Sunday, 26 February 2017

Sewing machines 2

I have owned four sewing machines as an adult.  When I left home access to a machine was not important as I finally discovered you could buy clothes!  I also found that in the UK dressmaking patterns were behind shop bought clothes in terms of fashion whereas in New Zealand the time lag for bought fashion meant they were current.  And I never learnt pattern cutting.  My mother encouraged me to go to evening classes in tailoring after I had finished university and these proved useful but I left New Zealand part way through the academic year.

I can remember making a winter suit when I was an au pair but that was not made on my machine.  I did learn quite a few dressmaking terms in German, though, as that was where I was living.  I can also remember borrowing my aunt's sewing machine when I was flatting in London but cannot remember what I made on it.  I then  spent a year in Italy but did no sewing.  I met my English husband in Italy and we decided to get married.  We had very little money but I had bought a white and gold sari in Singapore on my way to Europe and I decided this should be made into my wedding dress.  I began by making a Laura Ashley cotton dress in the pattern I had chosen.  This was when everyone was wearing long dresses and the Laura Ashley dress plus a pinafore that went over it was very useful as I could wear it to work.

Sewing the sari was a different issue, though.  It was so fine that it would not go through the machine so in the end I made the entire thing by hand.  Here are two photos of the work involved.  There is a photo of me wearing it on the Hats post.

Then I closed the bank account I had in my maiden name and spent the money that was in it on another Elna.  I seem to remember that I went for the model below the supermatic as I did not think I would use all the stitches that had.  I remember calculating that by the end of the first summer, this machine had paid for itself as I had made so many clothes on it for both myself and my husband.  I had this Elna for many years but when I began to be serious about quilting, I realised it had one big disadvantage: you could not lower the feed dogs.

Partly for that reason, I decided that I should have a new sewing machine for my fiftieth birthday.  This was the point at which I moved over to Bernina.  I really appreciated its features and ability to deal with machine quilting.  However, this machine had a short life.  After four years we had a terrible house fire and I lost absolutely everything related to my textiles because it was all kept in the attic.  After the fire there was no sign of the Bernina which I thought was perhaps because it had melted but it may have been because what was left of our thatched roof had to be swept up.  Somewhat to my surprise the Elna survived although I never looked at it again.

You can just see it in this picture, marked by a red arrow.  

I was very lucky because the insurance assessor was very understanding and I was allowed to replace the Bernina with a brand new one  It is even marked as being a Millenium Quilters' Edition.

This is the one I am still using.  It has spent most of its life in the studio that we created from the garage but after Christmas I brought it back into my bedroom. I do not think I should be using the studio much because of my disabilities and the possibility that no-one would hear me if I fell (which I have done in the past).

In 2009 I bought a second Bernina to take to workshops.  This replaced a very cheap machine that I had bought because I was worried about taking the big one in the car.  About that time I stopped going to workshops so this machine has hardly been used and this is the one I gave away a couple of weeks ago.  I found the receipt when I was sorting it out to give away.   It had cost much more than I had realised but I regard it as a legacy and it is good to think that two generations will benefit from it.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

My sewing machines 1

A couple of weeks ago I gave my Bernina 330 to the daughter of our oldest friends. She has never used a sewing machine although her husband (who grew up in Canada) has and she now has an eight year old daughter so I felt they were the logical people to pass it on to.  I bought the machine in 2012 as something to take to workshops but I promptly gave up going to workshops so it is virtually unused.  I recently thought I might try using it so I plugged it in and turned it on.  It immediately started making a nasty noise which people told me was probably the result of under-use and meant that it needed oiling so I have told the friend that I will pay for it to be properly serviced.  Luckily there is a Bernina dealer in their local market town.

