Am I more eager than ever for spring, this year? Perhaps. I scrutinise the garden for signs of life. I note when the sun goes down, later and later. I am getting tired of the same old pullovers, the same old skirts. And yet it’s only February, and much as I would love March to be spring it isn’t, really. Spring begins in April, and takes hold in May. Every year I have to relearn this lesson in patience. To not be disheartened when the mercury drops again after a few warm days. To not expect sunny skies, just yet.
Good things come out of impatience. The spring sewing is well underway, and my peonies dress hangs, ready and waiting, in the wardrobe. The day after I finished it I was stirring the porridge in my blue wool skirt, calling the children to their breakfast. Ilse came running in and stopped short when she saw me. Why aren’t you wearing your new dress? It’s my dress for spring, I told her. For when the sun is shining.
I don’t think I’ve ever finished anything this far in advance. Normally I sew for the children first, putting off the more fiddly tasks of darts and fitted waists until the weather has changed and I don’t have enough to wear. Normally I would be wearing something new the day after completing it. Enjoying glancing in the hall mirror every time I wander past. Getting used to this new skin, until I put it on without looking once at it, all day. Until it has become part of me.
Instead, I am looking forward to wearing it. Looking forward to how I’ll be, when I am wearing peonies. A little more feminine, perhaps, but still happy to weed a bed or shoo the hens into their house. Practical and purposeful, in short sleeves and a comfortably fitted bodice. Able to bend over the sink, or a bed for a good night kiss. Soft enough for cuddling, and crisp enough to cycle into York and meet John for a picnic lunch, on a rug in the shade of the minster.
It isn’t how you look in a garment that matters, but how you feel. It took me a while to work this out, obvious though it is. When I first started to make my own clothes I would gaze at fashion plates, seduced in my teens by straight dropped waists and later by impossibly girdled style lines. I stitched things in silk for summer garden parties, beautiful and barely worn. Sleeves dangled and got in the way, or were too short and left me goose bumped. I would have looked lovely, had I felt it. Instead I felt no more like myself than a child in a party dress, all the fun starched out of the occasion.
Now I plan the other way around. What do I want to feel like, when I am in these clothes of mine? I want to feel lovely, yes, but also able. Able to do all the things I love, and still have a slight twirl to the hem of my skirt. I want to feel free, but structured enough that I don’t need to pull at a neckline or tug at shoulder straps. I want to be able to fling on a cardigan and find the eggs for breakfast, leaving a trail with my wellingtons on the beaded lawn. I want to be able to throw on my pearls and be taken somewhere smart for tea, just John and I. I want to be able to cycle alongside Ilse, to keep her safe. I want to be able to tuck my toes under my skirt in an armchair at the end of the day.
I get a little closer to this, every time. Each spring’s dress is my new favourite, surpassing all the others. I look at the one I am retiring, shapeless and faded. Four years ago that was my favourite, the very best I had ever made. That year I wanted no sleeves; I wanted the sun on my shoulders. I wanted no collar, but a plain neckline easy to change with jewellery. I wanted a ditsy pattern, in blues and whites.
This year I wanted a simple shawl collar, and cap sleeves. A bolder print. A self-fabric belt, to be loosened and pulled in as the occasion demands. The best design yet, I think.
Next year’s dress will be the best, too, and the one after that, and after that. It is a thing no more static than myself. We are not the same people, from one summer to the next, although we might like to think we are. This year I am peonies: a little bit pink. Next year, who knows? I’ll find out when I start stitching.— February 11, 1931