Ok, Kraken lovers, it’s time for a moment of quiet reflection. Forget the bags and feminist badges because it’s been a week of bad news. Conjugal Kraken’s mum, 85 year old Ena, died this week and I’m not telling you this because I’m sympathy surfing. I’m telling you this because Ena could wield a sewing needle in ways I can only ever dream of. Seriously, I take staggering pride in my products but compared to Ena’s sewing skills they look like they’ve been fashioned by crack-addicted, one-handed monkeys. That’s because Ena had a long career as a domestic science teacher and was trained to sew like a genius during the 1940s at Bath Domestic Science College. And even though she’s now gone to the great sewing schoolroom in the sky she is always with me in my sewing shed. Here’s why…
A couple of years ago, before Ena needed to go into her care home, Conjugal Kraken had the task of clearing her home of 60ish years. In it he discovered her entire sewing life and, very wonderfully, gave it to me. Believe me when I say that it was like being taken on a lifetime tour of sewing and fashion. The V&A would have shit its pants. To begin with Conjugal Kraken handed me Ena’s workbooks from her college days, books in which she had not just handwritten everything there is to know about sewing facings, top stitching, pattern adaptation, pleating and every other sewing subject known to man but in which she had made the smallest, most perfect paper pattern examples of her work. Looking at them is like looking at Lilliputian sewing projects and I seep wonder when I’m looking at them.
Then Conjugal Kraken handed me her bountiful stash of sewing patterns, some of which she collected so long ago that she had to buy them by sending handwritten letters to the manufacturers. It is the fattest slice of vintage pattern heaven. Ok, Ok, the images on the envelopes are enough to make you wonder what the frig anyone was thinking by wearing high waisted flairs and safari suits but the patterns themselves are glorious and precious. No, I can’t ever imagine myself making most of the styles, not unless I was going to a fancy dress party as a 50s housewife, but if I were I’d use patterns that she cared for so completely that they are barely even creased.
That wasn’t all that Conjugal Kraken found though. I now own so many reels of cotton that I find myself gawping at my collection. No, not at the reels that were bought by Ena within the last 20 years, but reels that date back to the war. I’m not kidding, there is thread for fixing stockings, thread that is priced in pennies, shillings and crowns and thread that is so old it has almost rotted on the reel. And it doesn’t matter that they are unusable because they are just too fabulous to use. Instead I keep them safely tucked away where I get them out every now n then to marvel at not just Ena’s ability with a needle but her ability to cling onto every item of haberdashery she ever came across.
So now I have a thousand thimbles, a million pins and such a varied stash of needles that I don’t even know what half of them are for. I have the heaviest iron scissors that are rusty but wonderful and such glorious books as Mothercraft, The ABC of Smocking and Gauging (priced 10d), The Simplicity Sewing Book (priced 2/6) and The Practical Guide to Modern Home Needlecraft, all of which have black and white pictures. And you know what else I have? A piece of Ena’s knitting, a piece so old that the wool no longer feels soft, yet it is unfinished and the needles are still in it, as if any moment now Ena will walk in, pick it up and sternly tell me where I’m going wrong on that bloody sleeve inset. It has sat, unfinished, for decades and that’s how it will now remain.
So every time I set foot in my sewing shed I think of Ena. Not just because she will be so missed as a member of our little family but because so much of her is around me. Each time I reach into my scissors box, root for a cotton reel, flick through my patterns, search for a book, pick out a needle or simply pin a pattern to fabric I can see her face. Every time I struggle with a hem or a tuck I wonder how she would have tackled it. I could never hope to be the sewing wonder that she has been but she lives on every day in my sewing shed. God alone knows what she’d think of my feminist badges and my sweary hearts (I was too scared to ask her) but I like to think that each of the things I make has a tiny part of her in it. So fly, Ena, fly! Know that you’ll now live and be remembered well beyond your 85 years and know, more than anything else, that we’ll miss you.