Peonies

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.

[whohit]peonies[/whohit]

Sunday’s sewing

As the seasons slip one into the other, our rhythms change. Morning gardening has been replaced by time indoors, chipping away at those bad-weather jobs. These days the garden has a single weekly slot: a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, time enough to plant some fruit bushes or fork over a bed. More often than not it’s Ilse who joins me out there, while the others stay close to the fire with their books and board games, or slave away at prep in the study. Last Saturday she helped me turn a full three cubic yards of dense almost-compost into the next bay, shovelling the brown gold with her seaside spade and gleeful at the thousands of naked wriggling worms. I had a paper bag of sugared almonds in my pocket and fed these to her each time she suggested we were flagging.

If this were spring, Sunday afternoons would be spent in the garden, too. Being winter, though, Sundays are for sewing. For making inroads into serious projects, three or even four hours at a time. For bringing together the cutting out and dart-placing of the odd snatched moment in the week, to form something tangible, something finished.

I’d been looking forward to last Sunday. The plan was to settle myself into the dining room with my sewing machine and the wireless and the tea tray laid for one. I was going to construct a shawl collar for the very first time, and given that I’d drafted the pattern myself, I had no set of instructions to follow. It was to be time to think, with the quiet of a well-known classic serial in the background, and no intrusions of any sort.

I had just laid the pieces out to puzzle over when Ilse’s face appeared around the door, pink-cheeked from walking her doll around the garden. Ooh! she exclaimed in delight. Are we sewing today?

It took some effort of will to smile and take her to choose some fabric from the scrap pile. Can you make something all by yourself? I asked, doubtfully. I really need to concentrate today.

She was so quiet that I almost forgot about her, until she appeared at my elbow with a piece of embroidery for me to tie off. I showed her, again, how to do this for herself. She put her head to one side, thoughtful, and I heard nothing more from her until a request was made for two buttons from the jar, snipped off an old school cardigan. Don’t worry, Mummy, she said, anticipating my concern. Buttons are easy.

There was a long silence then, broken only by Silas Marner in the background and the clackety whirr of my machine. Eventually she reappeared, to ask once more for help. Together, with my sharp dressmaking shears, we snipped armholes into the piece she had been working on, and it was done.

I could describe it as an elongated shawl, made from a bit of old white sheeting. There’s a butterfly on one side, with blue wings and green antennae. It fastens around her doll’s body with two green buttons, held shut by loops haphazardly stitched on with more embroidery silk. The top of the shawl flops down to form a sort of collar, and there isn’t a hem in sight.

I could describe it thus, but I won’t, because that isn’t what it is. It’s a coat for her own baby girl, richly embroidered and beautifully finished, stitched with considerable skill and flair. It made me much, much prouder than my own careful collar. You see, my girl made it all by herself. She can make anything, you know.

[whohit]sundayssewing[/whohit]

Something new

We are each having something new, for spring. As a result, things are shifting and changing around here. The cushions from the kitchen chairs disappeared for a while, then reappeared, clad in new covers. New cottons are unfolded from brown paper packages, and draped over tables and the back of the settee and around Fliss, in front of the mirror after school. She appears in the kitchen while I am peeling potatoes, awkwardly clutching a little pattern of blue spring flowers to her front. May I have this one, Mummy? Once supper is over we sit together at the cleared table, and she describes the type of dress she would like: the collar, the hemline, what sort of sleeves are ‘in’. I make a little sketch and label it, to be sure I know just what she means. I will tweak the waist a little, to flatter her long legs, and set the collar slightly higher so as to frame her face, but otherwise it is a lovely design, and simple enough to make. Then we put it aside and she distracts herself with a book or six during the long wait until it is ready.

The vanishing cushion covers will be a dress for Ilse, and a new shirt for Seb. That fabric, four co-ordinating patterns, was too lovely to cut into last spring. I had ordered it to make things for the children, but cut down some of John’s worn shirts instead, so that by the time it arrived it wasn’t needed. Spread on the kitchen table, fresh from its wrappings, it sang against the apple green cupboard. Fabric isn’t meant to languish in a pile for a year, waiting to be wanted. Instead I folded it carefully, so as not to have to make a cut, and sewed four simple cushions for our chairs. Two more were made from the skirt of an old dress of mine. We’ve enjoyed them all year long, but now they are unpicked and washed again, ready to be made into a pretty frock and a smart new shirt or two.

