Friday, 27 May 2011

A dressmaker's beginning...

It is said that objects have lives of their own. They are born when they are made and live like us thrown from one situation to another. They gather dust, they are loved and loathed and kept for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they have financial value and are bought and sold for some strange kind of values. Their maker is famous or they were once owned by someone we think of as important or famous.

Pictures too have their own lives, subject to the vagaries of our likes and dislikes, our tastes and our lack of taste as it is popularly judged. But there are not just paintings or prints, but drawings. The drawing by one's child at a stage of their life, a drawing by a loved one...

There was once a young girl who loved to draw and loved clothes. Indeed, although she was poor herself, she used to experiment almost obssessively with pieces of cloth. She would save up for cloth and once she raided a bin where a woman had thrown out old clothes. This young girl, Gabrielle used to make all kinds of clothes on an old and frankly decrepit sewing machine.

She became a sempstress in Paris where there were many sempstresses but she soon made a name for herself. At first she did embroidery mostly by hand, but her luck changed with the visit of a strange woman. This woman had tightly bound red hair and the most piercing green eyes and when she spoke her teeth had something of the wild animal about them. Gabrielle was never sure if the woman was going to smile or to bite. But the woman wanted a dress made.

"I should love to madame, but I have no fabric to make it with," Gabrielle told her nervously.

"The fabric will be brought to you this evening," the woman told her, "I shall want the dress by the end of next week."

Gabrielle agreed for she had no choice and that evening, a little old woman arrived with a package. The old woman smelled of earth and trees and was as brown and as wrinkled as a walnut. She sniffed the air of Gabrielle's cold workshop and said it was cold, which it was.

"I have some nettles to make tea if you'd like," Gabrielle offered.

"Good, and I want food too," the old woman grumbled, sitting down by the grate.

There had not been a fire in that grate for months. Gabrielle could not afford coal and she did not have time to fetch wood. She wondered if she might borrow a little coal from her neighbour, but she was nervous and so she took a handful of old newspapers and burned them in the grate to heat the water to make the nettle tea. To her surprise the paper seemed to shift and twist in the grate and the fire blazed from logs. She fetched the little bread and cheese that she had and the old woman grabbed it with delight and banged the plate on the arm of the chair. Gabrielle's small table was suddenly groaning with food and drink.

"Well don't stand there gawping girl, bring me some food!" the old woman grumbled.

Gabrielle took a plate and piled it high with food and handed it to the old woman who positively gorged herself.

"Eat something yourself, you look skinnier than an ivy vine," the old woman said between mouthfuls.

Gabrielle was so astonished that she did eat and the food was wholesome and wonderful. She went to take the kettle off the fire and found instead that there was fresh coffee. But the old woman wanted wine. Gabrielle poured her a generous glass of wine and left the carafe beside her. She took for herself a hot cup of coffee revelling in the taste of it. She had not had coffee for quite some time.

Then she remembered the package and opening it she gasped. There was the most beautiful green silk and red silk brocade that was wanted for the bodice. She could not believe her luck for she now saw that she had the chance to make something wonderful and beautiful that the woman would pay her well for. She finished eating and the old woman fell asleep in her fireside chair, snoring loudly. Gabrielle smiled and took a blanket from her bed to cover the old woman with.

"Thank you for the food," she whispered.

The old woman did not seem to hear her but as Gabrielle turned away, a smile appeared on the old woman's face. Still she slept and snored. Gabrielle was too excited to have slept anyway. She began to make the dress, laying out the fabulous silk on her work table alongside the red silk brocade. She began with the dress, for that was the main item and with the coffee to keep her going, she began to sew using her foot powered sewing machine. All night she sewed and only when the sun was beginning to rise did it occur to her how tired she was. Her head nodded and dropped, her foot fell away from the machine and she slept.

