Bursting at the Seams: Tamsin Blanchard Cherishes the Life of Clothes
I can’t really remember my mother sitting me down and telling me she was going to teach me to sew. But for most of my childhood, the sewing machine would be brought out onto the kitchen or dining room table at regular occasions, and either she would be making something or altering something she had bought – taking up a hem, perhaps. She was 5ft 1in and a bit, so clothes often needed a bit of an adjustment here and there.
It seemed quite normal for clothes to be homemade. Of course, in the 1950s and 1960s, young women made their own clothes, or enlisted the help of a dressmaker to make them. There was no culture of simply buying something off the peg on a whim. Consequently, women understood how clothes were made, and the difference between, say, a wool crepe and a bit of Crimplene. There was a whole different culture around clothes and how they were made.
I recall Saturday afternoons as a small child, leaning against her legs, bored and irritable as she would spend what seemed like hours browsing the sewing-pattern books at George Henry Lee, the John Lewis of Liverpool, looking for her next project, a cool shirtdress she would make from navy silk, or possibly one of her most ambitious projects, a voluminous wrap coat she made from a Vogue Kenzo pattern out of beautiful-quality black wool, all perfectly topstitched. I loved looking at all the rolls of fabric, helping to choose the right one, and was fascinated by the way the sales assistant would measure it out, cut a little nick, and then rip the fabric apart in a precise straight line.
My mother was inspired in her dressmaking by whatever was going on in fashion, but she had a timeless style all her own. How she looked mattered to her and while she never looked “overdone”, she always made an effort. Her eye for fashion was passed onto me when I was probably no more than six and she made a dress for me to wear to the Christmas party at school. I remember it vividly – a black velvet empire-line maxi- dress (this would have been 1975), with a yolk made from a square of Laura Ashley floral fabric. Black, for a six-year-old! How incredibly chic with my black patent leather ankle-strap shoes.
Dressmaking was never something she did as some kind of housewife’s choice. Sewing, for her, was a means to an end, a way of making clothes that would otherwise have been beyond her means. It was also just a wonderful creative outlet. I remember my older brother teaching himself to use a knitting machine, surely with her encouragement. It was one of those manual ones you clamp onto a table. Back and forth he would go, line after line of knitting, though I can’t recall him wearing anything he made. I think, for him, always a bit of a science geek, it was more about the maths, the patterns, the thing that relates to computer programming. He also used the sewing machine, particularly in the 1980s, when skinny jeans – back then, they were called drainpipes – were all the rage. He would measure a line and take in the legs of his jeans so he could barely fit his size 10 feet through them.
My own dressmaking started when I was still at primary school. I remember watching American Graffiti, and I guess Grease, which was released in 1978, when I was nine years old. Yes, that would coincide perfectly with my obsession with circle skirts and wide, elasticated, waspy belts. My mother taught me how to literally cut a circle out of a piece of cloth, sew up the sides, make a waistband and stitch a hem, and voilà! A swirly circle skirt ready in a matter of hours. While she was a skilled dressmaker, I was always very haphazard, impossibly impatient to just finish the thing and wear it.
A few years later, I recall spreading sheets of newspaper out on the ground and drawing around myself to get the “pattern” for a dress. There were tiered ra-ra skirts – quite a few of them, they were so easy to make and fun to wear. There was a pair of white pedal pushers, with red buttons on the waistband, to wear bib-and-brace style. I recall making the outfit for my first gig – probably at the age of 11. It was Altered Images at Liverpool student union, and we stood on chairs at the back so we could see. I think I wore a skirt made from pink net (which I loved because you didn’t have to hem it) and a pair of fingerless lace gloves that I had also made. The challenge for me was always seeing what I could run up on a Saturday afternoon to wear to the school disco that night. I wouldn’t have stood a chance on The Great British Sewing Bee. I would find as many shortcuts as I could, even Sellotaping a hem up one time because I just couldn’t be bothered sewing it.
