What I did in the holidays

My list, made on the last day of the old term, mainly involved the garden. There was so much weeding to be done that I divided it over eight days, adding some planting or potting on to add interest, and, with a little help from everyone in the house, we did it. Fliss and I sowed dozens of seeds. John lifted a lot of edging that the nettles had got under, threatening to overrun my patch, and relaid them with a thick layer of cardboard underneath. Ben mowed the lawn, twice, and spread compost on all the beds. Seb and Ilse started a herbal remedies company, the main ingredients of which appeared to be nettles and dandelion roots, so I gave them couple of trowels and lots of encouragement. Perhaps best of all was when I came in from the garden last Tuesday, dirty and tired, to find that my very favourite dining establishment, Cafe Magnifico, was open for business. There were bluebells on each plate and Easter chocolates for dessert, and although the two charming proprietresses looked familiar they assured me we’d never met before. It stayed open that whole second week when John was back at work and I was pushing myself to get through my list, serving luncheon every day and even taking care of the washing up.

My only other real goal was to finish my cardigan in time for Easter which I did – in plenty of time and on Shell Island, in fact. I cast on for a pair of socks and got as far as turning the heel, knitting in the evenings. As it was all going so well I added some more to the list: to wash the fleece and a half that had been languishing in the shed since autumn, and to piece all eighty nine-patch squares for Ilse’s quilt. I did both, and what began as a session where Ilse and I laid out the squares on Sunday afternoon became a game for the whole family, moving things around, swapping one square with another to spread the colours out more evenly. I could – perhaps should – have retained more control of it, but it is just a little girl’s quilt after all, and they had so much fun. I glanced at it briefly once they were all in bed and it looked all right to me, so it’s all packed up in that order, ready to be sewn together this week.

When people ask what we did in the holidays I tell them we went camping in Wales, which we did, and we had a lovely time. There were day trips too, and lots of lazy days in the house and garden for the children, reading books and making potions. We had a glorious Easter lunch with Mother and Father, and Mother outdid herself once more, producing a simnel cake when we had just about recovered from the previous three courses. And there was time for resting in the sunshine by day, and by the fire in the evenings.

Yet Easter always feels like a turning point, however early or late it falls, and this is the holiday in which I end up doing most. Now that term is back in swing, it feels good to have new projects and new rhythms on the go. More time in the garden. The end of a quilt top within sight. Daily spinning while the supper cooks. If I hadn’t worked so hard during the holidays none of this would be possible. And it isn’t work, really – not if you choose to do it. It’s just another type of play. So that’s what I did in my holidays. I played, hard.

A day dress

It isn’t often that I make an adult dress from start to finish in a single day. Normally I break it into little chunks: drafting the pattern, cutting out and so forth, and spread it over three or four. For a long time there hasn’t been enough space between meals and laundry and the million other tasks that all parents know so well.

However, I’d promised myself that I’d finish all the garment sewing by the end of March, and on the first of April the fabric I’d ordered some weeks earlier was still waiting, washed and ready, for my attention. I told them all at breakfast: Today I am sewing a dress, divided the tasks into the spaces between meals, and began.

By elevenses an old pattern was modified and the pieces cut out. I sewed the preparatory bits and pieces between then and lunch: a self-fabric belt, darts, long tubes for straps pulled inside out, and even tinier tubes to snip into matching button-loops. Then, in the space between lunch and tea I put it all together: the quarter circle skirt, the three piece bodice, the straps and button-loops attached in just the right positions. John helped me drape it on myself, marking adjustments with coloured chalk and getting the row of buttons central down my back. And finally, after tea and cake, it was time to hand-sew the hem and stitch seven mother-of-pearl buttons into place. I was done in time for supper, only one day late, with another project off the shelf and into my wardrobe.

It’s not a fancy dress at all, just a day dress, with crossover spaghetti-thin straps and a row of dainty buttons down the back. It’s got a modest circular skirt, only as wide as an A-line but without the darts and with plenty of bias drape. The bodice is fitted but not tight – even at the post-tea fitting there was room around the waist – with a wide belt to cinch it all in should the desire arise. And the Indian chintz makes me think of the bleaching midday sun, and parasols, and heat, and dust. Exotic things. Summer things.

