Dressmaking, power and a virus

We believe and disbelieve a hundred times a day, which keeps believing nimble. Emily Dickinson.

I have two speeds, the past which comes to me in complete images of events well percolated but fuzzy around the edges.

A memory that my father sewed my mother’s dresses on a Singer treadle machine, his foot pressing up and down in rhythm with the whirr of the needle pushed in and out of the fabric.

My father chose the patterns at the haberdashery shop on Canterbury Road from the image on the front cover of the packet, a slim woman in a brightly coloured floral frock with a low cleavage and tight waisted.

A dress pattern that offered opportunities for extra small to small medium large and extra-large. Room enough for my mother who after all her babies was by then at least size large; large bosomed, wide-hipped and full in the belly. 

My father liked to dress my mother in material that spilled out in wide petaled roses, or tight cupped camelias. Enormous flowers that could encase her breasts and hips and stomach.

These were the same dresses my father ripped off my mother in fits of rage as she stirred the pot over the Kooka stove after she had refused to be drawn into his taunts about her lousy cooking and her imagined infidelities.

The dresses he crafted with the hands of a creator torn into shreds after he had left my mother in her petticoat at the stove, clutching those shreds to her chest like a person caught out naked. 

The man of my memory, from the past, now dead. 

One of those dresses

The present comes in snippets, the pressure of the moment. The grim thoughts about the way this virus has increased in our city to the point the government needed to close off two towers of public housing, places occupied by migrant families, as my parents once were.

They, post-world war two, these current tenants, migrants following the horrors of other wars scattered throughout the world. Refugees from a world that is increasingly under stress from climate change, greed and now this virus. 

I visited my sister in her retirement village the other day stopped briefly by the receptionist at the desk whose job was to police people coming into the building to protect the mainly elderly residents living there. 

‘She’s family,’ my sister said, and the receptionist waved me in as if family could somehow avoid passing on the virus. 

My sister is the youngest resident. She moved in as she had lived alone for too many years and longed for community. She moved in to stay safe.

My father taught this same sister to sew. He taught her how to lay out the pattern on the floor, to rest the white crepe pattern paper on top of the fabric and pin it in place to whichever size she decided.

He taught her to take her scissors and cut away at the fabric in line with the pins, first the back, then the front, finally the sleeves. He taught her to take the pieces of fabric and hold them together as he sat at the Singer to demonstrate, his foot to the floor holding tight to the two sheets of fabric as he fed them along a line close to the raw edge of material and so brought the two pieces together. 

Later in the night when the rest of the family slept, he visited my sister at night in her bed and taught her about sex, well before she was ready to learn such things and certainly not from her father. 

This same sister I visited in her retirement village is still learning at seventy not to believe it was all her fault, that she did something wrong, that everything that went wrong in her life was her fault, as you learn when you’re a child and too much is demanded of you. 

The way I suspect those people in the towers of public housing might have felt in the morning when they woke up to find there were police in the corridors, police in the elevators and on the ground.

Police whose job it was to make sure no one went in or out and so hopefully stop the spread of infection. But also to remind people of where they stand in the power grid of life. 

As my creative but warped father taught my mother and my sister where they too stood in the power grid of life.

The past and the present, always in flux, so that we might as Emily Dickinson reminds us, believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour to keep our believing nimble. 

2 thoughts on “Dressmaking, power and a virus”

  1. My father also made dresses. For my sister. He bought the sewing machine for his wife but Mum was painfully slow picking things up at the best of time and Dad had no patience with people like that. So she stopped trying to learn and Dad, not wanting to have wasted good money, made good use of the machine. I can only remember one dress he made. I have a photo in my head of my sister when she was maybe seven. It was orange with a repeated pattern – very early 1970s. To the best of my knowledge he never made clothes for anyone else. Not sure why. He was perfectly capable. Capable is one thing, talented is quite something else. My dad could put his hand to most things but he wasn’t creative or imaginative. The wall he built was ugly but functional. The same for the hi-fi cabinet. The older I got the more I realised the limits to his abilities. Jobs got done because they had to get done and the only tradesman who ever crossed our threshold was the TV repair guy back in the day people actually got things repaired and didn’t simply replace them without even trying to get them fixed. Changed times.

  2. Your dad reminds me of mine in some ways, Jim. Self-determined but sometimes lacking a certain aesthetic. Though then again, maybe they were not so alike. My dad loved art and music and building yachts. Thanks, Jim.

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