|sewing susan & her sinister sisters|
A friend recently reminded me of the skirt she'd asked me to make her, twenty years ago, from an old pattern. She came round to try it on, admired herself in it, in a variety of poses, then asked for it to be tightened and narrowed to a truly pencil-slim shape, insistent that was the look she wanted...so I did as requested until it was a tube of light grey flannel so hobbling she couldn't sit down in it or walk to the bus.
She maintains to this day that it was a fine piece of work.
With more success, I used to make myself capri pants out of 1950s jumble-sale fabrics, mainly bathroom curtains covered in blue-green-grey-black designs of fish and seaweed and sea-urchins, based on a very simple 'slacks' pattern I'd found in some charity shop. It was the dressing-up era, and I had time on my hands, and Edinburgh's older generation were tossing out so many wonderful clothes and objects I spent each weekday trawling through the rails of charity shops, finding new things to wear, or sell, or give to friends. Steptoe rather than Stepford, moi.
Before she had children - and then again, much later, when we were out of her environment - my mother used to make her own clothes. When she was a Wren in Gibraltar, she was able to buy silk in Spain (where they were allowed to go on day trips, with no more than £2, I think, as spending allowance) and in her free time (i.e. time not employed in drinking tea or gin with handsome naval officers) made some really pretty dresses, most of which she omitted to save (still annoyed about that) for her daughters (in fairness, she didn't know yet she'd have us). Later, when she was in her late 60s, she picked up the habit again, taking apart shapeless tent-like skirts and fitting them onto old lace collars and yokes to make nightdresses. I loved the optimism of that continued attempt to make things that were useful and beautiful.
I don't know how I learned to sew, but it was probably via my mother - and she would have learned from hers. There was an obligatory element in secondary school, where I remember being under instruction to make an apron (standard girly stuff), and later, aged about thirteen, I constructed a ghastly a-line dress out of purple corduroy (and was so proud of myself, but wonder now if I didn't look like a Jackie magazine disaster). At fifteen or so, I began to play with appliqué and embroidery, probably as a kind of fantastical escape from unappealing reality. Clothes and escape, discuss. There are still skeins of coloured silk thread bundled into boxes, and buttons and fabrics collected for clothes I'll probably never make, unless I head more determinedly towards the eccentric style-choices of Edith Sitwell.
Perhaps in recent years words have become the embroidery, or words are the clothing itself, a textual way to deal with reality.
Between now and May, I'll be thinking in terms of needlework - and the adornment, flattery or disguise of the body - quite a lot, because I'm participating in a group writing project called Bespoke(n) - initiated and curated by Newcastle-based word-tailor Helen Limon
"Bespoke(n) is a (partly) Arts Council-funded group writing project that includes nine writers from all over the UK, an east-end tailor, film maker and a visual artist. Almost half those involved in the project are young creatives under twenty five."
To sharpen your needle-like wits on the topic, here's a sample writing prompt by Viccy Adams
For more ideas, info, and links, follow @BespokenProject