Earlier this week I received the sad news that my Needlework O-level teacher had passed away. Actually, it may have been called Dressmaking but whatever it was, it sounded very old school and certainly wasn’t described as ‘Textiles’ the current label given in schools and what I taught to A-level for many years. Sadly the creative subjects within schools struggle to get the sign-ups these days as academic subjects are heavily pushed and schools are more like businesses with spreadsheets and league tables placement shared as their value - anyway, don’t get me started……..
Thinking back to my school days and needlework made me reflect on how important textiles and sewing has been in my life, from stitched felt egg cosies at primary school to learning how to smock baby dresses and patchwork (told you it was old school) then later, whilst studying Textiles & Dress A-level, making ballgowns and taking in jeans for friends. I think I can actually document my whole life by various different sewing projects!
Throughout my teenage years I worked in a family run fabric shop at the weekends and school holidays. The owner used to go on monthly trips to the markets in the East End of London and come back with a van full of haberdashery (love that word) and we would organise it all into the endless wooden drawers filled with treasure in the shop. The vast front counters were made of dark aged wood with inlaid brass measuring sticks for the fabrics to be rolled onto whilst yardage was considered. Despite measures to bring in decimal thinking in 1971, in the 80s those in the trade were still very much entrenched in yards and inches and it was quite a challenge as a metric teenager to jump between the two; ‘a yard is 90cms’ is burned into my memory!
I worked at the shop to earn pocket money but I rarely left at the end of the day without spending at least part, if not all, of my wages on fabrics and patterns. Obviously there were some absolutely shocking fashion disasters amongst the outcomes but because I had toiled over their assembly, sometimes for weeks, I was more determined than ever to wear them anyway!
Back in the 80’s it was a cheaper option to make rather than buy your own clothes and I remember the Vogue, McCalls and Butterick paper patterns well. Sadly this is no longer the case and fabric shops with never-ending haberdashery options just don’t exist anymore. The square footage in shops is now at a premium and buttons, zips and trim options simply can’t compete and consequently space is reduced or cut completely.
Teaching Textiles at secondary school was interesting and the Bernina workhorse sewing machines were definitely put through their paces by the hundreds of students passing through – I certainly don’t think any other sewing machine brand could have coped with the abuse and many, many needles were broken. The joy though was seeing the look of astonishment on student’s faces when they did actually create something made by their own fair hand. From fleece hats in year 7 through to incredible dresses at A-level, although the end result wasn’t always perfect, even the most resistant students could appreciate the possibilities and in the most part find enjoyment in the making.
Making a garment yourself has actually now become quite an expensive hobby but in this fast-paced world people are finally beginning to understand the joy that sewing can bring. The BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee has shown that there is still a love of sewing out there and a need to create through stitch. Some of the garments that are set as challenges on the show are very complex but, like the Bake-Off, that’s what makes for interesting viewing however, there’s certainly nothing wrong with embarking on a far simpler project.
As a parent, being able to sew is a really useful skill to have from stitching name tags on to creating those dreaded last minute fancy dress costumes. I have recycled many garments including an expensive jumper that I shrunk in the wash so I stitched some felt shapes on the front and added it to my daughter's wardrobe!
Now I use stitch a lot in my design work both with a machine and by hand, as these images show.
I was lucky enough to go to the Dior exhibition at the V&A last year and was blown away by the sheer beauty and craftsmanship that went into his creations which were just stunning. It certainly was a real celebration of dressmaking and showed just what's possible with stitch and I know from my nostalgic trip down memory lane that I for one would be lost without it!
To see how some of my creations have been developed into beautiful sustainable fabrics click here.