In home economics class in 1993 I had to sew an elephant pillow out of green and red corduroy but its ears came out lopsided and no one knew what it was. That was when I knew I couldn’t sew. Because of this, my yellow dress with its blind hem drooping, has sat discarded in my wardrobe for nearly a year.
When I finally bring the dress into the tiny shop, tucked between a hairdresser that specialises in ‘Asian’ cuts and the clothing shop selling mostly harem pants, the owner is delighted.
She isn’t delighted because I have brought her something to sew. She is delighted because my friend (who also sews) wants to know how the machine that does the blind hem works. I tell the woman that my friend has a sewing club. When she hears this, she clasps her hands together and shrugs her shoulders and smiles so that her cheekbones pop out. She reminds me of my grandma.
‘But you know’, she says in an accent that could be Russian, ‘this is so good because the young people, they don’t sew’. Her glasses are perched on the very end of her nose but I can see that her eyes are sparkling now.
‘When I was a girl, every one sew. I’ve been doing this all my life but now, no one sews’, she says.
‘Come, come – let me show you this machine’.
She is animated as she expertly places the bobbin in the machine and threads the cotton through. She picks up a scrap of black fabric, folds it loosely and places it beneath the presser foot and looks up at us grinning.
‘This is a special machine. It only does blind hems. That is all’, she explains. She moves the fabric through the foot. My friend strains to see, she’s interested.
‘And… voila!’, the woman says; now holding a perfect blind hem. ‘Of course I could hand sew’, she says, ‘but this machine, she is so quick’.
She pats the machine that does blind hems like it is an adorable puppy.
The machine is the same colour as the one that my mother used to make our clothes with when we were kids. We sat at her feet, rifling through the sewing basket full of offcuts and brightly coloured threads. I remember a blue and white gingham dress and playing with the pincushion shaped like a tiny Japanese doll. Before my mother, my grandmother carted heirlooms of intricately embroidered cloth in wooden chests through war-torn Europe on the journey that eventually took her to Adelaide. They’ve now been moved to a plastic box as memories because my grandma is dead and my mum no longer sews.
The woman tells me the dress will be $24. I pay her and before we leave she grabs my friend’s elbow and says, almost pleading, ‘You, you must always sew’.
Then she returns to her machine and cuts the thread.