The Dressmaker by Sally Shippam
This story is to remember Katherine Douglas Smith who planted her tree, a Douglas Fir, on 18 February 1910.
New Year’s Day, 2000
It is a clear, still day and they stand together at the top of the church tower looking out over the Norfolk countryside. It felt important to be up high on this day; to have a view, to think about the past, the present and the future. He stands behind her with his hands on her belly and nuzzles into her neck.
“Let’s always remember this moment.” He closes his eyes and inhales the familiar smell of rose oil, which Kitty has used for years. She doesn’t spend much on beauty products but she does swear by this, and a really good hand cream. As a costume-maker her hands get sore and dry from working with cloth. All day she cuts patterns, tacks them to materials and sews. Some dressmakers wear gloves but she feels that this distances her from her work and makes her less accurate. Cloth is in Kitty’s blood – her mother was a dressmaker and her great grandmother began work in a textile mill when she was just 10 years old.
“You have a lightness of touch,” Polly, the wardrobe mistress at work, always says. “I can just tell which things are made by you. Your hand-stitching is almost invisible.”
Charlie stamps his feet on the lead roof of the church, trying to warm up.
“What a year it’s going to be. I’m going to be a Dad!” His eyes well up; he sighs and blows warm air down inside the collar of Kitty’s donkey jacket. His eyes are dark and the whites slightly bloodshot from last night’s booze. He still wears the same Aran jumper that he had on in the pub last night. It smells of wood smoke and cigarettes and beer. There had been a Pogues tribute band and a lock-in and the night had worn on, until, after an encore of Fairytale of New York, the band had packed up and the musicians had mingled in with the revellers. Charlie was slumped against Kitty on a bench at the back, with his eyes shut and his arm around her. Someone played Robbie Williams on the pub stereo. Charlie joined in with the song, eyes still closed, slurring, “If there’s somebody calling me on…”, then and there was a great crescendo of voices as they sang, “She’s the one!” He couldn’t remember much of the evening except that he had felt full up of love and warmth.
Kitty turns to look at him. “Charlie, can I ask you something?” He pulls back, frowning.
“You know you can always ask me anything.”
“If it’s a girl, can we call her Annie?”
Charlie is thoughtful for a while – looking out across the treetops into the distance. He thinks about people he has known called Annie.
“I was thinking of Annie my great grandmother,” Kitty went on.
“Which one was she?” he asks.
“Annie Kenney, the suffragette. The one who lost her finger working in the mill.”
“I remember now – horrific – must have happened all the time in those places,” he said.
“She had to change the bobbin with the machine still whirling and it took it clean off. So shocking. I think about it every time I change the bobbin and switch the machine off at the wall, just in case.” She went on, “I’ve been thinking more about the past, since I’ve been pregnant.”
“There’s been a lot going on in there!” he taps her forehead fondly and tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
“I’ve even felt sad about what happens to our child when we grow old and die!” she says.
Kitty pulls out of Charlie’s embrace and turns to face him squarely, planting her hands on his shoulders. She smells last night’s alcohol on his breath. “I want her to feel a connection with her past.”
“Oh Kitty – I love you. I love your passion.” He tries to pull her in again but she is focused, playing with the fraying buttonhole on his woollen overcoat.
“It was so tough back then. Annie worked all day in the mill, then went home and scrubbed the floors. She barely got any time to play.”
“We’ve had it easy.” Charlie nods in agreement.
“She wanted change and went on a march. I hope our child will do things like that.”
“You can’t map out a child’s life you know, Kitty,” he interjects.
“No – maybe not - but by naming her after someone in our family there’s an instant sense of history.”
“True,” he strokes her hair and smiles.
“Mum says Kitty means ‘pure’. Am I supposed to behave purely or something?” she becomes more animated. “I don’t feel very pure - we’re having a child out of wedlock, after all!” Laughing, she leans into Charlie who wraps his arms even more tightly around her.
The air is damp and the world seems asleep. It is as if the sun has just come up to say hello to the new century, before dipping back down.
October 20, 2018
“I’m back,” Annie calls up the stairs as she slams the door of the terraced house. The stained glass panels that Kitty loved so much had been replaced after she died, with two strips of modern, smoked glass. Charlie said it wasn’t practical to keep replacing the glass every time a piece broke. Annie half expected to hear Kitty’s voice coming from the top floor where her workroom had been. “Don’t slam the door,” she would call out, knowing that Kitty did it out of habit.
Annie walks down the long, dark hall to the kitchen where her dad sits at the table. He shuffles some papers together and closes a book, relieved to have an excuse to stop working.
