The Sewing Room
Updated: May 22, 2020
The textiles room was down a corridor near the I.T. rooms, and next door to the food tech room which always smelled a little sour, onions always being cooked too hot, something being burnt aggressively. The textiles room by contrast was the smell of an iron as its heating up and fabric that had been left in the cupboard too long. And something about it always smelled warm.
On the walls were children’s contributions to mandatory creative classes. A whole section dedicated to pompoms, some noticeably more straggly than others and gathering dust. An entire wall of moodboards filled with inspiration pictures of John Deere Tractors, thoroughbred horses and Harry Potter. Walking in from the hallway, the room was segmented into two, the back of the room which had the laminator and the irons, the tall stools and the tall science desks that had been repurposed here in the textiles room. Then the space in front of the whiteboard, next to the fabric cupboard, with six battered sewing machines resting against the wall, and four square tables covered in old glue gun glue lumps, glitter and fabric scraps.
There were windows stretched across the length of the room that looked out over the big tree in the field that we all used to hang out at on a lunch time, often being pelted with sticks by the younger kids. Lots of light and lots of heat in the summer time when we would sweat through our rough-to-the-touch, off-white polo neck t-shirts, everyone’s yellowing slightly at the underarms as the school year dragged closer to the six week holidays.
Tamsin and I spent more time there than anywhere else, although the art rooms were a close contender. Afterschool lessons with Mrs Hully, our big bosomed, big hearted textiles teacher, lunch times, even break times - a precious 15 minutes eeked out where we could. Mrs Hully had these thick glasses that made her eyes look like a children’s illustration, and when she didn’t have them hanging around her neck on a golden chain they were on her head and she would be stalking the room lifting up fabric scraps to find them. “Girls! Where have I put my glasses?”.
The lads found her tough. Because she wasn’t afraid of them and she didn’t take their shit. The greatest irony of all is that whilst she liked the well behaved kids, she secretly loved the naughty kids more, with that enormous heart of hers. Most lunchtimes whilst we were sewing away or using the only computer to do our textiles homework, lads would come in one by one over the course of the 45 minutes. They would burst through the door huffing heavily.
“Miss! Fucks sake Miss! Look!” And the kid would lift his arm to reveal a rip so far around the sleeve that the cuff was hanging off. She would chastise them for their language, then stitch up the sleeve and send them on their way with a warning about ‘fighting in the yard’.
Then there were the lads who came in with pink cheeks. There would be a soft knock on the door, a hurried, desperate look on their face through the window.
“Come in” she would sing. “Hello Mr. Roberts!”
The boy would walk in, invariably with his grey school sweater wrapped tightly around his waist, head bowed.
“Miss, can ya fix summit for us?”
She wouldn’t even ask what it was. She sent them to the fabric cupboard. There would be a rustling, an unzipping and then a little hand would emerge from behind the door holding a pair of trousers - ripped across the bum. She took them, sat at the same machines that we did, and repaired them effortlessly to the thrum of the cogs whirring behind the metal plates, before returning them to the shame faced lad in the cupboard who could now leave with a little more dignity than he went in with.
The sewing room was a place of tumult for the farming lads who couldn’t give a toss about making a cushion, but who you know could use lengths of bailing twine to stitch up the wool bags after sheering, with lanolin soaked hands and hefting forearms. The very subject of textiles was to everyone in our teenage years, impossibly gendered. Where once the curriculum of food technology and textiles would have been useful skills for the farming community we grew up in, it didn’t have the weight that Science and Mathematics and English did in the early 2000s. It was a ‘useful addition’ that you could ‘study in your spare time’. Which Tamsin and I did. Eagerly.
Our inseparable nature as two best friends, meant that rumours about us being lesbians were rife. Being gay was such a tantalising idea to anyone but the person being bullied for it, that it seemed to warrant deep speculation and glib slurs. There is something about female friendships that can be so intense and terrifying to the outsider that is writes itself into a fiction that others find it easier to explain, even if not based in reality. The name calling didn’t matter so much when we were in the textiles room though. Mrs Hully was the fierce dragon at the door, her formidable nature kept the kids who mocked us from the door and it was a delicious respite. And during the summer months, it was equal respite to rest your head on the cool desks and sip orange squash, out of the languid sun.
For two years we learned how to sew. I learned how to thread a sewing machine by watching Mrs Hully do it, then being instructed to do it for her seven times as she watched to ‘really embed it into your muscles’. Seven was the magic number she said.
I learned to design my own fabrics, using MS paint and the heat press, so that when I became obsessed with the Joker aged 16, I could design a corset made with panels from newspaper clippings of grissly murders from the 1800s.
I learned that ironing was in fact, not the antithesis of the patriarchy, but actually a useful tool to create a beautifully finished garment. Although in fairness, I still abide by my Mum’s rule of only ironing when I’m sewing, and leaving the rest of it to Dad.
I learned that the tough exterior of those lads was quickly broken down by the kindness of a woman who had seen their eldest siblings wear the same clothes a few years back, and had fixed the same inseam time and time again, never asking for thanks, always telling them off for their terrible language.
I learned the horror stories of using a seam ripper incorrectly, of swallowing pins, of leaning on a hot iron, passed down from Mrs Hully’s teacher, to her, to us. She taught us the importance of good posture when sewing. ‘Girls, in my ballet classes I teach the little ones to walk with their shoulders back and backs straight. You should apply that to your sewing too.’ I learned that it's ok to like the Joker and Pride and Prejudice simultaneously, and be creative and get things wrong and have absolutely fuck all idea what I'm doing.
And when I came to her room alone at lunch time, panicked and so alone with the news of my little sister’s up-coming treatment, she sat me in the corner of her room and gave me three custard creams and some orange squash and she hugged me as I struggled to choke back huge sobs. That combination of food stuffs is still high on my comfort food agenda.
She measured me up in Year 8 for my costume as Oliver in Oliver Twist The Musical. She found a cap for me that she could pile my golden locks up under and patted me on the ears as though to say 'Good job'. That was before I had stopped being afraid of her. I just wanted to be liked, keep quiet, and avoid being mocked.
One time, beneath the pile of scraps in the fabric cupboard, I found a piece of lace that is roughly the length of my forearm. I still have it today. I like not knowing where it is from. It isn't really big enough to do much with, maybe a pocket for a bag, maybe some appliqué, but I like having it there in my stash, reminding me to sit up a bit straighter and stretch out my shoulders like a cat, and get some more orange squash.
The sewing room is inked in my memory, the smells and the stains on the worktops. The friendship and two young girls enamoured by being able to make something from scratch. The kids who held Mrs Hully in contempt but were so grateful for her undying kindness. The fabric cupboard that was just a pile of scraps from charity shops and kids projects that hadn’t worked out. It was a forgiving and frustrating place, and I think about it often when I'm drawing out plans, or researching a new technique.
We emailed for a while, me and Mrs Hully. Tamsin was at Central St Martin studying fashion, and I was at Cambridge wishing I had done art instead. The last time we wrote to each other she said this.
I only get spam emails for her account now but I saved this, just in case I need a healthy reminder that we just need to keep moving forward.