One of the first things I made was a skirt from my bedroom curtains. I was fourteen and we lived in a Queenslander in Sherwood, a leafy suburb of Brisbane. We moved to Australia from England when I was six, and amongst the many objects from our material London life to travel with us was a pair of 1980s classically English curtains.
They were about two metres long and made in the traditional way — lined, with proper pleating at the top. The print was made up of vertical columns of flowers. Repeated sets of blooms in tomato red, mustard yellow, lilac, musty pink, and pea green (for the leaves) ran down the fabric. Next to these sat small repeats of the same flowers, and columns of thin red stripes, all on a background of clotted cream.
By fourteen I had already fallen deeply in love with fabric, dressing, and making things. In bed I used to let my eye run over the curtain print. Focussing on the repetition of shapes and patterns was calming, and the open blooms hopeful. One day I saw in my mind’s eye the answer of how to place this fabric on the body. I realised that if I brought the small flowers side-by-side, stitching in a small tuck about 10cm long, and hiding the bigger flowers behind, this would make a box pleat! How thrilling! So the red stripes and small flowers would sit on top, and as I walked the bigger florals in all their glory would become evident around the hem.
One Saturday afternoon I stood on a chair and pulled the curtains off the rail. The lining, a simple plain-weave unbleached cotton fabric, hung separately to my printed fabric, so I hacked across the top of the curtain, just below the pleating, to separate them. I lazily used the existing hem of the curtain for the hem of my skirt. Through trial and error of pinning, trying-on, and adjusting, I discovered that to fit my body I needed three box pleats at the front, and three at the back with two small darts. I sewed a short zip in the left-hand side seam, and made a facing for the top of the skirt out of the same fabric. Mum and I shared a Brother domestic machine. It was white plastic and sat on a wooden table on the front veranda in my ‘studio’. In those days Mum was always going on about ‘the finish, the finish’ as my approach to garment making was quite slap-dash.
Once the skirt was finished I wore it everywhere. To complement it Mum bought me a teal-green knit wrap top from Sportsgirl. One afternoon my best friend from down the street, Karl Eisner, came over. Karl and I went to primary school together, our families were friends, and we lived seven minutes walk apart. Soon after finishing the skirt, I was happily wearing this outfit nearly all the time. The first thing Karl asked when I opened the door was ‘Are those your bedroom curtains?’ As befitted his nature he didn’t sound derisive or shocked, just mildly intrigued and surprised. I was annoyed that he had recognised them, but also a little embarrassed.
I can’t remember Mum or Dad ever suggesting that making your bedroom curtains into a skirt was an odd thing to do. One of my favourite memories concerning my father was of getting all dressed up to go out, then feeling a bit uncertain, and going into my parents’ bedroom where Dad was reading. I asked, ‘Can I wear this out?’ and he replied, ‘You can wear whatever you feel like.’
Words from Hannah Gartside. Read more about her work here.
Illustration from Tilly Hutchison. See more of her work at tillydrawspictures.tumblr.com.