Even John and Ben are having something fresh to wear to mass on Sundays, and to parties, and for when they want to feel their best. Something simple and straightforward, either made up to a bought pattern or sent to the tailor. Fine shirtweight cottons, in pastel shades of their choosing. And for me there are peonies, pink and faintly fanciful, on a background of blue. Enough blue to be right for me, enough pink to celebrate the spring. A perfect balance.

I know we all see different things when I bring a parcel of fabric home from the shops. I don’t think that Ben or Seb or Ilse see much at all, beyond some tweed or cotton, pretty or otherwise, which may one day reappear on their shelves. Fliss sees something that might just possibly be for her, and a long wait as I work my way through sewing for six. I suspect John simply sees something that brings pleasure to me, which it does. Not the ownership of the material, but the time before me, ready to be filled with planning and drafting and, finally, sewing. I can admire beautiful things in shop windows and walk away, happy to have seen them. But things unmade, unfinished, are another story, just waiting to be written.

It is this whole story that I see, these days, when I unwrap a piece of cloth that I chose so carefully from all those spread on the shop counter. A couple of yards might be, at first, a dress. It might be worn to the church fete, or on a sunny stroll around town. That is all I used to see, when I was Fliss’ age. Now I see around the edges, and into the future, too. No matter how carefully you lay your pattern out there will be scraps, all tricky curves and narrowness. They will be good for appliquéing names onto the front of children’s shoe bags, or snipping tiny hexagons for English paper piecing. There might be a square, large enough for a ladies’ handkerchief. They might sit well alongside other scraps I am saving for a quilt.

One day, three or four or five years from now, I’ll take the dress out of my wardrobe after its long winter rest and see how worn it is around the hem, and how the colours have faded. I’ll cut it up, into a play dress for Ilse, or linings for shoebags, or covers for the cushions which get dragged out to the treehouse. And in time, when Ilse grows still taller or we are past the age of plimsolls, or when there are just too many rips for it to be called a cushion cover any more, I’ll cut it up again. It might be a quilt, this time, for a doll or a friend’s new baby or even a wedding bed. Something old and something new, rolled into one.

A friend came round for tea the other day, bringing her baby, a sweet and clever and smiling boy, and I showed her my Devon quiltI like this square, she said, pointing, as her boy kicked his sturdy little legs on the bed beside it. Thank you, I said.  It was a dress of Fliss’ and before that, John’s shirt. I could see them both in it, lovely with youth and nostalgia. I could see John’s back as he climbed Embsay Cragg, and Fliss, mooching round the house on a wet Saturday, bored until I found her a book to read.

Long after the clothes are worn out, the handkerchiefs left on trams and the quilts reduced to the rags they once were, little scraps remain. There are some from my own childhood, in the dolls’ coverlet made by Mother at the same time as their curtains. There is a bit of a baby dress of Meg’s, in a pinwheel cushion cover which survives on Ilse’s bed. At some point even these will reach the end of their story, and be taken away by the rag and bone man when he comes calling. They will be washed and shredded, used to stuff sofas or the seats of automobiles. Perhaps they will be made into shoddy, bright and affordable. Maybe. And just maybe it will be bought by another woman, wanting to make something new.

[whohit]somethingnew[/whohit]

Alice and I

Holidays really shouldn’t be allowed to come to such abrupt ends. Luckily for me, the village school didn’t reopen until yesterday. On Monday I had one little person still by my side, to ease me back into term.

Looking back, I think we all had exactly the sort of holiday we needed. I know I did. Lazy days, in that we didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. Yet the days were busy, too. Days full of projects and plans, making and doing. Sewing, for me, and plenty of gardening. Knitting in odd moments here and there, which added up to four baby hats and a new dishcloth. For the children there were board games, and long days of make-believe, and reading, and running around out of doors. For John, the pleasure of being at home, snug in the cardigan I knitted him last year, away from worries and work. There were high days, of course, but lots of deliciously ordinary ones too.

