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Mrs Jones, Crafty Maven

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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