Monday, August 1, 2011


For the last few months I have been trapped within a kind of vindictive textile and haberdashery hell while trying to make some loose furnishings. These have been my lost months. And while foreign governments have fallen and re-assembled, royal family members have married and footballers divorced, and luridly shocking phone-hacking newspaper headlines unfolded around the world, my life has been an almost constant flurry of measuring, cutting, stitching, machining...and crying. And then unpicking, re-machining, more unpicking and more stitching. And more crying. I have made so many mistakes and become so certifiably confused that I have been close to being strapped into a white jacket and permanently sedated. I have taken more time over sewing four medium sized box cushions, with zips, plus another small round one, also with a zip, than I ever have, over any other project in my entire life.

It actually all started over a year ago when a friend, who has helped me countless times, asked me to make some covers for some old sofa cushions of hers. She'd had them since the 1960's and now wanted an update. They were a couple of pretty basic big square box cushions with some matching rather odd curved sort of semi-moon shaped upper pouches which were kind of like head rests. And she wanted two of everything so she could chuck them into the washing machine when needed and never be cover-less.

The fact that I am not a professional seamstress seemed to slip both our minds. She believed in me and I...well...I wouldn't say I was ever untruthful, only more that I thought I could rise to the challenge because it was for her. It was a massive mistake for me to think that. Massive.

Those first original cushions took way longer to make than I told her. Instead of the 3 hours per cushion I charged it was more like 12. And the strange saggy upper bit was a complete nightmare to try to assemble. I didn't have the inner sponge pieces to work from, only the old covers, which I unpicked and then used as a pattern. This was fine for the box cushions, only they took so long that by the time I came to make the upper ones, I could no-longer remember which way round they went and had to guess. I'm still not sure why I didn't just ask but I think the further away I got from sanity the deeper entrenched I became in a war between all the constituent parts. It was me and them. And they fucking did my head in.

From the start though, the fabric was difficult. This was casement fabric and it was truly evil. It unravelled with the slightest provocation. Fine I thought, you can't handle provocation? then I'll zig-zag your edges. This turned into a mammoth task even before any proper sewing could begin and I was soon immersed in the first of many afternoons, foot on the peddle and my sewing machine whirling away for all its worth, as I first measured and then cut and zig-zagged the 11 separate parts which made up each cushion.

It also turns out that casement fabric stretches like mad - but only in one direction - so machining became a minefield. I am also well aware that professionals will probably have known loads of short cuts but by this stage I was in way  too deep. I did actually go to my local sewing supply shop and solicit their advice on several occasions. I would buy a reel of cotton, wait my turn in the queue quietly and meekly, and then, once up at the till, rapid-fire a series of cushion and zip-related questions and drain the staff of as much free advice as possible. And each time an unflappable and patient member of staff would slowly explain the various techniques, kindly draw simple diagrams and make all sorts of calculations while I stood there with a wild-eyed and frantic expression on my face pretending to understand what they were trying to explain to me. I would lean over the diagrams and nod in agreement to their suggestions while they calmly showed me exactly what to do but I seemed unable to retain any useful information. It was like trying to teach a particularly vacant chimp the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony.

I would arrive back home and step into the eye of the storm and any of the straight forward instruction I had accidently retained would go straight out of the window. After the third visit I felt I had bled them dry. I could also tell from the exchanged looks on their faces that I had become 'that woman is back' as I entered the shop and I didn't feel I could darken their door again - at least not in this lifetime.

And I was also making silly time-consuming mistakes, forgetting to switch the zig-zag button before machining a seam or using the bright turquoise zig-zag cotton on a seam instead of the off-white. And then I found that the old plasticy tape measure that I found at the bottom of step-mothers old sewing box and which I had confidently been using for the first half of the work was in fact inaccurate having been over-stretched over the years and never returned to its original size. More unpicking. More machining. More tears.

Finally though the cushions were made and my friend paid me well though I hide from her the sweat, tears, anxiety and actual input it took making them. I was sleepless for some weeks after wondering if I had actually attached the upper cushion covers upside down but nothing was ever said. I put it all down to experience. I would never put myself, or indeed any other unsuspecting cushion-covers through such tormented scenes again. And for nearly a year all  remained quiet on the cushion front.

And then one afternoon I happened to be visiting the friend again.