I hope we get the weather for it this year. I’ve lined it throughout, just in case, to add a little warmth (and modesty) to that fine, pale-coloured fabric. It ought to be warm enough for high noon, and I’ve a cardigan nearly off the needles to pair with it morning and evening. It is a day dress, after all. A summer’s day, hot day, holiday sort of dress.

For romping

Ever since Ilse got her mermaid romper last year, Fliss has been angling for one. I don’t blame her: were I not absolutely sure that 38 is too old for such a garment, I’d be wearing one already. It’s sweet and comfy, cool in the summer and made snug in the autumn and spring with the addition of woollen stockings and a hand knit cardigan. Who wouldn’t want one? So I let her choose a yard of floral tana lawn a few weeks ago and, Saga dress complete, I made this for her the very next day.

Oh, to be fifteen with the summer stretching before you! Old enough to stretch those legs of hers unaccompanied, young enough to dress them in something simple and naive. I wasn’t sure about her choice of fabric when it came off the bolt but as soon as I cut into it I knew that she was right. It just sings summer and sunshine and fun. It’s perfect for bike rides and picnics and trips to the sea, or camping, or berrying, or forays to the shops. It’s a million miles from her summer school uniform, all gingham and knee socks and straw hats, and just perfect for lazy days at home.

Spring is hopping and skipping its way towards us (and sometimes tripping over too, resulting in some wet and windy days), so Ben obliged me by giving the lawn its first rough cut on Saturday afternoon. Those funny hens followed him around, dancing about in their excitement as they searched out things to eat in the new-shorn grass. It’s bumpy and muddy and full of clover and worms, our lawn. It has holes dug by hens and chipped out by hockey sticks, and makes for some funny bounces come French cricket season. It’s not the easiest job, getting over that terrain with our old push mower, and I’m grateful that he does it without complaint. I thought a slice of cake might be in order, by way of a thank you, and when we finished at about the same time, he and I, Fliss slipped out in her romper to take it to him.

From beneath my many woollen layers I shuddered to see her out there in nothing but cotton lawn, but something caught my eye. Seeing her outfit against the grass, I couldn’t help but notice that they had a unifying purpose. Despite their many varied other uses, both were made for romping. Which, in my humble opinion at least, is a vital part of any childhood summer.

The saga dress

So here it is: the very last piece of uncut fabric pulled from my shelf and turned into its intention. Dressmaking teleology in action. How very satisfying that is.

The end product, that is. It was not the most satisfying sew for much of its construction. I’d started casting about for ideas as early as Boxing Day, having received the wool as a Christmas surprise from John’s mother. This picture has been held between the leaves of my notebook for some time, and every so often I would pore over it, trying to work out the details of its construction amid the crisscrossing lines of plaid. Finally, on a Friday evening, I drafted a pattern from my block and cut the pieces out. It should be done by Saturday evening, I calculated wildly, and ready to wear on Sunday morning. I had everything I needed: wool and lining cut, plenty of coordinating thread. Then I woke on Saturday morning tired and grumpy and convinced that it needed a little something extra, to lift it and make it special.

I won’t bore you with any more details of this particular saga. Suffice to say I have a valliant husband who rode off into York to buy the ribbon while I sewed, yet came back empty handed. Allow me to hint at the pitfalls of trying to pattern match a large check for a dress which left only the tiniest of scraps. By Saturday night the dress was not complete. I had darted the woollen pieces and tried to pleat the front with varying degrees of accuracy. Sunday afternoon was spent unpicking the wobbliest of the lines while Seb held his electric torch to help me separate thread from weave. In the end, I had to accept those pleats for what they were, with no small feelings of frustration. Then the neckline wouldn’t lie flat, and had to be sewn three times. I still needed to find some trim. I trust you understand.

