Sowing the seeds of sewing

Image of Susie Boyt

In the middle of the night there was an alarming rattling noise from above. I wondered if it might be a helicopter, like the ones that roamed the skies above these streets not long ago when my friend Patrick’s Boa constrictor went for a wander, leaving us all clinging to our toddlers. It made the front page of the local paper. (The cheeky monkey had been hiding – almost giggling, I suspect – behind the sofa, emerging for his favourite American crime show later that night with not a shred of remorse.)

The rattling continued. I went to the window to scout for sky-life but all was clear. It was a whirring sound. A dental driller-killer? A DIY guerrilla? I do not fear burglar-type noises because so highly regarded were their skills when I was a child that at the first hint of any untoward sound we were told: “Don’t worry. Burglars are MUCH too clever to make a racket. So it can’t be that. They are quieter than mice; nimble, too. They can tell a creaky stair or floorboard just by looking. There’s no such thing as a stupid burglar. If you think you can hear one, it’s really proof one isn’t there.”

I crept up the stairs, despairing at the cracks in the skirting as I climbed. The noise was coming from my elder daughter’s bedroom, the door firmly shut. What was going on? I knocked lightly and opened the door. There was my daughter with a face full of guilt.

“Sorry Mum,” she said. “I was just trying to finish this apron for Grandma.” The evidence seemed to corroborate her story. Exhibit A: the gleaming Brother sewing machine, smuggled from below. Exhibit B: the tangle of Silko reels. Over her lap there was quite a lot of cream and red linen gingham, deeply hemmed. On the floor was a shaped waist band and something that was obviously soon to be a pocket.

I thought for a second of a young German friend who went to confession as a teen and was told by the priest to come back in five years’ time when “she had something worth mentioning”. As far as new ways to be naughty, this struck me as – well, I was impressed. But I could tell from my daughter’s face a little sternness was required. She felt she had merited it.

“But it’s one o’clock in the morning! I thought you were a burglar or something. You woke me up.”

“But burglars are really quiet aren’t they, I thought you said, didn’t you?”

“Well, I don’t suppose they can all be. There must be one or two clumsy ones surely, I mean the uncoordinated must be represented within the trade on a par with the national average, you would think. Or not really?”

“Goodnight, Mum.”

“‘Night.” I gave the sewing machine an affectionate pat as I left the room. It was an innocent accessory after all.

I don’t remember people sewing in the middle of the night before. A friend once made a plaster cast of his face, but forgot the all-important breathing holes and had to summon an ambulance when he started to suffocate. Midnight feasts, certainly. Late-night chatting, music, books even – but small-hours handicrafts?

My mother sewed in the middle of the night, but that was to earn her living, not for the sense of spree. Sometimes she grew so tired she stitched the dress she was mending to her own skirt. My thoughts suddenly turned to a glamorous friend’s émigré grandmother murmuring at her wedding, “Ah, from Poland to Polo in two generations.”

Yet now the streets are filled with little studios called things like Sew Be It or Sew Much Fun, Sew and Sew, Little Hands and Sew What? Make your own skater skirt! Design and create your own harem trousers! Only a year ago, you couldn’t find anyone in your own home who would stitch a button on, even for a bribe, and now London is lousy with pincushions and fashion designers with half their milk teeth. Soon no one will ever have to buy a bedspread again.

There used to be a stigma attached to having handmade clothes. “Did you make that yourself?” was what people said, smirking, when they hated your look and wanted you to know it. We brave wearers of kitchen-table garments had to fight quite a bit for our self-esteem. Vintage clothes, home-made clothes, only used to be your choice if there was no choice. These days some 12-year-olds construct their own jeans and boast about it. Why wouldn’t they? Sewing has its own competitive TV show. Children give each other appliquéd good luck pictures before exams. They sew telephone covers, everyday ones with criss-crossed grosgrain ribbons, and party ones embellished with Krazy Kwins. They do monogrammed pillows for their pals. They make pinnies for their grandmothers.

What will the grandmothers do?

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