The perfectionist, revisited


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.

Cat sewing

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.

Sachsen Bluse

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.

Three monkeys

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.



Where I’ve been

I’ve been feeding my brain and it’s full of thoughts on painting: Lambert’s lively portraits and Sorolla’s vibrating edges, Antonio Lopez’s severed ghosts hovering over crockery, Nelson’s seductive descriptions of shadows, Freud’s sexualised understanding of the unconscious set beside Klimt’s sensual drawings and paintings of strong women. Vienna in 1900 and the melting pot of neuroscience, art and psychology. Russian aristocracy and infidelity. Too much coffee. Too much wine. Cemeteries. Lace knitting.

Secret drawings and secret paintings are in progress.

Reading frenzy Vintage knitting


Book painting

The owls are not what they seem

The owls are not what they seem



Snowy cardiIt being summer and all, I’m working on a couple of light cotton knitted things which I certainly won’t be able to wear for several months unless I put the air-conditioning on full blast in the car and drive around for at least an hour. But that doesn’t detract from the fun of the actual knitting! The above is a little short-sleeved cardi I am making up as I go, which has a rounded lower edge and some traditional Scandinavian textured patterns around the top. This textured knitting initially thrived in Denmark (says Sheila McGregor*, p. 13) and can be created from any two-colour chart by using knit and purl stitches with only one colour. The cotton is originally from a sweet little shop in Paris I visited several years ago, which I had knit into a polo-like cabled shirt which was so bulky and not at all the sort of thing I’d ever wear, I don’t know what I was thinking. I never wore it, so I unravelled the entire thing and set about making something better suited to my wardrobe. Unable to find a pattern, I made some hasty sketches and set to work.

Then a fortuitous visit to the glorious Woolloongabba Antique Centre found me in the possession of a gorgeous little knitting booklet from what appears to be the forties, boasting designs called ‘Paris,’ ‘Vienna’ and ‘Sydney,’ among others. Realising I had plenty of cotton to spare, thanks to all those ridiculous cables and collars and rubbish, I cast on a sweet little design called ‘Naples,’ which is sure to keep my shoulders snug in any air-conditioned environments I find myself in.

NaplesInspired by some voluminous skirts I spied at a market in Sydney, and by the classy ladies in Isabel Bishop’s paintings, I picked up a large bundle of mustard-coloured fabric to make the biggest swishy skirt I could imagine, and played around with double box-pleats until I’d come up with this:


Unfortunately, three metres of fabric means there is a lot of unwieldy drapery hanging about one’s back tyre when bike-riding–so I learned when I biked to the pub last night. If it’s not speckled with paint, it’s dusted with brake-dust!

Christmas picnic

Christmas was, for me, a lovely bike ride with J down to a sprawling park in the city, where we picnicked and ran through sprinklers and climbed trees and read books and dozed a little. Our families live a couple of thousand kilometres north and south of us, so we enjoyed our first Christmas in Brisbane without too much fuss. I’m surprised to learn how little is open at this time of year–it feels like we are so culturally introverted, hiding away in our homes. A couple of cafes are still pouring coffee, so I can live a reasonably normal existence! And in the meantime, I’ve been getting out and doing some painting with Ryan and with a new toy I picked up in Sydney:



*McGregor, Sheila. 1984. Traditional Scandinavian knitting. Dover Publications: New York.



I don’t really do downtime. I do craft. I made some stuff. Do you want to see it?

This blouse began life as a test project when I started to worry that I was cutting my glorious Liberty fabric from Paris too small. I popped down to Spotlight and picked up some heavy cotton broadcloth in this colour that makes me think of vintage soap and other wholesome things. I then spent a bizarrely meditative afternoon carving a sleeping cat image into half a potato and laboriously printing it onto a couple of metres of the stuff. I began to doubt my sanity, but I felt soothed and had managed to stop being over-stimulated for several hours. I’m not much good at slowing down my mind.