But then, barely an hour later, it had come together and I discovered how much I loved it. I love how the pleating of the bodice falls open into a generous skirt. I love the long sleeves, rolled down for warmth or up for a touch more style. I love the deep soft pockets, designed solely for the purpose of warming my hands. And I love the darts and shaping at the back, turning what could be shapeless into a dress with a definite line, yet still loose and comfortable and easy. I waited two weeks for the velvet ribbon I had ordered to come into the shop, but it was worth it. Everyone who lives in a cold climate should have a dress like this. It is essentially a blanket, lined and fitted round your body. Ilse keeps sidling up and slipping her hands into my pockets to warm them through, and I can’t blame her. I’d do the same, if I were her. In fact, I might have to make she and Fliss such a dress each, next winter.

Most of all, though, I like the unfussy, folksy look of this dress. It is the type of dress I imagine women might have worn in rural homes before fashion became so ubiquitous. Or perhaps this simply was the fashion, once upon a time – not this, exactly, but something of this ilk. Something practical and beautiful all at once, something which is first and foremost just a lovely thing to wear. I can imagine women telling stories, in dresses quite like this, around fires in northern longhouses. Sagas, of men and monsters who meet their rightful ends. Which is why I’ve named this dress the saga dress, rather than focusing on its own rather trying story. Like the best sagas though, this one had a happy ending, and I have hardly taken it off since.

Working through the pile

There has been a lot of sewing of late. A lot of thinking about sewing, a lot of talking about sewing (sorry, John) and a lot of actual sewing. I’ve nearly worked my way through all the bigger projects-in-waiting on my shelves, and it feels wonderful to have them out of my head and into our lives.

Exhibit one is a Thai silk cocktail dress. Father bought the fabric for me as a gift over ten years ago, and in its first incarnation it was a tea dress, drafted by my own fair hand before I had much experience with such things. Consequently it didn’t fit all that well, and spent most of its time as a glorified skirt, the too-large top covered up with a cardigan. Too lovely to give away, it has sat on my fabric pile for years and been overlooked every time I’ve gone to make something, but a week or two ago I unpicked the bodice from the skirt, removed the sleeves, turned the back into the front and spent some time with a lot of pins in front of the mirror et voila! A party dress is born. I had meant it for me, but Fliss is already making noises. Perhaps we’ll share it, turn and turn about. It may as well be worn.

Also frightening me was a lovely length of Liberty lawn in browns and greens and pinks and purples. John’s mother gave it to me last summer, and the combination of its loveliness and the fact that she’d stored it away for years made cutting into it slightly daunting. Spurred on by my last Liberty success (and Eternal Sewing Optimism) I drafted a boxy pattern inspired by one I’d admired from afar, with a two inch Peter Pan collar. I like the resulting blouse very much indeed. I like it, loose and comfortable, over a pair of slacks. I like it tucked into the high-waisted skirt I made last autumn. And I like how the green of the piping turns it into a brown-and-green blouse, when it could so easily have been brown-and-purple or brown-and-pink instead. Little details make such a difference.

Then there were a couple of simpler projects – Ilse’s eiderdown and a soft carrying case for my flute – as well as my other Liberty blouse and those underthings. Finally there is just one project left on that shelf: a length of soft woven wool which will become a dress shortly.

I’ve come to realise that this is how I like things to be. When I started to sew I dreamed of having a shelf full of fabrics. What fun it would be to run my hands over the piles and choose just the perfect cloth for whatever I wanted to make that day. Over time a little collection did build up – old curtains and sheets and garments to be reused, as well as purchases and gifts. But contrary to my expectations I didn’t feel a creative freedom when I looked into that cupboard. Instead I felt a sense of obligation: all those fabrics lying dormant, just waiting to be put to use. I liked them all, and enjoyed sewing with them, but they dictated what I could sew, rather than the other way around. Sometimes that’s great fun: I love receiving a gift of fabric and deciding what it will become. I love using up all of my scraps, each January, and setting the right ones aside to grow into a quilt. What I don’t particularly like, though, is that feeling of having lots of older things to sew before I can get to my latest idea.

So what I hanker after now is just the next project on the shelf. One length of fabric, ready and waiting. Some matching thread and a small selection of buttons and ribbon and other notions. A pile of scraps to be used when the fancy strikes, then obliterated each January. Another pile, carefully edited and cut, which will one day be a quilt.

