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

20170430_123159 (1)

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?

The real world


A washing line on a sunny day is a beautiful thing. The clothes of all the residents in the house – those clothes that have been recently worn and don’t need dry cleaning – hang in anonymous rows, forming new colour combinations that may even have something to say about the residents’ ways of being in the world. T-shirts in black, white no longer dazzling, shades of dark blue and navy, jostle for space with dark underpants male and female, socks (occasionally bright red but mostly black or navy), jeans in various stages of fading and disrepair. Men’s shirts like sails. Nothing glamorous about the clothing, but there’s a jauntiness about the washing line as a whole, physical intimacy on display to anyone looking over the fence.

The poet Aileen Kelly once wrote with feeling about ‘the sewage flow of washing’. Well, yes – but the washing line is another matter. A friend once said to me – in the days when she was raising two small girls in the English countryside and I was a young woman about London, childless and political – that hanging out the washing is one of the best things for a woman at home. It gets you outdoors, and you have to raise your hands above your head, which is lovely when you’re mostly bending over to deal with much smaller people.

Sorting the dried washing, on the other hand, is a pain – particularly now that the young bloke’s socks and underpants are almost indistinguishable from his father’s. These days, if I find that it’s down to me to sort a load of washing, I simply extract my own bits and pieces and ask the others to do theirs. Three adults in a house: no reason for any simple domestic task to be allocated to one person rather than another.


Fairly recently, thanks to Marie Kondo and her book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’, I learned how to fold my own clothes the way they should always have been folded. Now, after a big wash, I can see what I’ve been wearing. Look at this wobbly pile of folded T-shirts, not quite reaching the Kondo standard of folding perfection: dark grey, light grey, dark blue, off-white, black. A flash of lime green. These seem to be my winter colours. Any day now – like this coming Friday, which promises to hit 25 degrees (that’s 77 fahrenheit in old money) – they will begin to look drab, hot and inappropriate and I won’t know what to wear.

But I have a new-to-me pattern for a summer dress: Style Arc’s Toni,  which I’ve been contemplating for some time. Catherine Daze has made it twice, in the hope that it will accommodate her pregnant belly and still be wearable afterwards. It looks cool and loose and, on her, very stylish.

Stylearc toni side view

The pattern (hard copy) arrived last week, and I’ve been wondering what fabric to use. After drifting hopefully around Rathdowne Fabrics and Clegs in Brunswick and finding nothing that was exactly right, I went on line and admired the lovely selection of double gauze at Miss Matatabi. I have never sewn with double gauze, but a lot of people have written about how beautiful it is to wear: light and cool.

So, thinking about my pile of T-shirts and the various shades of blue therein, I ordered three metres of a denim blue double gauze backed with a blue and white stripe: reversible. It hasn’t arrived yet. Already however I’m thinking that it may not be right for the pattern, which would look better in something a little heavier and less flyaway, with a bit of stretch. Will I find something different? More browsing around in Rathdowne Fabrics in the hope of discovering one of their amazing bargains?

And will I go ahead and make something else with the fabric? Baggy trousers for a hot summer day? A loose shirt? A simpler, shorter dress? There’s a Marcy Tilton pattern I’ve had sitting around for a year or so: Vogue 9112.

To my eye, this looks mysteriously awful on the very beautiful model but lovely on quite a range of other people: a delicate garment by the Dashing Eccentric:

and Peg’s wild and wonderful version on Deconstruct Alter Create:

Alternatively, and perhaps more practically, there’s a newish shirt pattern at Tessuti: Helga. It’s simple and loose and would definitely be worn until it disintegrated. Yes: maybe I’ll make a Helga.

This seems to be the process I’m arriving at. I’m seduced by the sight of a garment on somebody else who makes better fabric choices than I do. Choice of fabric for a particular pattern is just about the most important part of making your own clothes, I think – or at least, it’s the stage at which I’ve made the most expensive, timewasting and irreversible mistakes. Plus, the garment that catches my eye is likely not to be something I would wear on a regular basis. There’s a little bit of fantasy for me, in the appeal of the Style Arc Toni dress: it’s for special, not for dragging on in a hurry in the morning.

So I order the pattern and the fabric, and then the reality principle begins to kick in. (1) Look at the drape on that dress. It’s supposed to drape stylishly around one’s ankles, not fly away in the slightest breeze. Double gauze? No. (2) What do you put on every day in summer? Loose shirt and pants, that’s what, in relatively neutral colours. (3) OK, don’t let’s feel bad about this. Lovely pattern, let’s make it out of something in, perhaps the stash (have you checked the stash recently?) or from one of the local fabric shops. Meanwhile, that double gauze would make a lovely shirt…

This is a good process. It means I’m learning from my mistakes.

In other fabric news: I may be the last sewing person in Melbourne to realise that Marimekko has a shop in the Emporium, several floors up from Uniqlo. They had a sale on when I walked in, but even at 50% off, their gorgeous bright cottons were still about $70 a metre. IKEA, on the other hand, has a similar aesthetic and is ridiculously cheap. If you make yourself a summer dress out of IKEA cotton, the main difference, apart from the fact that it is likely to cost under $20 in total, is that quite a few people will say, ‘Oh, that’s just like my new curtains.’ But the dress itself would be fine.




