Fear Factor 3 – Del Hughes gets stung by the Sewing Bee
From the off, I freely admit that I’m no domestic goddess. Raised by a mum who was the first female in her family to actually go out to work, and whose ‘bibles’ were, somewhat paradoxically, ‘Superwoman’ by Shirley Conran, and the ‘St Michael All Colour Freezer Cookery Book’, I guess it’s hardly surprising.
In the mid-70s, a heady time when wallpaper was psychedelic and dinner parties were all the rage, I’d often sit at the top of the stairs, listening to the grown-ups become increasingly ‘merry’ with each course, and frequently heard Mum uttering her favourite phrase, ‘Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom.’
And, on the whole, she lived by that tenet, with her gastronomic offerings being mainly shop bought, though some were, occasionally, passed off as homemade. I vividly remember the night when, whilst tucking into her farmhouse pâté, someone asked for the recipe, and her ensuing, stuttered explanation fooled no-one, not even the seven-year-old me.
Yes, she would, sporadically, come home on a Friday evening and spend the weekend cooking up a storm. But whatever tasty treats resulted from these culinary forays were labelled ‘Chest Freezer Only’, and there they stayed. Dad and I didn’t get a look in, and woe betide us if we so much as sneaked a peek.
She tried flower arranging once, returning with a health and safety nightmare called a ‘Christmas candle holder’. It sat squat and sparse on our festive table for over two weeks, the flame gradually causing the single, faux, Christmas rose to shed its plastic petals into a cold collation – leading to Gran’s priceless comment: ‘These crisps taste very stale. They can’t be M & S!’
She tried knitting, spending more than five months on a jumper for me. Throughout, she insisted that the telly remained off, and Dad and I had to converse in whispers because, any sound, ‘breaks my concentration.’ And when it came to casting on and off. . . suffice it to say, there were tears.
But she did eventually finish it, a moment of pride which lasted just the two hours it took her new washing machine to shrink it to the perfect size for my favourite bear.
Poor Mum. She wasn’t cut out for domesticity, no matter how hard she tried. And I’ve clearly followed in her footsteps.
But what’s surprising is that, despite having little interest in attempting such homely activities myself, I do enjoy watching those tv programmes where others create mouth-watering bakes, charming ceramics, items of clothing or beautifully crafted chairs. It’s awe-inspiring, seeing such expertise in action, but I get frequent flutters of anxiety too.
Anxiety, because I can’t help imagining how I’d fare if I was transported to the Bake-Off tent or a scenically sited workshop and asked to blind bake, hand build, jigsaw or bind a bodice. (Spoiler: Dreadfully, obvs!)
My culinary speciality is jacket potato with cheese and beans, a jigsaw is my standard go-to gift for elderly relatives, and I still haven’t got the hang of our washing machine – as evidenced by Tim’s new white t-shirts being a vivid shade of pink, with a funky tie-dye effect.
But it’s the ‘Sewing Bee’, with its machines, pedals, patterns and pins that always gets my heart racing and fills my chest with a palpable sense of panic. If I was plonked in that haberdashery, I’d be hightailing it out of there, snatching at scraps of Terrycloth to wipe away my fear-tears because, when it comes to needlecrafts, I’m 98% clueless and 100% cowardly.
(The 2% is because I can make a fair stab at reattaching shirt buttons and I’ve taken up a few pairs of Tim’s trousers. He used to do it himself, using those tiny sewing kits you get from Christmas crackers, but his eyesight isn’t what it was, and that suits me fine because, one year on, he still hasn’t noticed that I hemmed his work slacks with staples – genius because they’re not only a quick fix but also add a smidge of sparkle to his understated wardrobe.)
Anyway, it’s this fear which I’m tackling today, and though I’m infused with trepidation rather than full-blown terror, I still needed to give myself a pep talk and take a few deep breaths before entering Killay Recreation Centre at half nine on Saturday morning for the ‘Make a Cushion’ masterclass.
No, I don’t know why I booked it either. I can only think that my new gung-ho attitude to life has become so entrenched, it’s automatically starting to smother my less intrepid character traits. Whatever the reason, I was just hoping that I’d make it through the full three hours and come away with both cushion, and dignity, intact. Fingers cross(stitch)ed!
I’d already messaged Helen, our teacher, to double check that this was going to be suitable for ‘a complete and utter beginner who hasn’t touched a sewing machine since secondary school’, and she’d replied with a reassuring, ‘You’re definitely in the perfect group, so don’t worry.’
Okay, I’m going in.
I followed the buzz of conversation to the sewing room which was decked out with an array of machines and a central table swathed with fabrics, threads, ribbons and accessories we would need to complete our project.
My fellow needleworkers were already armed with Hobnobs and beverages, so I grabbed a coffee, tried to settle my nerves and prepared myself for what was to come. As I chatted to some of my classmates, I was heartened to discover that, though there were some experts among us, several hadn’t used sewing machines before and considered themselves as amateur as me. Phew.
Katie wanted to learn so she could make dresses for her granddaughter, which explained the Peppa Pig fabric she’d brought for her cushion. Ann was a beginner too but had a secret weapon in the form of her teenage daughter, Tasha, who was doing sewing at school and was ‘quite good.’ Envious much? However, Ann was happy to share said daughter, and over the ensuing three hours I benefited from Ann’s moral, and Tasha’s practical, support.
But first came the important job of textile selection. Our cushions would be square, and we’d be using two fabrics on the display side, with a plain but hardwearing, denim back.
