What does it mean when the man who repairs my sewing machine throws his arms wide to give me a kiss and a hug when I collect Tara’s repaired machine? In some ways I hardly know him, and it felt rather strange to step into his circle and receive it. It’s never happened before. He wished us all the best and waved, watching us as we drove away.
“That was weird”, I said to Gilbert, but reflected as we drove home I have known Les since I was about 18. Forty odd years. I had watched Nana sew on her treadle and had even been allowed to make a handkerchief. I had seen Mum do necessary repairs and I had sewed a bit at home myself as a teen but I had never had a formal sewing lesson past making an apron at Intermediate when I was about eleven years old. In true form however when Gilbert and I decided to get married, we wanted to escape to a romantic Island for the honeymoon of our dreams. This meant some serious budgeting as we were covering most of the costs, with both sets of parents of moderate means.
Gilbert asked me if I could sew my dress. “Hell yes! I replied, I could even make your suit I reckon. How hard could it be?” I reasoned…so Gilbert gave me $200 and I went down to the sewing machine shop and bought my first machine. A Bernina. I had a lesson in using the machine and took it home. Mum had some light blue suiting fabric she had bought off a traveling door to door salesman, and we laughed about our good luck. I bought a suit pattern and made a start cutting through the fabric with the confidence of youth.
I was still at teachers college and just before term break we had a week of chosen leisure activities, and I chose sewing. With a sketched picture of my desired wedding dress and a bolt of cloth I had purchased at the local fabric place under arm, I was ready.
“…and what are you wanting to do?” the sewing mistress inquired going around the room as we introduced ourselves. “I want to make my wedding dress”, I answered smiling. Her smile faded rapidly once she realised I had no pattern, no skill and no time. The wedding was in two weeks. She suspected, I’m sure, this was going to end very badly. “Go home, she said, and cut very, very, carefully.”
I made the dress, finished the suit and on the morning of the wedding made a shirt for Gilbert while he was working. Gilbert came back from work and slipping on his shirt, found the sleeves were at least 6 inches too long and the suit perhaps one size too large. Hmmm we stood there looking at him before bursting out laughing. We were to be married in a few hours. Gilbert grabbed a couple of rubber bands and one on each arm he gathered up the excess sleeve of his shirt to hold it up. “That’ll work,” he smiled before packing it all up and was off to his rugby game.
My dress however fitted like a glove…hehe, but the wedding and honeymoon is another story.
The house we bought before Damen was born was next to the guy who owned the local dry cleaners and he asked me one day if I could sew. They needed someone to mend and repair, replace zips, hem up, darn. Pretty much anything in that line. Nothing too hard, he assured me, but he could drop it in and pick it up when I had it ready. I could do it in my own time working around baby.
How hard could it be? I thought and so began ten years of mending and repairs. The best training you could have as I took apart and reconstructed all manner of things. I became an expert and soaked up anything I could learn about sewing. I made almost all the kids clothes including wet weather gear and could pull apart something discarded in adult size, and turn it into something else for the kids. We even remodeled our tent adding in zippered mesh and windows.
When I had a sewing problem I took it down to my sewing shop and Les or the lady working there inevitably helped me. I never sewed a man’s suit again, but I did sew lined jackets, wedding, bridesmaid and ball dresses for others in between repairs on thousands of mill worker overalls. During that time I upgraded my sewing machine to the latest electronic version costing over $2000, paying it and an over locker off with money from my sewing repair work. I’d put the children to bed and sew until the first one woke up. Sometimes that was midnight and sometimes it was two am!
If I was feeling a bit down about having to repair forty pairs of ripped and torn overalls, or hem, or replace zips, I would take the newly delivered stack and pick each one up and calculate what I would get paid and neatly fold them into their job piles. Then I would have a dollar figure in my head and I would get stuck in pleased about earning that money. With little ones I had no other way of earning and was indeed grateful for the work.
When we had Simone we had moved out of town and I gave up mending. Five babies in nine years was keeping me busy enough. And so even after he sold his shop and retired, Les has continued to look after my machine. I was constantly in his shop buying thread or whatever I needed. Pregnant or next baby in arms, he was sometimes a weekly visit and always smiling.
Though I hardly ever see him now, he’s probably in his mid eighties and being about Mum’s age knew our family, and us his. I stepped from his warm embrace and hoped this wasn’t a sign of him saying goodbye, as that’s what it felt like. I turned to watch him head back down his path as we drove off. Now an old man. I’m grateful for being in a small community where people have long lasting and positive relationships. These people we will miss. Their skills in maintaining and repairing will be lost in this throw away world if we are not careful, and they do make a difference.