Make do and Mend

Normally I write as a printmaker, but this one is about my mum. I wonder if you’ve seen the Great British Sewing Bee? No? Just me then… Several awfully nice people appear once a week on the BBC with mugs of tea and compete in a hopelessly friendly and supportive way to find the best amateur sewer in the UK. I enjoy this programme with a fondness out of all proportion to the contest, even allowing for the transparent decency and good nature of all involved. It transports me straight back to my mum the dressmaker. The woman who, for a while, stitched sample fashion garments just off Bond Street and, being unfashionably tall and slender for the time, sometimes modeled them as well.

Mum, like a lot of people, is drifting with Alzheimer’s. We spend our visits searching for each other: I look for the mum I used to have and she looks for something about me she can recognise. Her ferocious intelligence and determination still shine through, but we know it’s a losing battle.

My sewing began with mum indulging whims: making a prairie sundress and tricky sun bonnet for the time I fell in love with the Laura Ingalls-Wilder books and wanted something suited to the arid plains of West London. Later a cloak with scarlet lining worn by my brother; ‘it made your father furious’ she said happily, ‘he didn’t actually say anything when he saw it, but he was up a ladder at the time and you could see it shaking’. Later still we worked on my school sewing project: a gingham apron. I was sent home with instructions to cut it out and together mum and I made it up as well, deciding it would be more interesting if it were reversible, with double pockets and some appliqué. On the Monday I found out the project was to take an entire term to complete and that I had a new enemy in the sewing mistress.

I don’t remember mum actually teaching me to sew, she just bailed me out when I went wrong and told me what to look for in a properly sewn garment. We traveled to London from time to time gravely inspecting the new arrivals in Liberty’s fabric department, though we bought our cloth from a lovely lady under the arches of South Harrow tube station. She’d keep things by that she thought we’d like. ‘Lovely stuff, heavy for its weight’ was one of her favourite comments. We did buy the glorious matt oyster silk for my wedding dress at Liberty, the only time I saw mum make a practice dress in calico first. All the while I absorbed the vocabulary of sewing: welts, facings, French seams, darts and all. I learned that a pattern calling for three yards of material could be cut from two and a half and that hems and seams will always betray an inferior garment.

I haven’t sewn in years apart from curtains and cushions. But the arrival of this programme coinciding with the sale of my mum’s house and her residential care has been a gift. A couple of weeks ago I went into London and though Liberty sadly no longer fits the bill, I found a good French crepe (French is best apparently and this was indeed ‘heavy for its weight’) and a fine British wool in Berwick Street. I took a couple of evenings off and the time and trouble to make up a couple of well fitting and elegant lined skirts in tribute to my mum’s teaching. I’m nowhere near good (or nice enough) for the Sewing Bee, but I did so enjoy making those skirts and I think they would just about pass muster with mum.