This perked me up because I do have a good eye for colour and pattern, even if Tim has hinted that he feels my design choices can be a tad restrained – ‘Not more bollocking neutrals. Paint it red or summat!’ Sigh.
Anyway, since hitting my fifties, I’ve developed a penchant for open florals, so my first choice was a blousy cream rose on a green background, and I opted to pair it with a plain cerise. They didn’t seem natural bedfellows but I hoped the teal ribbon would tie them together and I’d have a finished article which would complement the other cushions on our sofa. (Obviously, that’s assuming I actually ended up with a finished article, and not unsewn squares of mismatched materials.)
Once we’d chosen, Helen launched into the first of her demonstrations and I began taking notes. She pitched her teaching at exactly the right level for most of us, took time to speak to us all individually and dealt with my very basic, oftentimes stupid, questions with good humour and clearly explained answers.
She covered the various stitches we’d be using – mostly straight, which seemed doable – though the zigzag we’d be using to attach our ribbon seemed ominously advanced. And, just like that, it was time to fire up the Brother Innov-is 10A Anniversary and start sewing. Eek.
I certainly didn’t feel ready but that didn’t matter because I’m not sure it can truly be termed ‘sewing’ if you’re not using thread, and you’re just peppering a piece of paper with needle holes? But that’s how we started.
The A4 was printed with lines – several straight, a few angular and a couple of curvy. We placed it in position, hand wound the needle down and used the plastic foot to secure it in place. Helen said not to push, instead ‘gently guide it with your fingertips as the dog teeth will pull it through.’ Then I turned my speed to 1 (aka tortoise), pressed the pedal and I was away.
Okay, so keeping lines straight is harder than you’d imagine. I kept veering away, mainly because my eyesight (which the optician says is very good) was definitely not good enough to see where the needle was punching through the paper.
The only way to combat this was to keep my nose a few millimetres from the needle plate, resulting in a hunched position that did absolutely nothing for my spinal issues and, more upsettingly, absolutely nothing for the quality of my sewing. Humph.
And ‘sew’ it continued. I finally managed a straightish line, had a good go at the angular and curved, and was beginning to feel rather pleased with my progress. Though I was a long way from perfect, Helen said I’d done great and ‘those errors won’t show once you start on your fabric.’ Lol! But I’ll take any praise, no matter how faint!
My confidence was building, only for it to seep away when we undertook the task of transferring our cotton to a bobbin and threading the machine. This was what I’d been dreading, still haunted by memories of attempting the same during a Home Economics test which I failed miserably. Gulp. Well, here goes nothing.
The complexities of feeding thread through various levers, nooks and crannies to finally emerge triumphant in the eye of a needle, were beyond my capabilities. We were reminded to ‘use the handy numbers shown on the machine’ which were helpful in theory, but in practise. . . WTF?
Helen said it was all about the ‘tension’ and, given that I was getting increasingly stressed with each failed attempt, I could well believe her. And don’t even mention the bobbin slot, its ‘P’ positioning or what to do when your thread snarls. I was fraying around the edges but remained resolute – I’d figure it out.
Turns out, it’s sodding impossible to figure out unless you’re a qualified engineer with a side-hustle in mechanics and logistics. . . or you’re a teenager called Tasha, who shyly confided that she’d got an A* for her textile project and was happy to help (and where ‘help’ = do it for me while I get another coffee).
So yes, I cheated. But come on, I was wasting valuable cushion-making time faffing around. And so, with teal thread expertly in place, I started on the main event. And I swear that the rest of it was all my own work. Honest, Miss.
Once I got going, it wasn’t that bad. My side seams were a little skewwhiff, but not massively so, and I even remembered to backstitch at the beginning and end of each line. Zigzagging the ribbon into place was nerve wracking, but it ended up, mostly, straight. In fact, I was going great guns until I hit the corners.
Corners with their stupid 90º angles. The technique was to ‘stitch along the seam until you are 1cm away from the end, wind the needle into the fabric, lift the presser foot and then pivot the fabric into position ready to sew the next edge.’
Sounds simple, but I struggled – and if you’ve seen the ‘Friends’ episode where Ross gets a new sofa, you should be able to imagine the sound of my inner voice as it repeatedly yelled, ‘pivot. . . Pivot. . . PIVOT!’ to my uncomplying fingers. But finally, it was done.
Helen handed out cushion pads to stuff inside our covers and when I turned mine over, it revealed. . . a cushion that wouldn’t be out of place in a Laura Ashley catalogue. Un-bloody-believable! Despite the numerous snags along the way, I was chuffed to mint balls, and still can’t quite believe what I managed to create.
Of course, those few hours haven’t cured my sew-a-phobia, and I certainly won’t be hotfooting it down to Cliffords to purchase a machine anytime soon.
But whenever I catch sight of my cushion, sitting puffed up and pretty on the sofa, I can’t help but feel pretty puffed up too, with a genuine sense of pride in a sewing job well done.
So, while life is still too short to stuff a mushroom, I reckon there’s time enough for me to tackle Tim’s staples.
Now where did I last see those sewing kits?
Helen runs a variety of courses throughout the year and caters for all abilities. So, if you fancy a needlework project in a friendly and supportive environment, you can find her classes and events on Facebook at ‘All Sewn Up Wales’.
You can find more of Del’s adventures for Nation.Cymru by following her link on this map
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