Enjoying Back Stitch

Lilian, my paternal grandmother, was an artist and craftswoman. She had a table in the sunroom of her house — a closed verandah with wooden floors — which we kids weren’t allowed to touch. It was hard to resist though. There were wooden boxes and tobacco tins with buttons, clasps, zips and other notions. I picked up a small instrument, its points covered by little red plastic balls. It was for unpicking stitches, Lil told me. I thought it was remarkable that you would ever unpick so many stitches as to need an instrument for it. Lil also had the first needle threader I ever saw, a small device made of silver tin, with a wire loop on it. “Who needs that?” I thought. But after a few hundred times of threading needles I thought about that simple device. The next time I came to visit Lil I asked if I could have it. “Oh no, you’re not having my needle threader,” she said. “You’ve got young eyes, you don’t need it.”

Far away from Lil’s fragrant and colourful sewing table, sewing classes were a fifth grade thing, along with budding breasts and fun with the boys in the playground. Our teacher, Miss Brawn, was narrow and aged with a small and unexpectedly sharp voice that suggested she resented unpicking stitches. We were a rowdy bunch of impatient, smart girls. “Now girls!” she would say, trying to raise her thin voice over our ruckus. We were a brewing summer storm, always threatening to escalate. “Now girls, get out your samples. Start working on your backstitch. I want to you to each bring your running stitch sample out the front and show me. Not all at once. Catherine, you come first, then each girl at your table.” My running stitch sample was so messy that Miss Brawn unpicked it and made me do it again.

Samples were pieces of cotton (mysteriously called ‘lawn’) that had a selvedge on one side and a zigzag cut with shears on the other. Our mothers had to iron them. It was the 1970’s and the regimentation of our sewing class made our mothers sigh and roll their eyes as they collaborated on where to buy the notions Miss Brawn demanded. The colours of the embroidery cotton we used were sumptuous. There was a mauve thread on a wooden cotton reel I particularly enjoyed. Our needles were silver with a golden eye. We had to lick the end of the strand between tongue and lips to make it possible to thread the needle. Our first stitches were very basic, just in and out of the fabric. I never advanced much further than that.

"Bobines fil Rouffignac" by  Jebulon  - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons .

"Bobines fil Rouffignac" by Jebulon - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons .

While the boys went off to do wood and metal work on the first day of our sewing class, Miss Brawn asked about a little girl with long red hair who she’d seen running away from the classroom, behind the boys. “Oh, that’s Gloria,” said Cathy, my brash, solid friend. Miss Brawn wrote Gloria’s name at the bottom of her attendance roll, but Gloria never came to class. After a few weeks Miss Brawn started to huff and puff. “I’m going to report Gloria to the principal for her truancy,” she said sternly. She made truancy sound like larceny. “Gloria hates sewing,” Karen said to her when Miss Brawn asked. “Never comes to sewing. She wants to do woodwork with the boys. She even wears a boy’s uniform at school.” Miss Brawn looked shocked and titillated. To this day I don’t know whether Miss Brawn knew that Gloria, who was actually long-haired Steven, was our creation.

Most of the women in my family sewed. My mother routinely got out her creamy-coloured Singer (a twenty-first birthday present) to make us clothes and costumes. I knew she was brilliant. Grandma Lil made cloth dolls and animals as well as clothes. She knit me a ribbed jumper in ombre shades of brown the same year I was making my samples in Miss Brawn’s class. It looked pretty on me, showing off new curves I was self-conscious about.

My mother’s mum, Nana, had an old Singer operated by foot power on a swinging treadle. Nana used it to make repairs and sewed wagga blankets — quilts made of coloured rags that were good enough for another round of use. Her best friend was a tailor, my Aunty Kit. Nan married Kit’s brother just as my mum married her girlfriend’s brother. Kit made me clothes as a toddler. There was a matching midriff top and skirt with giraffes on it that I particularly liked.

When I was a few years older, Lil made me a Hawaiian girl doll. She had a square cushion body, black wool hair and black button eyes. I called her Black-eyed Susan, after the flower. Lil also made me a Dutch girl doll with a full satin striped skirt and lace apron, yellow felt clog feet and — best of all — shiny gold knickers. Forty-five years later, Lil’s sense of humour and attention to detail still makes me smile inside. My wife Claudia, whose mum is an excellent tailor, can run up a seam in her sleep. She got a machine to make soft bodies for the exquisite dolls she makes.

I never did learn to use a sewing machine well, despite Miss Brawn’s and my mother’s efforts. Over a decade ago, in my last years as a medical student, I began embroidering, with a rather haphazard cross-stitch, a bright piece of Aboriginal-designed tapestry. The piece has bright yellow water lilies. I was lazy with my stitches. Perhaps I knew I could never be in the running with women like Kit and Lil. I’m not sure if bringing a touch of Jackson Pollack to a piece of cross-stitched embroidery will ever be appreciated for the radical departure it is.

Half-formed turtles heading into stormy seas: the abandoned yellow water-lily tapestry.

Half-formed turtles heading into stormy seas: the abandoned yellow water-lily tapestry.

In the past few weeks I’ve been working on an embroidered toy dinosaur in bright back stitch and running stitch, the first piece of sewing I’ve attempted since abandoning the Aboriginal water lilies. I stitch it during my lunchbreak, taking a rest from troubles and conversation. If I finish the dinosaur, perhaps there is hope yet for the water lilies.

I am lucky to have had so many seamstresses and quilters and embroiderers in my life. I am inspired by them, even as I know I will never be as good. Still, a part of me wants to prove that a piece of work can be vibrant even if messy. That relaxation is a legitimate aim for taking up a craft. But perhaps I say this so boldly because I have a wife who takes up the hems of my pants for me.