Sustainable, ethical, slow | Issue 16 | 2019
My mother (who was German) worked as a dressmaker when I was little, and I would come home from school to find her on the living room floor with patterns and pins. I wore dirndl dresses that she had made for me. The last thing I sewed by hand was a red cotton apron. What use do you put a needle and thread to?
Last week, I had to take my son’s school trousers in. I went up into my loft and dusted down my sewing machine, which I last used twenty-five years ago. It still worked.
At school, I made a lined winter coat and a tailored suit.
Things I have sewn this year include a tiny bear called Alpine that my five-year-old sleeps with; a button on my winter pyjamas; a hole in my winter puffy made by our puppy; a Black Panther mask and matching collar for my son for superhero day.
My grandmother taught me embroidery. I’ve done everything from clothing to pillowcases to a couple of wall hangings. The girl with flowers for hair is a cloth purse (design by Jenny Hart of Sublime Stitching in Austin).
My mother (who was also German) used to make clothes for us when we were children and lived in Calcutta. My favourite dress was a green dirndl with pink roses and I wore it to every birthday party I was invited to. I sometimes think how odd I must have seemed—a little Indian/German girl all dressed up in German costume surrounded by others all dressed in glowing Indian silks.
I grew up in a small rural town in South Africa, and needlework was compulsory at my primary school. The girls all had two hours of learning how to knit, embroider and sew—while the boys were sawing and sanding in the woodworking room. They used to peek through the windows of the sewing room to see what we were up to.
The town had one clothing shop and it had to suit everyone, from 14 to 104. When I was a teenager, I used to look at every plain and boxy garment and compare it to the couture in my mother’s stack of European Vogue magazines. I started customizing what I already owned. I turned jeans into flares by sewing sari fabric into the legs; I cropped my T-shirts to make them more fitted; I took my mother’s lurex evening gowns from the 1970s and made skirts for myself. I was a little fashionista. I managed to salvage a stack of vintage fabrics and Burda and Vogue patterns from my grandmother and I created a totally glamorous wardrobe—wholly unsuited to farm living. I still love an impractical outfit.
I love the precision of needlepoint; and, like any of my loves, it can drive me mad because it is never perfect. I adore this, one of my few completed projects, because it holds my grandmothers’ pins.
© Norton Rose Fulbright LLP 2020