Instead of catching up on sleep, I spent my day off sewing this fabric into the blouse, pondering over the intricacies of the pattern. This was also very relaxing. My mum always sewed when I was younger, she made herself all her fancy outfits for weddings and such, and she made me custom spin-out skirts to fulfill my ballerina fantasies. I would make doll clothes and hat-shaped pin-cushions with her, copying her or making it up as I went. In high school I found out one could take classes and be shown how to sew, and demanded I be enrolled in such a class at once. I took sewing classes for three weeks, one evening a week, and produced two skirts, learning to set a zip, apply facing and treat seams. I learned that ironing is the key to sewing. Mum pronounced me a certified seamstress and took me out of the classes. I figured out buttonholes from her sewing machine instruction book, and the rest is history.

I also taught myself colourwork knitting. My nanna sees the things I knit and asks me, ‘Where did you learn to do that?’ The truth is that she taught me when I was six, and my oma taught me the purl stitch not long after, and pretty soon the internet came about I suppose, and I could YouTube most anything I cared to learn. It took a little fiddling about to work out how not to get holes when stranding your colours, and, indeed, how to strand them behind the knitting so they sit neatly and don’t get hooked on things, but I think I’ve got the hang of it.

The wool of my Sheep Heid is particularly exciting to me. I ordered it directly from a Victorian mill that goes by the name of The Jolly Jumbuk. Kate Davies designed this tam to be made from the nine natural Shetland sheep shades, but I did a little research to find out if an Australian equivalent existed, given, you know, our extensive sheep population. Jumbuk sell undyed wool in four shades, and several different weights; I’ve used the finest weight (5 ply) and adjusted the pattern to use less shades–a very easy substitution that loses no details, only perhaps has less subtlety in the transitions. The most delightful thing has been that each wool has its own quality–the darker wools are quite course and bristly, and the cream is by far the softest. The slate is especially marled in a way the others are not. All of them are quite irregularly spun, but I suppose this adds to the rustic feel. Now that I’m knitting with fancy wool from some other part of the world again, I realise that the Jumbuk experience is quite unrefined, but I like it for that. One feels closer to the sheep, even if the result is less polished.

And I made a table. I like to paint at it on the veranda now that it’s blisteringly hot again, preferably with iced bubbly water or (non-iced) wine. The wood came from an old bookshelf bedhead that I salvaged on curbside collection week, and the trestles and stools were my first ever Ikea haul.


Throw yourself in

Star cardigan © Samantha Groenestyn

This is my favourite cardi, which I knit a couple of years ago, and which has travelled all over the world, gotten its sleeves dirty in cafes, gone out on fancy dinners and taken French classes. It’s an all-purpose winner of a cardi, made from an old 1940s pattern called Charm Star Cardigan. The buttons were a particularly spectacular Etsy find, being hundred-year-old Czechoslovakian buttons–a country which no longer exists! The wool is 100% Italian merino, very fine–lots of teeny tiny stitches. It took some time to knit, but the thin fabric was worth the effort. This was my first colourwork project, and I taught myself to strand the second thread behind the first, from a book!

(The dress I made from a 1953 Simplicity pattern, and the shoes are from Paris).

While J has been in Sydney making physics, I’ve been taking advantage of some extra alone time to do some wicked crafting. I whipped up these modified socks for my brother for his birthday, which each feature a little space-invader:

I’m not an avid sock-maker, but I’ve enjoyed these and will probably churn out some more, especially with winter and the promise of boots coming up. If you’d like to make some, I’ll be adding my instructions on Ravelry in the near future.

My knitting confidence is growing thanks to a relatively new acquisition of mine:

With a deeper understanding of how knitting builds a garment, and a scrap of paper to scribble on, it’s easier to think analytically about what one is doing when knitting, rather than blindly following a pattern. For these socks, I had to adjust the number of stitches to match sock wool (what?–I know, right?), and then work out proportionally where the decreases ought to go, or how wide the heel ought to be. The perplexing instructions I had called for very bizarre proportions with worryingly narrow heels that made no sense to me, and very long heel-to-toe measurements. Perhaps my brother has small feet, I don’t know. At any rate, they fit a treat, even without measurement, since they were a surprise gift!

Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s almanac is very different to what I expected, having read plenty about it fulfilling some sort of biblical role in the knitting community. It is essentially a storybook about an old lady who is knitting a different item during each month of the year. Sometimes she is on a camping trip, other times she is out watching extreme sports and napping in the car. She writes a narrative about the construction of her item, and then provides the ‘pithy instructions’ which are what we would ordinarily expect of a pattern. Reading the book is more like sitting down with your Nanna, ‘yarning up’ (Australian pun) and casting on, and being talked through the process of construction. None of the items are really appealing enough to make, but I have picked up some gems in terms of the strict angles created by particular decreases and so forth. In fact, she makes me think of Richard Sennett again, who discusses three ways of providing instructions: the cautionary, which looks out for pitfalls that the follower might walk into; the narrative, which aids understanding and memory by taking the follower on a journey; and the metaphorical, which I referred to here.

My other crafting includes a little black dress, replete with pleats. I always throw myself into projects with far more confidence that my experience ought permit–I have altered a pattern in crucial ways that I’m not sure I can think through the construction of it–but how is one to learn without extending oneself beyond what one already knows?


On marriage

People ought to be straight with each other, and give each other a heads up. Life seems to be a slow unravelling of unfortunate revelations that are completely unsupported by the things we were taught to be right (right in a moral sense).

A 1953 Simplicity pattern modified with white rose lace; clutch from Only Midge

I attended a wedding. It was lovely. All the people came, oohed and ahhed, feasted magnificently and made merry. Prior to the wedding, I scoured Keats for some inspirational lines on love, but found him to be too authentic for wedding card wishes: a moment after speaking of joy, he plunges into the depths, always linking the two together. Life is simply not all roses—and love especially.

Lace ruffle added to split; shoes from Modcloth

The marriage celebrant bemoaned the youth of today and their loathing of anything binding. A more intelligent way to consider it is that we have seen the mistakes of our parents and grandparents, and we recognise the gravity of such a contract as that of marriage. As everyone clicked their cameras and giggled at the flower girls, and ogled the diamonds and evaluated the bridesmaids’ hair, the couple vowed to stand by each other in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer. As we filed out, all I could say to my mum was, ‘Man, this marriage stuff is heavy—what if your spouse ends up terminally ill, in poverty?’ I like the balance that has traditionally been built into the ceremony (though I’ve seen others that emphasise that the bride will love and obey her husband as the church does Christ, while the husband gets to be the deity of the relationship), that contrasts each positive with its negative, and quite starkly so. But I’m not so sure that weddings ought to be the celebrations that they are. At least, they should be equally serious as they are happy.

And this is the problem that has plagued generations: their elders push them into unions as morally correct and as blissful, God-blessed unions, but once couples have passed through to the other side all the difficult things are revealed. And I don’t mean difficulties like shared toothbrushes. I mean mismatched personalities, unequal ambitions, drastically different perceptions of family and the like. If our elders treated marriage as seriously as many of my generation do, they wouldn’t push us into legal contracts with people we haven’t yet investigated fully enough.

So let’s be straight with each other: signing a legal contract promising you’ve got someone’s back no matter what is kind of a big deal. Forsaking all others until death parts you signals you are certain that you’ll never meet another person whose temperament, humour, interests and financial aptitude match yours so perfectly. Hiding all these hard things under expensive bouquets and intricately beaded lace and inspired photography won’t make these things go away, and doesn’t lend the situation the true gravity it deserves. We saw what your parents drove you to, and we questioned your choices. That is why we are taking our time and don’t fear your judgement.


Wet season

The wet has hit Brisbane, and after last year’s performance, everyone seems a little bit on edge. One of our walls–all wooden–has bulged like it’s about to give birth to more baby walls, busting the skirting boards and splitting the paint, and little rivulets of water seep through and trickle down into the floorboards.

But, such is our sub-tropical life.

And to cheer it a little, I have completed a zippy little top:

This is from a 1979 Simplicity dress pattern I found in an op-shop one time. I’ve only made the bodice, and done away with the parachute sleeves.

The bottle-brushes are drooping with raindrops. I like their creamy colour.

‘J, do a hipster pose!’