Giving away the machine is one step in my attempt to down-size.  It seems that a lot of quilters now qualify as ‘older generation’ and are wanting to shed fabric, books and equipment.  This has prompted comments on both the Contemporary Quilt group’s Yahoo site and the SAQA Yahoo group.  For those of us with no children and currently no connection to quilting groups it can pose a problem thinking of how to dispose of all the supplies, not to mention the quilts and hangings that we have made but do not have homes for.   It is easy to build up a sentimental attachment to things you bought years ago but have never used. In my case, a terrible house fire in 1999 destroyed everything I had made, started making or bought for my craft work, so I only have seventeen years’ worth of ‘stuff’ to dispose of.  It is enough and this photo only shows a fraction of it!

Parting with this machine (not the one in the photo) started me thinking about how I learnt machine skills and the sewing machines I have used.  I have difficulty remembering when I learnt to machine but it was very early on.  I think I was only about four or five years old.  The reason I was allowed to start sewing on the machine was that we had an old Singer hand machine which was originally my grandmother’s.  I can remember it sitting in the room in her house where we children slept when we stayed there, but at some point it was passed to my mother.  It was of course pretty safe for small children to use as your right hand was occupied turning the wheel and there were no electric components.  I recall making pot holders from off-cuts of tweed stitched onto green cotton left over from my mother making us school knickers!

When I was about six I was given a ‘toy’ sewing machine for Christmas; one of the ones that did chain stitch.  It was a sore disappointment and I soon reverted to using my mother’s.  She made clothes for herself and three daughters on this machine.  My grandmother was a knitter rather than a dressmaker and I seem to remember that she used the machine for tasks such as ‘sides to middling’ sheets.  This was where you cut the worn sheet down the middle and sewed the sides together so that the worn part was on the edges. Make do and mend was the order of the day in the mid-twentieth century, no doubt partly because of the War but also I think in New Zealand because new bedding was generally imported and therefore expensive.

My mother struggled on with this sewing machine until in the mid-1950s my father bought her an Elna Supermatic.  It was the only thing that he ever bought on hire purchase.  I can remember her going to sewing classes (it may have only been one) at the Elna dealer.  The Supermatic had discs with fancy embroidery stitches on them but it was my father who tried all these out.   My father should have been an engineer so he really enjoyed the machine and the fancy work was usually his.  The Supermatic also sewed zips in and did buttonholes so a lot of techniques that we originally learnt to do by hand became machine techniques.   Sewing at home did cause some disruption as we had to do it on the dining room table.  Later I used to put it on a folding card table.  My memories of weekend afternoons as a teenager are of sewing to the noise of rugby being played on the park across the road.  And of course we had to negotiate when there was more than one of us wanting to sew which was most weekends.  I do not have any photographs of this machine but found a website with plenty of details anmd lots of photos.  Elna in the 1950s  In writing this post I have also learnt that Elna sold out to Janome.

My mother sewed because you had to, especially with three daughters, but she was obviously happy when I showed a taste for dressmkaing and started making clothes rather than just things for dolls.  I know I had learnt to use a machine before we started dressmaking classes at school.  These began in the second year of secondary school.  We were taught by a wonderful Welsh woman who insisted that we learn everything properly so we began by stitching on lined paper without any thread.  The aim was to learn to stitch a straight line.  From there we moved to making samples of every technique under the sun including all sorts of buttonholes and plackets, inserting zips etc. The samples were glued into an exercise book and marked out of ten.  I do not remember any other year at our school doing this real apprencticeship but it certainly stood me in good stead.  At the same time we made ourselves simple garments.  I can remember making a skirt the first year and then summer pyjamas.   I found it very frustrating using the school sewing machines.  All but one of them were treadle machines and I never learnt to use them.  (I also failed to master the art of using a potter’s wheel which I think used a similar technique.)   I preferred to do hand-stitching at school and my machining at home.  As teenagers we all made clothes for ourselves and, if we were the eldest as I was, for our younger sisters although I think my younger sister has never got over the summer ‘duster’ coat I made her!