When she awoke she was in her bed with a warm quilt upon her and the softest pillows beneath her head. She arose and washed before dressing. The old woman had gone, but there was good fresh food on the table and a note pinned to the dress that read 'By the end of the week'. She ate breakfast and had coffee before settling down to work. Outside the wind whistled past her room and rattled the windows. A draught made the fire in the grate flicker, but it did not go out. She shivered, but still she sewed. Coffee helped her stay warm, but she concentrated on her work, her head bowed over the work All day she sewed only stopping for a small lunch. The fabulous dress began to take shape as she worked well into the night.

She worked like this with a frightening intensity all week, until the wind, rattling her windows was joined by a relentless rain and grey, bleak, lead-coloured skies. She was joined herself by a cat mewing at her door. She let the starveling cat in and fed it. It ate well and slept on the fireside chair. Still Gabrielle worked away.

When she slept, the cat slept on her bed beside her keeping her extra warm. When she ate, she shared the food with the cat. There was always food on the small table and coffee in the kettle. All that week she did not go hungry. When she was cold, the cat climbed upon the work table and wrapped itself around her shoulders, purring as it slept upon her. Towards the last day of the week she became feverish and worked even more intensely, desperate to finish the dress to the high standard she expected of herself.

On Saturday evening she finished the dress and the bodice, the last day of the week. Having worked so hard, she got up from the table and collapsed on the floor of her little room. She awoke in her bed, delirious and raving. She must have dreamed then, for she saw strange things.

Birds in her room flew about singing. A spider in the corner of her bedroom wove a hundred gorgeous fabrics that fell from her web upon the dresser. Something wild and green-eyed that she could not quite name covered her body with thistledown, soft and warming. There were lights and strange music that seemed to be in one place and suddenly in another within her room. There was animated talking coming from behind the curtain that separated her bed from the main room, but she did not have the strength to move the curtain aside to look. She cried out and wept, but cool gentle hands brushed across her brow like the spring waters of a stream. Cool gentle voices soothed her. She slept again a deep sleep without dreams and this time when she awoke she felt only hungry. She arose and bathed but the table in her room was empty of food. She sighed sadly, but noticed then on her work table a small box that had not been there before.

Inside the box was a note that read, 'You have done well and shall be rewarded'. Under the note was a purse full of money. Gabrielle smiled even as her stomach growled. The door to her room opened and the old woman entered with groceries.

"You ready for breakfast then?" she asked.

Behind her the cat walked in, his eyes green and wild.

"Why yes, Grandmother, I am very hungry," Gabrielle answered.

The old woman smiled and put the groceries down on the floor. Then she began to spin and spin until she vanished in a fit of cackles. Gabrielle wondered briefly if she was still feverish, but she took a deep breath and made breakfast for her and the cat. Upon her dresser were bolts of gorgeous fabrics and she sat down after breakfast and began to draw. The woman in her drawing was the woman who had ordered the green silk dress with the red silk brocade bodice. And from that moment on, Gabrielle never went hungry again.


madameshawshank said...

ah, the intensity of creating..that absolute focus...'tis a wondrous time...the spider sure was a busy!!!

Yes, G, objects do have lives of their soon as I read that I thought of a particular object..don't quite know exhibition, a few years back in Melbourne...Picasso..'n there, a piece of paper with a red stain...Picasso's blood..funny, 'twas almost a religious experience!

'n the warmth of the cat on her sweet...

Charlotte said...

fabulous...what it is to be a weaver of tales.

I think storytelling is like music making: a treasure beyond any other.

Griffin said...


A popular display title among curators especially of Decorative Art is 'Every Object Tells a Story'. I have seen some glorious ceramics over 2000 years old that have survived until our time. What a story they must have had, but only they will ever know.

Thank you, it's fun sometimes and frustrating at others, but to be full of stories, like objects is the privilege of all of us. Some of us want to put them down and let others see them.

Also, stories themselves inspire others to tell their own versions, as Angela Carter did for example.

I would love to be better at the guitar too, so I can make music. But then I'd love to be better at knitting too!!!

James Mayhew said...

I'm loving these tales from Paris.

Griffin said...

Glad you like them James, Paris is one of the most inspirational places in Europe, I think. Like our own cities, full of stories.