Threads of Life
It's a quiet Saturday morning in Somerset. Like so many recent weeks, the weather is changeable and rain can be heard beating intermittently on the tiny kitchen window. The kettle is fighting with the wind over which can make the most noise.
My mother, Angela, is lighting up the place with her ready smile. She's wearing a brightly patterned, panelled dress she made herself, and it swishes in a way I envy as she walks. It's both quirky and graceful.
Today my mum is going to tell me a story, one I've only ever heard in parts, never in full. It's the story of her love of sewing, but more than that it's the story of her life told through sewing. We settle ourselves at the little table with a mug of coffee each, and begin.
Sewing has always been one of the good threads of my life.
Aged 11, I went to boarding school in England and was very unhappy there. Living abroad, I had a very outdoor life - swimming, sailing, riding. When I was back in England I had to find something to do indoors because of the rain!
But boarding school is where I started to learn to sew properly. I think our first project was an apron - how boring! But I got that done and then the following term my teacher said, 'right, we're going to make a skirt.'
With my father being in the military, we didn't have a lot of cash and all my clothes came from charity shops. I don't have a problem with charity shops, but I always ended up with clothes that pinched me on the waist which was very uncomfortable for me. I have a scoliosis and the curve of my spine begins where my waist is; there's a lump at the back, so I was never comfortable in things with tight waists or being tucked in around the waist. I remember the excitement of feeling like I would finally have something that I liked to wear.
I finished that first skirt within a week. I had to practice lots of stitches, and I learned how to put in zips and put on waistbands, and make welts that line the openings of pockets. The rudiments I picked up in class - the real fun would begin when I went to my Granny's during half terms and exeat weekends.
My Granny had an old Singer sewing machine which weighed a ton. I used to pretend it was a motorbike - it sounded like one! It was incredibly loud and the floor would move while you were using it. She would get me a pattern and material (Laura Ashley was really in at the time) and I would pretend to be riding the motorbike and just do metres and metres of sewing.
I made layered skirts for me, my sister, and my auntie who is two years younger than me; and I made tops to go with them, with broderie anglaise. I took them out to Cyprus where my family was still living, and I remember that my mum borrowed the skirt I made for my sister, which of course as most children would I found mortifying!
Going into fabric shops was always exciting - I had a great deal of love for the fabrics themselves, their colours and textures. It was when I moved to London that I started to experiment a lot more with what I made.
When I went to Drama College I ended up making costumes for the play instead of acting or teaching drama which is what I was supposed to be doing. I met loads of musicians; I just tended to hang out with people like that and they wanted things made for the stage.
I thought I should advertise what I could do, so I made myself a black plastic dress that I could hardly walk in. I sweated pounds off whenever I wore it to a nightclub. It didn't have a lot of stretch and I had to put talcum powder in the roller foot of my machine to stop it sticking when I sewed it! I made a Henry VIII style jacket out of the plastic material too, for a musician friend of mine; it had sleeve inserts made from old dressing gown material.
And I made myself what I guess you would call now a Matrix coat (the Matrix wasn't actually out yet) with huge lapels and buttons on it. It was a bit punky, a bit gothic. I'd wear it with dogtooth trousers and red shoes that I got from a children's shop (because there was no VAT and my feet were small enough). When I was feeling daring I would wear my skull boots which were about six inches tall, but I had to massage my feet because they'd be moulded to the shape of the boots after wearing them.
Once I got into Stringfellows dressed as a mermaid. I'd made this dress with pewter scaly material that I bought in John Lewis and gold netting for the tail, and great strings of beads to represent scales in a kind of abstract way. I had a blonde wig and I put false eyelashes on and huge makeup and everything – well it was the '80s!
I was really enjoying being part of the scene. I'd turn up with this ancient Egyptian style plastic hat and this black coat and I'd be let in anywhere! I didn't have a bean, but I got access to things culturally and socially that I wouldn't have if I didn't dress that way.
