I have, over the years, come to the conclusion that everyone has something they were born to do, it is part of who they are, it’s that ‘X’ factor thing. Mine has always been sewing. It might be innate but it had also to be nurtured and inspired.
Starting at home, with a keen interest in art and the the occasional sewing project, Mum was always happy to let me have fabrics, pins and scissors from a very early age notwithstanding the constant tellings-off for stray pins, the French polisher describing the dining table as a ‘ploughed field’ as a result of cutting out and Dad ordering me from the sitting room because he couldn’t stand the knitting needles click-clacking (a bit much coming from a cabinet-maker who ran his woodworking machinery from the garage) but it has to be said all things practical were encouraged in our house.
I supposed I also have to admit to being from the ‘old school’ system where cookery and sewing were very much part of the timetable and deemed important ‘life-skills’. Mum still has the needle case I made at primary school in Essex aged 7. I still have a number of artefacts made at at Bethune junior school in Hull with Mrs Sparrow. However, it was moving on to Kingston High School and being lucky enough to have a wonderful needlework teacher, Mrs Tong, where my interest and passion for dressmaking took off, not being particularly ‘academic’ whatever that is, I had found my niche.
But it wasn’t just ‘who’ but ‘what’ got me hooked!
Enter Great Auntie Margaret Johnston (also known as Big Auntie Margaret as opposed to my Mum who was Little Auntie Margaret) who drifted in and out of my early years in Essex. A Hillman imp would pull up outside the house, a large lady extract herself from behind the wheel and the fun would begin. Perhaps my cousin, Mag (the 3rd Margaret, there is also a fourth) would disagree after a road-trip from Cardiff to Southport in the imp with the large lady and instructions on how to crack the code for her much loved cryptic crosswords!
Great Auntie Margaret was a bit of an enigma. A spinster who loved sport, especially cricket, cars, had ridden a motor cycle in the 30’s losing her front teeth in the process, loved the children she taught in Hull, owned a wire haired terrier called Bob, lived in a bungalow in Atwick near Hornsea and was the subject of of many a ‘cryptic’ conversation from the adult family members.
By coincidence Great Auntie Margaret attended the then Boulevard school which latterly turned into my old school Kingston High School. A school contemporary of the flying ace Amy Johnson she made it clear she was a woman of the new age and wouldn’t be wasting her time cooking and cleaning (for a man)!
It was a sad day when she passed away, I wonder now at the stories she could have told. Some time later her legacy arrived in the form of her hand Singer sewing machine, something of a surprise from a self-confessed feminist but what a marvellous machine it was.
Parked on the poor old dining table a whole world of opportunity opened up. No longer limited to hand stitching, speed and creativity reined. I don’t remember anyone showing me how to use it but Mum will have no doubt had that task. All I know is that threading, bobbin winding, stitch length without a numbered dial and ‘have a guess’ tension control seemed to happen by osmosis and I was well and truly hooked, or should that read – obsessed!
Eventually I was allowed to progress to Mum’s electric machine which I hastened to its demise making teddies to sell. I made what like seemed a fortune to a 13 year old but I never wanted to see a teddy ever again or was allowed on Mum’s new machine.
After a clapped out, ancient electric machine bought from another Aunt that spat oil at everything (the machine not the Aunt), bought with hard earned pocket money, I purchased a shiny brand new Singer machine with my first months pay packet. “What about paying your board?” asked my long suffering Mum. Hmmm I hadn’t thought about that, shall I make you a dress?
The hand Singer passed to my twin sister, Ann, who admits she hates sewing, could barely sew a button on, who was quite happy to let me make our 80’s clubbing and fancy dress outfits, and still refuses to use an electric machine even though I’ve offered her one along with my 2 hour Sewing Machine Skills lesson. Working as a teaching assistant has over the past few years forced her hand and discarded toiles are gratefully recycled for school projects and productions on a 50’s Singer hand machine rescued from a skip. From time to time it appears because it “isn’t working” – I tactfully point out that is the operator not the machine. I occasionally still get called to action, “I need 26 waist coats for penguins” the most famous of her requests.
Where is the wonder machine now? I don’t know. Lost in numerous house moves. Sadly missed, fondly remembered, I hope one day we will be reunited.
Great Auntie Margaret, thank you. I have the most wonderful life sewing with other enthusiasts, learning new skills, sharing skills and, as my husband tells me in the most complimentary but slightly jealous way, not really ‘working’ for a living. Little did you, or I know, where the Singer would lead!
How did you get sewing? We would love to hear your stories. If you would like to learn more or get you sewing off the ground, there are courses and workshops for everyone whatever your starting point. Give it a try, you never know you too may find your niche with or without a Great Auntie Margaret.