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Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Fabric of Botswana

Often when I travel I find that strange and unexpected experiences become part of the stories of my travels. On my latest trip to Botswana, I had another of these unforeseen experiences. At the time, I thought it to be rather horrendous, but when I recounted the story to a friend, it had her in a fit of laughter and begging me to share it with her mom, who was an avid seamstress. At first, I was taken aback by her laughter, but then it dawned on me that this really was very funny and that I was simply too serious about it because I take such pride in my work. We truly do need to learn not to take ourselves so seriously, don't we?
At the last minute, shortly before departing for Botswana, my friend with whom I was going to be staying, phoned to request me to pack my sewing machine as she was determined that I should make her some block-out blinds for her kitchen and living room. I rather fancied the idea of this as she and I had spoken of it before and I gladly packed the machine. When packing the sewing equipment, I tried to keep it to the bare minimum as my luggage was already starting to resemble a smallish trek. I opted for a decent pair of scissors to cut the cloth, the necessary bobbins, quick-unpick, etc. As for the needles, I packed the thick and sturdy ones; leather, denim and the like. Block-out curtains are made from sturdy stuff and I know the value of using the correct needle in the sewing machine. I decided not to take any thread as we could get this along with the fabric when we went shopping. I felt prepared and ready for the task ahead. Little did I know what that task would entail!
Two weeks of my three week visit passed without any move towards purchasing the fabric necessary to make the blinds and I was getting agitated that we would soon run out of time. Then my friend Louise arrived home one day with another lady I had become friends with from across the street. Both of their eyes sparkled with excitement as they shared their plan with me. It turned out that Nita would be attending a wedding in a couple of weeks and she was in need of a blouse to go with a pair of pants she wished to wear to the wedding. Louise asked if I would be prepared to sew something for Nita and I readily agreed. At least I would not have slugged the sewing machine along for no good reason. In my mind I saw the three of us setting off to the shops to select the necessary fabric, thread and needles needed for the job, not to mention stiffening, and whatever other essentials might be required. I thought how we would probably not be able to find the exact pattern that Nita would like, but that if we could find something similar, I could adjust it and make sure to give her what she wanted. This was not at all what the two exited women had in mind, though.
Louise had a dress that she no longer had any use for that was the exact colour that Nita had in mind for the blouse. Between the two of them, they had hatched the plan that I should turn this dress into a blouse for Nita and they knew exactly how they wanted the top to look too. Louise promptly presented the dress with its four layers of flowing soft fabric and Nita started explaining about sleeves and pointed hems, etc.
The two of them were so enraptured by the sheer ingenuity of their own ideas that they must not have noticed how quiet I had become. Louise, eager to get the show on the road, started unpicking the seams of the dress as she and Nita continued to scheme and plan. Finally, I managed to get a word in edgewise. I reminded them that we were not working with virgin cloth, but that it had existing seams and shapes that would limit the freedom with which we approach the design. They agreed fully and told me that they understood the issues involved but looked at me with such confidence and eagerness that I had not the heart to tell them the full extent of the difficulties, but decided to simply deal with these myself as they arose. I would only involve them in the problems if it absolutely affected the outcome.
By now I realized that nobody had any intention of spending any money on the project and that I would have to make do with what was available. I looked at the sheer fabric and thought of the needles I had brought along. I could already see the big gaping holes the needles would leave in the soft fabric. This sent Louise scurrying off to find her 'sewing box' which turned out to be a tupperware container that nobody had bothered organizing in what seemed to be decades. We found one single fine needle in the box. I would have to make sure to work very carefully for if the needle broke, there would be no back-up. Fortunately there also was some thread I would be able to use. The pattern seemed to be the only hurdle left to overcome.
