Perhaps, my reader is thinking, making curtains is a metaphor – for shutting out the world at the end of the day, or for transforming a house into a home. Making curtains is both these things – and yet neither. I really do mean sewing actual curtains.
I should point out straight away that I’m not a good sewer. I learned to sew late and patchily. I regularly curse my sewing machine, moan when the tension is wrong and the thread loops drunkenly, and fumble to reassemble the bobbin case. My daughter, aged 13, often comes to my rescue – and me to hers – when frustration gets the better of me.
My husband thinks I’m mad to make curtains. Most people, he points out, get proper jobs and pay a decorator to make curtains. ‘Aren’t they terribly heavy to hang?’ queries my mother. ‘And mind you don’t fall off the ladder’.
Throughout my life I’ve been fascinated by interiors, and by the lengths people go to in making them comfortable and pleasing. This, for me, is no trivial thing. In my mind it’s one of the most profound things we can do in an otherwise uncertain world.
When we last moved house a furnishings lady came and quoted for new blinds and curtains – bustling about our unrenovated house with her tape measure, swatch samples and notebook. The next day her quote came through, a figure considerably higher than the cost of rewiring our house. And so I asked her just to fit the blinds, explaining that I’d decided to make the curtains myself.
The woman looked at me sharply. ‘You mean’, she asked, arching her eyebrow, ‘you are going to make fifteen pairs of full-length lined curtains yourself? Have you’, she persisted, ‘every made curtains before?’ ‘No’, I replied, ‘but I’ve been shown an easy way of doing it’. A small snort escaped the furnishings lady. ‘Good luck!’ she said with a laugh, putting her business card on the hall table as I showed her out.
For a few minutes I sat in the sun on our front doorstep, wondering if I was indeed mad. Then I went inside, picked up the phone, and called a fabric wholesaler in Melbourne. ‘Three-layered curtains, you say?’ the Italian wholesaler asked. ‘Where do you live? A lighthouse?’ ‘No’, I laughed. ‘In an old unheated house in South Hobart’.
‘I see’, he replied. ‘In that case you’ll be needing a few rolls of blockout fabric, a few of thermal, and the same of calico or canvas’. ‘Is that all?’ I asked. ‘Curtain tape and hooks’, he replied. ‘But you can get these once you’ve started’. There was a pause, as he totted up the cost – which was 80% less than the quote from the furnishings lady.
‘But’, the wholesaler added, ‘for that price you’ll have to pay me online before I courier them to you. So we arranged for him to send samples by post and I agreed to get back to him within the week.
At this point I demurred. Renovating a big old house is scary. The financial outlay and effort involved is not for the faint-hearted. But I’d already put my hand up to do all the renovating that I could do myself, myself – and curtains I felt I could do.
Why, you may be wondering, is someone who isn’t particularly good at sewing, about to undertake to sew fifteen sets of curtains? The reason I felt confident is that a Greek woman in a department store had taken the time to show me how. ‘It’s so easy’, the woman had said to me, as I fingered fabrics I knew I couldn’t afford. ‘But’, I returned, ‘you’re only saying that because you’ve done it before. It doesn’t seem the last bit easy to me’.
The Greek woman then launched into a quick verbal U-Tube on how fit the layers of fabric together – ‘like a sandwich’ – before securing them with curtain tape at the top. ‘And that’s it’, she said, as my mind fogged up trying to keep up with her.
‘Do you think’, I asked tentatively, ‘instead of telling me how curtains fit together, that you could actually show me how to do it?’ ‘Well, yes, of course I can. It would be a pleasure’. Then she bustled off and returned a few minutes later with two sheets of orange A4 paper, a length of curtain tape and a roll of sellotape.
By the time she’d finished folding, cutting, taping and pinning the pieces of orange paper, talking non-stop, I really did understand how to make a lined curtain. Her willingness to pass on this practical knowledge was, for me, a revelation.
The thing that made the most difference was being able to take away the pieces of A4 paper, pinned together with sellotape and curtain tape. Because it meant that when the bolts of fabric arrived by courier, dumped unceremoniously on my front porch, I was able to drag them inside and start sewing right away – rather than storing the fabric for a rainy day.
Rolling bolts of fabric across what would soon be our sitting room floor, I listened to music or the radio, training myself not to think too hard about the task ahead of me. Just as the Greek woman had predicted, one by one the curtains went up. They weren’t perfect curtains – and they certainly weren’t the silk that I’d fantasised using. But they were good curtains and I felt as proud of having made them as I did of the book I once published. And boy, what a difference they made in terms of warmth, as the evenings grew longer and the temperature dropped.