It’s Mother’s Day, so I think I’ll get the sewing machine out.
That’s what women in my family do. Good times! Celebrate: get the sewing machine out. Bad times… patch up the wounds with some fancy clothes: get the sewing machine out. It may not be the most enlightened style of motherhood, but it’s what we’ve got.
My Grandmother, Beatrice Stainer, was the first in living memory of a line of sewing mothers. She was apprenticed as a tailor in her native Dorchester, where she met Private Tom Aspley, a regular soldier in the Army who was stationed at Dorchester Barracks. When he was demobbed in 1921, they moved to the Midlands where he found work as a miner in the Warwickshire village of Arley.
I have no idea why a man who crawls uphill under the ground to hew out coal for a living should have a meagre income, but apparently he did, because to supplement it, Beattie started taking in sewing.
The other miners’ wives would bring their husbands’ old trousers and Beattie would cut away the worn knees and frayed hems and make a good-as-new pair of children’s trousers. For this act of transformation, she charged 6d.
Beattie was a sensitive soul. She had signed the pledge in 1911, at the age of twelve, and she never touched a drop of drink, not even a port and lemon at Christmas. She attended church all her life, never swore, admonished those who did and, although she read the News of The World every week, she very much disapproved of it. The Sundays when she visited were punctuated by her shocked, but gleeful, tut-tuts.
There was an air of gentle rusticity about her; the West Country burr never left her voice. I used to ask for re-runs of her account of having once seen Thomas Hardy, wearing plus fours and pushing his bike, up the High Street of her home town.
Though she followed her sweetheart there, she wasn’t comfortable with the more abrasive ways of the Warwickshire coal village, where the women would shout to one another across the ‘backs’ of their terraced homes. They sometimes said bad words, and perhaps worse, their sheets were not always gleaming white. They were ‘ditchy’. Then Beattie lost a child in his early weeks and blamed herself. ‘That were reaching up to fetch things off a shelf,’ she used to tell me. ‘Cord round his neck’. It used to break my heart to hear her say that, even as a kid.
Anyway, Beattie got so low that, even in the unenlightened 1930s, they could see she needed treatment. Goodness knows what they did to her in the hospital but while she was gone, Tom sent my dad, a little boy of 10 or so, around the village to ask people to pick up their worn out trousers; Beattie had a big pile waiting to be made into shorts with pointed tabs like these.
If she’d got them all done when she meant to, the family might have had, oooh… an extra 5 shillings to spend. Eventually.
According to my dad’s story, some of the women said it would ‘do when she came out of hospital’. Tom was really angry and sent his boy back to say that if they didn’t come and pick up the work that had been too much for Beattie, he would ‘put it at the back of the fire’.
And that’s how I came to be taught that sewing skills weren’t worth much. People didn’t understand how long they took to acquire or how hard it was to construct a garment. They expected to pay a pittance for a skill that was worth gold.
But that’s not how you judge the worth of skills with scissors, needle and thread. I see that now.
Later on, when my Dad married my Mum, Iris, in 1944, together she and Beattie cut up Iris’ wedding dress and made it into satin blouses for my brothers and yes, the pointed-tab trouser pattern came out again.
But in the 1960s, when I was growing up, times were not so hard. My Mum bought a state-of-the art Singer sewing machine that did linear embroidery. The cream cotton dress she made with tiered sleeves, a different stitch finishing each tier, influences my sense of what’s beautiful to this day. Throughout my childhood, she made every wedding and bridesmaid dress in the family – and being the family baby, I got to wear a lot of bridesmaid’s dresses. But my favourite were the ballroom dancing dresses she made for me and my friend. I remember my brother Paul patiently sticking a rhinestone in the centre of every flower motif on these:
By the time I became a Mum, it was more expensive to sew than to buy clothes, but I still made my kids countless dressing up costumes, school dresses, trousers and even pyjamas. Even though they are teenagers now, I will still sew for them as soon as I have even the merest hint of permission.
It’s like Dolly says in her song ‘Coat of Many Colours’. It’s one of my favourites, and never fails to move me. It’s the story of how, like Beattie, Mrs Parton made her child something new from something old; and how, despite the derision of her schoolmates, Dolly valued the garment, knowing there was ‘love in every stitch.’ It was…. ‘The coat of many colours that my mamma made for me… made just for me.’
Hear Dolly – and shed a little tear, probably! :