Listen With Mother

It had sat in that same corner all my life – beside the window chair in the living room – my mother’s sewing box – and yet I had forgotten about it.

When I was a child she often gave me the sewing box to tidy, and I genuinely believed I was helping rather than – as seems more likely now – being kept amused. I remember sitting on the floor surrounded by cotton reels and cards of press-studs and hooks and eyes and being full of my own importance. I was helping. This goes back to the time before things went wrong, before Mum started lying on the sofa and crying for most of the morning instead of dusting. The time before Nan started coming along to help, and Mum started taking two aspirins every four hours for most of many days.

In those days we would listen to Listen With Mother together on the radio. She would sit me on her lap and I would start twiddling a lock of my hair in sheer anticipation. What would it be today? See-saw Marjorie Daw or the one about the four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? We had to have teddy with us. The radio lady always asked us if we had our teddies with us, and whether we were sitting comfortably.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

But back to the sewing box. I think I took it all rather seriously. I not only sorted out the cotton reels but wound in every loose end and secured it in the little notch at the top. I not only tidied the button box but threaded the buttons into a long string using one of Mum’s darning needles – little buttons at one end, all the way up to giant coat-type buttons at the other. Duffle-coat toggles were a bit of a worry…

I had to go back there about a week ago – I think I wrote about it – to remove Ex’s paintings as the house is now being sold to pay Mum’s fees. I was dreading it, and it was pretty dreadful, in some ways. Arriving half an hour before the removal firm man, I sat on the doorstep for ten minutes unable to go inside on my own. When he arrives, I thought, I’ll usher him in first and he can confront the ghosties! But then the neighbours started making casual passes back and forth. I realised they didn’t know who I was and assumed some sort of Bag Lady. Maybe they were about to call the police and have me removed… so I plucked up my courage and went in.

I busied myself packing Nan’s blue half-a-tea-service, which I had promised Mum I would save, and which nobody else seemed to want. I remembered the tea service from Sundays with Nan and Grandad. When first Nan and then Grandad died the half-a-tea-service (presumably my uncle had the other half) moved along the road and took up residence on a Welsh dresser in Mum’s living room. I had brought newspapers with me, and carrier bags.

Take anything you like, my sister said. The house clearance man was coming to take the lot. Probably been and gone by now.

I found a little album with a few random photos in it, of Mum and Dad and me maybe fifteen years ago, exploring the local chalk-pit that had been turned into a tourist attraction (or that was the idea) by the addition of wooden walkways and stairs. I have no photos of Mum and Dad – indeed, no photos at all of any part of my life – somebody else seems to have had them all at each step of the way, so I put that in the bag. I found a grubby old “Knitting Patterns” album containing not knitting patterns but recipes – all Mum’s favourite recipes in her familiar handwriting, recipes torn out of women’s magazines and annotated. Little interjections, mostly with her favourite exclamation marks


I substitute sultanas for mixed fruit!

360F, middle shelf!!

I thought I might share a few of the recipes with you, in occasional future posts. A way of Mum living on and in a small way contributing to the future, if you see what I mean.

And then I spotted it – the sewing basket. It was very, very heavy but I brought that home too. It sat at my feet high up in the removal man’s van. You need to be a veritable mountaineer to get into one of those things, and I all but landed in a heap trying to climb down out of it at the other end.

And then there was the dilemma. That evening I sat with Mum’s sewing basket on my knees and shed the few tears I ought to have shed a year earlier, at the thought of Mum to all intents and purposes gone. Mum in that home. Mum not at home. The house I grew up in not my home now. Everything off with the house clearance man to be distributed, no doubt, among charity shops.

But what should I do with the basket? Part of me wanted to sit on the floor, take out a whole lifetime of bits and bobs, half-cards of bias binding, folds of orange ribbon, samples of hessian (whatever did she use that for?) and of course the button box which, when I was a child had seemed a huge and magical container and now seemed to have shrunk to a hexagonal toffee tin with pictures of rabbits and 1950s postmen on the front.

Part of me wanted to leave it exactly as it was, so that the muddle inside should be Mum’s muddle, her memorial, a little bit of her practical, creative mind. In a way I wanted to keep her boxed, rather than bottled.

The dilemma continued for some time. Should I use the sewing box – as she would probably have wanted – or leave it undisturbed? After all, they were not really magic, the rusty tin of pins, the darning needles rusted into the tartan pincushion… I remember her teaching me to make a version of that pincushion for my Brownie sewing badge. They were just old things.

And then today I decided to design something to sew. Now, don’t laugh. There is a reason for it but I haven’t got time to go into it right now. I designed a Sad Cat Hat, taking the pattern from a sunhat I bought at a market stall on a recent visit to Canterbury, cutting out paper pattern pieces from the front cover of the Radio Times and pinning them onto an old pillow case for my “trial version” of this unlikely object. And then I thought, I no longer have any dressmaker’s shears and the kitchen scissors are too blunt. Maybe Mum has some?