I’m very nearly there. Of course, there will always be an ebb and flow as wardrobes are tidied twice a year and old clothing relegated to the pile, or when somebody makes me an unexpected but very, very welcome present of something crafty, or when I get carried away on a trip to a jumble sale, or London. I was trying to explain this to Ilse, who has been hoarding the pretty set of fabrics we gave her with her sewing kit for Christmas. Use it while you love it, and while it is still exciting and a little bit scary to cut into, because that means that it’s still precious.

Of course I know that other people, many far more serious and accomplished sewers than I, would balk at my approach, and rightly so. It wouldn’t suit them at all. My approach is just that – my approach – and it leaves me excited and full of ideas and motivated to sew, which is surely the whole point.

Eternal optimism

Ilse set out to make herself a pair of ball gloves this morning. You know the sort: white satin, elbow length, wrinkle free. They were the culmination of her half term holiday full of sewing. I had begun to wonder whether she’d ever start to use the box we’d put together for her for Christmas but one day she dove in and there was no stopping her. How lovely to have your own kit, complete with scissors and thread and a bundle of pretty fabrics. I’m so pleased that she agrees.

I’m also delighted by her sewing optimism. Seriously, she thinks she can make anything, and the truth is that she’s usually right. I didn’t know how she was going to make a pair of trousers for Little Ted out of Ben’s holey old socks, but she did. By the time she asked me to draw around her right hand, up to the elbow, I knew better than to question her, even though she later dropped the scheme in favour of washing the motor with John. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a bucket of suds.

But really, in this house optimism is key when it comes to sewing projects. And not just for eight year olds; I need a healthy dose as much as they do. After all, you wouldn’t catch me starting on a dress I felt was doomed to failure. Every single item I embark on is going to be beautifully fitted, finished and fit for purpose. This doesn’t always bear very much resemblance to reality. Sometimes things veer off in unexpected directions, such as the scrap bag, although this hasn’t happened for quite some time now. Still, after all these years of stitching, none of the clothes I’ve made have every turned out perfectly. I know all of their little flaws, and though I despair of them at first, in time they become just another quirk of the garment, and for that I forgive them.

I traced a pattern off an old blouse recently, picking the blue silk apart at the seams and laying it out on the bias, as is so fashionable just now. Honestly, only a few years ago everything was cut as straight as straight can be, and bodies squashed flat towards androgynousness. Here in 1932 curves are all the rage, and I loved my old blouse which clung and floated in all the right places. When the silk went bobbly and began to fade I knew I wanted another just like it, and so I made one in a light Liberty lawn, ready for the impending spring. Needless to say, it isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. I shan’t tell you what’s wrong with it, because once I do, that’s all you’ll be able to see.

And that old blue silk? Well, that inspired some deeply uncharacteristic behaviour in me, using it to create a wearable toile for a set of, ahem, underthings. A toile isn’t the most optimistic choice, but when it comes to precision sewing it is the sensible one. I did, of course, expect them to be wearable and I can confirm that they most gloriously, comfortably are. I’ll certainly be buying some pretty new fabric for my next attempt.

In the meantime, the optimism continues, as I draft a new and untested pattern for each garment in the pipeline. Because that’s where the fun is. In holding your breath that things will work out and secretly, privately, knowing that they will.

On Liberty, and love

Whatever happens, people will always want chocolate. As a result, we’ve been largely untouched by the depression. The chocolate industry, and John’s role in it, have grown rather than shrunk over the past decade or so. All those Kitkats and Aeros have kept a comfortable roof over our heads and good food on the table. And although I am careful with my spending, I can afford to treat myself to a Liberty print now and again.

It’s easy to be happy, when everything is going well. My day yesterday consisted largely of taking apart a well loved and washed out blouse to trace a pattern from it, before putting the navy silk aside for other purposes. I arranged the pattern pieces on the bias and began to cut everything out, pot of tea on the table, wireless on in the background. After a while the news came on, and with it people who were so sure that they were right that they never even paused to hear the other side speak.

It was at this point that I discovered I’d cut two identical sleeve pieces, which was a mistake, as they ought to be mirror images of one another. The whole blouse had been a bit of a squeeze, really, and to my dismay there wasn’t a scrap left large enough to cut another piece. So I stitched three pieces together with careful French seams which should be reasonably well hidden under my left arm. Far from perfect, but far from a disaster, either. These things happen. I don’t think I’ll make that particular mistake again, for a while at least.

