Lygon St Carlton, which no longer exists. It has outlasted many cheaper garments and is still going strong, while, I’m afraid, Uniqlo woolly cardies, which look so good in the shop, begin to fall apart after a few months’ wear.

There was a sleeveless blue dress, with an up and down hemline. The pattern came from my friend Barb. She had a favourite garment, bought in the UK, which was worn to bits; and being Barb, she didn’t mourn – she traced a pattern and made another one. As a lifelong dressmaker, this is the kind of thing she does without thinking. She doesn’t even seem to have mentioned it on her blog. Anyway, she copied the pattern for me, and I found some dark blue knit fabric with a bit of texture in my stash

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I thought very hard about the binding on neckline and armholes. Barb’s version used brightly patterned external binding, giving her plain garment a little pop of colour. I made bias binding from an old check shirt of my partner’s, which was irretrievably ripped down the spine. I decided to keep it on the inside, on this occasion. I liked the look of it so much that I left the finished garment hanging from a chest of drawers in the bedroom for a week or two, where I could admire it.

The result was, by my standards, a howling success: a comfortable, versatile shift dress that goes with just about everything.


My wide cotton trousers were made years ago, following a pattern in Simple Modern Sewing by Shufu To Seikatsu Sha. This beautiful Japanese book,  translated and adapted for larger non-Japanese wearers, contains the makings of an entire wardrobe, and it occurred to me the other day that if I’d restricted myself to this one book, I might have ended up much sooner with a wearable range of garments. The trousers are pretty roughly made, with a skewiff patch pocket at the back, but they have not come apart.

The boots are Spanish, from Allegro in Lygon Street, Brunswick, which is most unfortunately about to close down. I’ve been buying solid, comfortable shoes and boots there for several years. These have been maintained by an excellent cobbler in Victoria Street, Brunswick, just off Sydney Road.

The beanie is from a stall at the Abbotsford Convent. It stays on in high winds, unlike most of my other beanies. The dog got hold of it the other day, and it took two of us about ten minutes to get it back. Something about the good quality wool? It was a bit slimy but undamaged. Yes, I did wash it afterwards.

The scarf came from a stall at my son’s primary school fete, ten or more years ago, and I wear it all the time. A thick strand of cotton came loose from the fringe the other day, and I found a big needle and mended it; once upon a time I would just have cut that loose strand off. I think it might see me out.

So there we are: a mix of Uniqlo, small suppliers, second-hand and home-made clothing, which temporarily works for me. As soon as the weather warms up, I’ll be back in my usual state of mild panic about what to wear. But Barb is making another sleeveless  dress, patching together a light stretch denim and scraps of blue Japanese patterned cottons, and I think I might follow in her footsteps: shameless plagiarism.

Is it possible that within a year or two I will have reached a state of wardrobe nirvana: a few well-worn, versatile garments hanging in a half-empty closet?

High fashion: an interlude

This blog is not going to indulge itself in any easy cynicism about haute couture. Without the Paris shows, would we ever have heard of Issey Miyake and Junya Watanabe? Without a global awareness of that floppy, recycled aesthetic, would Vogue Patterns go out of their way to continue producing Marcy Tilton’s fabulous Japanese-inspired loose dresses and asymmetric T-shirts?

And where would we be without the encouragement of Clare Sheaffer’s Couture Sewing Techniques when it comes to buttonholes and seam finishes? Dump the machine and do it by hand: there’s no particular virtue in machine work, it’s only faster and neater if it’s piloted by a skilled operator, which takes years of practice for the ham-fisted. Once you’ve had to undo one long machine-stitched seam in an unforgiving fabric, and counted the extra three hours into the production time of that garment, hand sewing – or at least a careful process of tacking, trying on, untacking and trying on again, incorporating perhaps a line of machine stitching for the seam itself and then oversewing the edges by hand – begins to look like a time-saver.

Nevertheless, most of the fashion shows are less than irrelevant to me, now and also at other, better-looking phases of my life: mostly to me they are boring. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who see this year’s subtle innovations in colour and shape and draw their own creative conclusions. Usually I glance at a photo or two in a newspaper and move on. Nothing to see here.

Balenciaga’s latest, however, gave me a little visual shock. Look at this young woman. OK: she is extraordinarily beautiful in a pale Tilde Swinton sort of way, and presumably immensely tall and slim, and she’s wearing a small fortune’s worth of exquisite gloves,  interesting and dramatic neck ornament, and unwearably high platform boots, and she’s carrying an excellent bag a bit like a sheet music case – but apart from that…


That shirt. OK, the designer has chosen to crop it on one side at the front, and what I thought at first was a charming untuckedness is actually an irritating little bit of self-indulgence. [Later: looking at it again, sorry, yes, I think it’s a charming untuckedness.] But it’s a classic mannish cotton shirt, oversized and perfectly crisp and ironed. It appears elsewhere in the show with all its bits intact under an oversized denim jacket, whose well-worn twin may well be lurking somewhere in Savers in Sydney Road, Brunswick.

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Both models are wearing prim below-the-knee skirts in tweed or corduroy – the kind of thing that says to me: 1970s London feminist off to her day job, trying to look respectable. At home, she has a selection of dungarees, boots from the long-gone Olof Daughters, dangly earrings from another long-lost shop, Detail in Covent Garden, and a fine collection of political badges. And another thing: those incredibly beautiful young women, like the 1970s London feminist, appear not to be wearing any make-up on their faces at all.

Things that go on forever. I have that shirt. Got it at the very down-market K-mart many years ago. It was languishing in an unloved area within Womens Fashions, and it was pure cotton, no frills, and had a useful arrangement on the sleeves that keeps them hitched up when you’re cooking. It was so cheap that for once I did the sensible thing: went back and bought two more. They’re still going strong, worn every winter in combination with singlets underneath, jumpers over the top, shirt-tails out and trailing if the jumper is short enough to show them. I suppose it’s a uniform that dates me dreadfully.

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Here they are: three K-mart shirts, newly ironed believe it or not, only very slightly marked in one case by, perhaps, simmering tomato sauce, but all still in good nick otherwise. I’m so glad that this year the loose mannish shirt is having its moment in the sun.

And, by the way, I want to acknowledge the skilled and anonymous Chinese women who sewed my three cheap shirts. Also, come to think of it, the people who picked the cotton, delivered it to the mill, and worked in the mill where it was cleaned, spun, dyed and woven. Also the workers in the factory that made the metal snaps that have lasted all these years. I hope, optimistically, that you’re all working a maximum forty-hour week for decent wages in reasonable working conditions.



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.