Thursday, June 5, 2014

Stitching My Story

I have an opening address to prepare for the Essendon Quilters Show on the 4th to 6th of July. The theme of their show is 'Stitching Our Stories'.
In preparing for this and in writing my speech from an historical and social context about this theme, it has made me think about my own story and my own relationship with 'stitching'. My own process of working with my hands and what it means to me.

There were circumstances as a child that made things difficult for me. They were things beyond my control that made me awkward and unsocial. Things I didn't fully understand that made me retreat into my own solitary world. I arrived late on the scene. I was adopted. Everyone else around me had younger parents and grandparents. Mine were a good 20 years older than theirs, with very old fashioned views. Children were seen and not heard. The adoption thing was always skirted about and never really talked about, but in my head I thought I had to behave or I would be sent back. It was complicated never being able to talk about things that I didn't understand.  Part of that world I absorbed myself in was making things. It was solitary and quiet. Something I could master and learn. Something that was mine. It kept me out of trouble.

I taught myself to knit after watching my step nan on my Dads side knit. She was a test knitter for Patons. I had to teach myself as no one wanted to teach a left hander. They didn't have the time. The first thing I made was a little Australian flag. I was really proud of that. I worked it out myself from a book from the Library.
I was looked after a lot by my grandmother as my mum had times when she was very unwell. My Nan was a professional dressmaker for society ladies. She cut her teeth in the trade in work rooms in Collins Street in the 1930s and 40s. Then she set up a work room at home. Always scraps to play with but I was never allowed to touch anything. It's a terrible trade the 'rag trade' you don't want to work in it she would say. I never really listened to her. My early taste of rebellion and being stubborn. She was a stern and formidable lady, she loved me in her own old-fashioned way. She made it to 99.5 years. I still think she was hanging out for that letter from the Queen.

My dad always saw that I was making things. He bought me my first sewing machine when I was 13. I taught myself to sew from books, patterns and fabric from the op-shop and lots of trial and error. I think my mum never really approved of what I made. It was the early 90s and I was pretty grungy.  She kept trying to buy me nice pretty dresses. I've never really got the hang of the dress. I live in my skinny jeans and dark colours. Every now and again she will get me something from Country Road and she will push the envelope by it being in a colour other than black, grey or white. I'm learning to play the game. We are getting better at it. She finds me nice things in black now and didn't bat an eyelid at my wedding dress being black. Its funny how your relationships change as you get older.

In my early 20s sewing was my expression and fashion. Being a uni student and living out of home I was pretty broke. My best friend and I would go on mega op-shop hauls. We would tag team in our 'beaters' the first cars and go off and find all sorts of amazing stuff. We loved the old ladies who looked after the shops. My earliest taste of collecting stories. They liked it that we could sew. They would keep stuff for us as they knew we would be back. Todays op-shops aren't patch on how they used to be. One of my favourite finds was a mint dark denim Levis trucker jacket for 50 cents. I wore that to death. Or finding full length suede over coats for a few dollars. And the Fabric! Oh my god, AMAZING. Let us just say, I had a bug. And with tip money from waiting tables at a pizza joint, it felt like a million dollars worth of booty. And I hoarded. The earliest taste of 'she who dies with most wins'. I was a WINNER.

After 10 years in Melbourne my partner and I decided to pack up and move to sunnier climes. Packing that removal truck, half was boxes of fabric. It was a bit embarrassing, but my partner, now my husband was always very tolerant of it, not sure he liked it. I was a bit bored and out of sorts living in the country in a very small community that was a bit suspicious of 'city folk'. This was also a time when the internet was only just taking off and freelance design work was tricky to do living so remote. When my partner was working I'd jump in the car and go off road tripping picking up bits and pieces in the inland country towns and adding them to my collection. While living there I made vintage bikinis out of 1960s fabrics and sold them at the local surf shops. I called it 'Keenie'. It kept me out of trouble. After 2 years we came back and tried to settle back to life in Melbourne but it never really suited us. I went back to random and freelance design jobs and he went to work on boats. A different chapter of our lives began.

I have to say I have been incredibly lucky to have seen so much of the world and I would not have been able to do half of it if it wasn't for my partner and his work. I have done so much travel on my own as well. I spend loads of time on my own as his work would take him half way around the world at a moments notice.
My interests take me to places where I can learn and see. Solo travel is an amazing luxury. I have been able to spend whole days in the one gallery or museum. Wander the streets I want to just looking at buildings and people watching. Eating snacks and drinking coffee. Finding a length of fabric or trim in the flea markets, an old set of keys or a book. Seeing different details.
Now my husband is in the Navy, another title I have is 'Navy Wife'. So again, I spend a lot of time on my own. Having such a love of sewing, fabric, quilts and knitting and everything in between is my thing. I can while away hours on the one project and wonder where the time goes. I can get so engrossed in folding my stash, remembering each piece and where it was found or who it came from. Each one of my fabrics has a story. I 'find' my fabrics or they cross my path. I travel and I seek them out. The connections I make with kindred sprits are some of the most amazing moments be they small or large that I have had. A kindness or a smile about a similar interest. A memory or a handing down of a tip or story. I have been given fabrics that belonged to someones great grandmother and they want me to have them as they know I will love them. Even today a lady rang me and asked for my address to send me a quilt that she wanted me to have. She had met me once and remembered me. Its things like this that are embedded in 'my story'. But the 'thread' that links this is a literal thread. Be it spun or woven, stitched or knitted, it is stitched into who I am.  This is my story.


  1. I agree, what a touching story. Thanks for sharing :-)

  2. Jen, this is so beautifully written. Your opening address will be such a success based on the warmth and depth of your own story.
    The paths that you have chosen mean that you have become part of the fabric of other's lives- which include mine. You, your fabric, and now your story have now become a part of my "story in stitches". And for that, I give you most heart-felt thanks.

  3. Eloquently written, an inspiring story, thank you for sharing. You wouldn't know any of it after meeting you, except for your love & knowledge of fabric.

  4. Jen, I am so moved. This life you have has always been your destiny! Lovely. Jo xx

  5. Thank you for sharing your story, you have a wonderful background to do what you do, and I felt your love of vintage fabric come through. Caused me also to take a look back at my our path, to making, loving and collecting fabric. Thank you again.

  6. A very fascinating post. I myself am a crocheter, not a quilter, but I find it equally as fascinating to discover what drives others and myself to our crafts. Crochet has been my focus through a couple of really hard years with my small children, and I'm sure my blankets have absorbed fun times, laughter and also all of my worries and sadnesses. I've shopped for yarn when I've been on my lowest ebb and also with friends and had an absolute blast doing it (and finding bargains!!). Life is a journey and I'm certainly glad that I have had my crochet to help me along the hard times. I can tell that fabrics and quilts have also helped you along. I love that sometimes we can see others needs for something to keep them busy during the hard times just by seeing how busy they have been with their craft. I sometimes wish that the GP could prescribe 2 hours of crochet every other day :)