Had it been a cheaper, less nice fabric I might not have bothered. I might have cut it down at once into a blouse for Fliss or Ilse, and pretended I’d never gone wrong. But I love Liberty too much to let it go.

And besides, we do go wrong, sometimes. But rarely so far wrong that a little love and care can’t put it right. I can’t help thinking that we could do with a little more love all around, at the moment. A touch of understanding and patience for angry people. A dash of agape, of wishing the best for everyone, including those we might disagree with. Perhaps especially for those who are unhappy. Now there’s a challenge for me, far greater than a spot of dressmaking. And although it is hardly an original thought, it’s a pretty important one, here in 1932.


Although there was ice in the hens’ water, my six middle-aged ladies had laid another five eggs today: a sure sign that spring is on the way. Unlike me, the hens and other animals aren’t fooled by a sudden cold snap. They watch the sunlit hours grow longer, and know that the time has come to make haste for spring.

There is so much to do before the good weather arrives, both inside and out. As a matter of fact, I’m inclined to ignore the ‘outside’ part of the equation and focus on finishing the indoor tasks before I am out in the garden every day, pulling weeds and planting tiny little seeds in the warming soil. Despite the fact that I have been diligently sewing for weeks now, I’ve made very little progress on items for our family. Cards and presents, yes. Costumes for the show, yes. A cardigan for Mrs Eve, and some lovely socks for Mother, yes indeed. But not a lot for the people who live in our house.

So it was that I spent Sunday finishing off a quick project I’d started the previous week: re-covering Ilse’s tatty old eiderdown. I’ve been dithering about this for ages – which fabrics to use, how to go about it, whether I’d be able to hand quilt through a layer of fluffy feathers. In the end, all my questions answered themselves. The blue fabric I bought back in the 1920s, for a dress for myself which never got made because it would have been yet another blue summer dress, and if I’m not careful all my dresses are blue. I’ve had to resist blue again for this spring, but I think I’ve found the fabric I want to wear this summer. The other fabric, the brown and cream, was an old linen curtain which didn’t fit any of our windows in this house, so I unpicked the tape and lining and found there was just enough. It only took an hour or so to sew them together with a bit of bright pink piping and stuff the old eiderdown inside.

It turned out that I couldn’t hand quilt all those feathery layers, and have newfound admiration for those who can. My stitches were uneven and I couldn’t get the fluffy layers to lie flat enough to avoid puckering the back. After a couple of feet I ripped it out and opted to tie it all together instead, and Ilse found some embroidery silk to match the piping in her Christmas sewing kit. In no time it was done and on her bed, and I love the pink ties against the brown of the flowers and vines. Things do have a way of working themselves out. It sat atop her blankets and quilt just in time for the hard frost of last night and the misty start to this morning.

Oh, there is still so much to be done, but it is a good sort of hurrying at this time of year. Racing against the arrival of the spring is the best way I know to cope with the final weeks of cold and dark and damp: making them precious, making them count. I need at least another seven or eight weeks of inclement weather if I’m to sew all those dresses and other summery things in time. I’ve another whole cardigan to cast on for, even, before I give up on big knits for the season. Stay with us, winter, just a little longer. I’m not tired yet of knitting by the fire or taking my latest creation along to Mrs Thistlebear’s winter parties. I’m hurrying, but in the nicest possible way. After all, the only thing that can beat me is the spring, so whoever wins I’ll be happy.

Show week

Oh Mummy, aren’t you EXCITED? whispered Ilse, slipping into bed with me this morning. It took a moment for me to wake up and realise what she was talking about. This week is Show Week: tutus, makeup, jazz shoes, waistcoats, new satin ballet slippers, tap dancing jockeys – the works. This is the week they get to go on a real stage, in a real theatre, and show everyone how well they can dance. Who wouldn’t be excited?

