I’m always curious when people proudly announce that they ‘can’t cook’ or that they are unable to ‘even sew on a button’. Evolution should sort these people out – these are life skills, not optional extras. What they actually mean is that they can’t be bothered to learn to cook because a) they’re rich enough to eat out, or b) the supermarkets are full of pre-prepared, over-salted, glutinous ‘meals’ or c) they confidently expect someone else to do it for them. They don’t sew on a button or mend their clothes because a) they can buy another one, or b) they’re rich enough to pay someone else to do it or c) they confidently expect someone else to do it for them.
Everyone could boil an egg, knock up a bit of pasta, roast a chicken. Everyone could sew on a button or a nametape. If they wanted to. These are austere times and it’s always cheaper to do these things for yourself. I’m not suggesting that we should all be sitting in windowseats with beatific smiles on our faces, embroidering tablecloths for retired governesses or knitting socks for soldiers, but we should all assume a basic level of skill for our own self esteem and convenience. And don’t attempt to give me the “I don’t have time” defence, it cuts no ice with me.
However (you all knew there was a ‘but’ coming). Sewing, knitting, crocheting, making things – out of fabric, wood or whatever your chosen medium – is incredibly satisfying; to complete an item that you have made yourself fills you with pride and pleasure. Sewing is the thing I’m best at and one of my only regrets in life (only? surely not!) is that I didn’t do O’Level needlework as it would have made life an awful lot easier. Sadly, I was so frightened of the teacher that I didn’t have the guts to do it. Happiest days of your life? I don’t think so.
But I make things all the time, out of a combination of creative enjoyment and searing poverty. In the evening, I like to have something to do with my hands, to know that I’m not just slumped, passively in front of the telly (obviously I do sometimes – you can’t follow Foyle’s War or Lewis unless you pay attention). Sometimes I’m just doing boring mending or labelling of school clothes, but sometimes I’m making Gollies or knitting squares for a patchwork throw for my manky sofa or making something for the boys. It gives you creative, constructive focus and encourages concentration.
Another important reason to mend rather than replace is that it means one less item in landfill. Even if you can find a cloth recycling bin, it still takes energy to recycle things and, as I will never tire of saying, re-use first and if you can’t, recycle. I keep an old set of worn out uniform to cut up for patches to keep trousers and sweatshirts going for longer and the only energy you use is your own.
I seem to remember that one of the large UK prisons (Brixton, The Scrubs?) embarked on a project where the men made a huge patchwork quilt on the theme of prison life. Its aim was to encourage them to learn new skills but also to have a creative outlet for their feelings, frustrations and anxieties. I never saw this piece, but apparently it was extremely moving. In Victorian times, women and men were encouraged to learn sewing to teach them patience, assiduity and endeavour.
This is so true. To make something properly usually means that it can’t be dashed off in an evening, it’s something one has to work on over days, weeks, months even. I knitted a very simple pram blanket for each of my boys when they were born and I loved to see them wrapped up warmly in them as they lay sleeping outside in the pram.
How to Sew on a Button:
(with additional help from the 1930’s Big Book of Needlecraft)
Get some cotton the same colour as the thread on the rest of the buttons
Thread your needle, then cut a length of cotton about 18”/45cm long
Tie a couple of knots in the end without the needle on it
Position the button where you want it and push your needle through one of the holes from the wrong side
Take the needle back through the other hole, looking to see how the other buttons were done
Do this about 10 times until the button appears to be firm
Push the needle up from the wrong side but don’t put it through the hole in the button, pull it out to the side
Wrap the thread round the core of thread under the button several times
Then push the needle back up through one of the holes in the button and back to the wrong side through another hole in the button
Tie the cotton off with a firm knot and cut it off neatly
Pat yourself on the back and have a cup of tea and a shortbread finger