Sew your own: Jane Merrick lays open her Clothkits life
Jane Merrick was dressed in ready-to-sew Clothkits throughout her childhood. So when it came to dressing her own daughter, there was one brand she was desperate to track down...
Sunday 06 November 2011
On a chilly autumn day in November 1970, my mother sat by the front-room window of our semi-detached house in Zig Zag Road, in the Liverpool suburb of West Derby, sewing a dress for my two-year-old sister. As Katie played at her feet, Mum ran the vivid pink-and-orange-coloured fine-needle-cord fabric through her cast-iron manual sewing machine, but she paused, needle suspended above the material, when she heard a car pulling up in the street outside.
It was a rare sight, then, a car in the tiny road that, as its name suggested, zig-zagged past the 1930s pebble-dashed houses. Outside our house, Harold Wilson and several other Labour politicians had come to pay respects at the funeral of our next-door neighbour, the soup-kitchen heroine, basher of the ears of Winston Churchill and role model for a generation of female politicians: Bessie Braddock.
The day my parents had moved in two years earlier, in July 1968, Bessie had knocked on the door and warmly told Mum that if there was ever anything she needed, just to ask. Bessie was away in London during the week, but at weekends they must have made an odd k couple: the 69-year-old stout matron and my mini-skirted Mum, her blonde hair cropped like Jean Seberg. Bessie never had children of her own, but was a proud aunt and a fierce campaigner for maternity rights. Housekeeping was listed as one of her Who's Who recreations, and she passed on her advice to this young housewife.
My mother trained as an English teacher but, when Katie was born, she stayed at home and began making clothes, curtains and cushion covers on her 1870s "Shakespeare" sewing machine – on which you turned the wheel with one hand and fed fabric with the other – which she'd bought in a junk shop in Liverpool.
Mum was interested in fashion, but with only Dad's teaching wages to live on, she couldn't afford to shop at the French boutiques in town. In late 1968, she saw an advert in a Sunday newspaper for Clothkits, a new company selling ready-to-sew kits of bold printed fabric in the folksy designs that typified the late 1960s. The brand had been set up that year by Camberwell College of Art graduate and textile designer Anne Kennedy on her kitchen table in Lewes, East Sussex. The "kit" was screen-printed fabric, ready to cut out, with easy-to-follow instructions. Most kits were for children, but there were flared trousers and A-line corduroy skirts for women.
Mum can still recall her excitement when the packages arrived, and made dozens of items for Katie, and then Eleanor, born in 1972, and finally me when I came along in 1973. So it was a Clothkits dress that Mum was sewing as she peered through the window to catch a glimpse of Harold Wilson walking up Bessie's garden path.
Shortly after Bessie's death, Mum bought a modern Japanese electric sewing machine, complete with foot pedal. Around that time my parents also bought their first colour camera and, in nearly every picture from the 1970s, my sisters and I are dressed in the splashes of purple, orange, pink and green of Clothkits patterns. Each item was handed down from sister to sister.
Then the 1980s came, and the final hand-me-down – a pair of purple trousers with orange butterflies – went through my wardrobe. Mum went back to work, and, while she occasionally made clothes, Clothkits gradually fell out of fashion – and not just in our house. As we became teenagers, we wanted more up-to-date brands, from Chelsea Girl and Topshop, and fashion became cheaper, and more disposable.
So I'd largely forgotten about the existence of Clothkits until my daughter, Amelia, was born last year. When she was six months old, as I sorted through the multicoloured babygros that she had already grown out of, I thought about recycling them as a patchwork quilt.
I unearthed my Janone sewing machine from a cupboard – barely used in the 16 years since Mum bought it for my 21st birthday – and, as I dug around for thread and scraps of material, the name of Clothkits suddenly resurfaced in my mind. I searched for the brand on the web, and there it was – reborn just two years earlier online, with some of the same prints and designs from 40 years ago, plus an entire haberdashery section, including Liberty-print bias binding.
I ordered two kits from the site: a green-and-white cotton "Angel" playsuit, from a vintage 1973 design that my sisters and I had worn, and a shocking-pink pinafore with orange sunflower, designed by Jane Foster. When the kits arrived in the post, neatly tied with ribbons, the sight of the peacocks and flowers on the Angel kit swept me back to the 1970s, and I could almost smell my mother's Chanel No 5.
My own sewing isn't great – I can manage a French (invisible) seam and, since going back to work full-time, the machine comes out only in the evenings – but I hope I am creating clothes Amelia will remember as fondly as I do my own.
The website also has an archive gallery where dozens of people have uploaded pictures from the 1970s of themselves wearing their clothes. While never quitea household name, Clothkits was clearly held in affection by hundreds of families.
The brand had been sold by the Kennedy family to the catalogue firm Freemans in 1988 and became dormant in 1991. Then, five years ago, spurred by a "strong nesting instinct" after the birth of her first daughter, Kay Mawer, a 39-year-old textile designer from Chichester, began a hunt for Clothkits.
After lengthy negotiations for the rights with Freemans, she took over the brand in October 2007 and relaunched it at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in February 2008. Her stall was "mobbed" by people – especially women in their late thirties and early forties, who'd been dressed in Clothkits as children. It was not only the trend for home craft that made it popular, but because these Clothkits Kids were now having children of their own.
"This was not a nostalgia for the 1970s as such," says Kay, "but a nostalgia for childhood. When you have children you start to reflect on your own childhood."
As well as uploading old photos, people send in vintage pieces from the 1970s – Kay calls them "Mothkits". The business is mainly mail order – she has an annual turnover of £450,000 – and she has recently opened a shop in Chichester. "There is so much warmth for the brand and the faces of people when they come to the shop, it's as though they are meeting an old friend – they are in tears of joy."
And I am one of those women. I'd like to think our old neighbour Bessie Braddock, who believed that feminist and housewife were not mutually exclusive labels, might have smiled at me, a political animal who can turn her hand to dressmaking.
Jane Merrick is the political editor of The Independent on Sunday. For more on Clothkits, see clothkits.co.uk
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