Thrifty Living: Learning to sew makes marathon running look easy

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The Independent Online

so, emboldened by Make Do and Mend, I am embarking on a summer of sewing. Make Do and Mend is a collection of Second World War instruction leaflets which have been bound into a handy hardback book (£9.99, Michael O'Mara books), and which gives tips on things such as how to darn a jumper, how to make slippers out of cardboard and bits of old carpet, and how to let out a frock. With the exhortations from Miss Sew and Sew, (the character featured in the leaflets) ringing in my ears "Each woman a Clothes Doctor", I popped into Woolworths.

Opposite our local Woolworths is a deeply tempting branch of Gap, whose windows are showing posters of impossibly groomed toddlers in perfect summer smocks. Ha! I think. My children will not be kitted out for the summer in things from Gap! Instead, they will be sporting a range of Millard-tailored smocks, frocks, and, for the 10-year-old, a pair of hot pants (her current obsession).

In Woolworths I bump into some school mothers. "Sewing machines?" one gasped. "I haven't got mine out for years," she said. Oh, but you will, I say to her. They are all the rage. Woolies are shifting something like 600 of them a week. They giggle maniacally. "Good luck!" says one. I stalk off and find what I'm searching for around the back, by the ironing boards. An E&R "Ease and Reliability" sewing machine for £49. Reduced from £179.

The lady behind the counter, who tells me she used to be a seamstress, assures me that it's childishly simple. I remember that phrase being something of a tautology when applied to the mysteries of a sewing machine during Craft lessons at school. Let's hope modern technology has caught up with the sewing machine. "Does that mean it has no bobbin?" I ask hopefully. She looks at me oddly. "No, but there are markers on the machine showing you how to thread it up. It really is easy. I gave it to my sister and she made a wedding dress on it." Blimey. However I'm starting with more humble ambitions. Get each child into something that is wearable, and washable, and rewearable.

Plus, I'm not going into this just with Miss Sew and Sew as a guide. I've already staked out the Make Lounge, a sewing club in Islington (, which offers Beginners Sewing classes, as part of a programme teaching long-forgotten skills including millinery, crocheting, and knitting. The Lounge promises to unveil all the secrets of a sewing machine by virtue of lessons showing how to construct a) a shopping bag, b) a cosmetics bag and c) a swingy skirt. I sign up for them all. I'm dying to get going with a waistband. I can't wait to learn how to put in an invisible zip. My E&R sewing machine and I will become the best of friends. I'm going to hang out at John Lewis's haberdashery department all summer.

I spend a few moments in the company of Miss Sew and Sew, flipping through Make Do and Mend. Did people really darn the gussets of their knickers in the war? Seems like they may have done. They also "freshened up" coats by cutting them down to blazer-length, turned old knickers and slips into bras, and created cami-knicker/pantie sets out of old underwear. All the women in the beautifully drawn pictures look impossibly glamorous, hour-glass and elegant, probably because of all that ration cooking. There is even a very practical section on how to take in a belt, which is rather moving, given the circumstances. 'Some Dressmaker Stitches' deals with Stitched Seams, French Bind Hems and Regulation Plackets, which all look very tricky but which I'm sure the Make Lounge will make into a mere bagatelle for me and my pinking shears.

I then turn to the instruction leaflet of 'Ease and Reliability'. It may well be reliable but this sewing machine doesn't look at all easy. Spools, bobbins, balance wheels and delivery eyes, all of which have to be connected by a thread carrying the right tension and involving "figure of eight" threading. And there's a chapter called Cleaning the Feed Dogs, which looks as tricky as it sounds. Running the London Marathon now seems like a doddle compared to cleaning feed dogs, but I'm not going to be put off. I've bought my machine, and I've signed up to the courses, and I'm determined to keep out of Gap, and its fellow brethren on the high street, all summer.

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