How the sewing circle is casting off its maiden aunt image

Stitch at The Rio. Picture: Robert Perry
Stitch at The Rio. Picture: Robert Perry
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IT’S Monday night in the Rio Café, in deepest Partick. Once a hardcore haunt, it is now the kind of establishment where a young man can sit happily in the corner, stitching himself a tweed bunnet.

The man with the needle is Paul Puppet, the Rio Café’s events co-ordinator. Having already established a kids’ art session, a poker club and a monthly alt-cabaret, he realised that what the place really needed now was a sewing group. “I might as well,” he says, “use my night off constructively.”

He enlisted Annie Doherty to do the honours with the needles and thread. It is week three and he has already made a top hat pin cushion and a bow tie. Tonight’s project, a green herringbone cap, is considerably more challenging. “It’s more than ten years since I’ve done any sewing,” he says, carefully cutting out a curved pattern piece. “I learned in 2001 as part of an art course. Apart from that, I’ve sewn on a few buttons.”

When the cap is complete, he plans to move on to a cloak. “I’m writing a musical. I will need several cloaks.”

Puppet is the only chap getting busy with the pinking shears in the pub this evening. Jessica, his burlesque performing partner, is there, making what she refers to as “a thing” – a black net flapping thing, for a forthcoming show. Marlene is stitching sequins on to the belt loops of a jacket.

Doherty, who is self-taught, has helped all kinds of people conquer their fear of the missing button and drooping hem. (“It took me six months,” Marlene chips in cheerily, “to learn to thread a needle.”) “It’s very liberating,” says Doherty, “to teach a few basic skills. One young lad came to my classes because he was applying to study dentistry. Sewing helped with his manual dexterity skills. He submitted some with his application.”

As Puppet proceeds with his pattern-cutting, friends stop for a chat and a nosy. He is, admittedly, hard to miss, with purple trousers and a twirly moustache, deeply absorbed in a piece of tweed. “It still amazes me,” he says, “that guys get ridiculed for doing something like this in 2013.

“Some will come over to have a look. They might even ask me to make them one. But they take some convincing to try it for themselves.”

This could all be set to change. Last week Great British Sewing Bee started on BBC2. Made by the company behind Great British Bake Off, it could well do for needlework what GBBO did for patisserie. Two of the eight contestants are male. Mark Sanders, 41, is an HGV mechanic by day and steampunk by night. He makes his own historically accurate outfits. Stuart Hillard, 41, is a fitness instructor who takes to the sewing machine to run up soft furnishings. Patrick Grant, the precision-dressed Scot behind the E Tautz tailoring label, is one of the judges. Of the contestants, he says, “Though most of the eight are girls there are two fine fellows propping up the ranks. We have the dapper Stuart, complete with bow tie and hanky, an impressive grapevine and a passion for quilting. And burley bearded HGV mechanic Mark, with fingers so sausagey he could use baked bean tins as thimbles. A more unlikely sewer you would be hard to find.”

Will Hillard and Sanders become the new James Morton, Brendan Lynch and John Whaite? Will their French seams be enough to take on the combined skills of six seamstresses ranging from an 81-year-old granny to a Hoxton hipster? And, more importantly, will watching fellas operate a sewing machine as effortlessly as Nick Knowles wields a jig saw inspire a new generation of men to the cause?

Alan Moore, who runs Glasgow’s Gentlemen’s Sewing Club, hopes the show will give more chaps the gentle prod they need to pick up a thimble. Moore is a professional needleman with a degree in embroidery from Glasgow School of Art. His day job is making women’s clothes for his own label, ten30.

Friends were, however, taking a loan of him. Whenever a pocket developed a hole, they would ask him to do the honours. He was horrified when he discovered one of them did not own an iron. So Moore started the Gentlemen’s Sewing Club to address these issues and give blokes a place where they could discuss manly fashion and style. “There is definitely a knowledge gap,” he says. “I’ve always been annoyed by people who don’t know how to sew on a button.”

He did not take to it instantly himself. Moore was taught no needlework skills at home and did not start sewing until he arrived, aged 18, at the textile department of Glasgow School of Art. “There we were, me and my mate Andy in a class of 32 girls.” The embroidery sessions were, initially, worse. He was the only guy. The head of department, however, also had a Y chromosome and had worked for Dior. And when he discovered machine embroidery, Moore had found the thing he loved. He has been chain stitching ever since.

Part of his motivation for starting the Gentlemen’s Sewing Club is the memory of his 18-year-old self. “If something like this had been around when I was at art school I would definitely have gone. I was surrounded by girls and their views of fashion. I would have loved to have gone to a place that gave the message that it was all right to do this.”