In the bottom of Mum’s sewing box was a perfect pair of dressmaker’s scissors and – and this is the strange thing – left handed ones. Now, how does that happen? Mum was right handed. I’m left-handed.

And it seems to me that Mum – wherever she hides, inside that poor old grey head – was trying to get a message to me. Take the middle way. Use what you need but only when you need it, leave the muddle mostly, but not entirely, undisturbed.

Sunken Gusset Blues

Mum used to give me her sewing box to tidy, or her button tin to sort out. She was busy, and would never get round to all this important tidying and sorting by herself. I would sit quietly for hours to accomplish such tasks, never thinking I was being “occupied” or kept out from under the maternal feet. I suspect I was a clingy, whiney sort of infant – no wonder she needed to shake me off once in a while.

button tin

I never tired of lifting the little wooden lids that fitted on top of the sewing box, or opening the whole contraption out and folding it back again, concertina-fashion, or opening one side but not the other, which usually made it topple over. I regularly pinched my fingers in those lethal metal hinges. They’re probably banned nowadays.

Within the sewing box would be ‘all manner of things’ – cotton reels to be rewound and organised into a kind of colour spectrum (I must have thought this was necessary); cards of narrow elastic; cards of lace; tiny gold safety pins; tacking thread; cutting shears; cards of buttons in complete sets awaiting only a garment to sun themselves on; thimbles, several, one pink; tape measures, inches only; a sharp gadget for unpicking seams, like a miniature Bat’leth; ric-rac, always loads of that, guaranteed to make any dress or skirt look home-made; a pair of pinking scissors.

I was left-handed and the pinking shears – like all scissors unless you order them specially from a catalogue – were right-handed and virtually unusable. All the same, I managed to ‘pink’ a whole lot of things holding the scissors upside down – scraps of material, pieces of cardboard, the paper covers of my school exercise books.

What could one not accomplish, with such a sewing box? It was as if the box itself possessed the sewing magic. Thus royally equipped, how could you fail to turn out some little couture number or a shirt with a collar that lay perfectly flat or a babygrow with the gusset in the right place rather than half way down the leg?

Which brings me neatly to where I intended to be all along – The Great British Sewing Bee. It’s on again at the moment – next one tomorrow evening, yay! Oh, the pleasures of making garments from scratch; the joy of cutting out those shapes from crisp, virgin fabric; the artistic buzz of getting the thing to actually fit on the dummy at the end of the process without the dummy’s head falling off.

You wouldn’t think a show about a group of amateur needle-men and women competing against one another to whip up something complex, usually involving overlocking, zip insertion or bagging out, from organza, velvet or corduroy within a strict time limit with Claudia Winkelman bellowing at them all the time would be so… nail-biting. But it is.

Though last week’s babygrow was an exceptionally entertaining disaster.

The baby grow seemed both ill-fitting and badly put together, with the gusset appear at an angel near the middle of the leg. Patrick tried to console the obviously disappointed Ghislaine by suggesting she put that challenge to the back of her mind and the garment to the back of the closet.

BBC website

I just love the bit about the gusset appearing at an angel.

Poor Ghislaine – we’ve all done stuff like that. Nobody, unless they had no life at all, would waste their time making babygrows anyway. Why spend three hours torturing yourself over sunken gussets and back-to-front cuffs when you can buy the things ready-made? And how long is a baby going to fit in a babygrow?

Last year I was so inspired by the programme that I went out and bought myself a sewing machine. I suspect many other ladies did exactly the same foolish thing. And men, of course. I don’t know why the number of needle-working men should be surprising. After all, what are you doing when you design or follow a pattern? Fitting together an intricate set of components and thinking in three dimensions. It’s soft engineering – no different to designing a mould for a tractor tyre or building a whopping great bridge – just in cotton, chiffon or – in poor Ghislaine’s case – stretchy jersey stuff. If only she hadn’t plumped for contrasting navy-blue for the gusset they might not have noticed it appearing at an angel. As they said, it did rather leap up and hit you in the eye.

I made a bunch of stuff on the new sewing machine, and not bad stuff either. I was compelled to “do” needlework at school and found it infinitely preferable to cookery, though that’s not saying much.  At least needlework was clean; you could sit down for it and it didn’t involve getting dough stuck between your fingers or pleading with members of the giant hockey-playing class mafia for a tiny share of oven space.

As that particular series of Sewing Bee came to an end so, predictably, did I run out of steam with my new sewing-machine. In fact I temporarily lost it. But now in the process of packing for the house move I have found my sewing machine. It’s all boxed up in readiness and who knows, once I’m moved…

Maybe not a babygrow, but….