I may have mentioned, in passing, that I was once seamstress to the Queen Mother. This is not exactly true, because it evokes an image of me sat at Her Majesty’s heel sewing, when in fact I worked at her couturiers, Norman Hartnell, and never met her (though I did hear that she didn’t like plastic zips and would have only angel sleeves). I did this for one whole month before, rather famously, I was fired for allegedly “painting my nails on the Queen Mother’s chiffon”. A more glamorous firing offence I’ve yet to hear.
While there, I learned to sew beautifully; even as I was being fired by Miss Best, she said that my hooks and eyes were exquisitely stitched. And they were. One of the marks of a couture dress is that it should look almost as beautiful inside-out as the right way out. In the case of some of Hartnell’s dresses, the reverse was true.
Sadly, I’ve never been able to be as painstaking in the manufacture of my own vestments.
As a teenager, I made almost all my own clothes. I never had a pattern, I never measured. I just laid the fabric out and cut. It was gloriously heady and exhilarating; it took me a few goes to realise that it helped if the armholes and the sleeves were the same size. My sister, meanwhile, would French seam everything and could knit a Fair Isle jumper on four needles. She was forensic in her detail and care. I jumped in with both feet and a pair of scissors.
My friend Danelle, whom I met back in 1984 as we sat on those hard wooden stools in the Hartnell workroom, and who is today a very talented seamstress, gasps when she sees my approach to hemming things: I lay things down, I cut. I adore the thrill of not knowing if I have ruined a pair of trousers. My stitching is still superb (honestly, stop me and have a look at my overstitching), but I cannot and will not be held back by measurements, pinning or tacking the way I had to do professionally, with an anal retentiveness bordering on the surgical. (If you’re interested, I stitched the hem on the dress the Queen Mother wore to Prince Harry’s christening, and prepared the pleating.)
I’ve never failed. Never once have I not got the hem exactly the right length, and no fabric intimidates me, either. Last week, I went at a new pair of trousers while my boyfriend looked on in horror/ admiration; I got a frisson out of docking them as he told me dry-cleaners could take things up for you now. However, last winter I bought my most expensive winter coat ever, a Jaeger wool swing coat that is like a wonderful piece of sculpture. The sleeves are too long, but its beauty and preciousness have robbed me of my fearlessness. Love can fuel desire, but it can also render you impotent.
This was first published in the New Statesman.
In the end, I handed the Jaeger coat over to Danelle. A professional. She made a great job of it.