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Mrs Jones, Crafty Maven

Is it still cheaper to make your own?

Once upon a time making your own clothes and knitwear was the thrifty thing to do…only the most wealthy could get tailor made or shop brought clothing, every home was equipped with a sewing machine and all young ladies learnt to knit and darn. Even when I was a teen, making my own clothes was cheaper than buying them. But that seemed to change as cheap synthetic fabrics filled large chain store haberdasheries and clothes were manufactured en mass in sweatshops and developing countries where labour is cheap and worker conditions are not discussed. Fabric and yarn became a high-end commodity as fabric prices rose from a few dollars to $20 dollars a metre and yarn became a more specialised product with a tag to match.

But one of the problems with this perception is that we tend to compare cheaply made mass produced, synthetic clothes with quality fabrics or yarns. When The Yarn Bar first opened, we were posed with the question why would we buy yarn from you when it can be bought so cheaply from Spotlight! I have pondered that question (rather defensively) since! And really it comes down to getting what you pay for.

So think about this…yarn for a pure merino wool cardigan might cost about $100 plus many hours of labour. So why would you bother when you can get an off the rack acrylic cardigan for half that price? But if you are going to make this equation there are a few things to think about. If you were to look for a pure merino cardigan, depending on brand you are looking at over $100. If there is a designer attached you can double, maybe triple that number.

A couple of years ago I discovered The Fabric Store in Brisbane (they are also in Sydney and Melbourne) that sold fabric ends from designers. The thing about these fabrics is they are composed of things like merino, silk, rayon, cotton with limited amounts of synthetic additions. Now the fabrics are generally $20+ a metre but they are good quality fabrics and more interesting than many chain store alternatives. I sometimes go and think $40 for the fabric to make a blouse – that’s expensive. But then some recent shopping trips have made me realise that off the rack reasonable quality clothes (less synthetic, more attention to construction detail) you now pay $100 for a blouse, $130 for a skirt and $200 for a dress and shoes are now $150 on average. Ready made has become more expensive (as it does) and it made me reflect on what I was willing to pay for fabric and yarn and I think the scales are starting to tip back toward handmade as a thrifty choice.

I thought, in the interest of science, I should take a look at the “opposition” (Spotlight) and see what the price comparison actually is. So I looked at a 10ply pure wool yarn and the first one I found was $8.99 for a 76m ball. Compare that to some of The Yarn Bar offerings. Brown Sheep Lamb’s Pride Worsted yarn is merino yarn with 15% mohair content at $14.50 for 176m – so actually cheaper, Zealana Heron which is also merino wool but includes 20% possum is $9.00 for 100m (again cheaper), and even our Cascade Lana D’Oro which is 50% merino and 50% alpaca is $14.90 for 200m so again cheaper! Of course you can get some much cheaper yarns and if you want an acrylic novelty yarn it’s the place to go, but when you start making comparisons on the quality of yarns ‘boutique’ yarn sellers offer, you might be surprised at how thing stack up! At The Yarn Bar, we have included a price per metre so you can make a comparison of yarn prices if you want to. Of course you can't add in the cost of your time or we would be talking about $200 socks!

Of course most of us craft for a lot of reasons other then thrift (my investment in my fabric and yarn stash is testament to that!). Frankly I remain fascinated that with two wooden sticks and a ball of yarn I can make a garment. Or a rectangle of fabric can become something to wear that fits well and looks great. I don’t think the fascination (and testing) of my ability will ever wear off!

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A nation of knitters

For a population of just 300 000, Iceland probably has the highest knitter per capita ratio! I tried to look for some statistics and the best number I could come up with was 10%. When planning a trip to Iceland, I hadn’t been thinking knitting, I was thinking spectacular scenery. But the Icelandic have created quite a trade out of knitting over its history. Although its not clear how long knitting was part of the Icelandic repertoire, but there is evidence that hand knitted goods became Iceland’s number one export in the 16th and 17th century. Men, women and children were all expected to contribute to the production of knitted goods! For children their knitting careers started with mittens and they were expected to finish a pair a week. Two women knitting facing each other were expected to produce six sweater bodies or four complete sweaters each week. Women who worked need only produce a pair of socks each day. I’m lucky to finish a pair in a season!!

