Cotswold Life

In time

A col­lec­tion of vin­tage dress pat­terns pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion for Sarah Steele’s lat­est novel

- Lifestyle · Lifehacks · France · Nancy · London · Cotswolds · Coco Chanel · Gloucester · Stoughton · Sarah Steele

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,

more later)

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!

 ??  ?? Sarah wear­ing some of her home-sewn dresses
Sarah wear­ing some of her home-sewn dresses
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 ??  ?? Sarah has sewn all her adult life, and has an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of vin­tage dress pat­terns
Sarah has sewn all her adult life, and has an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of vin­tage dress pat­terns
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