Ilse received a beautiful edition of Alice in Wonderland this Christmas. It has coloured illustrations throughout, and gilt-edged pages. She has carried it around with most of her other presents, in her little satchel, and spent hours looking at the pictures and reading bits of it aloud to anyone who’ll listen. She simply makes up any words she can’t decipher – an approach which suits the text admirably. She is bold and inventive, my youngest.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised to be told off numerous times for referring to this little girl by the wrong name. It’s hard to keep up. She’s been Titty for much of the week, and occasionally one of Shackleton’s huskies. But there was no hesitation today. I’m Alice, Mummy. Alice.

Alice, in her blue frock and hair ribbon, helped with the morning chores. She chattered to Mrs P all through the wash, and then to the hens while I cleaned out their house. Finally, while our soup was warming for lunch, we did a quick bit of baking together: the sort of baking Alice would have done in Wonderland had the cook been better tempered.

By the afternoon there was nothing for it but to pull out the sewing machine and make the most of a precious day at home, just Alice and I. I hesitated over a worn sheet, set aside for sashing a quilt. But some moments just beg to be seized; I can source another by next autumn. Together we measured and cut, stitched and hemmed. Alice had a little rest, to look at the pictures in her book and discuss our progress with Dinah. She joined in again for the sewing on of the buttons, and we brushed her hair and retied the ribbon before ceremoniously slipping her arms into her new pinafore and buttoning up the back.

I’ve been meaning to make her one for months – the sort of simple white pinafore I grew up in. It was what all little girls wore, then. Today we made it for Alice, but she can be on the beach with the psammead in it, or waiting for Daddy, her Daddy, in a Yorkshire station. She can be a little princess, sleeping in a cold garret with only the rats for company, or sullen Mary Lennox, learning to skip and laugh and bring gardens back to life. I have a feeling that this pinafore will get an awful lot of wear, by an awful lot of characters. It was satisfying sewing. Not utilitarian in my eyes, but certainly so in hers.

Thus it was an afternoon well spent, for Alice and I. When the big ones tumbled in from school they recognised her immediately, much to her delight. And in turn she delighted them, by serving jam tarts for tea.

[whohit]aliceandi[/whohit]

Winter stitching

In between the decorating and the cooking, the wrapping and the tidying, there has been a flurry of sewing in this house. It had been a slow start to the season, with nothing but a woollen skirt completed until the day Ilse and I sorted the fabrics, but since then I have not stopped.

We finished her quilt first, then mine. There was a rush of pre-Christmas sewing: dolls’ dresses, a hat, an armful of bags, a quilted table runner – all squeezed into odd moments between the festivities. Sometimes I cut the fabric in the evenings and left it out ready for a morning burst, and like the shoemaker I was amazed to see so much come together.

Since Christmas day there has been more rhythm to it. I work at my machine all afternoon until evening comes, then finish each piece, by hand, close to the fire.

I’ve not been alone. Ilse and Seb are by my side more often than not, also stitching. A cross-stitch kit, received on Christmas day. Pouches for treasures old and new. A flag, ready to fly in an island camp for the latest game of let’s pretend.

I love sewing with children. They make whatever their world demands, with confidence and considerable skill, and with none of the doubt of adults. When things don’t go to plan, the plan changes. And no matter how much help they receive, they have always made it all by themselves.

So while they sewed flags and pouches, I worked my way through a pile of offcuts, making shoppers and potholders, pencil cases and peg bags. Even the tiniest scraps were made into bookmarks and little pockets, just waiting to be filled with next summer’s lavender. And despite the odd thing being claimed by someone or other – and who could deny their littlest girl a mummy-made pencil case? – I have a shelf full of presents and empty of remnants.

We are getting back into the swing of it, my machine and I. We are ready now to tackle the next round of sewing: a summer frock for each of the girls and myself, and new shirts for Seb. I have a dress, passed on to me by my friend Miss Stevens, waiting patiently for alterations. There’s a new-to-me chair which needs upholstering. Bigger projects for when the children are back at school, to fill the quiet of the house.

Because this is the time for sewing. For emptying the shelves, ready for new fabrics in the new year. For ensuring that we are all ready for spring, with something fresh and light and floral. I have until April, when the weeds start to overtake my seedlings. When my machine will go to rest in the cupboard for the whole long summer. When the only sewing I might do is by hand on a garden bench, in odd moments of slanting northern sunshine. There are so many other places to be in summer, so many other things to do.