While dried fish seems to have taken over as the number one export, there is again a thriving hand knitted industry and it’s a great story of reinvention – something the people of Iceland seem to excel at. With the growth of the tourist trade, sweaters handmade in hundreds of homes are available for sale in every nook of the country. The style is very iconic with a circular yoke patterned with two or three colours. The yarn is produced in Iceland and I was surprised how coarse the yarn was. But word has it the yarn is not spun and so contains more air providing better insulation and waterproof garments – for which they are renowned. Seeing the wooly sheep dotted around the landscape when the icy winds blew from the snow-covered highland – I figured it made sense that their wool would be warm and waterproof out of necessity. The one knitter I did manage to talk to relayed a story of Icelandic sheep were sent to New York and after a few years their wool became softer in the warmer conditions! An Icelandic sheep in New York…the mind boggles! Talk about culture shock.

Icelandic sheep

Now learning of the prevalence of knitting and places to buy yarn (I saw it for sale in supermarkets, service stations, stationery shops, gift shops and the airport!) I was looking forward to seeing people knitting everywhere around the country! Surprisingly I only saw one person knitting in two weeks of travel! It seems that knitting is done in front of the TV at night in the privacy of the home! I did meet one older lady who was a knitter (but I did not see her knitting) that ran a little gift/snack bar on a windy peninsula. Sophie knitted with her daughter Gundrun and their little yellow shack was filled with beautiful hand knitted garments.

Sophie and Gundrun's shop in Grindvik

The prevalence of beautiful handmade jumpers everywhere we went made me itch to make a traditional Icelandic cardigan…so I have come home with a pile of Icelandic wool and a beautiful pattern book full of ideas….now I just need another holiday to get that knit done!

Icelandic wool

Taking time to knit in Iceland

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Where do you get your craftspiration from?

I was watching Downton Abbey the other night – now in the deliciously beautiful fashion era of the 1920’s, and while my craft mind gets whiplash from the beautiful clothes created for the show, a stunning cape worn by Lady Edith had me searching the internet for photos and mentally unpicking and constructing that garment! I’m not the only one, because the internet uncovered several blogs of others with the same love affair with that cape!

Lady Edith wears divine twin set with cape

The Lady Edith cape was a twin set – a skirt with matching cape (be still my beating heart). The cape, I would guess, made from soft draping wool, features buttons down from the shoulder (where the sleeves would be) and pleated gussets in the hem. Worth looking at the video to see how it drapes when she puts it on. Much though I fancy it, I don’t think I will be making a replica, but its moments like this that often drive me into the search for a pattern to make my own whichever lovely thing it is.

I’ll confess I’ve had a cape obsession for a little while. It started with a friend wearing one that had been handcrafted by a talented dressmaker friend of hers. From memory it was plaid and bold! It did send me on a quest for a cape! After searching for the right pattern, I found one on Style Arc (if you sew clothes and you don’t know about these guys, you should check them out. Their patterns are light on instructions but well fitted and you get the pattern printed that fits you). It was a project that I thought to try to be more professional in my finishes (I talk about this mission in an earlier blog here). I also modified the pattern to add a hood. The final product is quite lovely, if slightly impractical for unfettered arm movement!

The cape

I get inspiration for my craft in all sorts of places. I have been working on a green cardigan for the best part of the last year after seeing one in a particular shade of green worn by Justine Clark on the ABC series of The Time of Our Lives. I then became obsessed with finding the perfect shade of green and a suitable pattern. In the end I found a sock yarn in the perfect colour and it really is a beautiful colour!

Green cardigan from The Yarn Bar

For knitting and crochet projects my first stop is always Ravelry. Now if you haven’t discovered Ravelry, get thee there now! It is the ultimate database for yarn crafts. It holds information about an enormous number of yarns and a seemingly endless collection of patterns. So, for example, when I wanted to make a green cardigan I searched all cardigan patterns on Ravelry in the weight of the yarn I had found in the perfect colour (fingering weight). There are simple searches (‘cardigan’, ‘beanie’) or advanced searches like ‘cardigan, adult, female, fingering weight yarn, knitting’. They also have features on their home page that have me drooling regularly. They are even cheeky enough to call it eye candy! You have to register and create a log in for Ravelry but that means you get to create your own database of things you like, projects you have completed, yarns in your stash, groups to follow, patterns in your library. It’s a hell of a long way from the old Patons knitting books let me assure you!


Speaking of online inspiration, there is also Pinterest. As the name suggests it is like a pinboard for your interests! It never ceases to amaze me the ideas and images on Pinterest…its all the great photos on the internet organised by topic! I have found sewing techniques, garden inspiration, quilt ideas, home décor ideas, knitting patterns….it’s blissfully endless! The best part you become part of a community of people sharing ideas! The Yarn Bar has a pinterest account and has been great for organising ideas like knitted cushions, kids knits, adult knits, scrap yarn projects and techniques!