These places weren't all safe. I'd go to the punk club which was all night - it was heavy music, I didn't like it really – but I'd go with my friend and actually it was dangerous. There were people there who were strung out on very hard drugs, and once there was a man who tried to push into the toilet with me, which was frightening and traumatic. I don't know how I had the strength to fight against him, and everyone around was out of their heads so no one would have helped me.
Everyone was making a statement about themselves, projecting something that they wanted to say. And the hair – the hair was out of this world! You'd go to the Gary Glitter concert not because you wanted to see Gary Glitter (he was a bit boring) but because you wanted to see the crowd that turned up. They would have been spending eight hours or so getting ready with the hair, the spikes – it was surreal, a bit Salvador Dali.
In spite of the bad experiences, I went to the clubs because I really enjoyed watching what people were wearing. It was an expression of the subconscious really, and we all had stories. I remember hanging out with some people who were addicts, and I didn't really twig how bad it was – I mean there was hardly any furniture and the spoons were all burnt. We would talk all night, it was surreal.
They were hurting people, and I was a hurting person; I think I shared that with them. We were all looking for some kind of answer. By God's grace I didn't suffer too many after-effects of the things that I took; I had a strong aversion to taking anything too strong.
I found myself in well-heeled places too, really rich people's houses, with a macaw in a gold cage in the corner, white carpets, glass tables and immaculate dentist surgery-like kitchen where the kettle was in the cupboard. I was a commodity and they wanted me to be around. It was unreal.
In 1986 I met my husband; he was in the music business which is why our paths crossed. After a while we moved away from London and went to Brighton and then to the South West and started a family.
I never lost my interest in sewing but my projects changed to things like making my daughters blouses out of an old duvet cover (a really loud print, it was purple and orange and yellow). I loved dressing the girls in alternative ways – I didn't want them to have the stereotypical pink, so they wore red and green. The only pink they had was if someone else bought it.
Sewing projects varied hugely and each one brought different challenges. I made an outfit for my sister because she was marrying a man from the Hindu tradition, but then it turned out the style was for the wrong caste so I had to make another. I made curtains for other people, and dresses for wedding guests, and even once a wedding dress.
It wasn't often that I made things for myself, although I did make a couple of dresses when I was pregnant with my third child because I was particularly huge. Usually I just went to Cancer Research and got what I could and adapted it. And then the fourth child came along and I was tired, and then the fifth – so I didn't really sew a lot for a while.
Sewing came back into my life by stages.
As my children grew up I made clothes for them; I made wall hangings with pockets in them for loads of families we knew; I made bespoke family trees with muslin on hessian. The one I did for our family was an enormous labour of love. I put in at least 100 hours; it took 30 hours just to do the branches and the trunk of the tree with the roots!
There was a fairly big gap when we were running a boarding house for 30 teenage boys and home-educating our own children as well. A few years later I got into making recycled bags out of old plastic bags; I would fuse them together to create a new fabric.
So now I'm working on recycled clothes. Making clothes out of other clothes is an obvious thing to do. I discovered Marcy Tilton, a pattern designer based in Oregon who produces fabrics. She likes asymmetry and working with different patterns, which is right up my street.
So I took the dress pattern to the charity shop on a mission to see what I could find, and I lined all these dresses and tops up together so I could match the colour and tone. I’m very familiar with that now from studying history of art: you match the tone, not just the colour. The shop assistant said ‘wow, what are you doing?’ and I showed her the pattern and she said 'come back!’ I haven’t been back yet to show her but I’m going to.
The excitement when I’m putting something together is beyond belief. I’ll finish a day’s work and think, ‘I wonder if I can fit in an hour?’ I have more patience and self-control now when it comes to my sewing, because I know that if I rush it, it won’t work and it won’t look good and I won’t wear it.
One of my recent ‘makes’ is a cream jacket to go with a dress I adjusted; together they’re a great special occasion or wedding outfit. I had to add a satin band to the waist of the dress to make it longer as I prefer to cover my knees these days. I might adjust it further as I’m not quite happy with the pleats, but the jacket is perfect now I’ve enlarged the collar.
