Sew on the Go by Mary Jane Baxter – A Maker’s Journey of sewing and more!

For those of us who love to see an expert making something, even if we could never dream of producing an object as well or under similar circumstances, this sounds as if it is going to be a brilliant read. Mary Jane Baxter’s stories of being on the road with her sewing van is published on 27th May – an unusual and possibly inspiring treat! Here is an extract which reveals how it all began…

Sew on the Go – A Maker’s Journey by Mary Jane Baxter

You know the score. You’re sitting at your desk thinking for the millionth time about leaving the rat race behind. It’s just you, your rucksack and a rough plan on a piece of paper. There are no e-mails to answer, no deadlines to meet, no daily commute, no people vying for your attention. Just the freedom of the open road stretching before you. Then the phone rings and you get back to work with a sigh.

Of course there are many reasons why most of us can’t make our dreams come true most of the time. There are debts to pay off, family commitments to keep us at home, jobs to hold down and health issues to cope with – all the difficult stuff of life that means we can get stuck in a rut. But what if for a few brief, glorious months nothing was actually preventing you from breaking free? Would you do it? Would you dare quit the day job and take the risk? It’s sometimes very easy to find reasons for avoiding challenges, and frightening to embrace the uncertainty of saying ‘I do’.

This had certainly been my story. For many years I’d combined several different jobs. Whilst working as a BBC correspondent I’d also trained as a hat maker. I worked for two years with milliner-to-the-stars Stephen Jones, sold my first hat collection to Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge and ran creative workshops for the likes of Liberty and Topshop. Somehow I’d even managed to squeeze in a series about ‘make-do and mend’ for BBC Newsnight, two weeks in Paris working for Marc Jacobs and a part-time teaching job in London. After a while I began to feel I was spreading myself too thin. I was juggling too many different balls and felt in danger of dropping them all.

Around this time my Godfather died and generously left me some money. I immediately decided to spend part of my inheritance on an old campervan. I fantasized about doing it up and filling it with all the materials I needed to make beautiful things as I journeyed. I’d create the perfect travelling craft studio and then set off around Europe exploring French fleamarkets, swimming in rivers and meeting a clutch of colourful creative characters. My van of choice wasn’t a trendy VW (too expensive) or a quirky Citroen H van (too heavy on the steering) but something of a plain Jane – a boxy Bedford Bambi in need of some TLC. Once purchased, I drove it back to South East London and parked it on the street outside my little flat. It didn’t matter to me that Bambi’s top speed was 60 mph, that the interior electrics didn’t work or that the fridge was broken. Bambi would be my bolthole, my crafty retreat from the world – my very own Mobile Makery.

Whenever I had the chance I’d spend a few hours working on Bambi. It felt like I was building an escape-pod outside my front door. First I papered her interior with the pages of a 1950’s dressmaking book and then started reupholstering the seats with a mixture of funky fabrics and souvenir tea towels. I changed the curtains and added over-the-top trims spending many happy hours hunting down enamel mugs and crochet blankets to cosy up the space. The dream of having a Mobile Makery kept me going through the dark winter nights and the long shifts working in the BBC newsroom.

My neighbours watched my upcycling activity with mild amusement and a certain amount of cynicism. But when I started découpaging the outside of the van with posh wallpaper foraged from a Brighton skip they decided I’d completely lost the plot. To me however, it seemed like a perfectly sensible idea. I couldn’t afford a state-of-the-art vinyl wrap, so why not just do-it-myself? It was extremely therapeutic. Once I’d finished, I coated the design with several layers of outdoor varnish and hey presto! My Bambi had been transformed into a Magical Mobile Makery complete with a travelling craft library and a mini gas stove – essential for fry-ups on the go…

Threads of Life by Claire Hunter – A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle

Threads of LifeThreads of Life by Clare Hunter | Waterstones

Threads of Life by Claire Hunter

 

This is a “History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle” , or at least a history of the ways in which needlework has sustained, been a means of recording lives and making a protest. It makes a significant point, that as women have been the most likely to work with a needle and threat, those works of needlework that survive in a variety of places are the special history of female makers. Many pieces of work are fragile, unintended to last or temporary works, remembered as existing but not always treasured. This book records the impetus for embroidery, to beautify, to pass on traditions and to make a mark in the only available way. This book does not only dwell on the huge and important works of embroidery proudly displayed as evidence of wealth, but also on the few plaintive stitches made to record time on a piece of clothing, as well as the earliest use of sewing to join fabrics together and make rudimentary clothing. The author has a wide experience of sewing with a purpose herself, ranging from community projects to banners to mark historic events in the history of women’s lives. The writing does not always adopt a strictly chronological or indeed geographical approach, but instead has a personal and engaging style. I am so pleased to review this non fiction book. 

 

This book is so readable as it takes a discursive approach to the history it presents. It gives a reaction to the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most significant pieces of embroidery or needlework in European history. As a political piece of work it has had great importance as a historical document, but it also has intrinsic value as revealing much about the circumstances in which it was made, the limitations of materials, and the possible additions made by the women who worked on the tapestry. She goes on to describe an important historical figure whose embroidery was much remarked on, Mary, Queen of Scots. It describes how she used her undoubted talents to attempt to enhance her Scottish royal apartments, then to fill her many hundreds of hours of captivity. The book goes on to remember women who spent time in captivity of many sorts, and how they sought to come to terms with it through sewing, however primitive or complex. 

 

The book speaks of marvellous survivals, from earlier centuries to Japanese Prisoner of War camps in the mid twentieth century, precious documents that may or may not be identifiable. As sewing for mental health is discussed in the background to many pieces, there is a nod to those men who were taught to sew after the trauma of the First World War, and the altar cloth that was found and was recently displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral. Sewing as a means of making a living is covered, though also the intense pressure on piece workers who had to risk their eyesight and more in hand finishing items of clothes. While girls were taught to make samplers which are now collectable, Hunter has some harsher words for the kits and patterns which restricted creativity and were intrinsically unsatisfactory.   

There are chapters on the international world of sewing, as stitches and patterns were important contributions to community life, and a vital way to pass on skills and memories to younger generations. Sewing as protest is covered as the author recalls the history of banners, especially in terms of unions and areas of women’s protest movements. Politics with a more local emphasis is also referred to, as community projects have played a vital role in sustaining and reinvigorating communities going through testing times.

 

As an admirer of embroidery and sewing generally rather than a practitioner, I can appreciate the inspiration and information that this book provides by its immensely readable style and enjoyable anecdotes which sit well against the historical elements. It is a skill which has reflected artistry for centuries, mainly by women, and therefore I feel that this book has an important and inspirational part to play in any analysis of women’s history, as well as being a fascinating read.  

 

An admission here – I struggle to thread a needle, but have made a quilt or two, with the assistance of a considerably more skilful daughter. This book has much to recommend it, even to those of us who frankly can’t sew, but would love to at some point. I have not seen much evidence of sewing projects over the last few months on social media, but I suppose that it is because those who sew are not surfing social media as much…