The Yarn Bar on Pinterest

One of my next projects began as an online inspiration. Moving to Canberra I decided I would make myself a coat. I came across an image of a stunning recreation of a 1940s coat. I wanted to make one too, but there was no pattern (at the time...I discovered this morning that there is now a pattern but in a tiny size!) so I began searching for something I could adapt. I started with what I thought would be a good coat pattern and made a calico version. Despite the images on the pattern packet it was totally the wrong shape and it was beyond modifications! So I shelved the idea for a while. But the idea has stuck and has taken me to couture tailoring books, searches of sewing techniques and a hunt for a good pattern. I recently found an original 1940s coat pattern in my bust size on Etsy! So now I have a new pattern and new techniques to try (and the instructions from the original design!).


The internet has brought an explosion of craft ideas, tips and tricks and I use it constantly! Now my problem is not finding inspiration but finding time to make all the things I fancy…especially when it takes me a year to make a cardigan!

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International Women's Day!

It’s International Women’s Day, the day to celebrate the achievements of women, but also to highlight the challenges we still face. The soft arts and domestic crafts have often been seen as something to rebel against. That they represent the oppression of women. Well, for a time that was true, but we now understand so much more the sources of inequality for women!

I recently watched the movie “Suffragette” on a plane, and I must say by the end I wanted to punch every man on that plane! Now I know you might be a bit shocked by that, a gentle lady like me…and it wasn’t these particular men on the plane that had been oppressing women in the early 1900s. But I felt angry that history had given such privilege to men and had been so cruel and oppressive of women. And to be honest because it reminded me that I still live and work in world that is dominated by men. I travel a lot for work and I have to tell you when you sit on a plane you are swamped by men in suits that fill more than their share of space…legs spread and knees into my personal space, elbows, newspapers, luggage creating a sense of privilege and ownership. I had a man on a plane last night grumpy with me because my tiny suitcase was squashing his enormous and important suit bag. It can be pretty darn suffocating at times.

When I was young and idealistic I was proud to be a woman foraying into a man’s world and showing them that I was just as good if not better at many things. I could knit, sew, cook, solve algebra, construct things from wood, renovate furniture, landscape and work in male dominated offices with pride. In my own naïve way I bought the message that equality was here and women could have it all. And have it all we did…all the kid wrangling, remembering doctor’s appointments, organising, working, costume making, present buying, birthing and breast feeding….being superwoman it turns out is bloody exhausting.

I’m afraid as I have become older, while I am still proud of my diverse skill set, I have also become more cynical and growingly frustrated to see on a daily basis that the glass ceiling still exists; that the statistics continue to show wage inequality, inequality in management jobs, in decision making jobs; that the gender balance in undergraduate classes is lost by the time it gets out in the workforce and management; that men (and dare I say old, white, middle class men) continue to make decisions for me and about me and my fellow women (and I know its not just women, its also our First Australians, our recent arrivals, our LGBT, our elderly, but as it is International Women’s Day so I am allowing myself this indulgence). That even though I continue to show my capabilities, assumptions are made about my abilities (and my weaknesses) and I must continue to prove myself. I was beginning to feel that i was just getting older and bitter until I sat at lunch with a table of women at work recently and they all started talking about their own experiences. That constant sense that you are being judged by a different set of criteria that you you must always prove your self, of constantly being  the only woman on some committee or meeting, of being counselled to be careful not to be emotional (if only we spent more time telling men to be careful not to be aggressive, we might go someway to dealing with domestic violence I suspect). It was such a relief to learn it was not just me with this niggling annoyance and growing frustration. Here was a group pf intelligent and successful women feeling the same undercurrent.

Now many men will argue differently that it is perceived bias. And there are lots of really amazing and supportive men out there (my gorgeous husband is definitely one), but I’m afraid you need to walk a mile in my size ten heels to really understand how subtle but pervasive it is.

But, dear reader you might be starting to wonder, what does this have to do with arts and crafts? When will I speak of soft yarns and cute knits? Well I guess what I think is true about crafting and the resurgence of craft among many women (sorry men, I am actually just thinking of women here) is that women are taking back ownership of the crafts, but by our own choice. We are taking it and owning it and it no longer owns us. And that is progress!

Happy International Women’s Day!

Women Knitting late 1800s

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Its my birthday and I'll craft if I want to!

For my birthday this year, I thought I would reunite my old crafternoon friends for an afternoon of tea, cake, craft and catch-up. Great ideas need action though and well I didn’t get organised in time…maybe next time! But it did have me thinking about great craft parties. I’ve often thought about the old question “if you could have dinner with anyone – alive or dead – who would you invite?” except I would organise an afternoon tea and invite fabulous knitters! I would set the table with yarn specially selected for each of them! Here are some of my picks.

