Introducing my sewing pattern project

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been learning to make my own patterns. It all started when Seb and Ilse were tiny and I was at home, looking after the children full time. I’d bought a sewing machine to make some curtains for our new home and thought I may as well have a go at making myself some clothes as well.

I did use a couple of commercial patterns, early on, but not many. They were never quite what I wanted. I’d have an idea of what I wanted to make and then spend ages poring over the catalogues, unable to find the matching pattern. So I stuck to simple shapes: A-line skirts and sundresses that I drafted for myself and made out of old sheets and charity shop finds. Sewing quickly turned into an inexpensive hobby for me, perfect for filling wintry nap-times. I could have been so bored during those three years at home, but learning a new skill helped to keep my mind active and engaged. (In fact, I also relearned how to knit during those years, and drafted two novels, and started growing vegetables. Apparently I like to be doing…)

The lightbulb moment came in York Central Library (as it was) one sunny June day. I adore libraries. The fact that anyone – anyone! – can just walk in and immerse themselves in books is one of the most wonderful gifts society can give its members. There I was, browsing the craft section, when I came across an old edition of Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear. I’d never heard of it – I am entirely self-taught and my degree in Philosophy was a million miles from this new enthusiasm. But as I flicked through its pages, something clicked, and I suddenly realised that here, in my hands, was the key to making anything I wanted.

Having seen me renew the book umpteen times, John bought me a copy for Christmas, and I’ve not bought a pattern since. That’s probably not the most sensible thing to tell you, given that I’m hoping to sell my patterns through this space. But I know that those who will want to draft their own patterns will do just that, whatever I say, and those who don’t, won’t. Not everyone likes the maths and the technical drawings, the measuring and imagining of three-dimensional alterations to a block. I really do. I love the puzzle of it, working out how to translate the item in my head into a two dimensional diagram, then back again. It’s just another form of problem-solving, made all the more fun by fabric and print and finishes.

So over the past few weeks I’ve been taking some of my oldest and simplest patterns, and recreating them for sale. Without exception, they have been chosen because they fulfil two criteria. First, they are items that I’ve made over and again, because they are good-looking and easy to wear. Secondly, they are simple enough for the novice or returning dressmaker to create. Over the years, I’ve made several more complex patterns, but the ones I’m going to release first are the simple ones.

I thought it might be interesting for people to have an idea of what the process of creating a sewing pattern is like, so I’ve taken some pictures along the way. Of course, I’ve tested and worn all of these garments, so what I’m really doing at the moment isn’t creating new patterns, but just formalising and grading some of my old favourites.

The first thing I do is create a size 12 (US size 10, European size 40) block. This is the basic shape of a type of garment – a tailored skirt, for instance. You use a chart of standard measurements and follow a series of instructions to get a life size block in that size. The reason you start with a size 12 block for graded patterns is that it is the middle size (for my patterns, anyway) so that there is greater accuracy as you grade up and down from it.

Next, you trace the block off and manipulate it until it stops being a generic shape and takes on the form of the garment you want to create. Here, you can see that I’ve cut the tracing open to introduce more flare into the skirt, and moved the darts. You then trace this onto pattern paper. If you were making the pattern in just one size, you would stop here.

However, I’m making the patterns available in five sizes, which means grading them up and down from the size 12. There are several ways to do this. I use the cut and spread method, which means cutting up your pattern along certain lines and spreading it out before sticking it down and tracing it off again. For example, a size 14 waist is 4 cm larger than a size 12, so I have to work out how much to spread each of the vertical lines on the pattern to make the overall garment 4 cm bigger in that direction. It is both incredibly simple and breathtakingly effective.

 

Finally, you have to mark the pattern pieces with their names, grainline, position of pleats or buttons and so forth, before writing up a set of instructions to accompany it. In this form, the pattern can be used as it is. However, I’m going to release one each month from September (starting with a couple of free ones) and create video tutorials and photographs to help people along. I’m also going to host a Q&A page and a link up for everyone to share their finished garments, and will of course answer emails from anyone who needs a little extra help.

The truth is that garment making is one of those things that baffles lots of people for no good reason. It’s just a skill, like anything else. People used to make their own clothes all the time – it wasn’t seen as anything special. What I really want to do, more than anything, is demystify the process and, over the course of a few years, enable others to make the same journey that I did, from complete beginner to someone who sees an item of clothing and can go home and make one for themselves.

Madeleine

PS – Of course, this is just the process for the sewing patterns. Writing knitting  patterns is different, but equally satisfying. Can you knit and/ or sew? Do you make garments for yourself? If not, what would encourage you to get started?

Waterlog

Each time of year has its antidote. In the dull damp cold of January it is whisperings of spring, of gardens awakening. In October it is tales of cosiness to come, with cold toes and shortened evenings pushed firmly to the margins. In July, it is water, and nature, and calm.

This time of year inevitably builds to a frenzy, with end of year assemblies, visit days to new schools, sports days, school plays, music concerts, holiday planning, and social visits that somehow didn’t happen earlier in the year. People are coming and going from the house at all sorts of strange times, for the day, or a night, or a couple of weeks in France. There are invitations to field and fit, like temporal tetras, into the family calendar. On top of that, I’ve been working full time, coupling my days at work with my own project at home – the beginnings of my business and rebirth of this blog – so that the usual rhythms of July days at home have been reassigned to the busy hours which bookend my working days.

