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.


The jacket and the campaign

Hillary Clinton showed up in my Facebook feed the other day. Apparently she had spent $12,495 on an Armani jacket, which she was wearing when she gave a speech on income inequality.


It’s more of a coat than a jacket: three-quarter sleeves, a round collarless neck, and cut straight – almost but not quite sack-like. The tweedy fabric is edged with a darker dusty pink. It’s a classic older-woman garment, comfortable and stylish, and it looks good on her. As it should, given the price quoted in the New York Post – a Murdoch newspaper not entirely sympathetic to the US Democratic Party.

The newspaper story was taken up by supporters of Bernie Sanders, including at least one old friend of mine (not, by the way, an American). To them, it demonstrated the hypocrisy of Clinton’s campaign with its Hollywood-style glitz, and the hollowness of her rhetoric about poverty. By contrast, Bernie – who appears in public in comfortably creased suit and shirt – thereby shows off the authenticity of his political principles and the relative frugality of his personal life.

I got on line. One thing that emerged pretty quickly was that the newspaper had quoted what may have been the original price for the jacket, but it’s currently on sale at $7500. Still fiendishly expensive, but less so.

Another thing that became clear was the complex arrangements underlying the supply of clothing worn by women such as Clinton or Michelle Obama. A designer may offer an evening dress, for example, on the understanding that it will eventually be given to a museum. Women in public life may have friends in the fashion industry who supply them with clothes at cost price. The price tag on the garment may or may not represent the deal by which that jacket gets to be worn. It’s not unlike the red-carpet outfits of actors – worn once, with diamonds borrowed for the evening and handed back that night to the security guards who watch throughout the event.

How does Clinton manage to maintain that immaculate lipstick, the carefully casual hair (never ever blown out of place), the sophisticated combinations of colour and style in her clothing? If I was to attempt such high-level grooming, it would take me several hours to get out of the house, quite apart from the impact on the family finances. Clinton has not got several hours a day to spend with hairdresser, make-up artist and wardrobe assistant.

I imagine her at six in the morning, newspapers, phone and laptop to hand, getting down to business, while one person silently fixes her hair, another irons a couple of identical blouses (a spare in case of accidents) and polishes a pair of shoes one more time, and a third checks her itinerary and suggests a change of clothing in the evening, given a ten-minute window of opportunity at 6.15 pm. She’s on the phone throughout.

Meanwhile Bernie Sanders tumbles out of bed, examines yesterday’s suit, decides it’ll go one more day, and gets dressed. Reminds his wife apologetically that he’s going to need more clean shirts tomorrow, and heads off for the day’s business. He forgot to look in the mirror and his hair’s all over the place. Decides later in the day that the weather’s a bit warm and he’d rather take the jacket off altogether. Doesn’t matter. Everybody loves Bernie. Scruffiness is all part of the image, which is nice, because it comes naturally.


At this moment in time, it might just be possible for a woman in her late 60s, campaigning for high political office in the USA, to turn up to a major event in a cheap, crumpled suit and no make-up and still be treated with respect. I don’t think Hillary Clinton could get away with it, however; the New York Post would have her on its front page the next day with a derisive headline referring to her age and her inability to cope with the stresses of the campaign. And as for taking that jacket off… horrors! Forget it.

My old friend and I are conducting an email debate on the matter. I have triumphed over a couple of minor inaccuracies, including the likely cost of the jacket, and he has stuck to his guns re the ethics of Bernie Sanders compared to Clintons past and present. I’m left with a few things going on in my mind that don’t quite seem to be part of our debate.

Clinton’s error, it seems to me, is not to do with female narcissism and extravagance. It’s to do with not paying attention to her clothing and its PR implications. Maybe she’s been too concerned with the little matters of opposing the Republicans and their anointed candidate along with gaining the Democratic nomination? She should have briefed her team right at the beginning: ‘Make sure I’m wearing American designers, and try and keep the price down.’ It would make more sense to buy a cheaper jacket that doesn’t fit perfectly and have it quietly adjusted overnight by a professional tailor, than to be seen wearing expensive Italian numbers – even if the tailored cheapie ends up costing more than Armani.

