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Sewing Memories

5 May 2006

I didn’t grow up in a creative household. I said that the other day and I've been thinking about it.

Handmade was not a language spoken by my mother, not then, not now. Until last year, my 38th birthday, I was never the recipient of a home-made birthday cake (thanks to Donni for being a great friend). Sewing in my house was confined to hemming only. There wasn’t a handmade thing in the house.

My mother’s first job when she was emancipated from school at age 14 and nine months (the earliest legal age for leaving school in NSW then to the day) was in a shoe factory sewing pieces of footwear together. Her own mother was a fantastic cook and probably quite proficient in other crafts but her mental state in general and other habits made her a neglectful parent. They were also very poor. Perhaps as a child my mum envied the shop-bought biscuits, toys and clothes.

Perhaps this is why she now eschews the handmade, because after many years of struggle she enjoys the benefits of living in a more elevated socio-economic group and is able to afford to buy things ready-made. She does not even have to hem her own trousers any more, even though she probably does a better job than the little tailoring booth. To her, maybe the connotations associated with the handmade are poverty, inferiority, shame and embarrassment perhaps.

Interestingly it is the opposite of how myself and a lot more of us feel about handmade things these days, in the era of mass production of poor quality goods and exhausting consumer choice. Handmade things are special, they are magic, they are better. Could it be a 'class' thing?

When I chose to study textiles and design at junior high school my mother was disapproving, but slightly less so than if I had chosen Home Economics. She perceived that in her day the less 'well off' girls did cooking while the ‘better’ girls did sewing. She would have preferred me of course to eschew all domestic subjects and stick to the 'proper' subjects like maths and science, but, as long as it wasn’t cooking, if it had to be a social science then sewing was okay.

I can remember making a tiny smocked, hand sewed, french seamed baby dress, a four gored skirt, and an outfit made from a pattern of our choice sewn and modelled fashion parade style for our major work. I think there may have been some embroidery in there too, for I know how to do almost all of the traditional stitches and someone must have taught me how to do it, but I’m not sure when it was.

Without exception, whenever I threaded the machine or the needle and started to sew it was a disaster. My sweaty adolescent fingers smudged the fine lawn. Embroidery floss puckered by lazy threading was pulled through the same spot until holes formed. I used ballpoint instead of special marking pencils to mark out the smocking dots. My knots came undone. My seams split, the lines weren’t straight and perfectly cut pieces suddenly became assymetrical and awry. At the last minute my mother would pick it up, gently hand wash it, ask me to thread the machine for her and explain how the pieces went together and she would fix it. Perfectly. Every time.

For the pattern of choice I chose a strapless boned bodice with a puff skirt made in electric blue and black striped taffeta (well, it was the eighties and it was Wollongong!). My mother did not approve, claiming it to be inappropriate both for my age and the catholic school I went to. She was probably right, but other girls were making worse, and I was defiant and judgemental of her attitude. I surrepticiously bought the pattern and material from Home Yardage when she wasn’t there anyway, and began the project in secret.

What a shemozzle. The teacher (who, no word of a lie, not only had no formal teacher training but also used to make red and black and feathered lingerie in class because her daughter was a stripper – so much for catholic values!) cut out the pieces for me. The cheap polyester taffeta was slippery, the sewing-machine needle caught on the threads and puckered the fabric. The stripes weren’t straight. The gathered skirt join was crooked, so the bodice was trimmed and trimmed and trimmed until it sat almost under my breasts instead of at the hip, and didn’t quite cover the necessary parts.

I’ve never been one to ask for help, and the teacher was too busy fawning over one of the local fashionista’s daughters who was drafting a Stuart Membrey (remember him?) knock-off and making it in real designer fabric sourced from some exotic place in SYDNEY no less, to notice.

The week of the fashion parade I was distraught. There’s no way I could walk down the catwalk in that unfinished and awful dress. At fifteen I would have had enough trouble walking down the catwalk in front of the whole school in full uniform including bowler, blazer and gloves let alone a strapless puffskirted dress in gaudy cheap taffeta. I was sick with nerves.

I had to confide in my mother. She surprised me completely. She took the awful mess, made me try it on. She tut-tutted and pinned and unpicked. She asked me to thread the sewing machine and she sewed straight lines where I was unable. Unbeleivably, she fixed it! And when I tried it on again, even though it didn’t look as good as the picture, it was passable.

Even better, she let me have the day off anyway!

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