At the risk of sounding obvious, I would have to invite Brad Pitt. Now settle down with the cougar calls (for starters he is older than me) but I mean come on, we’ve all heard the rumours that he knits. I mean it could well be an urban myth born of a great female fantasy, but hey, I’m willing to believe it. A few years ago Brad Pitt was seen wearing a great slouchy beanie for some months and I mean, come on, who amongst us didn’t think nice knit-wear…is the rumour true, does he knit as well? Could this be one of his own creations (gasp!). Ok so maybe that is just my fantasy, but hey this is my ultimate birthday party we are talking about here! Imagine the questions you could ask that fine, fine man? “Do you like straights or interchangeables?”, “did you knit booties for the twins or a man-scarf for George Clooney?”. It would also be fantastic to hear about his work in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, he would have some amazing insights on what went so terribly wrong that exposed so many to the worst of the storm. I would set his place with some Zealana Heron…its manly but soft.

Is it true..does Brad Pitt knit?

Second invitee would be Audrey Hepburn. She was a regular knitter and there are quite a few beautiful pictures of her knitting on set. She would bring some wonderful style and class to the party (Brad would pull her chair out for her). She would share stories of lead men and beautiful couture and we would all be jealous! Of course I would have to quiz her on why Mickey Rooney an obviously white man was cast as an Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Was that really the way things were done then? For Audrey I would have to bring a fingering weight yarn. She was from an era when patterns were for 3 or 5 ply yarn, so I would pick some Cascade 220 fingering for her…enough to make a twin set.

Audrey Hepburn was one of the stylish knitters

Knitting may have appeared to be her down fall, but for me seeing our first female Prime Minister posing with her knitting in Women’s Weekly made me love her more, so Julia Gillard would most definitely be at the coffee table! I was never sure what offended me more. The way she was treated because she was a woman or the way she was mocked for being a knitter. The photo of Julia knitting with her dog at her feet would be the equivalent of any other PM at the cricket with his kids. The image for me was who Julia was when she was at home  and so was a very honest image and one I admired greatly. At my birthday crafternoon, as she settled in with a cup of tea and a slice of honey roll that Brad baked, she would share with us stories of her beloved dad, snippets from parliament (maybe the day in parliament she had to get a message to Tony Abbott via the speaker that his fly was undone and the clerks could see his speedos) and what a wiz with hot tongs Tim is. As the afternoon wore on we would talk about the need to educate women as the real power to changing the world and we would all come up with plans to change the world for women. For Julia, the yarn would have to be something special, none of this dime store acrylic. I’m thinking a good DK yarn, something with colour and character like Fleece Artist 3/6 Merino.

Julia Gillard our first knitting Prime Minister

Next on my list is young Australian comedian, Stella Young. Sadly, Ms Young passed away suddenly at the end of 2014 and my fantasy of a chance meeting with her at a stitch-and-bitch was crushed. Stella had a wicked sense of humour and was openly crafty, she also happened to be disabled. She was a great advocate for disabled people, using her humour to give a very pragmatic view of the challenges of disability and the awkwardness and sometimes inappropriateness of the rest of us mugs. She was a gal with spunk and a gal with spunk who knitted so I would totally love to have her at crafternoon tea. She would hold forth with her wicked sense of humour, some cheeky teasing of Brad and a few pointed questions to Julia all while knitting up some intricate lace shawl! I would have a skein of Hand Maiden Mini Maiden waiting at her place at the table!

Stella Young, knitting enthusiast

And finally, I’d want Eleanor Roosevelt to join the party. Now there is a woman with some stories I’m sure. Eleanor was probably not what America expected from a first lady. She, it appears, had strong opinions and was not afraid to publicly disagree with her husband, The President. She was a feminist, a civil rights activist, a mother to six children and thought to have had liaisons with other strong women like Amelia Earhart. I suspect she would be quite sassy! I picture her chatting with Julia swapping stories of running countries, the political machinations and the treatment of women in power. I imagine she would be a captivating guest from start to finish. She would of course knit and befitting to the era of her craft skills, she is likely to use number four straight needles. I would at least try and introduce her to wooden needles! Her project is bound to be something fine. I would give her a skein of Fleece artist Tree wool – a sports weight yarn with a modern twist.

Eleanor Roosevelt knits in the Governor's House

When you start to think about it there is quite an array of famous knitters that would be great to bring together. All sharing that passion but coming with different experiences and stories. My friends bring that to the crafternoon table, but what fun to imagine someone famous joining in! Who would you invite to your ultimate crafternoon party?

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Finishing the old, starting the new (or how life interferes with my craft time!)