We went to university in our home town so did not leave home and my student days were also filled with dressmaking.  By this time I was making dresses to wear to balls (yes, it was all very old fashioned in NZ and so we dressed up like middle-aged women).  The sixties did not arrive in NZ until the seventies by which time I had left home.

I used to pride myself on using Vogue patterns, not just the simple ones but ones which were advertised as Paris inspired or couturier designed.  Fashions in New Zealand were generally a couple of years behind Europe so the patterns were as up to date as bought clothing, not that we ever bought clothes other than heavy winter items such as coats and suits.  I think I did not even really know what size I was until about a year before I left home.

I am afraid this post is short on illustrations.  This is partly because of copyright issues and partly because I have very few photos of my past, having lost most of them in the fire we had in 1999.

I will continue this story in a second post.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Childhood hats

I had forgotten what a big part hats played in our New Zealand childhood until my sister suggested I write about them.  Now that I have looked at the old photos, I am wondering whether we wore hats a lot because of the climate or simply because everyone wore them.  My sister also reminded me that our mother used to make them - those dressmaking skills again.

Toddlers wore bonnets which now strike me as something out of Jane Austen, but the New Zealand sun can be ferocious and this is probably the reason for protecting children.

When we were a bit older we graduated to 'proper' straw hats although I remember that they always had elastic that you put under your chin.  This was probably partly because of the New Zealand wind which is particularly strong in Wellington.  Look at this photo of a picnic in 1950.  Obviously it is quite windy because the brims are moving like an umbrella turning inside out.  I guess the elastic stopped them blowing into the sea!

We also always wore hats to church.  This practice continued until about 1960 by which time I was a teenager and hated the whole idea.  As small children we had white panama hats that my mother decorated with artificial flowers: poppies, daisies and cornflowers around the brim is what I remember.  And bear in mind that we never saw any of these flowers except in gardens as they were not part of the New Zealand vegetation.

In winter we had berets.  I remember my mother making these.  She would take a piece of thick fabric (usually corduroy) and make a circular template of newspaper by drawing around a plate.  This was for the top of the beret.  I think she then made a second circle but with a hole cut in the middle of it.  Presumably this was a template from a smaller plate.  She must then have bound the edge with a bias strip.

I do remember knowing about Kangol berets early on though, so maybe some of them were not home-made!

Hats became distinctly unfashionable around 1960 but we always wore hats to school and you were given an 'order mark' by the prefect on gate duty if you did not wear one as you left the grounds.  In summer we had cream panama hats with a blue and green hat band.  At Easter our mothers had to take the hat band off this hat and attach it to the green felt hats we wore with winter uniform.  The reverse happened in October when we started wearing summer uniform again.  We also had green berets as neither the panamas nor the winter felt hats could cope with rain.

Hats were also obligatory on formal occasions so here are two photos of family weddings.

The first one was in 1957 when I was 12 and my sister 10.  Our younger sister was a bridesmaid so does not appear in  this photo but do note that our grandfather even had a top hat!

This one was at a wedding in 1967, the year I left home.  I notice my younger sister is not wearing a hat but she is wearing gingham!

I think the family practice of wearing hats must have  had a strong influence on my later fashion choices as when I got married in 1972 I spurned the idea of a veil and bought an expensive straw hat from Libertys.

And now hats for children have come back in the southern hemisphere, I think because people are so much more aware of the dangers of UV light because of global warming.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Gingham: the fabric of my childhood

We children wore a lot of checked gingham in summer.  I always think of it as being red and white although I also remember dark green and white.   A quick search of ‘gingham’ on Google throws up numerous websites illustrated by photos of adults wearing the fabric in a variety of colours.  As a teenager, I remember wearing multi-coloured check shirts but even though these were made of cotton I would call them ‘plaid’ rather than gingham.