Probably in an attempt to make me slow down and learn to sew properly, my mother suggested that we make a winter coat together. I was about 13. It stands out in my mind particularly because it was made from electric blue mohair wool, with the shiniest blue satin lining. It had a shawl collar and a bit of a swing. It had topstitching. Neat, too! This was a proper project, not something to cut corners on. A few years ago, one of my teachers from school emailed me out of the blue having seen a piece I had written for The Guardian. It was a story about going through my mother’s wardrobe after she passed away in 2016, and she remembered me from school. She mentioned that blue coat.
Clothes are so intertwined in the memories we have of our family. My mother didn’t throw anything away, so working my way through her wardrobe was like looking through a photograph album. There were some pieces and the odd designer handbag I had given her (sometimes gifted to me in my role as a fashion editor, or bought with a discount), such as a black Helmut Lang asymmetric dress, or some long-defunct, obscure Belgian designer we both loved in the mid-1990s. There were many fitted black jackets, because she knew how useful they were for a meeting or a formal event. There were lots of tunics and smock dresses. There was a beautiful dress and jacket made to measure for her by our friend, and her former student, Barbara Baum. There was a beanie hat in bright pink mohair with a bow knitted on the top by Antoni & Alison, a present one Christmas.
There were several kimonos, many vintage, bought from flea markets over the years. I kept all of these, though I barely dare pick up one particularly beautiful 1930s kimono, which has gold thread running through it, because the silk-chiffon lining is disintegrating at the slightest touch. There are lovely cream silk blouses from flea markets. There is a quilted silk waistcoat that my mother-in-law, a professional dressmaker who taught at an adult education institute, made for her, which looks as though it was hand-sewn by fairies, complete with a neat label stitched inside that says “Nora Doerfel”. A present from a mother to another mother; one dressmaker to another. And, of course, there are many of the items she made herself, which are impossible to part with because they are part of her. Sadly, I am several sizes bigger than her, but I can fit into some of them, such as the “Kenzo” coat, and her
comfy denim dungarees, which I love to wear and which she probably bought in the 1990s.
The clothes people leave behind are so intensely personal. In a way, they are like another skin. They not only tell so much about the taste of the person who wore them, but also the type of life they led. We donated many of the more basic, everyday items to charity. But I still have boxes of my mother’s clothes, thinking I would sell some for Kidney Research (she had kidney failure). But there is a comfort in having some of those clothes around me, like the kimonos and the Helmut Lang dress, which now hang on my bedroom door. They are constant reminders that are somehow more resonant than a photograph. It’s as though they are still alive, somehow.
But there is a greater legacy in these clothes, and in this lifetime of dressmaking that has, to some extent, made me who I am. Just as my mother respected and understood how clothes are made, and consequently looked after her clothes, mending them, sewing buttons back on, altering them to make them fit, so too, am I only able to take an item of clothing at face value. Clothes are much more than a product or a commodity to be made, sold, worn and discarded. The pace at which we now make and consume clothes has become obscene, not just for our own personal values but for the health of the planet. My mother’s wardrobe was accumulated and evolved over a lifetime. She didn’t get rid of much, but every item, whether from H&M, Chelsea Girl, Marks & Spencer or another high street chain, vintage-clothes stall, or luxury designer, was chosen for a reason and treated with care. She didn’t differentiate between pieces depending on their price tag. Everything was of value.
It is, I’m sure, no coincidence that I now campaign with Fashion Revolution to make a fair, safe and clean fashion industry for all who work in it. I believe that all of us who love clothes want to be able to trust that these clothes that we spend our lives in, work- ing, going out, celebrating birthdays, weddings, family achievements, seeing friends, have been made with the respect they deserve. We have a hashtag at Fashion Revolution – #LovedClothesLast – and my mother’s wardrobe is testament to that. Loved clothes not only last, they live on and on. There is so much more than thread woven into the seams of our clothes.
Artwork: Arlene Blanchard, Tamsin’s mother, by Tony Wells. Taken from Issue 65 of 10 Magazine – FAMILY, FOREVER, LOVE – available to purchase here.
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