My Nanna came to visit from New South Wales and I was very pleased to spend some time sewing under her direction. Nanna, born Aleida Grul—though forced to give up her name through anglicisation and marriage—grew up in Holland, where her father was a tailor, and she herself trained in the same field. As a young woman, she sewed for a living, paying board to her parents and saving up the equivalent of ten full weeks’ wages to buy her own sewing machine—a fierce and serious Swiss-made tank of a machine, driven by a pedal at the knee, which has accompanied her for the rest of her life. Her school was determined to take her on as a teacher, but toward the end of her studies, she and her family immigrated to Australia. Nanna paid her own way with the income she made from sewing. She and her younger sister took over a local sewing business in New South Wales, but eventually the demands of family life took precedent—her own family grew to five children. Still, children need dressing, and grandchildren too, and Nanna has continued to sew prolifically.
When she came up to visit us, I pulled out some lovely, soft, creamy, floral fabric I had found in Vienna, and an unopened vintage sewing pattern I had discovered in Berlin. The pattern pieces were flimsy and sage-coloured, marked only with perforated words and symbols—‘EINHALTEN’, ‘FADENLAUF’—and the instructions ran in stiff, old-fashioned German. A combination of my German, her Dutch, and her practical knowledge of patterns allowed us to piece the thing together.
But more than receiving a little guidance, I was treated to a wonderful insight into her past and her attitude to work and to life. I’ve always known her as cheerful, contented, and unfazed by difficulties, but I failed to appreciate her quiet acceptance of her compromises, her driven and hardworking nature, and her adherence to the high standard she demands of herself. As we carefully measured and remeasured fabric, pattern and me—‘where is your tape measure?’ (my mother recollects Nanna ever having her tape measure hanging from her neck, never out of reach)—she spoke softly about the past, as though the act of sewing were a method of time-travel, a direct portal to the times she had sewn before. And this time I was permitted to travel with her.
At the very beginning of our work, Nanna confessed to constantly unpicking her own work to this day, which surprised me. I wondered that she could be so unsure with her hands. But I quickly learnt that this stemmed from no uncertainty, but from very exacting demands. Should an unwanted pucker appear, should a collar sit too tightly, should a gathered edge not sit pleasingly, it must be undone. From my own viewpoint, of ‘good enough is good enough, no one will know the difference,’ it was a pleasant surprise to be held accountable to someone who produces the best work she possibly can, no matter how ignorant her audience.
For no one would notice the length of my stitches should they learn I had sewn my own blouse—they would only be impressed, useless as they are with their hands, that I had made something. But Nanna, from the adjoining room, called out gently, ‘your stitches are too short. Small stitches look very unprofessional,’ a judgment made from the sound of my humming sewing machine alone. I lengthened my stitches, I worked more slowly, I took care with the intersections of seams, until my mum expressed surprise at the steady and controlled pace of my machine.
Following instructions is one thing, but working under the guidance of an expert is another entirely. There are things to learn that don’t read well in explanations—like how to make the back of the shoulders ‘roomier,’ and precisely where to overlap the seams of specific pieces. I began to be less assertive, asking for more help instead, hoping she would reveal more secrets to me at every step. Without malice, but matter-of-factly, Nanna told me, ‘the difference between what you know and what I know is very obvious.’ And I realised with what arrogant confidence I go about the works of my hands! Whether I sew, or knit, or paint, or draw—and this confidence, this ‘just and manly confidence in himself,’ as Joshua Reynolds calls it (p. 211), being ‘among the first moral qualities … which a Student ought to cultivate,’ is undoubtedly necessary. But equally necessary is the humility that comes with recognising a greater power than yourself, and the magnitude of the path they have already travelled, and that lies yet before you.
I also realised that perfectionism coupled with diligence is no terrible thing. For all her unpicking, Nanna, Aleida—now Alice—is ever moving forward, and no amount of redoing sets her back, discourages her, or prevents her from finishing something.