If you look at websites about the history of gingham you will find it has been around for a very long time.  The word appears to come from Malay ‘ginggang’ and originally meant striped.  It’s first mention in an English dictionary is dated 1615.  One distinctive feature of gingham is that it is woven from threads of the two colours rather than being printed after weaving.  In the nineteenth century checked gingham appeared and by the mid-twentieth century it had come to be associated with the American West, cowgirls and general country style.   I suspect the movies and musicals such as Oklahoma might have had something to do with this as film stars were frequently photographed wearing it.

Here is my sister, dressed as a bride in a gingham dress.  (I think the veil was a curtain and I am very impressed with the 'bouquet'.)

And here she is in another gingham dress, this time with smocking.   This photograph has been hand-tinted so I would not guarantee that the dress was blue and white.

Since gingham was hard-wearing and cheap it was also popular for household objects.  I can remember gingham tablecloths (I even made one but from linen rather than cotton gingham), aprons and tea towels.   It was easy to embroider because the checks meant there was a ready-made pattern to follow and I can remember embroidering it with stranded thread when I was at primary school.  The same went for smocking as it meant you did not have to iron dots onto the fabric.  Interestingly, I cannot remember gingham school uniforms in New Zealand.  I expect some schools had them but primary school children in our generation often wore ‘mufti’ and it was only fee-paying schools like the one I went to which insisted on uniform.  I remember being struck by the wide use of gingham dresses for primary school age uniform when I first arrived in this country.

To show you how central gingham was to our lives I want to describe an incident which I have been told happened when I was three years old.  I think it shows that I had an early interest in clothes which also meant sewing and dressmaking since everyone in New Zealand made some or all of their clothes in the decades after the Second World War.  Until I was eight we lived in Hastings in Hawkes Bay as my father had been born and brought up there and had a job to return to when he got back from being a ‘potato peeler’, as he would put it, in the forces during the war.  My mother came from Wellington and she found living in Hawkes Bay very hard, especially as at first we lived on the edge of Havelock North, a village which was only two miles from Hastings but felt very cut off.  I assume we did not have a telephone and my father commuted to Napier so was gone all day.  His mother and sister lived in Havelock North too, so were an important part of my life but I know my mother found her mother-in-law difficult.  I think this was because my grandmother was from pioneering stock, that branch of the family having left Scotland because of the Clearances and arrived in New Zealand in 1837 which was very early.   People who could trace their roots back that far were often people who had done very well in colonial society and that was certainly true of my grandmother’s family, who considered themselves a cut above many of the other people in the area.

My mother’s parents would visit us two or three times a year, driving the two hundred miles from Wellington which was quite a journey in those days of poor roads and unreliable cars.  While staying with us they would take my sister and I out and this incident occurred on one of our trips into Hastings, presumably to go shopping. 

 I do not remember the occasion myself but it passed into family history and was brought out as an example of what little children say and of my interest in all things textile.  Apparently my sister and I were sitting in the car with my grandfather.  I assume it was parked in the main street since as far as I cannot remember any car parks.  We were waiting for my mother and grandmother to return from shopping when a large woman walked past.  She was wearing a black and white gingham dress and I remarked ‘Look, Garg, (the pet name I had for my grandfather), black and white check.  How awful!’   And the fact that the woman was large obviously influenced the remark. 

What are your memories of gingham?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Surfers at Marazion

Today's 'walk' became sitting in the car looking at the sea and the wind surfers.  After a quick trip to Sainsburys where I found it difficult to hang on to the trolley as I crossed into the car park, we decided it was too risky for me to walk on my walker.  Also it was cold enough for us to be wearing duffel coats!  However, you can always sit in the car with the windows wound down so that is what we did.  We parked at the old railway station at the entrance to Marazion where there are good views if you can find somewhere to park in the front row.

Today's attractions were wind surfers, dogs and two very large container ships which appeared to be 'parked' on the horizon, i.e. they did not move during the hour we were there.

The surfers got up great speeds thanks to the wind.

but it was still easy to fall off.