They’ve been working for this for a long, long time. Show week comes but every other year, in between exams for which the syllabus must be perfected, and I’m not sure which my children enjoy more. What with the fact that everyone is involved in the show, the levels of adrenaline reach new heights at show time. There are top secret dances which are only whispered about amongst the children, and quick costume changes to be rehearsed. And while exams call for new socks and shoes and leotards, the show requires a whole other level of pizzazz. There’s a fuchsia tutu with Fliss’ name sewn in, and the most beautiful handmade peonies pinned onto the waist and hair. I know they must have taken the mother who made them hours and hours, and they will be taken off and treasured long after the tutu has been outgrown. There’s a white satin waistcoat, fluttering with feathers at the neckline for my dove, Seb, and the other boy in his class, stitched by me, with winglike epaulets painstakingly put together by Mrs Roberts. She’s made a hopping, leaping knot of frogs too, with webbed hands and feet and shimmering wet splotches on their waistcoats, and a party of elves to dance amongst the peonies. One of the grannies has created a classfull of tippety tapping penguins, with little dickie bows and white bibs over their black catsuits, and when Ilse tried hers on and did a funny little penguin waddle round the room it made up for the hours of careful sewing.

Because there have been hours of sewing, all around, with people helping each other, sharing their skills and time. I helped Mrs Roberts with some waistcoats; she made goodness knows how many epaulets as well as tails for the flock of girl doves. In the changing room, parents are showing one another how to stitch a flower, or a feather, or a name tag to an outfit. Tips are being swapped for getting those satin slippers light pink again instead of grey, and how to keep them clean (rugby socks over the top, backstage, I hear). And there’s still all the chaperoning to be done, and the ferrying to and fro, and the waiting outside the stage door for the technical rehearsal to be done.

But watching Ilse hugging herself with the thrill of it all made it worth every single moment. Come next Sunday, she’ll be in an exhausted, exhilarated little heap. I suspect the others will, too. Between now and then, though, there’s magic to be lived. It’s finally, wonderfully, ecstatically here. Show week.


I can scarcely believe that more than half of January has slipped by already. What with Mrs P’s convalescence (she is getting a little stronger every day – thank you for asking) on top of the usual hurly burly of family life, the days are flying by in a blur of laundry and cooking, ironing and cleaning, music practice, gardening and errands. And somehow, in the brief moments between all that there is time to help finish a jigsaw, and read a bedtime story, and admire Ilse’s drawings.

I suspect you know by now that I don’t like waste or other unloved leftovers. When the remains of last year’s stitching is waiting in the upstairs cupboard I simply cannot bring myself to buy new fabric for next season’s clothes, and so, in January, I use up every last little snippet. After all the gifts have been made for the coming birthday season, and a quilt pattern decided upon to use up the rest, there are still odd scraps left over when all those two and three inch strips have been cut out.

Last year I cut my quilt fabric in the summer, and in September used those crumbs to make a runner for the kitchen table. This year I settled upon cards, and bought several sheets in various pastel shades to stitch my snippets to. There wasn’t much of a plan, beyond using every last little bit, beginning with the largest. Thus apples and pears gave way to tulips and fir trees, which in their turn moved over to leave the final sheets of card to those scraps tiny, skinny or insubstantial enough to only be good for bunting or crazy quilting. Forty six cards later it was done, and every friend and family member has one ready and waiting with their name pencilled lightly on the back. The boys did raise an eyebrow (and question my sanity) when they found me making Christmas cards in January – and this January in particular – but I have to admit that I found the whole process immensely satisfying and incredibly soothing. Having a shelf full of cards and presents for the year ahead does not make the world a better place – of course not. But it is much more pleasing than a tangled mess of unravelling fabric stuffed into a paper bag.

This done, I embarked on some new yardage this afternoon: white satin ballet outfits for Seb and the other boy in his class to wear for their upcoming show. Not my favourite kind of sewing, to be truthful, but good to have underway. And then? Well, suffice to say that some new fabrics made their way into the weekly wash today.

Hopefully it’ll only take a moment to pull out each card before sending it off to each person on their special day. And, hopefully, there are enough cards without names on the back for all those other people I’m bound to want to send one to as the year goes on – a thank you for a Sunday lunch, an invitation to a party, or a welcome-to-the-world for a brand new baby. Oddly, there’s never enough time to make a single card when you want it. But when it comes to making them in bulk, they fit themselves neatly into little snippets of time here and there.