lalita larking

An obsession with cryptic crosswords. Everything else falls in place.

Location: Kolkata, India

Sunday, October 22, 2006

You sew and sew!

I was looking for something and found something else. An old notebook, yellowing with age but clear enough to be readable still. And I was transported a quarter century back in time.

My tailoring lessons. Dated, lesson by lesson, were wonders I forgot; arcana, indeed. The first page lists the syllabus. Then came a treatise on how to hold a needle.

"To acquire skill in hand sewing attention must be given to the correct position of the hands," I admonished myself therein, telling myself that "the point of the needle should be held in the right hand between the thumb and the forefinger. The hand must be spread so that the needle's eye rests on the upper side of the thimble, on the sharply bent second finger. The needle points diagonally over the left shoulder and the work progresses right to left, except in embroidering which usually progresses left to right."

I don't remember the source of this pearl of wisdom.

There's a laboriously drawn table of needle and thread guide, for both hand sewing and machine stitching. It had notes about the kinds of seams, how to sew them, when they are appropriate. Take the fell seam for instance:

Fell seam: This is used on heavy material and gives a tailored finish. Baste the seam so that the wrong sides meet and stitch 1/2" to 1/8" from the edge. Trim one piece to within 1/8" of the stitching and crease the other edge towards the trimmed one. Lay the seam flat on the garment and baste and stitch from 1/16" from the creased edge. This leaves a double row of stitching visible on the right and makes a smooth seam.

Sigh. We used to call it the lungi stitch.

There are detailed diagrams for each lesson; diagram on the recto and detailed construction notes on the verso, in tailorese that is gobbledygook to me now.

When I learnt tailoring, we started off learning how to work the foot pedal. Freewheeling, and then learning to attach the belt that links the sewing machine to the treadle. We were made to practice stitching with empty needles on sheets of old newspapers before we were allowed to thread the needle, and before we actually sewed anything, there were more lessons.

We were exhorted about tension settings, stitch counts and checking the settings before we dared turn the crankshaft that set the machine sewing. The sewing machines in the school were used by many people, and each would have had different lessons, so it was imperative to check the thread tension and stitch count before starting.

We were taught many varieties of seams: my notebook describes the running stitch, back stitch, overcast, hemming, French seam, fell seam and plain seam for hand sewing; plain seam, monture maker, run and fell, drowser seams (don't ask) one and two, overcast, herringbone or double backstitch, top sewing, counter seam and buttonholes for machine sewing.

After we learnt to stitch ruler straight holes on a sheet of paper we were allowed to sew fabric. We were taught the lore of machine sewing, feed the fabric steadily, pull the it away from you as you release the presser foot, knot the two threads to finish the seam, always snip the thread diagonally, never bite or break it by hand, and more.

We were then treated to the giddy excitement of making a bag. I made mine with denim. It had two compartments, a sliding adjustable strap and two pockets on the front. I have the construction diagram and the arcane sounding instructions of how it was made in the notebook. I'd later decorated it with multiple and many sized lazy daisies all in stark thick sewing yarn, and used it for a decade before the zips gave up their ghosts.

I had jotted down that it could be made without the adjusting strap, or without the side compartment or pockets, and noted that the outside could be made attractive by embroidery or saddle stitching or contrast colour yarn where seams will be visible. I further noted that "It cost: Rs 15.40 for the fabric, Re. 1.50 for the rings, Rs 4 for the zips and Rs 2.25 for the needles. Altogether Rs 22.85" for a bag I made and used for a decade. Before you snigger and write in to tell me, I know. I can't add to save my life. Or maybe I was counting the price of the heavier needle alone.

You need to be very sure about your pattern before you cut. Tailoring is not like computer games that you can start again. We learnt to cut complicated patterns to minimise wastage of fabric.

We sewed our way through pillowcovers, three kinds of; petticoats, four varieties of, including one with flounces and frills, and then we progressed to plain knickers, pilch knickers, Baba suits, sun-suits and chemises.

We were taught to oil and maintain the sewing machine, a lesson that came in very useful when I took to looking after and using my mother-in-law's machine. She inherited it from her mother-in-law, and it was an ancient but very reliable machine. I kept it busy for quite a while; making curtains and constructing lounging suits and salwar suits out of saris I'd never wear.

Over the years, I've acquired a few tailoring books, Zarapkar System of Cutting, Andhra Tailoring, and Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Sewing are but a few. I picked up an interesting book from a pavement bookstall of Gariahat- Elizabeth Craig's Needlecraft, a complete guide to needlework, knitting and crochet, with special reference to wartime problems, fully illustrated with over 400 line drawings and photographs no less.

But easily the best of them is Easy Cutting, by MB Juvekar and VB Juvekar, first published in 1943. I have the 1962 edition, and the flyleaf has an inscription from my father to my mother, dated 13th July 1966. To Rama with love, it says in Telugu.

I used to enjoy the planning of a garment, detailing it in diagrams, and thinking out design details. I wonder why I stopped? Nowadays it is all I do to replace a lost button or mend a tear. That notebook tempts me to take up tailoring again, almost.

I was researching some links for this post and discovered, quite by accident, that Shakespeare might well have been the perpetrator of the first "Knock Knock" jokes.



Anonymous Ash said...

You know Lali, it never struck me to think of them as 'knock knock' jokes? One thinks only of the equivocation speech.

So sewing and dressmaking is added to the growing list of Missus Em's accomplishments now.

6:26 pm  
Blogger Rimi said...

And on Rimi's list of abandoned virtues. I've wanted to learn tailoring for the longest time because:
a. I adore making stuff with my own hands from the scratch.
b. It's so difficult to find a tailor who's good AND reliable, y'know?

Never got around to it, though. Sigh. I notice you missed the fell run, though :-)

8:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. Missus Em never ceases to delight. I never considered the porter's speech in the light of 'knock knock' jokes, either.

But it takes Missus Em to think of tinkers and tailors and the Bard in one breath and provide illumination. Bravo, lady.

Secret admirer

10:59 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Ash- :-) It never occurred to me before either.

Rimi-I notice you missed the fell run, though. Huh? Elucidate, please. What did I miss?

anon- Get a name already.

7:45 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nothing to do with your post, but I just remembered the sign in a tailor's shop near my house, " Saree falls stitched in 1 hour. Conditions apply."

9:01 pm  
Blogger Lalita Mukherjea said...

Raj- *Evil smirk*

Outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: Ladies may have a fit upstairs.

So there! Ha, too.

10:43 pm  

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