As I had no base patterns to work from, nor anything on which to draw up new base patterns, nor paper on which to design a pattern, I opted for the only solution left to the problem. I asked Nita to fetch a shirt that fitted her like a glove so I could have her shape in place. She went off immediately and returned with what I requested except... it was a knitted shirt! Now, for those of you not into sewing, allow me to explain. The fabric on the table had no stretch, whereas the knitted shirt stretched in all directions. Once again, I realized I would have to compensate for this fact. Let me explain what compensate means in this instance; it basically meant I would be cutting the pattern blind with little to no guidance as to shape and size. Add to that the fact that this was already pre-shaped and pre-sewn fabric which had been hanging for some time and had lost some of its original shape on top of that, the project seemed doomed from the start. As I had no paper to plan on, I would have to pin a sewing line and cut along the pins, working directly on the fabric. And I had a very limited amount of fabric with large enough panels to cut pattern pieces from. Also, and this was a big one, it turned out that I had packed the wrong scissors after all! I keep paper scissors in my sewing box as I am always designing new patterns and I inadvertently packed these, which meant that my scissors were too blunt to cut the sheer fabric! Louise only had a pair of tiny scissors with a 4 cm blade. As these were at least sharp, I had no choice but to use them. In short, I was royally screwed! Still, I am not one to shirk from a challenge and once I had given my word, I would see things through, come hell or high water. So I courageously set off to cut the once beautiful dress up into what I could only hope would eventually resemble a blouse that would fit its wearer.
I started with the lining and was quite frankly astounded to find that it fitted Nita as if it was tailor-made for her. She seemed to remain oblivious of how incredible this feat was and simply continued to tell me about the alterations she had in mind for her original design. The hemline Nita and Louise had in mind would require a stitch that can only be made on an over-locker. As I had not packed mine, this was not an option, and I explained to them how I could alter the design slightly to still give them that finish from the original hemline of the dress. Nita wanted a pointed hemline. I could ruche the shirt on one end to form the point, while keeping the over-locked hemline of the original dress. This suggestion was promptly dismissed and I was informed that I could achieve the same finish on the sewing machine if I used the satin stitch right on the edge of this sheer fabric. If you are a seamstress you are probably now laughing out loud in incredulity. In short, the answer is no, it can't be done. Perhaps, if I strengthened the fabric by sewing onto paper, I could keep the fabric from being 'sucked' into the bobbin case, but it would still not have the clean crisp finish that is achieved on the over-locker. Add to that the fact that I had limited thread and no back-up for the needle, it was simply not a risk worth taking, especially as I was convinced the results would leave Nita disappointed. I flatly refused explaining my reasons for doing so. I doubt Nita was convinced, but experience has taught me well and I wasn't going to venture down a lane there was no return from. Besides, there was no back-up fabric to cut another panel from if I turned out to be right and we had to return to my suggestion. Finally Nita reluctantly gave way.
Now it came time to attend to the sleeves. Have you ever cut a sleeve without any pattern at all? It is all fine and well if you are working with stretch fabric as these can be quite tolerant. Not so when you are working with sheer and fine fabric where every stitch can be seen by the close observer. How to go about it? I think my best answer would be prayer. It was that or swear, and as I do not use foul language, prayer was the only solution open to me. And boy did I ever pray! I used a measuring tape to measure the size of the armhole. This gave me some guideline, but I still did not know how high the head of the sleeve should be, or how deep the underarm should dip. Get this wrong, and the sleeve will cut into the underarm annoyingly. I could also only estimate the center point of the sleeve where it should line up with the shoulder seam. Get this wrong and you have a bubble in front, while it pulls too tight at the back, or the reverse is true. No, sleeves are pattern pieces that begs to be approached with precision, and yet all I could do was to wing it. So I did.
When I sewed that sleeve into the armhole, I knew once more that God answers prayers. For no reason that makes any earthly sense, the sleeve fitted the armhole precisely without having to be gathered or stay-stitched anywhere! The proof was in the fitting though, and I did not want to get too excited yet. Nita pitched up and slipped the blouse over her head. She tucked at the hemline which she was still not entirely happy with, but said nothing at all about the sleeve. Finally, I could not contain it any longer and asked her about it. She shrugged nonchalantly and said that it was fine, continuing to tuck at the hem. I guess she must still be wondering why this sent me off into a jubilant dance of exultation.
I wish I could tell you that Nita was happy with the final result, but this is sadly not the case. When she offered to pay, I refused. This will never be a project I am proud of, even though I know I had done my best and that few people would have been able to achieve similar results. Still, regardless the dissatisfaction, Nita looked beautiful in the blouse and it fitted her perfectly and I was impressed by what I had achieved. Looking at the blouse, it would not be possible for anyone to see the constraints within which I had been working... and that is something to be proud of!

Marietjie Uys (Miekie) is a published author. You can buy my books here:
You can purchase Designs By Miekie 1 here.
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