Sons are not, in the main, great shopping companions. Mine are complaining in and out types, fixing on an item as quickly as possible, ducking from considering alternatives I might point out to them, making for the tills in tortured faces and beating a hasty retreat to the car. And shopping for clothes in particular elicits the worst of their moods – perhaps a tennis racket might be attractive enough an item to warrant a bit more patience, a short discussion on features and different models, but shoes, shirts, trousers, socks! How tedious.
When my son’s fiancée invited me to participate in the creation of her wedding dress, I couldn’t have been happier. What a privilege, what fun! Dare I say it in these politically correct gender-sensitive times that this was the little bit of feminine frippery that my soul decided there and then had been missing until this point in my life. The search for the dress slid into my psyche and snuggled in as neatly as the fit of Cinderella’s slipper in the hands of the smitten prince who knelt before her.
So what did the bride have in mind? A piece of lace, the gorgeous girl answered, maybe old? The design of the dress could evolve from that initial choice. I scratched about in my mind thinking ‘lace’. I know very little about lace but I did remember a lifetime ago watching a documentary about Belgian lace makers – unexpectedly watchable, considering the subject – and I had also seen lace scraps being sold in a huge flea market when I visited a dear friend in Brussels who just happens to love fabric so much she has an extensive collection of her own.
We emailed the friend and asked her to see what she could do. I knew that she would take her task seriously. We looked at samples on line and sent images of pieces of lace that the bride liked. I recognised the search might not be that easy. Europe had changed in the ten years after my visit. The glory days of scratching around in a town square and coming up with treasure might have come to an end. Everything was pricey, very pricey.
Meanwhile the bride visited shops on her own and tried on various options – vintage dresses always too small, made for those shrunken olden-day people not raised on milk, I think. A few modern dresses at bridal boutiques, definitely not what she wanted. I listened to her reports on these efforts and waited for the Belgian connection but with increasing doubt that it would work.
Then an unplanned visit to the Hofmeyer- Mills auction house on their Tuesday viewing day brought unexpected impetus to the project. We – my husband and I – are unapologetic magpies for second hand junk and there isn’t a stack of old wooden picture frames that I will walk past without a quick look-through. One lot included 5 heavy wooden frames. As I flipped through them I realised that these were not pictures that were framed but old lace collars. I even recognised the style of lace from our internet research: Battenberg lace which is the folding and stitching and forming of pattern using a ribbon of cotton.
I rushed home to bring my camera- no camera on my old phone! – and sent the photographs – a bit blurry, unfocused and distorted with reflections because of the glass - to the bride who answered with an unreserved YES. Bid on them.
My husband was dispatched to the auction the next morning with explicit instructions – “get them.” Which he did. For R250 we had 5 antique lace neck collars and five large heavy wooden frames.
The bride shot over from Tokai after school where she works as a teacher for the great unveiling. That’s an apt word for a bride, is it not? The careful dismantling of frame and unpicking of the lace from the cardboard that they had been stitched onto, was a slow-hurry-up affair. We just could not wait to lift those delicate off-white soft pieces and lay them around her throat in front of a mirror.
The favourite of the five was not difficult to choose. Right, we had lace. Now what? I looked around my bedroom for a piece of cloth to drown out the distracting patterns of her clothes.
“Do you want to wear white?” I asked, wondering at the same split second why I had never thought to ask before.
Her answer was, “No.”
My eyes alighted on a quarter completed project lying in a heap on the bedroom chair and I passed a piece of the cloth from it for the bride to drape over her body.
And now a digression to explain what this project was all about: another thread beginning at the same point – collecting second hand stuff at fetes, sales, flea markets, bargain and hospice shops – and this time it was a collection of old silk ties. After considering the growing pile of them that I had picked up over the years, I decided a year or so ago to sew them down on a cloth. So, I tacked them onto a piece of unbleached calico in long loopy stripes, stripes ending with lolling tongues lapping the edges of the cloth. While I liked the design, the piece was missing something. The ties were too heavy for the cloth. I decided it needed a backing cloth. But how to connect front and back? It was a peculiar route to come to quilting but with a help of a quilting guru, that is how I came to make my first quilt, batting and rows of stitches in cotton thread providing the substance that the piece lacked.
The quilt was a gift, a gift to the very same friend in Brussels who had been looking for lace. Over the years, both my boys had separately spent considerable time lodging with her while they pondered their life choices. She hosted them with generosity and patience before they took new paths and returned home to Cape Town. And the quilt resides there in her home.
