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I’ve been thinking about the talk Lilian Mutsaers gave to the Glorybox group on her MA thesis, where she talked about the potential and promise of uncut cloth, and the cupboards, boxes and suitcases filled with pieces that may never lose their selvedges.  I have a cupboard like this myself.  Interestingly, several of the most extravagant pieces in it have been given to me, having been bought and stored for a number of years by someone else.  No-one has ever told me specifically what they were going to do with these pieces; I am free to invent new possibilities.

My interest in textiles is focused on clothing, especially home-made clothing.  I have also been thinking about how we learn to sew, both at home and in the school curriculum, and to what purpose.  For me, as you will see below, sewing was as much part of family life as cooking or gardening.  We celebrated home sewing as a demonstration of skill, thrift, and creativity, with the bonus being you got clothes that fitted you.

My sister and I grew up with my mother’s family. My maternal grandmother made clothes for her three daughters.  This picture is of my mother in a dress made by her mother for the 1959/60 ‘season’.  It was bronze peau de soie, shot with black, lined in taffeta.

Alison at a dance in 1960

This glamorous look was accessorised with high heeled, pointy toed, sling back shoes in matching satin.  While those were over the counter shoes, accessorising could also be a family game: I have a vivid memory of granddad sitting on the back porch using Harmony shoe dye to match shoes to a dress for one of my aunties.

My paternal grandmother was apprenticed in the Levy factory when she was 14.  Long after she stopped working in clothing factories she had an industrial sewing machine at home for ‘piece work’ as a means of making extra money.  Not much cloth lay un-cut in her house, especially if she could get two colour ways of the same fabric.  Bingo!  My sister and I got matching outfits.  We were walking billboards for her expertise.

These vest and skirt outfits (left) were in denim, with shiny metal buttons, made for Christmas 1968 (I think).  The polo necks were ‘dickies’, and just sat inside the neckline.  I remember being very perplexed by this item of clothing – perhaps because it was not home-made!

The smock dresses (below) were made from thick cotton fabric, almost like cretonne. They were knee-length with Peter Pan collars.  Check out the curtains, the gleaming formica table, and intricately iced cake – another demonstration of skill.

I am keen to hear stories of learning to sew, and the fabric and pattern buying habits of different households.  In future posts I plan to reminisce (and hopefully elicit information) about the glory-days of fabric shops and button counters in Wellington – the favourite haunts of home-sewers.

June 2017
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