A collection of vintage dress patterns provided the inspiration for Sarah Steele’s latest novel
As I sit at my desk looking out at the rain pouring down over my home town of Stroud, it is hard to imagine that a little over a year ago I was on a research trip to the South of France, basking in the sun and frantically taking notes and photographs for my novel. A little over two years ago, it would have been hard to imagine sitting at this desk with a finished copy of The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon in front of me, my second novel already in the editorial machine, and a third in its early stages. Books and I go back a long way, and my very first job out of university was as an editorial assistant at Hodder and Stoughton. I had originally trained as a classical musician, and thank goodness I had the sense to realise I was not cut out for the professional concert platform, and that it was in the world of books I felt most at home. I never gave up music completely, however, and one of my greatest pleasures in life is playing violin in string quartets and with my local chamber orchestra, and singing with the small choir I founded recently. Besides, all those years of learning instruments taught me the discipline needed to write a book: it’s hard, it’s lonely and there are no short cuts, but the rewards are boundless.
After leaving London for the Cotswolds,
I carried on some editorial work freelance, trying to work around my young family until the day I returned a manuscript whose pages were stuck together with jam and decorated with crayon. I took to experimenting with my own writing instead, to sustain me through those fuggy days of scraping food off the walls and toddlers off the floor. By the time I returned to work as a music teacher, writing had become an obsession, and I always kept my laptop handy so I could write through breaks and missed lessons.
I eventually left the teaching room for a job in events management at Gloucester Cathedral and, as director of Wordfest in 2018, I came into contact with various authors, one of whom persuaded me to pluck up courage to show my work to an agent. This had never particularly been the plan – although no writer has never secretly dreamed of publication – but I had nothing to lose, even if the prospect of rejection was difficult to ignore.
I had recently been thinking hard about my collection of vintage dress patterns – the pencilled scribbles on them, the hastily written-down measurements – and knew there was a story waiting to be written about them. I have sewn all my life, and my wardrobe is stuffed full of beautiful old pieces, and so Nancy Moon began to take shape in my mind. The synergy of vintage fashion and dressmaking, combined with a long
lost family history, was exactly what the agent I approached was looking for. How soon could I finish the book? she asked after reading my proposal.
And so I took an enormous gamble. I gave up my job, dredged up my savings and rented a beautiful studio space in the attic of the Old Convent in Stroud. I researched vintage dress patterns, rummaging each Friday morning at Vintage Mary in the Shambles in Stroud, immersed myself in 1962 and listened as Nancy began to tell her story to me.
My agent was right about her hunch: within a month of sending out the manuscript, we agreed a deal with Headline, taking me back under the Hachette umbrella where I had started my career as a fresh-faced graduate.
This has been an extraordinary 12 months. I still struggle to believe that the hobby I have enjoyed privately for so long is now in the public domain, and that I’m ‘allowed’ to spend hours every day writing.
Lockdown has been a struggle for many, but it gave me time to finish my second novel, and to indulge in some making again. What luxury to have the time to research and order patterns and fabrics, to make dresses again, to share my experience with my children, who as
Few hobbies are as immediately rewarding as sewing, and there is nothing as satisfying as wearing something you have made, only for someone to ask enviously where you bought it.
It doesn’t take much to get started, and basic haberdashery items are not too expensive. Your biggest investment will be a sewing machine, but maybe you can borrow one from a friend to get you started before you take the plunge.
Here are a few tips to set you up:
Kit: filling your new sewing box with haberdashery is better than the best-ever stationery splurge, and your collection will grow with every project. Who knew you couldn’t live without an elastic-threader? Here are a few basics you won’t be able to manage without:
• Shears for cutting fabric, plus a
pair of small trimming scissors • Pins and a pincushion
• Tape measure
• Hand-sewing needles young adults are now able to make their own face masks, or stitch pockets onto a set of scrubs. During this time, we’ve taught ourselves to crochet, to grow vegetables, to bake bread (sourdough, of course!), and we have shared books and conversation with one another.
This morning my daughter, an art student in London, showed me a short piece of prose she has written, about how to grow words if you can’t remember how to speak them: you must plant the seeds of these words and watch them germinate, nurturing and watering them
• Tailor’s chalk
• Thread: invest in a few basic colours, then grow your collection to match your new projects
• Seam ripper (of which,
Sewing machine: this will be your best friend or your worst enemy, so buy the best you can afford, but don’t worry about bells and whistles. At most, you will probably need only a few basic stitches. Find a local dealer and ask advice, or make an appointment to talk to a specialist salesperson in your local department store. They will also be able to arrange a session for you to get to know your machine. If you have a model in mind, you may be able to find it cheaper on an auction website, but it won’t come with a guarantee.
Search out a local sewing club: There will be lots of courses you can sign up to, from completeuntil they are ready to speak for you. And with this, she has so clearly understood the essence of what it is to be a writer. I shall be framing her words and hanging them above my desk, for those days when I need to remember that a book will never blossom without love and care.
The Missing Pieces of Nancy Moon by Sarah Steele is published by Headline Review, £18.99. beginner level upwards, and plenty of people to share their experience with you. Many clubs run sociable sessions where you can sew alongside likeminded folk and become part of a friendly community.
Pick up remnants or use old sheets to practise basic techniques, before buying that special piece of fabric you’re terrified of cutting into. Once you are confident with your machine and with the basic techniques, you can progress to thinking about making that first garment.
Keep it simple: When choosing a pattern, look for ‘beginner’level ones that won’t require exact fittings or complicated techniques: there are lots of websites that list patterns by difficulty.
Your local sewing shop will be very happy to give you advice while you are buying fabric. There are plenty of wonderful online fabric stores, and if you see something you like, you may be able to order a swatch, so you can be certain it’s just right before you buy.
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes: it’s all part of the process, and is the reason you bought the seam ripper …
Once you’re feeling more confident, if there’s something you really want to make and it requires a zip fitting or careful sizing, then it’s a perfect opportunity to learn a new skill. Your pattern instructions will take you through the process. If you have the patience, you could make a toile (a ‘practice’ version of your garment, made from a cheap fabric such as calico), just to be sure those measurements are right.
Watch online tutorials if there’s something you’re struggling with, and don’t be afraid to ask for help: Even Coco Chanel had to start somewhere!