Finishing the old, starting the new (or how life interferes with my craft time!)

Finishing and starting have been on my mind for the past, well 6 months really! At work (my day job as a research scientist) it has been a frantic set of deadlines and so I have completed one project or deadline only to take up the next one the very next day and keep peddling! At the same time I have been packing up house in preparation to finally move to Canberra to live (more) permanently joining my husband who has been there for two years.

Moving out of the house I have lived in for the past 17 years has been very surreal! A house that has been lovingly renovated over the years and now functions perfectly (for us) left behind and a new house that needs renovating and is small and slightly dysfunctional moved into.

With all these things there have been timelines. I work best to time lines. In fact with the packing up I found a stash of unfinished knitting and crochet projects. All meant to be for me, but without a timeline to keep me honest…they remain in that horrible half finished state. If they had been gifts for others I would have stayed up late at night lovingly finishing them! As is seasonally appropriate, I flirted with the idea of making a New Years resolution to finish old projects before starting anything new. Needless to say that was quickly dismissed. There are too many beautiful yarns out there and not enough time to be tied to unfinished projects!

I had hoped I might finish a cardigan during the long drive from Brisbane to Canberra, but while the sleeve length has increased…it didn’t quite get there, but I am determined it will be the next thing I finish.

I like to think I’m quite good with change, but this move has been tough. You can underestimate how many things change….from the little things like finding your clothes, your tweezers (must stem the flow of goatee beard hairs!) to the bigger things like getting lost driving around and missing friends and family.

Of course, it does give me a chance to start some new things. Last night I went to my first CWA meeting and met some new people…oh and came home with a bag of musty, acrylic yarn to knit up some blanket squares. Not sure how I will find time for that!

We also have a blank canvas in the garden so a chance for a whole new landscape. We also plan a cabin in the garden to set up a dedicated sewing space for me! It will also be a space to run The Yarn Bar from. Now that’s exciting!

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Crafty kids

This week Mrs Jones has invited her mum to be guest blogger and talk about crafting with kids.

As an early childhood teacher, grandmother and great grandmother, much of my time for many years has been spent with the under eight year olds. These little people are creative, curious, very capable and ready to learn crafting skills along with other more traditional ‘school’ skills when these skills are meaningful to them.

My interest in crafting began when I was quite young, as my mother spent a great deal of her time making and mending. We lived in a tiny English village and each year she would make knitted toys for the village fete I remember being fascinated as tiny scraps of knitting were sewn together and stuffed until a cute little duck or dog emerged. She also made her own clothes and mine, sewed curtains and cushion covers, she darned and patched. She taught me to knit, embroider and to use her hand-operated Singer sewing machine so that I could make clothes for dolls and teddies. One of my enduring memories of childhood is of dad’s dressing gown that mum had made during the war from a grey army blanket. On many cold winter’s nights that dressing gown was put on my bed to keep me warm. Much of what I remember of my childhood home was hand-made. Consequently, I still look at expensive clothes or household items in shops and think, I could make that! Unfortunately I rarely do!

When I married I made curtains, cushion covers and clothes for the family, including natty seventies shirt and tie combos for my husband! When my two daughters arrived I made their clothes too. I hope they forgive me for dressing them in matching outfits! A cheap remnant from the market would make a dress for my two year old and a tiny version for her baby sister. As they grew older I taught them to knit, crochet and sew. They both continue to knit and sew and despite having their own families and busy careers, each will have a crafty project to show me when I visit.

Crafting is not only for girls. My eldest daughter taught her stepson to crochet when he was young and he spent many hours producing wonderful crochet ‘sculptures’. I treasure a beautiful model of a humming bird hovering over a flower.

Crocheted hummingbird Crocheted hummingbird on a flower

Coming late to my career as an early childhood teacher I brought with me the experience of learning crafting skills as a child and teaching my own children to knit and sew. In my preschool classrooms (4 and 5 year olds) bodkins and yarn were added to the other resources and equipment for children’s use in the art area. These were used as a means of joining materials together when making costumes for dramatic play or when other methods of joining such as glue or staples didn’t work! Sometimes children drew on hessian then embroidered around these drawings to make presents for their families.

Another craft that was introduced, usually before stitching, was weaving. We began by practicing to weave with strips of coloured paper. This activity incorporated the use of scissors when cutting out the strips and pattern making as children decided which colours to use. It was also a good introduction to the concept of ‘over and under’ that they would need when sewing a running stitch. Later we would make large woven hangings incorporating natural materials that were found by the children such as leaves, grasses and strips of bark. These art works were often enhanced with strips of fabric and stapled on scraps of paper or foil. Such projects were often instigated by me but they became the children’s own work as they sourced materials and decided how to incorporate their ideas.