Moore has given a lot of thought to how to make needlecraft attractive to his fellow man. “I wanted a relaxed atmosphere, not a college or a university. So it’s in a pub.” In fact the venue has recently changed, from the defiantly alternative Flying Duck to an upstairs room in the more mainstream, but ornate and Victorian nonetheless, Sloans. “The room is beautiful. It fits the aesthetic of a sewing club – old and genteel. And I don’t want it to be too hipster-scenester. It has to be open to everyone. The last thing I want is all these guys in capes sitting around sewing and a mechanic comes in and thinks, ‘This is not what I signed up for.’”

As Great British Sewing Bee’s Mark Sanders shows, it’s often the discovery of a style-based counterculture that leads a fellow to pick up a needle. Steampunks, for example, may need to take in a pair of plus fours, re-line a cape, patch up a damaged pith helmet. In fact, anyone who wants to wear vintage rather than Topman will, eventually, have to replace a jacket pocket or darn a worn elbow. Another Rio Café stitcher, boylesque performer Tom Harlow, comes along to run up his own outrageous costumes.

For writer Ed Dawson it was all about punk. “With the Clash blaring in my ears and a pair of Oxford bags in my hands, there seemed to be only one way to reconcile my burgeoning musical interest in punk,” he recalls. “I was determined to visually identify myself with the three-chord wonders. It was early in 1977 and I needed to start sewing.

“I had learned to perform a neat double-stitch at primary school. I pinned my school trousers as narrow as seemed possible and set to work with needle and thread. The results exceeded my expectations, and soon I had modified my entire wardrobe, making drain-pipes of every trouser leg, appending zips where I could and stitching screen-printed bits of fabric to shirts and jackets.”

Thirty-five years on, Dawson can use a sewing machine, but still prefers hand-stitching. “Then, I sewed because I could neither afford, nor find, the kind of clothes that I wanted. Now I carry out the occasional running repair and make costumes for my children’s school plays.”

Adam Elder, a furniture designer, discovered at an early age that being handy with a needle was a great way to meet ladies. “I remember being a plooky 15-year-old, no confidence with girls, awkward and gangly and skint. I had an old pair of very ripped Levi’s. My mum had a new sewing machine. I set about those jeans big time.”

By the time Elder had finished, “they were more sewing repairs than original denim. There was cross-stitch, overhand, blanket, feather, ray stitch, herringbone, double fold, angel stitch, lazy daisy, cross-looping, ladder, running, chain, all in different colours and thicknesses. It was a work of art of which Kaffe Fassett would have been proud.”

Young Elder in his lazy daisy denims caused quite a stir. “There was a girl in the year above me at school, one of these impossibly beautiful beings who made males weak at the knees and females spit like angry cats. No bloke could get her attention. Until the day she saw the jeans. Worn by me.

“After that I was still a goofy, plooky introvert. I was a goofy, plooky introvert who got to hang around with Denise, who got invited to Denise’s house, who got to wander down the street with Denise to get chips and go back to Denise’s house to show her how to sew. We made a very beautiful black taffeta evening gown together for her to wear to the leavers’ dance.” And while love failed to blossom, it was still a formative experience. “Sewing,” he says dreamily, “has its uses beyond fixing pockets and attaching buttons.”

Press officer Mark Irwin-Watson was, unusually for a man of his generation, taught to sew by his mother. “She was very good with her hands,” he says. “She used to make patchwork blankets and crochet; she is still an industrious knitter.”

Young Mark was eight when he first picked up a needle. “I made a cross-stitch bookmark. The bookmark progressed to a hexagonal patchwork pin cushion (with wadding). It taught me a skill that I still use almost 30 years later.

“Being able to sew came into its own when I was at university as I could make do and mend. I could hem trousers, fix rips, patch jeans and up-cycle clothes with new buttons. And I still observe my mum’s top tip: when throwing out an old shirt cut the buttons off and keep them. You never know when you might need one.”

One barrier to men getting busy with the sewing machine is the complexity of their apparel. A lady who has never threaded a bobbin before can make a simple skirt in an afternoon. Making a shirt or a pair of trousers requires a set of skills that can take years to acquire. Some never get there. Moore recalls one newbie who came to the Gentlemen’s Sewing Club. “He asked me if I would consider doing a session where we made a shirt in an afternoon. I had to tell him that it just wasn’t possible. If he had wanted to make a skirt, that would have been different. It’s a tough one.”

Moore would love to find more men who want to take their needlework to the next level and discuss tweed while drinking lager. “People who sew are not all John Galliano flamboyant types.” As a professional embroiderer and dressmaker (albeit one with a tattoo on his tacking arm) he is the living proof.

Puppet might, however, disagree. “I don’t care what people think of me,” he says, putting down his shears. “I’ve got a wax handlebar moustache.”

Twitter: @MsABurnside

• Stitch at Rio! is on Mondays, 7-9pm; Gentlemen’s Sewing Club, Sloan’s, last Wednesday of the month, 7-9pm (www.gentlemensewing.blogspot.co.uk); Great British Sewing Bee, BBC2, Tuesday, 8pm