During the sewing there are all sorts of thoughts that will come, and excitement; it’s just amazing. If you think about Mondrian, it’s very mathematical and linear but there was so much creativity in it – and when I sewed I was bringing the two together. Salvador Dali was pushing the boundaries of what is physically there and then trying to imagine what it would look like if it wasn’t constrained to that shape. So, not to constrain yourself; and I think no, you shouldn’t constrain yourself to the conformity of the crowd and going with the flow.
Pushing the boundaries is just what I am, and that’s what I’ve always been. But my motivation for pushing the boundaries before was this thought of ‘surely there must be something better than this?’ and the brave new world, we-can-do-it optimism of the eighties. I still carry that, but in a gentler way now. Being comfortable in myself has made all the difference.
I’m happy with my body. I’m happy with the colours I like to wear. I’m happy with myself – I know who I am and what I am doing, and I have rationally and emotionally glued the two together and said right, the creative and linear parts of me are coming together in this dressmaking. It’s almost like both sides of my brain are engaged together and that is a thrill to me.
When you talk to people who are in business there’s an attempt to bring creativity into the linear world of business; there’s this recognition that we have to join the whole thing together. I’m just so excited to be on that journey, and I recognise that an awful lot of other people are on that journey too, because we need to be fully human. And what it is to be fully human is to fully feel it, as well as do it. Your whole self is involved.
My sewing has come down to a more personal level where it’s not about advertising myself or what I can do. I’m just enjoying who I am, and I like the funky clothes still but I wear them differently because I’ve changed from the inside out. I’ve become happy with who I am, happy I can improve my skills but not worry about having to prove myself to other people – I think I’m not so much of a people pleaser anymore. I’m very comfortable in my own skin now; I’m not trying to prove myself to anyone.
I think a lot of people are scared to look at themselves in the mirror because they absolutely have to face what they look like and it does not fit with their ideal.
I have a round face, and I have to just receive that and not pretend that my face is another shape. My hair isn’t that thick; I can’t pretend to have thick flowing locks. I should just be happy with what I’ve got.
My body is an expression of who I was made to be to this world. People say to me, ‘you’re warm and you’re round and you’re fun and you’re loving,’ and I think well, if that’s who I’m supposed to be, I get that. Why don’t I just embrace and enjoy that?
The other thing I feel I’m free of now is the obligation to look sexy. I am not a sexual object. When I walk through a pub to take a shortcut whilst doing my shopping, older men look me up and down and take my clothes off mentally, and I think that is so rude! I don’t dress myself like a sexual object to be objectified. I am happily married, and all of that is within the marriage and it’s not on display for other people to ogle. My body is made how it is; I’m a woman who bore five children. My body was designed to bear children and it’s built accordingly, but I don’t exist to be objectified.
I get really annoyed when there’s sexualisation of clothing especially with younger girls. I think that what girls and boys need – because I can’t exclude boys from it – is to be happy with who you are, be happy with your body. The fashion industry I think has a lot to answer for; but then we buy the clothes – we have a responsibility as well don’t we? This recent situation over the burkini is bizarre to me. If women want to wear a burkini, that’s what they choose to do, it’s not a problem to me. They should be free to choose not to put their body on show. I don’t understand why there would be a problem with allowing people to cover their bodies up; they’re saying ‘you haven’t uncovered your body enough’ – what is that?!
The choices you make, when it comes down to it, have to be yours - not what you think other people want you to wear but what you want to wear and what you are absolutely happy with. Not what the crowd is going with; not what the office is wearing; not what the celebrity you like is wearing. It’s much more about thinking, ‘is that me? Does that sum up who I am?’ If it doesn’t, just don’t do it!
At heart, my sewing is about becoming me, because there’s always pressure to be someone else. It’s really about being the authentic, inside-out me, that the outside expresses who I am inside and the two are not at odds with each other. In the past I used clothing as an expression of something I wasn’t – but now it comes from the inside.