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.

So I got my son to take a photo. This is historic: being photographed is also an area of difficulty for me.

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As you can see, I’d failed to look in the mirror before the portrait session, and my hair’s all over the place and needs cutting, my scarf is askew, and my beanie is almost invisible. However, I wanted this photo as a record of how I kept warm and comfortable this winter.

The padded vest is from a Uniqlo sale last year, and 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’s 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’s 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.

The pattern for the sleeveless blue dress, with its up and down hemline, 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.

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The 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?

Sadness

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Ever since the arrival of Louis, just before Xmas, other things have been on the back burner. We are first-time dog owners and on a steep learning curve. He’s energetic and mostly cheerful, adores new people, needs far more exercise than most pups his age (four months now) and gets his inquisitive nose into everything. And he chews and/or eats just about anything. So sewing has become a high-risk activity.

Hand sewing can take place relatively safely at the kitchen table. Getting the sewing machine out needs a bit of advance planning: no dog in the immediate area until the big red plastic Bernina box has been closed and stashed away. So far it’s undamaged, unlike the IKEA rocking chair, chewed all along its wooden arms. Unlike a series of very old books, none of them valuable but all of them well loved. Unlike the back garden… but let’s not go there right now.

Puppy kinder was lovely, but more is needed. Today I came back from the library with TWO books on how to train your puppy. From now on, everything’s going to be different.

Meanwhile the current sewing project has languished. This is unfortunate.

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The fabric came from Japan: a soft double gauze in dusty blue, plain on one side and white stripes on the other. Miss Matatabi sells an irresistible range of cottons, many of them from Nani Iro, who might just produce the most beautiful fabrics in the world. This one is very simple, chosen with the intention of making a long dress for summer.

But when the double gauze arrived, it just didn’t seem quite right for the pattern. Too light, a flyaway cotton, it wouldn’t hang right. This has been one of the greatest challenges to me as a novice seamstress: matching pattern to fabric. Get it wrong, and no matter how carefully you make the garment, it won’t be worth wearing.

I thought about using a pattern that would use both sides of the fabric, like Tessuti’s Ola tunic.

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This patterned linen was just a bit too heavy for the style, bunching under the arms and not really following the lines of my body. The double gauze, however, would be just the thing, and the pattern offers a version which is patched together from a range of fabrics. I could reverse the fabric, cut some of the pieces at right angles so that stripes were horizontal as well as vertical – perfect.

Meanwhile, however, I had been admiring the Tessuti Helga shirt pattern. Oversized, beautiful details, just my kind of thing. So, a week or two before we got the phone call from a dog rescue group to say that we were successful applicants for one eight-week-old pointer / beagle puppy, I forgot about Ola and went with Helga.

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One thing I failed to think about. Tessuti classify this pattern as suitable only for intermediate to advanced sewers. The complexity should have been obvious to me but wasn’t, so – having been duly warned – I ignored their good advice and went ahead. Cut it out. Starting tacking pieces together. Realised that I had never made a shirt with a proper collar, not to mention one with a broad swathe of interfacing all down the front and round the back of the neck, to be machine-sewn immaculately into place in due course. Managed not to contemplate the likelihood that said interfacing would not lie flat unless sewn extremely accurately into place… and so on. And that’s before we get to buttonholes. Haven’t started the buttonholes yet. Or found the right buttons.

In another life – the one in which Louis did not arrive just before Xmas – I probably spent a couple of days in January tacking, pressing, hand sewing, undoing seams, tacking again, swearing quite a lot, and eventually picking a good moment to do that perfect bit of machining up one side of the front of the shirt, round the back and back down the other side, all in one go. For me, this is not routine: it requires absolute concentration, no interruptions and a certain amount of luck.

In this life, the shirt has been packed into a (hopefully) puppy-proof plastic box along with basic sewing equipment, and placed on the bottom shelf of a bookshelf, taking the place of some of our more precious books which are now right up at the top, well out of reach. It comes out for the occasional half-hour of hand sewing – fix this little seam, unpick that one, read ahead in the instructions, work out what comes next, accumulate as much machine work as possible and do it all at once on a day when the puppy is asleep or elsewhere. The shirt goes to sewing group, and every month I find myself apologising for its lack of progress.

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It may turn out to be quite a wearable shirt. That is still possible. It won’t have the clean lines of the one in Tessuti’s picture, but it’ll be soft and loose and maybe not even obviously home-made. I’m not giving up on it. I like the way the side seams curve round to the front, and the way the stripes meet at an angle.

But it’s been hanging around for so long now. I’m glad I didn’t try to make the Toni dress out of this beautiful fabric, because it wouldn’t have worked. But I’m so sorry I didn’t choose to make the patchwork version of the relatively easy Ola tunic, which might have been finished before Xmas, and would have been worn all through this cool summer we’ve been having – just south of a serious heatwave – and would also have shown off the fabric to perfection. I’m sorry not just for not having a finished, summery top instead of a half-made shirt, but for the fabric itself, which deserved to be used with greater skill.

Meanwhile, on my way back from the library, I picked up a vintage pattern in a Sydney Road op shop for fifty cents.

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It’s Donna Karan, 1989, the pattern pieces cut to a size 14. I did love those big 1980s jackets, and I’ve still got a couple gathering dust in my wardrobe. It’s a bit Diane Keaton, as in ‘Annie Hall’.

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Will I ever make it? Maybe not. Certainly not until I’ve finished my neglected Chanel-style jacket, currently occupying a plastic bag upstairs, away from the puppy. But it’s lovely to think about the possibility. A Vivienne-Westwood-style loud check wool, perhaps? Just don’t let me do anything about it – beyond stickytaping the ripped envelope together – until I’ve finished the striped shirt.

 

The real world

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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.