There were some very large dogs along with the usual small ones and at one

point there were seven wind surfers.  The surfer in this photo was the best and made several really long runs.  There are  wonderful clouds in this photo too.

But the sea itself was relatively calm despite the wind.

At least we got out.  Tomorrow's weather forecast is poor so I am glad we went.  Then I came home to continue work on my 'textile thread' posts and hope to have something up here tomorrow.

Thursday, 2 February 2017


I have decided to have another element to this blog.  For years I have thought about writing some of my memories, mainly for my family.  I have always planned to give these a textile slant.  Now that I am doing much less sewing and because it is the winter, it seems a good time to start.  I have been writing very short pieces - just a paragraph or two - which can be added to or altered.  I have decided that, initially, I will use them as blog posts so here goes.


Smocked dresses were an important feature of my wardrobe when I was little.  I have photos of myself wearing them when I was very small and cannot really remember a time when I did not have a smocked dress for best.  Most of us probably associate it with shepherds’ smocks but in New Zealand it was one of the commonest ways of decorating girls’ clothing.  Remember that virtually all our clothes were ‘home-made’, i.e. our mothers used to sew all our summer clothing and quite a bit of our winter wardrobes too although my mother, who was not naturally interested in dressmaking, drew the line at winter skirts and anything involving tailoring. 

As this photo was taken before I turned two, I cannot remember this dress at all.

She used to smock our best summer dresses, making them from Liberty lawn or voile and choosing the fabrics was something we were involved in from an early age.  My mother often combined smocking on the front of the bodice with feather-stitching around the collar (usually Perer Pan collars until we were about seven) and possibly cuffs.

Here I am aged two years and ten months.  This dress which I hope you can see, had a round collar, puffed sleeves and a band of smocking on the upper bodice.  It appears in a number of photos as I think it was my main summer 'best' dress.

I also remember smocked dresses made from Viyella for winter.  Viyella was a soft fabric made up of 55 per cent merino wool and 45 per cent cotton.  I remember that we regarded Viyella as very posh and so its companion fabric, Clydella, which contained more cotton was also a staple of our wardrobes.  Our winter school uniforms at primary school level included cream Clydella shirts although our uniform at secondary school had white cotton shirts. I was ill quite a bit when I first started school  and even ended up in hospital with pneumonia so under the Clydella shirt I wore a vest (cannot remember what it was made of) and a Liberty bodice.  When I changed schools at the age of eight, I found hardly anyone at my new school wore a Liberty bodice and I fought hard to give it up.  Hastings, where we lived first, was very flat with a dry climate.  This meant it had hard frosts and very cold winters and of course there was no central heating, only coal or wood fires, so everyone wore a lot more clothing than today.  The summers were hot by NZ standards (and still are - as I write Hawkes Bay is threatened by drought).  I am sure Liberty lawn was a good choice for summer clothing.  When I lived in Canberra in the late sixties I rediscovered the joys of Liberty lawn.

Smocking is an old English embroidery technique which apparently was particularly popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   It pre-dates elastic although I think by 1950 it was just used decoratively.  We had dresses with smocking on the bodice which then meant the skirt fell as though it was gathered.  To smock a dress you began with a sheet of printed dots which you ironed onto the fabric.  Then you made rows of running stitch through these dots in order to draw the fabric up.  You need to start with three times the width of the finished piece of fabric.  Once drawn up you hand embroidered patterns onto the fabric, using a variety of stitches, catching the fabric across the ridges you had formed.  We always used stranded cotton for this, I think two or three threads from a hank of six strands.  As a teenager I learnt to smock by making a dress for a toddler in our extended family.  I did this in school sewing lessons but I remember that other people in my class thought it was all a bit odd and the technique became much less popular around this time (the end of the 1950s).  Today you are most likely to see smocking on the clothing of upper class children although it also had a Hippy connection at one point and I can remember planning to make a proper adult’s smock at some point in the 1970s.  It never happened though.