Shifting Sands

sewing at the dining room table

sewing at the dining room table (Photo credit: pinprick)

My sisters and I stayed with my grandparents in their Brisbane house regularly as young children and enjoyed being spoiled with noon breakfasts of Froot Loops eaten in front of episodes of “Batman and Robin.” It was the kind of holiday only grandparents can provide, free of responsibility, rules and dietary restraint. However, the best part about staying with my Grandparents (Joyce and Sydney), was exploring the bottom floor of their house.

Brisbane is subject to regular flooding so a lot of houses are traditional “Queenslanders” or timber buildings on stilts. Using this building method, houses are raised and protected from rising floodwaters while cool air circulates under the building. Evidently, Joyce and Syd didn’t anticipate much flooding so they converted the underside of their home to a wonderful storage area. I can attribute my interest in History (which I studied at University) to the many hours spent examining Syd’s action photographs from World War II, where he served in North Africa against Rommel. It was difficult to imagine my Grandfather throwing grenades down foxholes and dodging bullets but he told me it was better than the fate of his younger brother, Ernie, who spent his 21st birthday in Changi Prison as a guest of the Japanese. All the Toovey boys returned home from the war and lived long, productive lives.

Besides Syd’s photographs, the underbelly of the home housed Joyce’s sewing area. This was the most wonderful treasure trove of original dressmaking patterns, fabric, buttons, zips, lace, ribbons and (most fabulously!) a dressmaking dummy. Joyce supplemented the family income by working from home as a dressmaker. I loved going through all the patterns and imagining making my own clothes from scratch. As a young girl about town, my mother often came home from work to find a new opera cape or dress waiting for her to wear on a special evening out.

Mum made our occasion dresses as well. My favourite was a red floral traditional party dress with a panel of white lace on the front. She also made some of our school uniforms and First Communion dresses. Unlike Joyce, my mother didn’t particularly like sewing and claimed to be bad at it. I didn’t care. It was exciting waiting in my underwear, trying on the dress as it took shape. I desperately wanted to make my own clothes.

When I turned eight, Joyce sent me a lovely orange floral wicker sewing basket and Mum gave me a small child’s sewing machine, that actually worked fairly well. I practiced for my fashion career making a toy cat, clothes for my Barbies and other projects from my “Learn to Sew” book. Encouraged by after school hobby classes, my sisters and I also did tapestry, French knitting, crochet, macramé, silk embroidery and rug making. My Stepfather regularly left for work wearing something one of us had made for him; a yellow crocheted hat with a pink pom-pom on the top, a knitted football scarf or a macramé belt. His good – natured humoring of our efforts only encouraged the onslaught.

I was not completely without self -awareness and it did not escape my notice that my sisters were far better at craftwork than me. My younger sisters made gorgeous crocheted and hooked rugs whereas my tapestries morphed into abstract shapes instead of the kittens and bunnies they were supposed to be. My macramé pot – holder quickly unraveled and the toy cat never could sit upright, like the one in the book. Not to be deterred, I told myself I was too impatient and needed to take more time on projects. I refused to believe I had not inherited Joyce’s talent, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Therefore, it was thrilling to learn I could sign up for three years of sewing classes at my new high school, Santa Maria Ladies’ College. Mum and I excitedly set out for Garden City Shopping Centre with the list of supplies I needed for sewing classes. It was an impressive and somewhat intimidating list. Along with the expected needles, thread and pins were other mysterious objects such as fusible interfacing, tailor’s chalk, marking wheels, marking paper in different colors, pinking shears, soluble glue, the lethal looking quick-unpick (later to become my most used item) and the suggestively named “stiffie roll”. Everything was stored in an ugly orange plastic container the size of an Esky complete with carry handle. My pretty cushioned sewing box was no longer up to the job. This was SERIOUS SEWING.

My first day of Year Eight was also my first sewing lesson and I spied many nervous little girls, all of us carting around the same orange containers. The lessons were distributed throughout the week so the first sewing lesson was forty minutes of theory (using an excellent textbook called Clothing and Fabric) and later in the week we had a double lesson for working on our projects under the watchful eye of our teacher (we will call her Miss Apple). I never had any trouble with the theory. Warps, wefts, the difference between satins and tweeds were quickly and easily learned. My theory test scores were excellent. The execution of my new skills, unfortunately, was a completely different matter.

I am sure Miss Apple was in every way a wonderful woman and warm human being. She was an attractive young woman with lustrous brown hair and luminous hazel eyes. Within the first week of sewing lessons, however, I was terrified of her. After recently retiring from a long teaching career, I realize now she was an exceptional teacher. Sewing classes were taught with the same intensity and academic rigor as a Year 12 Physics class, which was marvelous for the Italian girls (who were born clutching a needle and thread) but a nightmare for a klutz like me.

Before being allowed anywhere near our sewing machine (we were assigned one each) we had to practice sewing with an unthreaded machine over spiral shapes marked on thin cardboard. I sewed in the same way I would later begin to drive- with suicidal fits of speed around corners and sudden screeching stops. Night after night I sobbed into Mum’s Singer as I attempted to improve my machine sewing so I could be let loose on the school machines. Mum and I sadly concluded the sewing gene had skipped two generations and I wasn’t ever going to sew dresses for Lady Di. Eventually Miss Apple relented when a week of lunchtime lessons only marginally improved my accuracy.