Again, these crafting skills were not only used by the girls. I remember some boys sewing together big pieces of hessian to make a ‘house’, and using stitching when making other props for their dramatic play.

Many years ago one of my fellow teachers, a great crafter herself, brought her spinning wheel to preschool and children were able to see the process of fleece being turned into yarn. They also got to practice using the spinning wheel, not an easy skill! An excursion to see sheep being shorn gave the children an understanding of the production of woollen yarn.

This same teacher later moved to a small country primary school where she continued to teach her year one and two students crafting skills. Sadly she contracted cancer in her late thirties. When I visited her in the hospice, a week before she died, there was a huge hanging at the end of her bed made by her young students. Each child had drawn a picture on hessian then stitched around their drawings. These beautiful pieces of work were stitched together to form a patchwork; a fitting tribute to a great and much loved teacher.

Another friend and fellow preschool teacher was a spinner and weaver. She was experimenting with natural dyes and introduced this idea to her class. The children experimented with leaves, onion skins, berries and soil to see what colours were produced. This led them on to experimenting with natural materials to make paint and an interest in the use of ochres for body and rock painting.

Over the past years there has been a push to better teach STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) in our schools. I would like to see this acronym changed to STEAM with the addition of the arts. Crafting is considered an art subject yet it can encompass all the STEM subjects – think about it!

My message to all the parents, grandparents and teachers out there is to teach children to use tools, materials and equipment to create new things. Because we don’t know what the future holds for the four, five, six, seven and eight year olds of today. But what we do know is that they will need the skills to use the ‘tools’ of our culture be they computers or needles.

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Learning the trade - dressmaking

In a busy life that includes visiting aged aunts, children and grandchildren, a full-time and demanding job, housework, yard work and helping friends, there is little time for doing things for myself. But this week I had the delicious chance to go to the movies by myself. I had read the book “The Dressmaker” and was so excited to see the movie. I loved the movie! I won’t spoil the plot, but the costumes were divine! I left the movie with that romantic feeling of being the lead character of the movie (or perhaps I’m the only one who does that), but it made me want to sew and create beautiful things!

I have sewn from an early age. My sister and I had a treadle sewing machine from the time I would have been about 5 or 6. I remember a friend and I used to create soft toys from our favourite Australian children’s book “ Bottersnikes and Gumbles”. Clothes were made for toys and possibly even the cat! It was an unfettered creativity! When we were a little older and looking to make our own clothes, we would use our mum’s Elna sewing machine.

That machine is legendary in my mind. My mum, who had worked in a sewing machine shop back in England, had brought the machine with her when we migrated here in the 70’s. It was one of the original metal case ones, made in Switzerland. It had the amazing system of creating fancy stitches by changing a die in the machine. The most spectacular stitches included a line of ducks! Mum used the machine when we were little to sew up stuffed toys for a woman who was selling them through chemists. She was a member of the sweatshop workforce I guess. For us as children it was quite fantastical sewing our mum create these beautiful stuffed toys and then visiting the lady who commissioned them in her very opulent house by the Brisbane River (apparently her family owned the chain of chemists that the toys were sold in!). The images in my mind were very romantic. Hmm there might be a pattern here – the romantic mind of mine!

My mum still has that old Elna and uses it regularly! When The Yarn Bar was holding its first market stall she whipped up three of the cutest aprons for us to use! My mum, being a practical woman, has been assigning treasured items to my sister and I for some years, so after she dies we can file in in an orderly fashion and collect our treasured items. I know it sounds kind of funny, but when her father died less than two years after her mother she had a new stepmother who inherited everything, even really personal and precious items from my grandmother. She is protecting us from this sadness. Anyway, I digress. The item that I always ask for is the Elna.

Now my mum, who recently used my whiz-bang modern sewing machine which has built in scissors and stitches (no ducks though) probably wonders why on earth I would want her old sewing machine and to be honest, given I have two expensive modern machines its not a practical request. And I do feel a bit worried that my sister may have greater need – I’m not sure what her current sewing machine status is. But that old sewing machine represents so much more than simply a tool for sewing! It represents machinery of an era gone by, when a machine made, if maintained, could last 40-50 years and still be going strong.

Anyway, back to where I started…The Dressmaker. In recent years I have looked to improve the finishes of my craft. In sewing out of my sister and I, I have always been the one to follow patterns carefully and finish all seams. My sister less focused on the finishes, has the enviable creative talent. She was the one who would print her own fabric and whip up a skirt for that night! But when I started collecting and reading books on vintage fashion, I realised that there was a happy place where both creativity and finishes met beautifully…and it was couture!