'Oh!' she exclaimed 'I've got another little job for you! These cushions', and she picked up a big fat feather filled square, 'I've just ordered more of that fabric...could you make another set of covers for me?'

And for some reason, probably because I really like her and I didn't want to let her down, all of the previous years misery vanished into that place where all bad past experiences get sucked and forgotten when a positive outlook decides to take charge. Why does one never see that that particular black hole is guarded by a fool?  And so I found myself turning to her, smiling and saying 'yes of course I'll do them!'

Back at home, with the new roll of fabric and measurements, (these newer cushions were already out of reach and on their way to London in a van) I started to descend, once more into my own personal pit of hell and damnation.  What ever had possessed me?

If I thought I had measured it correctly the first time it would turn out I hadn't so I would have to measure again.  The fabric was a cream colour so dressmakers chalk was useless and I resorted to pencil. Soon, though, because I never seemed to manage to measure a simple straight line with much precision, as the pencil would slip haphazardly into the grooves of the weave, the inside of the fabric ended up being scored with multiple silver grey pencil strokes, like endless tramlines, all converging at the corners and all at slightly different angles. I would lick the end of the pencil and make a big star shape to signal a corner. Then, because of the endless handling, I'd notice that pencil lines were wearing off and soon I couldn't figure out which were the ones that were the ones to follow so I began to mark them in biro, scoring lightly in dashes across the grain. Then I'd get cocky and score it more heavily. It looked a mess but at least it was on the inside where no-one could see.

The pre zig-zagged edges were also unravelling with the constant handling and had to be re-done and they stretched and curled and buckled with every pin and stitch and movement. And towards the end of each day, if my eyes weren't already crossed with the strain my eye-sight itself seemed to be fading fast as well and as the stitches swooned in front of my watery vision I could only actually work, owl-like, with the strongest of reading glasses and a row of my brightest of table lamps in place. And because I knew that the fabric was liable to shrink in the wash, and not just when washed, this fabric will also change size due to atmospheric conditions, I had to guess by how much and add a couple of inches all over. With so much guess-work they were never going to be perfect.

Perhaps there was a sense of proving to myself that I could do it, that I could turn this whole sorry episode into something wonderful and creative...even when I knew it just wasn't working. I remember one of my grandmothers would regularly scare small children by producing a ghastly line of garish knitted finger puppets with a sinister and starey-eyed Father Christmas and his elves that looked like toy-towns version of a group meeting of psychopaths at Broadmoor. My grandmother knew that they upset children but she still kept making them, ever hopeful that she'd one day get the eyes right.

Hours bled painful into days and days wept unceasingly into weeks. My friend would phone me from time to time to ask how I was getting on.

'Oh!' I'd say faking surprise, 'I've been so tied up with other stuff I haven't even looked at the cushion covers...I'll see what I can do next week!'

And then I would guiltily put the phone down and hope some dreadful accident would happen which would give me an excuse.

'Oh I'm so so sorry, but you know that bus that went off the bridge and sank in the river just up the road from me last week? You'll never guess what I left on it...'

Every day I would start with re-newed confidence and a strong positive outlook. Today I will finish a cushion I would tell myself. Just one. But for some reason every day would turn into more of a horrendous mess. I measured and marked and pinned and  machined. And something always went wrong and rapidly reduced me to frustrated anger and hair-pulling misery. Having started one morning at 7am, I finally downed tools at 10pm, my worktable a war zone, no cushions in sight, and looked for a way to kill myself.  And the crux of the matter was now clear. I needed to produce a thing of beauty and perfection and nothing else would do. Failing that I'd rather die.

And having finally stepped back from the situation for a moment I realised I was just going to have to accept that I just wasn't capable of this but neither was I about to top myself over existential angst of the needlecraft kind. I just had to make the damn things and move on.

So I got on with it and I made them. And they ended up fitting but only because my fear of them being too small meant they were now vast great cavernous sacks. And the zips, which I'm afraid never went as smoothly as I'd wished, will always face the backs of their framework buckled and too shamefaced to ever be exposed publicly.

And though, when working out the cost, I much reduced the time I spent on them (by weeks rather than hours) they still seemed to be murderously over-priced. And I think they look dreadful. But of course my friend wouldn't ever dream of accepting them for nothing. Or indeed even comment on their very wretchedness.

(And if you ever read this - and you'll know who you are - Mea Culpa, and I'm sorry!)