Before the wedding plans were announced, I had decided to replicate the tie quilt as my store of ties was still plentiful. I went shopping for the cloth and coincidentally, I found what I was looking for at Fabric City in Wynberg which is also coincidentally, a parking lot away from Hofmeyer-Mills. It was the end of roll piece of cotton percale the colour of pinky putty, rich old rose, dirty pink – I’ve heard a number of terms to describe the colour, but I loved it. I had begun by tacking my ties on one half of the cloth by the time of the day of the lace collars, and it was this cloth that I had handed to the bride.
“What do you think of this colour?”
“I love it!” was her response.
No luck at Fabric City to find more cloth. It was a one-off roll and they would not be getting more of it. What we had then was two pieces, front and back, one of which, the front, had pinprick holes where the bride had unpicked the stitches holding the tacked ties. Luckily I remembered that washing cloth helps to mend needle holes and it mostly did.
The dress was beginning to take shape. The bride had an idea about the dress pattern, a simple bodice and flaring mid calf length skirt but she felt it needed something more.
At last a leisurely shopping expedition to the fabric shops near the Castle looking for tulle or chiffon for an extra level of detail. This is what I had been dreaming of, shopping for cloth or clothes in that hunting-the-snark- manner that my sister and I had done with my mother when we were young. Let’s look here, what about this, let’s try this shop, too light, too heavy, wrong colour, can we take a sample, all those phrases that had atrophied in the raising of two boys.
With our purchase of an almost identically colour-matched chiffon which we envisaged as a second layer for the skirt in the car, we returned triumphant.
“Do you want me to embroider the skirt?” I asked .
Yes!” was the enthusiastic response, “would you?”
“Of course,” I answered only too happy to be allowed to take part in the whole enterprise.
But what colour? And most importantly what pattern should we go for?
The answer lies in another digression, another thread to the story and the thread begins at the same place that the other two digressions began: with second hand junk. Our neighbours across the road converted their garage into a flatlet and rents it out to a man with what I imagine to have had a rough past. He comes from the northern suburbs, with a friendly punched-in Vaudeville face, a single father with two sons. Life is a struggle for him and to keep body and soul together, he does odd jobs and clears people’s garages out. I call him a rag and bone man.
The rag and bone man often calls us if he has a haul of second-hand junk and we like to support him with the odd purchase: rounded pebbles for paths, a garden arch, some old school desks and little things now and then. A few months before any wedding was on the horizon, he called us out to have a look through the contents of his small bakkie. I can’t remember if we bought anything from him on this occasion but he thrust a plastic bag in my hands and said take this, Reviva. The bag was stuffed to the brim with what looked like dress patterns. I could tell by the off-white thin tissue paper poking out of the top.
“I don’t sew,” I told him.
“Take it,” he responded, “I’m just going to throw it out.”
So I took it home and when I unpacked the bag it contained oh, about 30 large embroidery patterns from the 1920’s – some have the date on them – and all the script on them is Greek! Vintage Greek embroidery patterns with drawings of chic flappers side by side with ancient Greek images such as the Greek Gods and figures in National dress, you know the type, white skirted men with pom-pom hats. What a strange combination!
The bride chose one of the patterns which I copied onto the bottom of the chiffon overskirt using a blue embroiderers koki. Then it was the long haul, about 6 weeks solid morning to night chain –stitiching the design in a subtle pinky off- white embroidery thread. We didn’t want the embroidery to fight with the lace colour, so it was subtle, very subtle. But no great technique, just simple chain-stitch in long exotic , streaming shapes, some sort of paisley, some more floral.
And the embroidery patterns themselves? We had them plastic laminated and they were the central runners on our wedding tables.
Although I did other embroidery for the wedding, monogramming 100 mismatching cloth napkins and fixing the holes of a family heirloom shawl with chain-stitch spirals, my contribution to the wedding dress was over. The dressmaker drew all the elements together, adding tiny mother-of-pearl buttons to the back of the lace collar and a little subtle belt to it but I never saw the finished dress until the day of the wedding. Such a surprise!
The wedding, held in an old sinkplaat colonial hall that we converted from furniture storeroom, to grand, faded beauty, was lovely and personal and unique, a purposeful departure from the generic weddings that are the current norm. There was a slide show of family photos in a booth, an old typewriter on which to type a message for the bride and groom. There were songs sung by family members and guests – some impromptu. We had platters of my granny’s special nut cake with recipes printed for the guests to take, little gifts of succulents in enamel cups. After the older generation called it a night, the groom, a drummer, and his band rocked the place and the dancing was frenetic.
And the wedding dress? The bride looked ravishing in her elegant vintage dirty pink chiffon number. A bit Dowton Abbey, someone said.
It was a privilege to be involved in its creation. Thank you daughter-in-law for the opportunity to feel what it must be like to have a daughter.