There is something of a revival going on. My recent forays to the wool and haberdashery shops have seen an upsurge in both goods and customers. Although I miss Grout’s in Palmers Green which closed a few years ago, I find other shops are now stocking a wider range of haberdashery items. Sewing and knitting are making a comeback. They’re trendy again. Making and adapting your own clothes is still unusual enough to be ‘cool’ although once it was commonplace to sew and knit and never was that more important than during the war when everything was rationed.
Clothes rationing began on 1st June 1941 and people were allocated 66 clothing coupons a year which equated to one outfit. This was reduced to 36 by the end of clothes rationing in 1949. The famous Make Do and Mend wartime campaign encouraged women to mend clothes and make clothes out of other material. Numerous leaflets and patterns were produced to give instructions and ideas. The scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett had a new outfit made from the curtains would be repeated during the 40s, along with dresses made from parachute silk, and coats from blankets. If you weren’t very skilled yourself there were dressmakers who could cut up an adult’s worn out coat and produce a perfectly good child’s coat from the least worn pieces. Old woollen jumpers with a hole or two were unravelled and knitted up again. It wasn’t called recycling but that is exactly what it was.
After the war, rationing was still in place and the need for economy and avoiding waste was still the order of the day. When I was a child at infant school in the 1950s one of our lessons was knitting. How I hated it; the yarn, a kind of soft cotton string, getting grubbier each time I strove to force it round those slippery needles in an attempt to make a dish-cloth for my mother. I remember it to this day. My effort was a misshapen excuse for a cloth with several holes that appeared mysteriously in the uneven stocking stitch but it was used nevertheless. After all my mother wouldn‘t dream of wasting it. It seemed to me the thing went on for years but that might be my memory playing tricks. That skill of knitting has lasted me a lifetime.
My grandmother was always busy making things. She used to knit our socks which had to be held up with garters made out of elastic. I must admit I was very pleased when I had my first shop socks, because I’m sorry to say those homemade socks seemed second best to me. During the war my grandmother had knitted socks for servicemen using Beehive and Paton’s 4-ply wool. She still had some left over in dull colours like khaki and grey. I hope those servicemen were more appreciative than I was.
But one thing I did like was her rugs. My favourite was the rug in my grandmother’s house in front of the sitting room fire. Thick and soft I could wriggle my toes right in to it. She had made it along with many others. She would bring the canvas, wool and special rug hook to our house when she visited and would sit in the evenings making them. My mother made them too and each of our bedrooms had her little rugs over the cold lino which was very welcome to our feet on freezing winter mornings. My grandmother’s rugs were usually patterned with flowery designs while my mother’s were much more modern with geometric designs and bold blocks of colour. I made one too using the leftover scraps of wool in a rather appalling jumble of colours. I believe it is still in our loft because Mr Greenacres would never let me put it down in our house as the colours offended his sensibilities.
It was still common in the 50s to see embroidered tray cloths, crocheted doilies and antimacassars (note to younger readers - for the backs of armchairs to prevent hair oil from staining the chair!) and these would often have been made by children as school projects. Sewing was taught in both my junior school and secondary school - not that either of my teachers were impressed with my efforts but I remember some of the girls produced beautiful clothes including my sister who continued to make her own clothes to a very professional standard for many years.
I don’t know when sewing went out of vogue in schools - and was reinvented along with woodwork as Design and Technology - but it seems as if a couple of generations missed out on the basic skills to sew. Perhaps it will come back into fashion on the school curriculum called Green Studies.
Even if you couldn’t make clothes, everyone could mend clothes. Everyone - including men - could sew on a button and all women could thread a needle to repair a split seam. Many could darn a hole in a jumper or a sock - some so expertly that the original blemish was no longer visible - but how many bother to attempt such a thing these days? You might argue that it’s easier to throw it out and buy something new, but I beg to differ. Those patches on the elbows of Mr Greenacres’s sweaters? They’re covering the holes where he’s worn them out. We’d be throwing out jumpers at the rate of knots otherwise.
The advent of cheap clothes is partially responsible for our profligacy - many clothes don’t last long these days but no-one cares because they’re out of fashion - so last year - already. We can buy items of clothing for the cost of a birthday card so no wonder they’re tossed aside so readily just like those cards. When clothes cost a significant part of people’s income as they did years ago they looked after them. Cheap clothes don’t beg to be looked after but the cost of cheap clothing is still high. Someone, somewhere is making those clothes for a pittance, often in appalling conditions, and the ever increasing to need to produce ten garments where once one would have done, is using the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. Tossing them in to landfill is not the solution. It makes sense on several levels to keep your clothes working for you. But you don’t have to make do and mend as my mother and grandmother did, because you live in the twenty-first century. You can upcycle.
Take an old dress or skirt, add a bit of trimming or appliqué and it can live all over again. A tired looking white blouse can be dyed and with some new colour co-ordinated buttons you have an upcycled garment. A top with a frayed neckline? Add a satin or velvet ribbon trim. For a hole in an awkward spot where a patch would look silly, simply add a number of colour co-ordinated or contrasting felt or crocheted motifs, with one covering the blemish and hey presto another upcycled garment.
It’s not just clothes - practically anything can be upcycled. How many of you remember your student digs featuring a Mateus Rose bottle with a candle stuck in it with the wax dripping down it as an integral part of the whole thing. That was upcycling!
I remember my friends and I had a craze for paper jewellery, some time in the 60s I suppose. Not as bad as it sounds. We would take pages from glossy magazines (Honey was a favourite) and cut long thin triangles from the coloured pages and starting at the wide end we would roll them as tightly as we could, and with the last inch glued carefully we would end up with a slightly oval shaped long bead. By making different triangle shapes we could end up with different size and shaped multi coloured beads. Strung on strong cotton several ropes of these made great cheap fun jewellery. The better quality paper produced some beads that drew quite a bit of admiration! We also used to make our own paper flowers because of course we were sure to wear flowers in our hair!
Years ago Mr Greenacres and I rescued an office chair from a skip. It was basically sound but the upholstery was ripped. He revamped the metal work with spray paint and I reupholstered the seat and backrest . No special skills were needed. It’s been in use ever since.
So before you throw it out, stop and think. Recycle or upcycle? I’m not sure I’m quite up to wearing a skirt made from an umbrella but believe me it’s being done, but making and adapting clothes and accessories or furniture can be a source of creative pride as well as good for our pockets and the environment. Now where are my knitting needles?