And the other thing is – and I realise this line of thought is deeply retrograde – wouldn’t it be lovely to get one’s hands on that jacket and see how it was made? What does the fabric feel like? Is it lined with silk, and if so what colour and weight? That dusty dark pink edging: is that wool, or silk, or something else? Was the jacket machine-sewn throughout or is there hand work involved? Is there padding in the shoulders? The front fastenings are hidden: buttons, poppers, hooks and eyes? Zips?

All my questions are answered on line. Clinton’s jacket is out there on the Armani website. It’s made ‘of multi-coloured napa lambskin cut into strips and woven on the loom with contrasting silk thread, bonded to technical tulle’. Napa lambskin is a very soft leather. Tulle is the stiff netting used in a ballerina’s tutu – and presumably technical tulle is similar, but designed to be used as a backing for potentially unstable materials? The fastening is a press stud – or popper if you grew up in the UK. The jacket isn’t lined.


In other words, I am not going to find a metre or so of this astonishing fabric in the local remnant shops any time soon. Perhaps one day the jacket will go on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so that a few obsessives like me get to peer closely and speculate about seam finishings and pocket linings? I’d like a close-up of the weave: leather and silk, wow.

As I said to my friend in the course of our argument: I’m not campaigning for Hillary vs Bernie or vice versa. I just want to see a bit of a level playing field when a woman is out there in public life. I’m tired of seeing powerful women mocked because their clothes can be described as scruffy (meaning, not meeting Hollywood standards of glamour) or because their clothes are too expensive or too cheap, or because their taste in clothing is working-class,  or inappropriately glamorous, or dowdy and ageing, or because a garment is too loose or too tight – while their male peers are adored just for ‘being themselves’. Time to move on.

And I am also not demanding Armani jackets for all. But I can’t help liking the fact that such gorgeous techniques of weaving and tailoring exist out there. I don’t condone $12,000 jackets or even $7500 jackets. I don’t even want to wear one. I’d just like to get my hands on one, briefly, and see how it was made.

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.

One toe into the blogosphere

There are some rituals in the sewing blogosphere that seem designed to terrify the beginner. Me Made May, for example, which is in action right now. The idea is that you wear something you’ve made yourself every single day this month. It’s aimed at encouraging makers at all skill levels to get their handmade garments out of the wardrobe and into action. Many participants photograph themselves – or have someone else take a pic, for best results – in a stunning range of garments, often beautifully colour-coordinated. The blogger of How Good is That is not only documenting her daily wardrobe but training for a half marathon at the same time. In theory I could join in – with the wardrobe photos, not the half marathon – but does anyone really want to see the various well-worn items in my range of cropped trousers, mostly developed from Simple Modern Sewing, a wonderful but very basic Japanese pattern book?

Then there are the sewing competitions. I doubt if I’ll ever reach the heights of the finalists in the Tessuti annual competition; the standards are so far out of reach it’s not funny.

Tessuti winner 2014

This astonishing garment, which won in 2014,was constructed by Emma of the Ernest Flagg blog. No, that isn’t some kind of op-art fabric – it’s a plain black-and-white stripe, cut into strips and reassembled to create those eye-dazzling patterns. I think that’s twenty segments just for the front of the dress. There is no way I will ever attain such precision in driving a sewing machine. Forget it. Not going to happen.

One of these on-line gatherings is tempting, however. The fabulous Spygirl blog, subtitled ‘seeing life on the bright – and pattern-mixed – side’, has been organising linkups based on colour. Last month featured colours in the purple range, and bloggers posted a wild and wonderful range of garments which included that colour. Although I do have a length of purple knit fabric in my stash, I was unable to think of a good way of using it within the time limit.

This month, however, Spygirl is featuring – wait for it – BEIGE. This is probably the least likely colour to be found on her blog or in her wardrobe. She’s managed it, however.

spygirl beige

This beauty  was made from a Target (US) scarf. And yes, apparently there is beige in there. Look very closely.

spygirl beige 2

There is so much inspiration in this challenge. Surely by the end of May I can detect a trace of beige in something I’ve made, get someone to take a photo of me wearing it (I hate having my picture taken – but just this once…), post it on this blog, and link it to Spygirl? I might even have an old scarf somewhere, containing a hint of beige, just waiting to be turned into the front panel of a tunic? Go on, don’t be shy – get out there and show your face…

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.