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.


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.


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?


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


Expertise: the gardener

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

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

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

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

edible eden

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

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

garden before we start

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










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

Peace rose no 2

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slippery slope

Knitting has mostly defeated me. No patience. Some little thing goes wrong, and after a short struggle the new balls of wool are abandoned and eventually passed on to someone who can’t believe I’m getting rid of them. ‘But this is really good wool,’ she says, astonished, and gets to work, and a couple of weeks later she’s made something lovely. I give it a rest for another three or four years, and then I try again.

I love watching a good knitter at work. I love the sight of a half-made garment in interesting colours hanging from her needles. I love the feel of the finished jumper: strong and soft, stretching in all the right places. There are sewing bloggers (like Pegsewer of Deconstruct Alter Create) who also make gorgeous knitted shawls and jumpers. I’ve seen women knitting Fair Isle patterns in fabulous colour combinations, while paying attention to what’s going on in a meeting and interjecting from time to time while their hands carry on with needles and wool. How do they do it?

Last year I came across some extraordinary wool. There’s a craft market outside the Melbourne arts centre on Sundays, and there, in among the jewellery and children’s clothes, was a table covered with brilliantly multicoloured skeins of wool. Sue Flynn of Hawthorne Cottage in Sebastopol, outside Ballarat, keeps and shears her own sheep and spins and dyes her own wool, and it feels like silk. She sold me a couple of rainbow skeins, lumpy and gorgeous, and told me I’d need enormous knitting needles:

I took it home and started knitting. No idea how many stitches to make a scarf. It soon became clear that 25 was too many – 20 was too many (a lot of ripping apart of my painfully slow work) – and I settled for only 12 stitches. The resulting scarf was light and warm and oddly shaped, and the colours were so lovely that the lumpiness hardly mattered. I wore it all last winter.

Meanwhile my friend Celia in the UK lives in an old mill that was built well before Australia was colonised by the British, and it gets seriously cold in winter. So the next time I passed the craft market I bought a couple more skeins of Sue Flynn’s wool, even more brightly coloured than the first two. Knitted up another scarf and sent it off to Celia.


This is incredible. Not only have I successfully knitted myself a scarf, I’ve knitted one for a friend and she seems to like it.

So when my son mentioned casually that he’d quite like me to knit him a jumper, of course I said yes.




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 He can be contacted at 5 Falls Road, Fish Creek, Victoria 3959.


With a camping trip coming up, we swing into action. Print off the Things To Take document. Has anyone cancelled post and papers? What about new camping chairs, after those unfortunate incidents with the old deckchairs last time? What to cook and freeze? Chili con carne to share with everyone on the first night. Hummus. Maybe a curry? A block of solidly frozen food will keep for several days in an esky. And what about the esky – is it time to replace the pretty little IKEA one that never has quite enough room?

We are efficient. OK, maybe we’ll still struggle to put up the old tent, which should be second nature by now, and the fuel stove won’t light properly the first time, but in general we know what to do and we do it without dramas.

Meanwhile back at the house, there are dusty cardboard boxes full of papers, bric-a-brac, photos… We have sorted and passed things on and binned stuff and still there are all these things taking up space, only partly identified. They aren’t rubbish. They are the archive, and we haven’t been taking care of it.

Bluestones (continued)

Monday morning. Our lane is still blocked to traffic, with an open gully part way down the middle. There is still a row of big bluestones along the side of our house (and our weatherboards are still apparently undamaged). There are still several blokes in high-vis jackets at work. At least one of them has a mallet, bashing a stone into place as some other bloke might have done 130 years ago: the mallet and stone ring together like a small bell.

Like the pockets on my dress, however, the bluestones are not behaving, and the men have brought in the big guns. There’s a powerful circular saw at work, running intermittently. While it’s running, our upstairs room is uninhabitable, blasted with raw noise. We survived weeks of bricks being cut for the lovely curved walls of the new houses next door, and that wasn’t pleasant, a shrill, dentist’s drill sort of noise, but bluestone offers much more resistance. The machine roars. They’re just trimming the edges to fit.

It’s all very well for me to look at those men at work and imagine their competence and control, compared to my panicky response to a challenging bit of sewing.  But they’re dealing with the same kind of thing. They took those bluestones out of their bed for the first time in a very long time, and the damn things just won’t go back into place.