When I was five, my dad went to Japan on a longish work trip. He didn’t usually call home – in the early 70s he travelled constantly – but this time he did. And, he promised presents for us three girls. (I can peg my age because my brother wasn’t yet born.) He wouldn’t say what they were, only that the presents were all the same but in our favourite colours: yellow for me, green and pink for my sisters.
Naturally, from this I deduced that I would finally get my heart’s greatest desire, the thing I’d not received for either Christmas or my birthday: A SEWING MACHINE. OUR OWN, FAVOURITE-COLOUR SEWING MACHINES.
Never mind that we were five, four, and two years old at the time. Dad was in JAPAN. What else could he POSSIBLY get there?!
Needless to say, it wasn’t sewing machines. It was (and 46 years later it’s still hard to spit this out) matching jacquard towel-and-facecloth sets. Like that even counts as a present, let alone for kids.
It wasn’t until my 40th birthday that I finally got the long-coveted Brother. However, as I had a 17-week-old no-sleep baby at the time as well as a two-year-old, it stayed in the box. For a year.
At some point in my 42nd year, though, I opened it and started learning to sew. That is to say, I bought a 1988 Readers’ Digest Complete Guide to Sewing (ex-library stock), read one or two free online instructions for making pillowcase dresses, and launched my brilliant sewing career.
Over the next few years, I made many, many twee, floaty, toddler-sized peasant blouses like this.
CraftyFish won’t wear them – wouldn’t even model them, being neither twee nor floaty. Toddler-sized didn’t last long either. I persisted because I needed the practice.
Truth is, I sew about as well as the chooks.
I’m too distracted, too brain-foggy, and in far too much of a hurry to do it well. I have 37 years’ worth of not-sewing to catch up!
Straight lines and I have never got along, so a craft that involves both cutting and sewing straight lines, was always going to be challenging. (See also, tracing, pinning, seam allowances.) Also, I can’t much be arsed with measuring, even if I could find one of the seventeen measuring tapes we own, which I can’t be bothered looking for. Wasting valuable sewing time! Eyeball it! In fact, who even needs patterns except as a starting point?
Plus I’m fairly clumsy. I regularly snip through two layers of fabric instead of one, or nick the fabric whilst cutting ends; threads jam, snap and snarl; seams wobble; edges diverge; I’ll iron a seam flat only to stitch it folded a minute later. I broke my first needle sewing through my index finger.
For a while I plotted an online shop where the shittiness of my productions would be the USP. I couldn’t possibly compete with people who can actually sew, so I’d highlight alllll the flaws (this, I’m exceptionally good at) and let buyers call the price. So what if the top only lasts two washes? It would be handmade and cute! I would call the shop, ‘Teach Me To Sew’. Brilliant, eh?
The Skeptic regarded this ‘plan’ … skeptically.
I did, at one point, sell a pair of skirts to a pair of sisters – well, to their Mum, really – that were not only rather gorgeous, but held together and worn for years, since they started long and both girls grew tall rather than out. Another friend commissioned an owl softie for her daughter after she saw the one I made for CraftyFish.
But I could imagine the blowback if, despite my meticulous descriptions, someone discovered they could fit three of their kids into one of my tops except that the left sleeve was sewn closed, and that brought me to my senses. I no longer dream of selling my creations.
Nevertheless, I continue sewing, and I’m slowly getting better, though that’s not really the point. I just want to make pretty things. Peasant tops, simple frocks, bags, and baggy trousers will do just fine. I’m proudest of the dress I made for my 50th, extrapolating the whole thing from a single bodice pattern piece with made-up neckline, tucks, sleeves, and ruffles. Made from a $5 piece of op-shop fabric, it looked exactly how I wanted it to and it didn’t fall off during the party.
The fact is, making stuff – and making stuff up – makes me happy. Joyful. I love learning a new skill, especially one that waited 37 years for attention, but it’s really just about the prettiness of the prints, the colours, the making. As a result, I own cubic meterage of vintage pillowcases and fabric from op-shops. And buttons. And trim.
Oh, my god, how much do I love vintage fabrics and buttons and trim?
So much promise in that magical place: my ‘stash’. Like I can open a drawer and conjure an afternoon’s happiness, any time I want. A new skill or three. A pretty thing. Every piece of fabric I’ve bought whispered to me in the shop what it wanted to be, and I’ve never forgotten. I look forward one day to granting their wishes. They will be beautiful.
Just don’t look too closely.