Our first project was an embroidered cushion. Mine was made of peach fabric with an unhappy square owl chain stitched on the front. The embroidery looked like the work of a drunken monkey. This may have been because I did most of it standing on the school bus while gossiping with my friends. My large cushion was lumpy around the edges due to my crooked sewing, which didn’t fill me with confidence for my next project, an appliqued calico bag.

I don’t remember a lot about making the bag (traumatic memory loss) but far worse was to follow. For the next two years of sewing lessons, the “sample” became the bane of my school life. Before attempting any new technique, such as inserting a zip, we had to complete a perfect sample. This meant making a miniature example, pinning it to a piece of lined paper and then writing out the steps taken to complete the task. Miss Apple checked every sample and if the technique was sewn and described correctly, it could be completed on the real item.

Attempting a new technique on a 10 cm square of fabric was completely beyond my sewing ability. The reduction in size made it harder to control my stitching and I learned what happens when fingers go under a sewing machine needle (nothing too horrible, but I broke a lot of needles). To my infinite relief, I was not the only sewing dunce. My fellow dunces and I became devoted friends as we dejectedly trooped up the steep staircase to the sewing room at lunchtimes to work on our samples.

To her undying credit, Miss Apple was always waiting for us, eating her lunch at her desk but not interfering with our work. We had to learn to do things properly for ourselves, without a teacher storming in to rescue us. It was an important life lesson for young girls and the sense of satisfaction when the sample was finally completed (with a decent score!) was immense.

In the three years of sewing classes I completed some truly tragic items and others I actually wore. My scores for practical work remained ordinary but I enjoyed seeing the dresses I sketched on paper spring to life. I persisted and made my own clothes at home and continued to so for the next twenty years. Ironically, sewing became one of my most valuable skills. As a young wife, I learned how to cover old lounge chairs with fitted covers and made matching curtains. The elderly people I nursed benefitted as I replaced their buttons with Velcro and elasticated dress necklines. I sewed maternity dresses for my pregnant colleagues in the small country town where I began my teaching career and numerous costumes for school plays or fashion shows.

None of the items I made were expertly sewn. A trained eye could easily pick out the flaws. Three years of struggling through sewing classes taught me not that excellence always follows perseverance. Despite hours of extra lessons my projects were never as good as those of the other, talented students. They never would be. I gained something far more valuable. I leaned to follow my interests and develop new skills despite lacking natural talent. I have spent great chunks of my life doing things for which I have no aptitude. I am not athletic but I have run regularly for the last 25 years (old ladies power walk past me) and two years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with my husband. Painting badly, singing terribly, burning cakes and coming last in the charity race are all part of life’s rich (and in my case, crookedly done) tapestry.



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  1. Carlos #
    May 3, 2013

    Now, Madonna, I did read this to the end …you have an amazingly detailed memory, even if the sewing subject matter left me feeling somewhat alienated. I think I sewed a button on a shirt in school… Maybe, or maybe in real life many years ago… Good writing, though!


    • May 3, 2013

      I have strong memories of high school. I think being a high school teacher myself kept it fresh in my mind a little more than primary school. I can’t imagine students working to that level of detail these days and being locked in to a subject for three years- as we were. But we were well taught and no nonsense was tolerated.


  2. Trish toovey #
    May 4, 2013

    I remember this so well! You were better at sewing than you give yourself credit for. I remember two skirts you made me which I was happy. to wear. I do remember that pink cap! It was Pauline who knitted it, and ken actually wore it to work (until he got round the corner in the car). Mum was an exceptional designer and dressmaker – not myself, my sister or any of my three daughters could come close. My sewing at school in the fifties consisted of one hand sewn pair of ‘French seamed knickers’ as the nuns called our hackneyed efforts. No sewing machines, all done by hand, overseen by the terrifying Mother Annette. We had to sit at our desks and hold the garment in our laps as underwear was not suitable to be seen on a desk. My efforts elicited the comment – ” and to think your mother sews the priests’ vestments”


  3. May 4, 2013

    Growing up in Benue State Nigeria, knitting, crochet was part of what made a girl better than the other. It was like being able to cook a good meal, it added to our marketability. That was 20 years ago and things have really changed every where. Walking through charity shops in Brighton, one thing I observe is how these implements used for knitting are turning up massively because there is no one to inherit them from old parents I guess. Maybe our mothers had something going for them with all these activities than we now do. I imagine knitting and creative work as a tool for stress and anger management. Having read this, I feel like picking my pins again.


    • May 4, 2013

      My husband lives in fear of my making him something to wear! Growing up most of our friends did similar crafts. I suppose it’s because there wasn’t much children’s television and of course no one had home computers. We also spent a lot of time riding around on our bikes and visiting friends. One of my male friends used to knit scarves for the students in his classes, which they found fascinating and then all wanted to learn for themselves. Who knows? It may come into fashion again.


      • May 4, 2013

        You are very correct about it coming back, I think it will fly in support groups for women and maybe men. You could actually start it again! :)))))


      • May 4, 2013

        I do feel a bit inspired!


  4. May 11, 2013

    Hi, I am really enjoying following your blog. I wanted to let you know that I have nominated you for The Dragon’s Loyalty Award. See my latest post for the details if you want to accept the award. Thanks for the great posts and happy blogging 🙂 Stacie


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