While my days at home are spent writing and drafting paper sewing patterns, I’ve saved my knitting for the evenings. After a day bent over the dining table, measuring and drawing and doing sums, it is a joy to sit on the sofa in the kitchen and watch the chickens make their evening rounds while I add a few rows to my design. In all, I’m pulling together five sewing, four knitting and one embroidery project together for my first pattern collection. The idea is that I’ll release one a month, and support each with video tutorials, link ups and FAQs. This first year of projects is designed to help new sewers and knitters build both a capsule wardrobe and a repertoire of key skills at the same time, so that they can make clothes which are both achievable and beautiful.

Of course, the simpler something is, the more work goes into making it so. The little cast on of green is the beginning of a doll-sized shawl, one fifth the size of the actual design. I had started the real thing before deciding to test my pattern in a smaller format, to save time in case it didn’t turn out as I wanted it to – it’s going to be a crescent shawl with exceptionally simple shaping, and I’ve not seen one like it before. Should it work – and I think it will – the practice shawl will be a gift for Ilse, to wrap around her toy kitty.

Now that I’ve calculated the arcs and angles and figured out my gauge, I’ll have the pleasure of knitting through this little shawl over the next few evenings, Wimbledon on in the background, until it’s time for bed. But the tireder I get, the harder it is to sleep. I find this every year in July: there is so much to think about and do, so many decisions to make and hot stuffy days at work that it is hard to put my mind at rest. I have a little repertoire of antidotes, for this. The pre-sleep knitting helps, even if it’s just a few rows. This weekend I will bring in the lavender, which I’ll hang from our wooden ceiling airers and we will all drop off the moment our heads hit our pillows, lulled by its soporific scent. Most effective of all, though, is reading.

I always read before I go to sleep, but the book I find myself returning to again and again in these tricky July days is Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I tend to dip in and out of it, paddling randomly in and out of his outdoor swimming journey around Britain. There is something immensely soothing about nature writing. Reading it is like going home, or being hugged, or perhaps it is simply the literary equivalent of a long walk through green fields. Simple tales about what is both extraordinary and what has always been: training a hawk; courting hares; wild swimming through Britain’s landscape. These are the books that I fall asleep in, their cool waters closing over my head until I am a water baby myself, dreaming of clean skin and cool pastures.

When I opened this book, last week, I found a feather inside, bookmarking the middle of a chapter. I must have broken off, halfway through a bathe in its refreshing pages. I picked another and started to read, until sweet sleep overtook me and before I knew it, a new day had dawned.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

PS – What is July normally like, for you? I suspect that it varies tremendously, depending on whether you have children and whether they are still waiting to break up for the summer holidays.

Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.

Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.

Bronte country

Can you remember how old you were when you first read Jane Eyre? I can. I was ten, and my grandad had given me a set of all three Bronte classics for Christmas just a fortnight earlier. Fliss has read it, of course, and Ilse knows it from a wireless adaptation, and I’m sure Ben must have read it though he claims no recollection. Seb was the least thrilled when I announced that our half term day out was to be at Haworth, visiting the village and the moors but, most importantly of all, the Bronte Parsonage.

It’s hard not to think of it as a sad house, especially as the first death, that of their mother, occurred very soon after moving in. Then were the deaths of the two eldest children, both girls, both of tuberculosis contracted at school. Then later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, and finally Charlotte, a few years later, the longest lived of all the children, aged only 38. Imagine, to have all six children and your wife to survive childbirth and infancy only to lose them all, one by one, until you were alone again. No wonder the house feels sad.

And yet there must have been a lot of fun in it, between times. There was an awful lot of life to be lived between each of those deaths, and you can’t help but come away with a sense that those girls made the very most of what they had. Their home is bursting with their sketches, embroidery, tiny childhood manuscripts, family newsletters and the like. It is a house full of industrious play – the sort of play that Emily and Anne and Charlotte never really grew out of, channelling it into their novels instead.

They played on the moors, too, just a short walk out of the village, and when we visited it was the hottest day of the year so far and everything was blooming. Fliss even complained of the lack of bleakness. Everywhere were flowers: buttercups, umbellifers, rhododendrons and forget-me-nots. We sat on a great slab of stone and looked out over it all, from the vibrant moor to the blasted hillsides and the grey stone village nesting in between, and had to be quiet so that Ilse could be inspired. She’s started a new novel: The Return of Wuthering Heights. I think there are a lot of ghosts in it, because later that night she came into our room with a nightmare, too scared to go back to sleep in the dark. There were fingers scratching at her window, even after I assured her that it was only Humbug the hamster’s squeaky wheel.

And now our copies of those novels are off the shelf and to be found on beds and garden benches. There are lots of discussions about which is everyone’s favourite, and why. It’s Wuthering Heights for me, in case you’re curious. Because of the sympathy between people and place, and the blurring of lines between the past and the present, the dead and the living. It embodies everything I think I know about the Brontes, and the lives they lead, and the place they came from. In fact, they are so strongly associated with Haworth and the moors above it that its new name seems entirely appropriate, and not a mere anachronism: Bronte country.