The art of couture, as you will see in the film The Dressmaker, is about the right fit and cut and style, but also precision! I have a lot to learn and I need a lot more time to explore and perfect the art of better sewing (couture is a stretch too far…But I will continue to channel Tilly Dunnage in my head!). I have tried a few things – a placket button hole on a woollen cape for example (yes everyone needs one of these). Something I recently learnt while producing needle cases for The Yarn Bar was perfected zippers in lined pouches. Now it might seem like something I should have learned a long time ago, but the trick I learnt was to slide the zip pull past the sewing machine foot to avoid wobbles in my stitching line. A small thing, but worth it for a neater and more accurate result.

One of the things my reading about couture taught me was the tools of the trade. There are whole chapters dedicated to pressing garments and there are some essential tools to help. One of which is a “ham”. Now don’t go all Christmas lunch on me, this is a tailor’s ham. It is a tightly stuffed pillow used as a curved mould when pressing curved areas of clothing, such as darts, sleeves, cuffs, collars or waistlines. It was a tool I wished to have, but the price from the haberdashery of a large multi-national company (no names mentioned!) was a bit of an extravagance at the time, so being a thrifty craft maven, I set about making my own.

Instructions and patterns are readily available on the internet and I used a pattern prepared by someone else. The ham cover is scrap calico and wool (left over from the cape I made!). Fabric is double layered for heat protection and it is a simple sew around and push back through a gap in your sewing.

The wonderful part about the ham I made was I had a friend who is an amazing wood carver and he was very happy to let me have a bag full of his beautiful wood shavings! These are the traditional stuffing of ham’s and for me it was free! The ham is packed tight and sewn closed. I am thrilled with my homemade tool and it actually makes a huge difference in pressing out curved seams.


So it’s a long way from couture evening frocks, it’s the start of a long term investment in learning and improving my talents!

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Crafting with friends

Crafting with friends

Several years ago I formed a “Crafternoon” group. The concept brings together two of my favourite things…craft and afternoon tea! At the time I had access to an old corner shop that could be my craft space and crafternoon space. Amazing things were made in that space…organic paper lanterns for a birthday party, quilts, Christmas gifts, clothes. Amazing food was also favourite being a vegetarian curry with Quinoa consumed one breezy summer afternoon when we took our craft out onto the concrete apron in front of the corner shop.

The shop became someone else’s home and we moved to a take-it-in-turns-at-your-place model. Each host bringing out their favourite china and comfy chairs for us to gather, gossip and occasionally craft!


To be honest, at times it felt it became more about the food than the craft! But more than that it fostered crafty friendships. I met like-minded people who happily shared food, ideas and skills and whiled away the hours tinkering at our craft projects. We did lose momentum and the months between meet-ups became longer, the crew became smaller as everyone got busy with life, kids and family! We've been in hiatus for quite sometime, but periodically when a couple of us meet up we suggest a crafternoon, and I'm sure one day we will manage it! I have recently joined a new Crafternoon group, met new people and eaten new foods! Last event included meeting some chickens who didn't mind taking part too!

The tradition of craft groups has a long history. I always remember that movie “How to make an American quilt” where the construction of a wedding quilt is the catalyst for sharing advice and life stories. The idea of not only crafting with friends but actually working together to create something beautiful and something that is a challenge to make on your own really did appeal to me. The movie did rather create a romantic notion in my head about co-creation of craft items (much in the same way “Pretty Woman” made me want a red velvet evening gown and white gloves!).

The tradition of quilting bees is particularly strong in American history. Friendship quilts has a long tradition. Some years ago (when the Australian dollar was at parity) I discovered antique quilts on eBay. I scored a few beautiful vintage quilts. But one of my favourite finds was a stash of friendship quilt blocks, not yet sewn together but embroidered with the names of the creator on each block. The names are wonderful….Daisy… Mary Scott with a tartan fabric…you can’t help but wonder who these women were and what the final quilt was intended for and why it was packed away for many years unfinished. I know some would finish a quilt like this but I feel it’s not right. That a quilt like this needs to be completed in a friendship circle and by hand!

Knitting too has its own tradition of gatherings. I’ve just revisited one of the great “Stitch’n’bitch” books by Debbie Stoller. She talks about the origin of the phenomenon. Starting with a small gathering of older family knitters and younger enthusiasts in a Café in New York. This first small group that waxed and waned spawned a global phenomenon of the ‘Stitch’n’bitch social gatherings. There are many throughout the world today- including Australian chapters. New younger groups and movements are also happening with English mob “Wool and the Gang” creating their own Avon-like social gatherings and parties.

