Home Sewn — with patterns from 10 leading New Zealand designers, by New Zealand Fashion Museum, Penguin Books, 2012) 80 pp., $45.
An attractive book, the cover is a chic photo of a high fashion model in a jade green designer dress in front of a grey backdrop. The title HOME SEWN is in white and shocking pink. This book will have a fresh appeal for a wide readership; people who sew at home, or who like fashion are a diverse population. A substantial plastic sleeve also draws one’s attention, a clever feature to preserve the book which may be referred to many times, and handy for the included paper patterns too. Once templates are unfolded and used, it could be easier to pop them in the plastic sleeve with the book rather than in the attached, rear cover, paper envelope.
Shocking pink also flashes inside the covers, a racy, surprising element. Perhaps these refer to Schiaparelli, the Italian dress designer who famously applied the ‘shocking’ moniker to hot-pink, popularised in her artful, 1930s designs. An intense hue, it could obliquely refer to New Zealanders’ pioneering spirit, just as Schiaparelli was an innovative artist.
The jade green dress on the cover seems both high-fashion and easy-to-make, although the back cover tells a more complicated story. Somehow the listed designers involved make this backstage view of spectacular collar and gathered detail appealing, as if to emphasise that we-who-sew-at-home could create something complex. Local fashion businesses, Company of Strangers, Cybele, Katie-maree Cole, Lela Jacobs, Papercut, Starfish, TK store, twenty-seven names, Vaughn Geeson and WORLD all supplied their designs as patterns.
Doris de Pont, director of New Zealand Fashion Museum writes in a well-informed, personable way in her introduction. It undeniably shows a populist touch, flowing along; it’s both historically accurate — even if rather narrow — and entertaining. Decades ago, she and I worked together (I was in the rag trade for 15 years) and de Pont exercises her considerable knowledge of fashion and sewing in her opening essay, with the same verve with which she once produced remarkable clothes for the extroverts amongst us.
Her love of the fascinating, style-driven and demanding world of fashion illuminates the writing, softens it. There’s real admiration for the home sewing girls, women, (and some males, I suppose but they are barely mentioned), who take it upon themselves to be as elegant, or outrageous, or as sensibly attired as any may wish, often individualising store-bought pattern looks.
This book focuses mainly on feminine clothing, and, to be fair home sewing was for decades dominated by women and girls in New Zealand. Early settlers would’ve included some male tailors and other men who sewed, but dressmakers were usually women and it was only girls, until recently, who were taught sewing at school too, then practised at home. If boys and men needed something run up then helpful, female relatives or friends could kit them out. My lead guitarist partner benefited from my sewing expertise, for instance, when there was barely a thing off-the-rack in the 1970s for a rock musician to look the part. Family stories for generations abounded regarding the running up of wedding dresses, ball dresses and everyday wear. It’s true as de Pont says, from the beginning of Pākehā settlement until a few decades ago, it was difficult to find stylish or everyday clothing without sewing items yourself, or knowing someone who would do so, in the manner required.
It’s fascinating to read how European needlecraft skills arrived here and to picture these women avidly seeking out news of the latest: ‘Those who prospered and established themselves in society kept abreast of the latest trends through descriptions and illustrations in the women’s pages of the newspapers, which have sprung up in cities and towns across the country.’ Dedicated fashion followers also kept in touch with overseas contacts, to learn who was wearing what and where, and how any style could be translated to suit our climes.
Details about domestic sewing are woven expertly in with the development of drapers and haberdashers — those who supplied necessary fabrics and notions. Gradually businesses such as Hallenstein’s began to offer sturdy garments, with Hallenstein’s manufactured in our first clothing factory, located in in Dunedin. Alternatives like importing ready-made clothes, or employing a dressmaker or tailor, did exist to making one’s own garments and are mentioned. Tantalising information for the local fashion history fan is offered in this book and more could be made of such historical stories, in future Fashion Museum publications.
Although this book is about New Zealand, it inevitably features other places in the world. Fashion centres were considered until recently to be anywhere but here, and we’re reminded of that fact with a rather kindly, retro-fun attitude, though
Home Sewn eventually segues into our newly formed, world-famous fashion design industry. With a different motif and logo on every page for each new loveliness, quirky look or stunner of an outfit to suit, the ten designers feature consecutively, nine women and one man. A fine, full-page fashion photo of their particular design introduces each, with a professional model shown in contemporary style. Chatty pieces regarding the designers’ own history appear, with some mentioning domestic sewing backgrounds.
