Boring clothes, sisters in matching outfits, and old sewing machines


I am never sure if it's an advantage or disadvantage to admit that I can sew.

Firstly, it's a traditionally 'female' pursuit, and I hate being stereotyped. And, depending upon who's asking, I can be a bit wary in case I suddenly find myself loaded with someone's pile of alterations. It has happened more than once. A single pair of trousers becomes a big green garbage bag bulging with multiple garments needing attention -  holes in crotches, hems to alter, zips needing attention...  I guess I have that kind of face and I do like to help, but there are limits.

 As a child I hated the boring clothes I got to wear.

I was blessed with a grandmother who was a talented dressmaker and tailor, so she made most of my clothes. I should have felt lucky but didn't, mainly because my mother chose what I considered to be totally dull patterns and equally dull fabric. And besides, where do mothers get the idea that it is cute for siblings to wear identical dresses. My sister was five years old and I was eleven so it was pure humiliation.

At the age of twelve I decided to take matters into my own hands, bypass the normal channels and approach my grandmother directly. I presented my pencil sketches of outfits I had dreamed up, chose some fabric, and my grandmother made the patterns and completed the commission. Finally - total satisfaction. I got to wear crazy tartan flares, and peasant dresses with shirred bodices and corset belts. My mother was not totally pleased.

Next I wanted to make my own clothes. Between home economics classes at school and sessions with my grandmother, I learned the basics and was on my way. By the time I was in my early twenties I had opened a shop designing and producing one-off silk evening dresses in a myriad of colours, but that's another story...

So, fast forward, and for some time I have been thinking about ways to combine my love of sewing with my painting processes.

At art school I stitched canvas and transparent plastic sheeting together, and recently felt an urge to revisit the idea. However I have been actively resisting, because it is such a female 'thing to do'. If I were a male artist I wouldn't hesitate to start sewing for a nano-second. In fact it would be a cool thing to do.

However as a female, it ticks all the old worn out boxes. I would much prefer to add heavy welding to my repertoire... But as it stands I happen to like creating forms and textures out of malleable fabric. And fabric is already in most painters' tool kits, as we commonly paint on canvas anyway. So that's the way it is.

Anyway, I ordered a big roll of heavyweight plastic. While waiting for the plastic to arrive I pulled out my sewing machine and started sewing some test samples. There was an unbelievably disgusting toxic smell. Was I just imagining pale wisps of smoke emanating from the motor?  If you don't know what an electrical smell is, let me assure you that you will have no trouble recognising one when it happens. Anyway, my machine motor was dead.

The plastic arrived and I now had no sewing machine.

Naturally, the first step was to look at getting it repaired, but it was an old model, so didn't make sense to invest so much in a machine that already had other problems and had never been fabulous anyway. So I started looking for a replacement. My ideal machine needed to be a lot stronger, to be able to bite through layers of canvas and thick plastic. A vintage machine was my immediate choice. No, not an old treadle model - I wasn't prepared to go that far - but a solid all metal workhorse.

EBay was my first port of call. Next online sewing forums to check out the models. Then back to eBay. I have always been one to slightly overdo the research process, so was off to YouTube next, with a notebook full of possibilities. There I saw an old Pfaff happily chugging through multiple layers of tough leather. Wow!

I took the plunge and bought this very same model on eBay - a Pfaff 91 from the 1960's, the era when West Germans proudly over-engineered everything. An old machine is always a bit of a gamble, but it was cheap enough and the description said it worked beautifully. When it arrived with its case badly cracked in transit my mood crash landed - but when I finally pressed my foot against the metal pedal my disappointment turned to delight as it purred along beautifully, running over anything I could shove into the gap under the needle.

So I am now ready to begin experimenting, that is as soon as I have the time.

 My upcoming exhibition is getting close.

The works are completed but there's a still catalogue to compile, wrapping to be done, freight to be arranged, invitations to be sent. Aaaaarghhhhh!!! More as the big date approaches (the big date being September 22).

PS You are invited to the private view of course, so let me know if you will be in the Perpignan area and I will make sure you receive your invitation.