Kate, my niece, is making a Recency-style Spencer jacket; she downloaded the pattern from the internet. ‘It’s spare on instructions,’ she tells me. ‘It says things like – then attach the arm, and not a word more.’ She is a surgeon with fabric, and can, somehow, execute this reverse amputation with minimum trial and error and no further guidance. She can see how to do it; she possesses that 3-D vision of the seamstress where a hologram of the finished article hangs in the air in front of her. She walks around an empty space visualising swatches of fabric flying into place, conjuring an image of what these forty-six assortments of cuttings that lie strewn on the ground will, in time, look like.
A Spencer Jacket is short and tight, it stops beneath the bust, is fastened sometimes with a buckle, often covered buttons, has a high collar, a puffed sleeve, a straight, tight arm, and the bodice, cuffs, and high collar are all finished with folds of fabric sewn into decorative filigree shapes – fleur-de-lys, paisley, scallops. In short, it is complicated. She is undaunted, and I am stunned by the piece of history that is taking shape as she stitches it into the world.
I am inspired by her audacious approach to structure and form, by how her brain commands order (a garment) out of chaos (a bolt of fabric and a pair of sharp scissors). My garment is a jumble of words from which I am trying to fashion a novel, a memoir, an essay, a poem. My thread is a flow of words. My fabric is when that flow melds into lines and paragraphs. When I edit, that’s the scissors in use. I too have pattens I can copy from the internet to tell me about shape and form and style in writing, but I am more likely to draw from novels, from reading the stories of others, then seeing through the story and pulling up the curtain to examine the structure on which it hangs. Kate tells me this is how she sees clothes: she sees through them into the lining and binding, she homes in on the cut of the yoke, the weight of the inter-facing, the length and placement of the zip, the texture of the fabric, its weave, weft, weight.
We are both weaving and meshing ideas. Both of us start with scattered pieces and try to make something beautiful. I search for the line, for the beginning, the middle, the end, knowing they may not (almost certainly won’t) present in that order. Kate turns the garment inside out to work on the lining and seams and sew straight lines. Sometimes my lines come out all crooked as my ideas swirl back and forth, memories bounce from the present to the past. Kate asks her model to turn so she can see how the piece it looks from behind or from the side. I copy her. I try to think about the same story from a different angle: here’s how she sees it, here’s how he sees it.
These days I’m on memoir. I turn my mind inside out, shake loose some memoires, and try to organise what comes to me by theme: beauty, people, trouble, home. But often the seams don’t match up, there are gaps, or the threads lump together in the fastening. These are the messy days when the pattern beats me, when the lines I create are all off kilter. Kate would unpick it and start that section over again. In frustration, I take the pieces of fabric I have cut and throw them into the air to see where they land, hoping some system might emerge from the haphazard approach. Should I go for a random telling? Like how, when we sit around a table late at night sharing stories, they never emerge as a chronology in the telling, instead they jump and hop and somersault. Years get shoved in the wrong order, dead people are resurrected, endings are changed. Some stories are one-liners (a simple A-line skirt), others are long and detailed (a wedding gown), some are embellished for the wow-factor (the Spencer Jacket), and some are tight, shocking, and told in a one-liner (scant undies). I don’t know where I’m going. I’ll keep watching how Kate does it and learn from her. She stays with it through the mistakes. I must do the same: unpick and start again.