I fastened the last thread on the last gift yesterday evening, and found that I needed to pause. To pause, but not to stop. I took up the seed catalogue instead. I think I’ll spend the day in the garden, today. But I won’t stay out there too long. I’ll be back soon, at my machine, not too far from the warmth of the fire and the explorers’ camp behind the settee. I have sewing to do.

[whohit]winterstitching[/whohit]

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

[whohit]summerindevonwinterinyork[/whohit]

Quilts, large and small

I had intended to work on my quilt on Sunday. The top is all pieced, made from shirts and dresses we wore on a special holiday and have since worn out. All I needed to do was find the old curtain I had in mind for the backing, and check that it was large enough. I already had a threadbare blanket set aside for the filling.

Truth be told, my fabric was a mess, stored in a variety of bags and boxes about the place. I found the curtain soon enough, and cut away the heading, setting it aside for the rag and bone man. Ilse, sensing a clear out, was at my side in a moment.

She giggled as we pulled all sorts out of the scrap bag: old shirt collars, remnants of sleeves, pieces so small I don’t know why I kept them. Amongst it all was the quilting Ilse and Seb had begun last summer. We set this to one side and then, as I was ironing some larger pieces to fold and put away, I pressed their blocks for them.

Once everything was stowed neatly in one cupboard and the last bit of thread had been picked up off the rug, Ilse turned to me, hands on hips. ‘Now what shall we do?’

What we did was finish her quilt.

She’d already pieced most of the top, as she, Seb and I sewed by hand on the patio, Children’s Hour on the wireless. She was now at the point where a little adult intervention was required, to speed the project to its conclusion.

Ilse is often in need of a speedy hand. When she catches me knitting in the daytime she seats herself at my side, to carry on with the teddy bear scarf she began that weekend in October. She knits one s-l-o-w row, and I knit three. It keeps her going.

So we pulled the machine out and she turned the handle while I pushed the fabric through. Then she put her hands on top of mine so as to be able to say that she sewed it, without ever needing to go near that frighteningly fast needle. We had it batted and backed in no time, and machined one edge of the binding around the border.

After a quick break to make some scones, we settled ourselves, tea tray and all, before the living room fire to finish the job. I showed her how to secretly stitch the back of the binding into place and together, despite sticky fingers and copious crumbs, we finished it off.

Seb was a little crestfallen at Ilse’s progress, which has been a theme of their quilting. Ilse sews the way I remember sewing when I was at school – with fast, uneven stitches. Like her, I wanted to see the finished product now, please. Seb would have delighted my sewing mistress. His stitches are pin prick tiny, in perfectly straight lines. I couldn’t have done a better job myself. Because of this, he is a long way from completion. I promised him the use of my machine next weekend, and his face brightened. Tiny stitches and speed? A winning combination.

In the meantime, I plan to finish my own quilt. I’d like it on someone’s bed – probably Ben’s – by Christmas. Isle has already wrapped hers and hidden it in her cupboard, ready to be laid beneath the tree on Christmas Eve: her present to her dolly. I wonder whether one of Seb’s toys will get such a treat. In the meantime, I have some rows to add to a delightfully wobbly pink scarf, so that Little Ted doesn’t feel left out on Christmas Day.

[whohit]quiltslargeandsmall[/whohit]

Advent

Overnight, mornings have changed from coaxing the children out from under their blankets to finding them downstairs before me, smears of chocolate around their mouths. It is as if we were past the solstice and heading towards longer days again, thanks to this month of lights and anticipation.

I made their calendars shortly after Ilse was born, completing two the first autumn and two more the next. Each has a scene, blocked out in felt then trimmed with a simple chain stitch, with sequins and beads to add sparkle. Ben has the shepherds, telling stories around their fire. They have leapt up to point at something mysterious: a new star in the sky. Fliss has Mary on a donkey, the lights of Bethlehem twinkling cosy and crowded in the distance. Seb has the three kings, precious gifts in hand. And of course my baby Ilse has the baby in his manger, surrounded by the world he loves.

