My Sewing Roots

I like to think I have a scientific mind but I also know I believe there is a little bit of magic in the world. Likewise, I do believe that certain traits, passions or tendencies can run in families even though these have nothing to do with genetics. My nan got me into crafting from an early age; I remember having a piece of french knitting going on forever (although we called it corking), and I quickly got into counted cross stitch patterns and tapestry, not least because nan always had and still has a tapestry project on the go.

But in fact it’s my grandad’s mum; my great grandmother Florence Wilkins (née Norton) who was the great dressmaker of the family. This is her, with my great grandfather William Henry – judging from the clothes they are at a wedding, it may well have been my grandparents’. They married on leap day in February so that would fit with the fur collared coat!

great grandparents

I love this photo, for a few reasons. I like that the couple are not both looking at the camera; Florence’s attention is slightly to the right of the person taking the photo. William’s expression is fascinating, managing to look serious and yet with a quirk of a smile. But mostly I love how smartly dressed Florence is, with the perfectly fitted fur-collar coat, gloves and handbag just-so on her arm.

Sadly I never knew her, but both nan and mum have painted a picture with their anecdotes. She was a prolific seamstress, making every kind of garment for every member of the family, from pyjamas to wedding dresses. If you showed her a picture in a magazine she could make up an almost identical garment in a few days. Often she would just make things for people as well, and had a great eye for their preferred styles and what would suit them. The room she used for sewing was always draped all around the walls with fabric, work-in-progress and finished pieces. And she frequented the rag market and the other fabric institutions of Birmingham. Nan says she never said “fabric” though, she’d always say “I found a lovely bit of stuff for you today at the market” and before you knew it that had become a skirt or a blouse. Mum remembers her making a bright purple velvet party dress when she was a little girl, and knowing that no one else would be wearing a dress quite like hers!

It was also her profession, but I have no idea how she had time for paying customers amongst all the family sewing she seems to have been doing!

I think my grandparents are secretly a bit moved that I have got into dressmaking, pretty much independently of finding out all of the above. I guess a little bit of Florence lives on in me, although I am 100% sure I will never achieve the level of skill that she had. Truth be told, I am a little bit moved by it too, and I regret that I never had chance to know her and learn from her.

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