“Thanks for the updates, love. I wish I could have been there.” Charlie greets his daughter. "Biggest march of its kind they’re saying. 700,000 people."
“It was packed. You should have come. My feet are killing me.” She kicks off her Converse trainers, sits down on the floor and puts her feet up on the radiator. “It’s so dark. I hate winter.”
“Hey Annie! How was it you crazy, radical thing?” ribs her younger brother Kit who shuffles into the kitchen, yawning. He drags a hand through his bleached hair.
“What have you done today Kit?” asks Annie sarcastically. “Let me guess. Woke up around midday, did your streaks, watched a hundred YouTube videos? Have you even seen stuff about the People’s March?”
“You’ve been on a train most of the day!” says Kit.
Charlie stands up to stop the bickering and treads on the cat’s tail by mistake. Monbiot yowls and leaps up to the worktop beside the sink. This means he wants a drink from the tap. He prefers a stream of water, knitting-needle thin. Kitty used to give in but these days he gets ignored.
“Actually I was campaigning,” Annie hisses. “We don’t know if we can stop Brexit but it was so good to go and feel part of something real.” She pours herself a glass of milk from the fridge and walks off.
Brother and sister have been fighting bitterly since Kitty’s death, instead of helping each other through it. Each believing they were more devastated than the other. Annie’s anger made her destructive at school. During a particularly dark patch she had even tried to set fire to her hair in the Physics lab. Kit however was consumed by apathy. It was a form of depression and for months he couldn’t get out of bed. Today he seemed brighter. Even though he was provoking Annie, Charlie saw it as a good sign.
Annie’s bedroom is at the top of the first flight of stairs. It overlooks the back garden, which has become unkempt since Kitty died. Annie walks across her room in a couple of strides, tosses her phone onto the bed and switches on multiple sets of fairy lights. She drops down her roman blind, blocking out the row of lights from other back windows.
She stands in front of her mirror which leans up on the Victorian mantelpiece, lights a couple of joss sticks and watches them burn a bit before she flops down on her bed. On the bedside table made out of an old wooden crate stands a double photo frame. In the picture on the left Charlie gazes over Kitty’s shoulder as she holds Annie, wrapped in a hand-knitted, white blanket. The other photo is of Kitty on Christmas day, beaming, wearing a pink paper hat out of a cracker. How Annie aches for her. Kitty would have been on the march with her today.
There had been a moment earlier, somewhere between Hyde Park and Westminster, when Annie’s anger about Brexit and grief for her mother had merged. At one point she could hardly see where she was walking for her tears, but Darcey had chivvied her, “Come on Annie, do it for your mum! She’s up there looking down at you.” The marching had been cathartic; the rhythm of walking helped streamline her thoughts.
Her phone pings repeatedly with messages. She reaches over, flicks it to silent and chucks it face down on to the floor. She is so tired: tired from walking in London, tired of social media and tired of feeling sad. “The grief might never go away, but you will learn to live with it,” the counsellor had said.
A patchwork quilt made up of hexagonal patterns has been on Annie’s bed for as long as she can remember. Her grandmother made it for Kitty in the seventies from a Laura Ashley patchwork kit containing six different designs. The pale lavender blue patch with white flowers is her favourite, then the mid-blue one with a darker blue pattern, but she feels the brown patch lets it down.
Annie gets into bed with her clothes on and curls up on her side, clasping the corner of the quilt . Kitty used to sit on the bed with her and tell her stories about the costume room at the theatre – of how the pantomime horse would come alive and dance with the sugarplum fairy. She might be 18 but Annie would still love to hear Kitty tell the story again.
It is still dark when Annie wakes. Instead of checking her phone, she pulls out Kitty’s old sewing basket from beneath the bed. It has a wooden base; the lid and sides are made from woven red and white plastic. A hook fits over a catch and there used to be a small piece of wood that slotted down to secure it, but this was lost years ago. The basket spills over with cream bias binding and ribbons in every colour – Kitty’s legacy. Annie pulls out a piece of cloth that she practises stitching on. She found it in the airing cupboard after the funeral – a worn pillowcase that belonged to Kitty. She never threw anything away. Annie begins to stitch the hem on a skirt that she pinned ages ago, but hadn’t had the energy to finish. The repetitiveness of pushing the needle into the soft cotton, then pulling it out again, is soothing and meditative.
Kitty used to work upstairs in her room at night. She worked faster and more fluently when everyone was asleep. Sometimes Annie goes up to the attic just to feel close to Kitty. Nothing has changed there. The photographs are still pinned to the noticeboard – several of whole cast line-ups in full costume, numerous photos of Annie and Kit and a couple of Charlie.