Next, clear layouts of pattern pieces are shown, with measurements, fabric suggestions, notions required, instructions listed, and additional information, mostly in an approachable manner. The thought of making that Cybele big back collar detail did still seem daunting, but I’m going to tackle it, so the book is persuasive and the instructions are encouraging. Detailed, clear photographic tutorials for how to create a French seam, make your own bias binding and more, are beautifully presented.
Some of the designs could suit some men too, but the models are all women.
Sarah Jane Rowland interviewed the designers, taking readers further than any commercial pattern bought from a shop catalogue would do. Crafty folk could love to know more about the designers.
The New Zealand Fashion Museum began in 2010, and this is not the first publication they’ve created. Its publications confirm that New Zealand has definitely come of age as far as valuing and evaluating our history or herstory of domestic life is concerned. Home Sewn draws attention to something many have engaged with: sewing clothes at home, or developing that interest into a business. The book also highlights our historic and on-going interest in fashion. Tangata whenua are mentioned as being taught sewing skills early on, in this book, and were alluded to in the Home Sewn exhibition, (with a dress made of the Tino Rangatiratanga flag and the New Zealand flag). Also, indigenous clothing has metamorphosised into world-shown fashion, (such as Shona Tawhiao’s work paraded in Europe), and excellent home sewn creations.
Fine work was and is still done with materials grown here, such as flax and feathers, but nothing much is mentioned about those in Home Sewn, nor about Pacific Island creations which are visible everywhere especially in Auckland. The most obvious proof however, that Fashion Museum productions show we have matured is to do with how we are speaking and writing as if our everyday lives here in Aotearoa have remarkable aspects, essential details which need to be examined, discussed, celebrated, criticised and developed in order for all of us to enjoy and celebrate who we are, truly. The expertise and sheer dogged determination which comes across in this book is inspiring, even if it did not go as far as I would have preferred in showing diversity. There is a real sense of critical ideas being listened to by association as well, which has to be a sign of decent development, (Fashion Museum asks for feedback at their exhibitions).
This publication will have a true appeal beyond our islands. Fashions offered are uniquely New Zealand in some ways, and could be delightedly sewn in other countries: it incorporates a DIY element which surely makes it even more quintessentially of this land.
Difficulty with one particular word in this book however, did occur over and over, jarringly: the word, sewer. Possibly other readers can see the issue someone could have with, ‘sewer’, despite knowing the context? ‘Sewer’ does describe people sewing, but it is also far more often used to describe a conduit for waste. Ambiguity requires awareness, and a good editor should have picked up that particular double meaning then changed the word throughout. A more balanced picture would include, too, a wider range of cultural sewing expertise, and a more balanced gender representation. A good editor would have mentioned this and surely insisted upon it, for a museum publication?
Reviewers often complain about the poor standard of editing with New Zealand books. Now that a worldwide market for our writing without question exists, New Zealand publishing must pay far more attention to keeping high standards. World-wide and local readers require fine writing, this so excellent research, the wondrous bounty of information, stories and other material we have here can be properly absorbed to enrich our lives without distracting, inept editing getting in the way.
The fact that the patterns included need to be transferred to other paper like newsprint or tissue with a little spiky wheel, also worried me. I’m accustomed to ready-made patterns or just cutting things out directly from the fabric. Other people who sew assured me they did not mind, ‘It would teach me about structure’, said one. Another could see it was a sensible way to ensure the patterns could be re-used in future by other readers, too.
Apart from the stated criticisms and quibbles, this smart-looking publication is on the whole a really pleasing volume and a welcome addition to the growing collection of Fashion Museum productions. This book deserves your attention and could make a fine gift.
RAEWYN ALEXANDER is a former clothes designer who writes fiction and poetry. She is also an editor and publisher. Her e-book What we Talk about when we Talk about Death, Money and Heart was published by Brightspark Books in 2012. Raewyn Alexander’s most recent book Staples — Recipes, Hints, Poetry is inspired by her status updates online (Brightspark Books, 2013).
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