With the advent of the internet knitting groups have gone global. If you ever see the letters KAL – it means “Knit-a-long” and it is a real child of the online age with people in far flung places knitting the same project at the same time. There is even the idea of a mystery knit-a-long that many designers use in which you don’t know what you are creating until the end! The pattern is released in stages…something like a treasure hunt as each weekly or monthly clue is released! Great designers with a reputation for creating beautiful things get almost a cult following for their mystery KAL. Kaffe Fasset the darling of all things colourful knit, for example, produced an afghan in his trademark colour and pattern style.

Now don’t get me wrong I’m happy to craft solo and sometimes you need that quiet space and contemplation to really knuckle down to a project or to unwind after a busy day. But the camaraderie of crafting together is a great motivator, a great way to learn and share skills and a great way to make friends.

So get out there a join a craft group. It will make your heart sing and your mouth laugh!

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Dementia and crafting for therapy

There is no way to sugar coat this topic. Dementia is a horrible and brutal disease that robs too many people of a gentle and graceful exit from life. It is also a difficult disease for family to cope with. When parents stop recognising children, when even the most routine tasks become terrifying and baffling for your loved one and you must watch them suffer the fear and loss.

My husband’s aunt Leona has Lewy Bodies Dementia, a form of dementia that shares symptoms with Parkinsons Disease and Alzheimers. She has hallucinations, difficulty with coordinating movement, and now a great deal of difficulty speaking. For a woman who dedicated her life to caring for others it is very hard to watch her suffer such a lonely and isolating disease. I visit most weekends when I am in Brisbane. I chat, keep it upbeat and try to act like all is normal, but always drive away feeling as if I have picked at an open, never healing wound again and it can leave me feeling so angry and despairing for the rest of the day.

It’s been a five year journey so far, and with each stage we have looked for different ways to engage with her and calm her. Her family and her childhood have featured strongly in the things we talk about that help to reduce her stress. I wanted to make her something beautiful for her room (those nursing home rooms can be very hospital like!) that would be familiar, so I decided to make a memory quilt.

Memory quilts are made for all sorts of reasons, weddings, births, anniversaries, so there was lots of good information on what to do. I gathered black and white photos from the family and included pictures of her on the farm as a young woman, her parents and the new generation of children. The photos can then be printed directly onto white fabric with an inkjet printer. The fabric patches were pulled from leftovers and stashes with a few extra purple (her favourite colour) fabrics purchased and added. I hand quilted with a fine cotton yarn for speed! It isn’t the most precise quilt I have ever made, but it has made a wonderful talking piece for her room, visitors and staff able to ask about the photos. Her vision is deteriorating and the quilt has faded a bit, but it’s still a beautiful handmade piece in her otherwise fairly sterile room.


As her disease has progressed, Leona fidgets and pulls at fabric most of the time, feeling textures, tying knots in and scrunching up sheets and clothes. I started to think about a new quilt – a fidget quilt for something to do with those hands.

Now I spend part of my time in Canberra and I work fulltime. My wonderful mother and her husband have adopted Leona as a friend, and visit her most weeks too. My mum has spent her life working in early childhood, and in the latter half of her career with young disabled children. It has given her wonderful insight into child development, developmental psychology and disability. She was quickly on board with the idea of a fiddle quilt, and after a few discussions about what and how, she undertook to make the quilt! The result is wonderful, as that lifelong crafting skill came together with an understanding of diversional therapy and supporting people with special needs!

The quilt is made from a pillow case and scraps! The idea is a nature scene and features a zip up log (with snake inside), a nest with crocheted bird and a hollow with crocheted mouse (made from The Yarn Bar’s Kilcarra Tweed). The really clever part of the quilt is the leaves and tabs that can be picked at and fiddled with. I’ve seen other fiddle quilts online and they come in a variety of patterns and designs and I would recommend anyone planning to make one really just focus on the recipient, what they are doing with their hands, what they can see and what is familiar. Mum thought to add crinkly plastic in some of the leaves for texture and sound (like baby toys) but she couldn’t find the right plastic!


I know for some dementia suffers, the simple act of holding and unwinding the yarn while their loved one knits can be engaging. Perhaps for those who are still mobile an apron with things in pockets and textures on the apron. I guess you can just try these things and see if you can create something that brings some small joy or comfort each time.

For all the heartache this disease has brought, it has also been a chance for my mum and I to work and share together. Maybe it is also a reminder of how precious family and life are and how fleeting each stage of life can be.

I would love to hear other people’s experience of crafting something for their loved one with dementia or perhaps another mental illness or other debilitating disease. I’m always looking for new ideas.

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