It was Ms Mitchell, the Politics teacher, who had urged them to go to London. During last week’s lesson she had stood by the screen as the crackly, black-and-white footage of the suffragettes ended. “Never underestimate the power of campaigning, girls.”
At break time, the girls gathered in the canteen for cookies. Some said they couldn’t be bothered to go, that Saturdays were for sleeping. Others expressed a lazy interest, promising to post on Facebook while a few had been inspired, already booking train tickets online. Annie knew she must go.
Sewing is Annie’s refuge. She finds it calming. She enjoys the fact that she is busy, that she can do it fast or slow, that she can let her mind wander or use the background activity to think something through. In the quiet stillness Annie’s mind is full of the sounds and movement of the march.
For thousands it had been a family day out. Fathers carried children on their shoulders and everyone was chanting. She and Darcey were dressed similarly in fleeces tucked into high-waisted, cropped trousers and trainers. People had their phones out, arranging where to meet up, taking photos and tweeting. The best thing had been the banners bearing hundreds of different messages - “BOLLOX TO BREXIT”, “WE LOVEU” and “I'M 16, BREXIT STOLE MY FUTURE”. The girls had made their own, painstakingly stitching yellow felt letters onto a blue background: “EXIT BREXIT”.
The school Textiles department is at the top of the building, accessed by a spiralling, iron staircase. It is a light, north-facing room in the middle of which is a large, white worktable with anglepoise lamps placed at intervals. Dressmakers’ scissors, pincushions and paper patterns litter the table. Bench tables for sewing machines and high stools line the edges of the warm room. There are no boundaries here – the girls are encouraged to experiment freely. Fabric swatches are pinned to the walls, along with pictures torn out of fashion magazines showing models marching down a catwalk or with arms akimbo on a Hebridean moorland. Their faces are painted in rainbow colours from orange through to blue, their hair blown out with wind machines. Ms Marlow, the Head of Textiles, takes pins from the pockets of her apron and puts up a cutting from Vogue. It’s an image of a model in a plastic, see-through rain hat, a cyclist’s hi-vis and pop socks. “My eighty-two year old mother wears a hat like that,” Ms Marlow says, laughing.
The girls are working on historical costumes. There is a happy buzz of industry and concentration. Some have headphones on, listening to Spotify playlists. Annie, wearing dungarees and an old shirt of Kitty’s, is working on her toile – the mock-up of a garment that tailors make to sort out any potential problems with the design or fabric. She is making the front panel of a dress, which has horizontal pin-tucks all the way down it. It is intricate, requiring supreme concentration as each fold must be identical to the next one. Annie folds the fabric, pins it and presses it with a steam iron. Clouds of vapour whoosh and hiss as she lifts the iron away. Beside her another girl is working on an astronaut’s costume, inspired by the sixties’ space race.
“Lovely work so far Annie,” Ms Marlow says as she looks over Annie’s shoulder . Annie’s sketchbook lies open and she has scribbled some notes; “S-shaped silhouette,” “stereotypical female shape,” “green or white” – alongside little drawings in soft pencil.
The idea came to Annie that night after the march as she stitched her skirt. She thought about hemlines going up and down over the years, about her great, great grandmother who worked in a mill and became a suffragette. She would pin it and tack it and stitch it and make a replica of a suffragette outfit. It would be her way of feeling close to her mother, of continuing her work and honouring the past.
Charlie and Kit sit in the school hall. It is the first day in a week now that Charlie hasn’t had a hangover. Every night since 29 March he and his best friend Andy have been in The Brickmakers drowning their sorrows about leaving the EU. Annie is sitting on the stage with a few other girls , wearing a mustard dress and matching beret that she has made herself. She smiles as she gets up and walks confidently across to the podium. She adjusts the height of the microphone.
“Thank you. It is an honour to receive the school Textiles prize. This piece is for my mother Kitty, who taught me how to sew and who showed me that I am connected to the past. It is also in memory of Annie Kenney, my great, great grandmother.”
As they leave through the school entrance hall they have one last look at the costumes on display – an astronaut’s suit, a 1940s nurse’s uniform and Annie’s suffragette outfit. An elegant, almost floor-length dress made out of light green cotton with ruched sleeves, leg-of-mutton arms and a front panel of immaculately-stitched pin tucks, bearing a sash of purple, green and white. Beside the model Annie has written a small card in black ink: “White for purity, purple for loyalty and dignity, and green for hope.”
Thanks to Hannah Dye for giving me the inspiration and to the Norwich High School Textiles Department.
Sally Shippam taught in London secondary schools for fifteen years and now tutors from her home in Norfolk. She recently graduated from UEA with a Masters in Creative Writing and is currently working on a novel set in an inner city comprehensive.