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.

Facing up to the dentist

Like a lot of people all over the world – hive mind at work – I’m reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She has been obsessed with falconry since childhood, but after the sudden death of her father she takes on a new challenge: training a goshawk. Goshawks are big, wild birds, difficult to train, and extinct in Britain by the late nineteenth century. They were quietly reintroduced by falconers from the 1960s onwards.


It’s an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve found myself reading passages aloud in our empty house, stunned by the rhythm, power and informality of her writing. And – like many thousands of other people probably – I’ve found weird points of connection. The same reference points. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And John Le Carre’s novels. She keeps coming back to the character Jim Prideaux of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Prideaux is the wounded ex-spy, filling in time by teaching languages at a fourth-rate boarding school in southern England: a big, wild, gentle man adored by his students, who wrings the neck of an injured owl without an apparent second thought. Le Carre’s Smiley novels are on our bookshelves, a fairly recent, guilty obsession of mine. Cold War romance. Why do I like them so much?

Helen Macdonald has thought of herself as a spy; her father used to joke about her potential. She is invited to show off her goshawk to the family of the Master of the Cambridge College at which she has a three-year fellowship. She can’t handle it. ‘My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have lost, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost… There’s a hush in my head; it grows louder. “I am not a spy,” I’d told my father, “I am a historian.” But watching everyone around the table, their faces entranced by my hawk, it seems that I am not even that any more. I am the Fool, I think dully… I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.’

That was last night: reading propped up on one elbow in bed before turning off the light. This morning, glumly contemplating a fairly routine visit to the dentist, I remember her words. I don’t know what to wear. I don’t need clothes to express my individuality this morning, I need clothes to get me up Collins Street with its hordes of smartly dressed business people and into the dentist’s waiting room with its neon lights and magazines. I want to look normal, I want to look like everybody else. Clothing as camouflage. Where are the smartly tailored trousers and the good jacket? They don’t appear to have arrived in my life. I’m an ageing woman with messy hair and an increasingly home-made wardrobe. The dentist will be polite and efficient as usual, but I will see myself through his Eastern Suburbs eyes. Eccentric, unpredictable, inappropriate. Once upon a time, I might even have rushed out to spend a stupid amount of money on office clothes, just to get me through the day. And then they would have hung in the wardrobe unworn for several years and ended up at the Brotherhood, unloved.

And the indignity of the whole procedure! Lying on one’s back with a virtual stranger probing the recesses of one’s mouth with sharp instruments, while a whole cliff-face of office windows looks on across twenty metres of city air. There’s a word I keep remembering and then forgetting; Julia Kristeva writes about it in Powers of Horror. She talks about the shudder in her whole body, faced with the skim that forms on the surface of warm milk. I know what the word is and what it means, but it moves out of reach, dances around at a distance, unretrievable. A hawk in a tree, refusing to come down to its handler. Not lost, just stubborn.

Abjection. I had to go on line to find the word. To me, it’s something to do with a breakdown in the surfaces of one’s consciousness, the permeable layers that protect the workings of the mind, filtering the chaotic external world into a manageable flow of information. Helen Macdonald writes about this absence of protection – I could quote on and on, but it’s a book that needs to be read as a whole. Abjection. The moments in one’s life – moments, years – when, as Margaret Atwood once put it, you ‘live like a peeled snail’. As defenceless as W H Auden’s Miss Gee, laid out naked and dead for dissection in front of laughing medical students.

The dentist issue is trivial. It is quite possible, in the later stages of life, to confront a small existential crisis (cool-eyed dentist; city crowds) without dissolving into panic. On this occasion, Donna Karan comes to the rescue. Her designs are the opposite of armour; they are fluid, dateless, comfortable. There’s an old Vogue design, a cowled smock, Vogue 1179, which I have made, I think, four times. One dud, one not great, one too dark for daytime wear for me, and the fourth: a stretchy synthetic with a bit of body to it, in a jazzy pattern of black, turquoise, gold and grey, from Clegs in Brunswick. It cheers me up. It tells the world I’m cheerful. I’ll pass for normal.


The pattern is most unfortunately out of print. Why can’t Vogue keep these things available? They’re classics, people are going to go on wanting to buy them. It isn’t even listed among the out of print patterns on the website. It can still be found on ebay from time to time. This morning it got me out of trouble: off to the dentist in half an hour’s time, not looking forward to this but not in a complete panic. Armoured.


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.

Balenciaga denim

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.



Dressing up, dressing down

As cool weather arrives, so does the usual wardrobe crisis. What to wear when the temperature drops below 20˚? No idea. Good to see that the wardrobe is slightly less populated these days, thanks to a clothing swap and also thanks to a vast bag of stuff cluttering up the bedroom floor, shortly to make its way to the Brotherhood of St Laurence. However. The T-shirts of the last few months will not be enough this morning. What was I wearing in spring?

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.



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 http://ridethewildgoat.com.au/. He can be contacted at 5 Falls Road, Fish Creek, Victoria 3959.