Just as the wise men are stirring, so are parents everywhere. My list-making has begun. New handkerchiefs and socks are at the ready, embroidered and knitted in long-ago summer moments.  And I must tell Father Christmas of the things they need: a bottle of ink, or a box of crayons. A new trigonometry set. Knickers, with ribbon round the waist. A penny whistle, to replace one which was lost and is still mourned. Chocolate coins, of course, and a satsuma for the toe.

The hardest gift is the one they don’t need, but simply want. The one under the tree, the one which is gazed at and dreamed about and not to be touched under any circumstances. I have some ideas, but John is best at these. He has a way of knowing what people want almost before they do. I wonder whether this is, in part, due to his work: studying people, knowing what they will buy, and why. It’ll be John who suggests a list of titles for Fliss, or a new game for Seb. He knows what Ben would like in a way that I can’t fathom. So we will be making that list together.

Last of all are the little gifts, for parents and grandparents and one another. Small things we know we like, which show that we care enough to remember. It wouldn’t be Christmas for me without sugared almonds, a jar of marmalade and sweet-smelling beeswax candles for the table. That, and giddy children. And I needn’t tell John this, because he already knows. He proves it, every year.

[whohit]advent[/whohit]

Stitches in time

Ilse and I went to the village jumble sale: I to run a stall, Ilse to play beneath the tables with her little gang.

Mrs Partridge had put me in charge of the jams. Before me was a jewel-box of treasures, the summer bottled and screwed down tightly. Although the jars were not labelled with the makers’ names, everyone knows everyone else’s speciality. I bought a jar of Mrs Andrew’s strawberry conserve, knowing that there will be bright chunks of soft fruit suspended in the jelly. Mrs Partridge bought a jar of her friend Mrs Ellis’, who returned the compliment. There was a pleasant hum around me all afternoon.

It was only when I spotted the dress that I felt marooned. I had been looking for Ilse, who had vanished some time ago, and recognised her cardigan beneath the rail of donated clothing, arms dancing in some clapping game. Above her was a vision of Victorian outlandishness: a virtual haberdashery of flounces and bows, roses and braid. It looked just Ilse’s size. Mrs Partridge was doing another round of the hall. Two more tables and she would reach me. I saw a woman I didn’t recognise, accompanied by her own little girl, feeling the fabric between knowing fingers. She held the dress hopefully in  front of the child who pulled just the face Seb pulls when I kiss him in public.

It took another ten minutes before Mrs Partridge had gossiped her way round to me, but at last she took over my table while I went to investigate.

The dress wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – no-one else had even given it a second glance – but the way Ilse’s face shone when I pointed it out made trying it on a formality. It would be made to fit, if necessary. She skipped and hopped at my elbow all the way home.

Even John couldn’t help but admire the work which had gone into it. It must have been a wealthy little girl’s best dress, for parties or perhaps a wedding, probably in the 1880s. The overskirt, in cream dupioni silk, was lifted to reveal the satin underskirt, with clusters of rolled ribbon roses pinning up the gathers. The waist was accentuated by a plaited cord in three shades of creamy brown, and the puffed sleeves finished with softly swinging lace at the elbows. Best of all was the cafe-creme front panel, embroidered with vines, leaves and shimmering flowers. It must have taken days and days – even weeks – to make.

The dress was a little large on Ilse, so I took it up while she stood on a stool, turning as directed, pretending to be the original owner. As I sewed we wondered about who she might have been. Ilse tried on a few names for size and settled on ‘Sara’. She called me ‘dear Mama’ and my mouth was too full of pins to point out that Sara’s mama most certainly would not have been on her knees at her daughter’s feet. That was the lot of other, poorer, women.

I basted the hem fairly loosely, guessing from Fliss’ envious looks that Ilse will continue to wear this as she grows. There wasn’t  a mark on it, which made me feel sorry for a child not allowed to run or play for fear of spoiling her frock. Ilse ate jammy crumpets in it, helped me shut up the hens, then lay in front of the fire on her tummy, rereading A Little Princess.

I hope it is a long time before I have to let down that hem. Time enough for more jam dribbles and grass stains and many, many parties. ‘Sara’ must be quite grown by now, older than I am. I don’t want to imagine Ilse as a woman: sixty rather than six. If I could, I would put a few stitches in time too, just to hold it steady.

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