Spring Sewing Circle 3

This time: garment construction.  It was a  sewing circle, after all!

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To begin, for those who haven’t worked this out for themselves, let it be understood that I am a pretty plain sewer.  I like sewing, I have some skills, I’ve been doing it a long time. But, I tend to use patterns, amend patterns created by others,  make changes driven by sheer lack of cloth or my own mistakes, or construct a pattern from an existing garment.  I don’t just look at a piece of fabric, form a concept and apply scissors.  India Flint does, and she has written a new little book about the underpinning concepts which I hope will be available to others at some stage… I’ve been kindly gifted a stapled copy. Some of her approaches to creating new garments from old (‘refashioning’ to some) are also set out beautifully in Second Skin.

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But the thing is, having the concepts doesn’t get me from here to there.  Practice would be needed, of course!  But confidence, too–and these two things have a relationship to one another.  I know when I went to the first workshop I did with India I listened and watched and was inspired as she demonstrated and explained.  I remember wondering why I hadn’t organised my life so I could do exactly this every day. And then I had my own expanse of cloth and my own scissors and my heart sank just about immediately.

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It’s a statement of the extremely obvious that India has spent a lifetime thinking about art and garment construction and honing her skills at all related things, and I have not. This knowledge and experience cannot be transferred from one mind to another like a thumb drive plugged into a hard drive. For one thing, it would be more like the hard drive being plugged into the thumb drive!  But more than this, I experience doubt that my mental architecture could ever equip me to do this kind of design work.  Which is fine.  The rich diversity of human minds and creativity is part of what makes life wondrous.

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I noticed all manner of things.  I have a few good ideas and only so much time, so while I get stuck on some things, I have more ideas than I can carry out already.  India had so many ideas about what I could do with the few things I had with me, that my mind boggled.  I couldn’t come close to carrying them all out.  But when it came to deciding which ones to act on, I found myself up against all kinds of things, from sheer inability to believe that I could carry that idea out, confidence that I would not wear the resulting garment, and sheer inability to conjure up what that would look like or how it could be done, in my own mind.

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I have the concept that many of the sewing ‘rules’ I have been taught are the kind that a more skilled person can adjust, skirt around or safely ignore because they know the exceptions and have superior skills. But I can feel myself clinging to them like some kind of misplaced sense of a lifebuoy. It’s only fabric, after all!

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Well. The thing is, a learning experience is about expanding your mind. Even if you can feel the strain!  So here I am modelling a linen shirt from the op shop, in the process of becoming–an apron?  A frock? I thought apron, but by the time it came home, my beloved felt that it was, essentially, a frock.  I can’t say she’s a real expert in frocks, but she has an opinion.  I am continually being struck by my own inflexibility about what I’ll wear.  I have courageous moments of branching out, but I am just nailed on to some core concepts.  For one thing, when India thinks of an apron, she thinks this (you’ll have to scroll down, but Sweetpea’s blog is a special place, so don’t hurry over it).  When I think of an apron I think of a rectangle of black cotton with two tape ties.  I have two, and have had them since I was making my living cooking, long ago!

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Anyway, back to the main story.  This strategy for shape shifting (shirt to apron) is set out in Second Skin, and I’ve read it a few times without feeling any inclination to try it out.  But here it is!  It ended up with some recycled raw silk sewn on so it became longer and more flowing.  More and more frock-like, one could say.  I finished sewing it in Mansfield and it has been sitting quietly at home waiting for the transformation of the dye pot.  I am still trying to figure out whether there is any chance of my wearing a shirt-apron-frock.  But you never know!  And if I can’t, well, I am sure someone else will.

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This process really made me think that when I run my fingers through the choices at a garage sale or op shop, I see something that could be taken apart ready to begin again.  Where I see a shaped garment that could become flat pieces and then from flat pieces be converted into something else, India seems to me, to see one three dimensional thing that could become other three dimensional things.  While we were working in Crockett Cottage, she was taking two pairs of men’s trousers and turning them into one long, glorious skirt of many pockets.  It was a thing of wonder to behold this process, let alone the insertion of a silk lining.  There is a sample of the finished glory here. Below, a garment made from hemp and cotton knit and the sleeves from the linen short that became a frock, with  sheoak leaf prints.

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On my way home I had enough time in Melbourne betwixt the bus from Mansfield to the Melbourne central railway station and the Airport shuttle to nip out and see some of Blue at the National Gallery of Victoria.  Let it be said that this adventure involved taking my public transport courage in both hands: two trams each way and half an hour at the Gallery.  It was so worth it!  I could not take pictures.  But see images here and here and here. There were fragments of Egyptian garments from many, many hundreds of years ago.  Examples of indigo work from a wide variety of weaving and embroidery traditions from China, Japan, Indonesia, India and Europe.  At one point I was surprised to find myself answering another wanderer who was asking out loud whether something was woven or embroidered.  Clearly I have acquired some knowledge about weaving from hanging about with weavers!  Garments ranged from elaborate finery to those constructed entirely from rags in the boro style, and a rather extraordinary rain- and wind-protective cape made of two layers of cotton or hemp, with a layer of waxed paper sewn between them.  They were constructed from cotton, linen, hemp, silk, elm fibre.  If you have the chance, I recommend this exhibition highly.  It can’t help but inspire and amaze to see such evidence of the skill and ingenuity and sheer hard work of peoples from past and (in some cases) continuing traditions and to learn a little about the significance of indigo and the creation of cloth and clothing to them.


Filed under Leaf prints, Natural dyeing, Sewing

26 responses to “Spring Sewing Circle 3

  1. Lovely prints, I to can only work from a pattern and even altering one gives me the heebee geebees. I don’t know how India does it, as you say years of experience. Her clothes always look fantastic.


    • Isn’t it funny (as my mother would say, ‘funny peculiar’), the heebee geebees? Those odd squicky feelings that you can’t quite name? It’s wonderful to see people at work who don’t share them. But comforting that there are others who do! Thanks, Debbie.


  2. I really enjoyed this post. I’m about the same basic level of sewing that you describe so I can relate to all that you say about your sewing projects. However, your dyeing looks just wonderful. And I am so envious about that Blue exhibition – I’d love to go to an exhibition focussed on colour, especially blue. Just a bit too far away from me ……


  3. Deb

    You mentioned items made of elm fibre. Do you know how the elm was processed?


    • No, I don’t. Though you can be sure I wondered the same thing! The only information on offer about this at the exhibition clarified that the fibre had been spun. The garment itself was exquisite, the thread from which it was made was smooth and beautifully woven, then embroidered. I have found one online source that says clothing was made from the bark of the elm by the Ainu people. But who knows how reliable that is, as an outsider (European) account, which may well have been written by someone with no textile knowledge (and lacking other knowledge that might be useful too, perhaps). (Early European Writings on Ainu Culture: Religion and Folklore, Volume 1 By Kirsten Refsing, 383). It seems the inner bark is referred to. (Hokkaido: A History of Ethnic Transition and Development By Ann B. Irish, 30). I’m no expert! But clearly the Ainu were people who really knew how to use everything they could obtain (and no doubt they had to, in order to survive). The second of these two books speaks of them making fish skin clothing and leggings from reeds.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Deb

        Using elm interested me as I have a tree that grows like a weed.

        It is always interesting to see historical garments. There is a museum over here that I have visited that shows clothing from the aboriginals of Canada’s west coast, and the items they made from natural materials are amazing.


      • Ah. I wonder what you could do with your elm and lots of time and patience? Indigenous people’s ingenuity here is amazing too. I will never have skills of that calibre.


      • Deb

        For now, my excess tree prunings become either buttons or spoons. I started carving this summer, but it is definitely an outside endeavour, too messy for the kitchen table .


      • What a great skill, and what excellent things to be making from prunings 🙂 I love the idea of carving but for now–have enough crafty plans! Maybe later.


  4. A lovely post. Full of personal insights that I can relate to. thank you.


  5. tunic …. or maybe swing top …. I never think of it as an apron, a little like me the mind goes to a black rectangle with ties.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 🙂 my woad is growing a real treat despite the heat, and last year’s is full of seed which is giving me purple! I see you are growing koalas, though. Can’t beat that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • glad to hear the Woad is doing well … mine are growing and need transplanting as do the Agrimony I have a couple of E scorparia up the first batch did not survive, I would love to send you some agrimony for you to try but have misplace you street address would you mind emailing it to me : )


      • So good your woad is thriving! I have just two E Scoparia seedlings that have made it through $$C in December. Whew! It’s a big ask. I am sorry your first sprouts didn’t make it. I have closed off my email as it is my day job account and I am on holidays!!! But will send you a message when I am able. I’d love to try the agrimony.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the post I love reading about your workshop experiences. Also thanks for the heads-up on Blue. I expect to be in Melbourne in February so I think an extra half day to pop into the NGV is probably on the cards.


  7. vdbolyard

    i’ve enjoyed these posts about your time working with india, how your mind has embraced three dimensional re-purposing clothing (no small feat!). thanks for all of them, and your honesty.


  8. christicarterphotography

    I kept reading sentence after sentence that I finished with a “YES,” feeling like I knew exactly your sentiments [or close to] about the observing, the notions of improbability of doing, the stuck-ness … oh my …. YES. Beautifully & succinctly written, Mary, and I hope you have no doubts about your abilities as a fine writer ;>))


    • Thanks so much, Christi! I had a feeling I wasn’t alone in these kinds of feelings about it all…! As a teacher I often feel sad that students will so seldom acknowledge the feelings that are such a big part of, and often also such a barrier to, learning. I think if everyone in my class felt the confidence I do that most of their experiences are widely shared–perhaps they could stop feeling bad about themselves and embrace the experience a bit more with its highs and lows and wobbly bits 🙂


  9. Lisa Churchward

    I can so relate, Mary! Watching India just cut on the bias, no pattern, and start draping a most magnificent dress, was jaw dropping. I thought I’d give it a shot…stripped off my vintage mannequin…and started cutting and draping. So far it’s looking, well…..interesting! I keep pondering, altering, and very much wonder whether it will ever be worn. Sigh. So I do admire India for her incredible skills.
    Meanwhile though, I have acquired a copper pot and have just pulled out a merino scarf with some gorgeous golds and bronzes! And I have a linen depress with pillow slip inserts slowly sun baking in an old terrarium.
    I think there is a lifetime of learning to be had.


    • Hi Lisa, thanks for stopping by! I agree, there is a lifetime of learning to be had, and now that I have relaxed about the mysterious elements and surprises an d acquired capacity to overdye or dream up something that fabric would be perfect for… it is a joyous process. Jaw dropping is about right! It is a bit like ballet–people who know what they are doing make it look easy, but this is an artefact of skill and experience and lots of practice!


  10. Susan

    What a great post…..I have a friend who is great at re purposing clothing. She can look at something and mentally whip it into something amazing and then DO it!! And WHY I am uncomfortable cutting up something I have not worn in forever is beyond me 🙂 India’s apron is such an inspiration and the Sweet Pea blog is great. Thank you so much. I needed another PUSH! I am just catching up on 100 emails……..argh!


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