Today is United Nations International Day for Rural Women which “celebrates and honors the role of rural women on October 15 each year. It recognizes rural women’s importance in enhancing agricultural and rural development worldwide.”
It’s fitting that I conclude sharing the stories of the rural women I have named my fabrics for on this day. If you haven’t read the previous three stories, I welcome you to go back and read them.
My final design story is that of Elaine. I feel there is a poetry in me sharing her story. Elaine is not only a rural woman, but also started out as a dressmaker.
I could spend hours listening to her talk of sewing in the old days. It’s still a passion for her, so having her name printed on a fabric selvedge means a great deal. She told me how it was drummed into her when she was dressmaking to always, ALWAYS, remove the selvedge before sewing, as “seams with selvedge just don’t sit properly”, but she’s not so sure about cutting the selvedge off her fabric.
Elaine is grandmother to one of my husband’s best friends and each time I’ve bumped into her over the years she has always enquired how my dressmaking was going. I never realised that she had been a dressmaker herself.
I couldn’t believe it when Elaine told me how old she is. She’s easily the most vibrant and feisty 85 year old I’ve ever met. As she says, she stills does everything, still “burns” around in her car visiting her friends, is an active member of her local Returned Servicemen League and still plays sport.
She’s mother to 4, grandmother to 11 and great-grandmother to 11, with more on the way.
The thing that resonated with me most in talking with Elaine was how much she loves her husband. Though he has long passed away, she is still as in love with him as she was when they first met. She carries black and white photos of the two of them together everywhere she goes.
For those who have not heard of it before, when Elaine speaks of a ‘wagga’ she is referring to an Australian bush quilt. Waggas are a unique part of Australia’s quilting and bush history. They were often not all that pretty to look at, as they were made with what was on hand and were sewn primarily for function.
I’m pleased to introduce you to Elaine.
My father worked the railways so we moved around a lot when I was little.
My mother taught me to sew on a Singer treadle machine. She was a lovely little sewer, mainly she did fancy sewing for my sister and me, but I remember her stitching a wagga for my brother to take droving. She made it with tailor’s samples of grey suiting fabrics. In the old days they used to line quilts with super bags and the blokes would go out clearing and have something heavy to keep them warm. Army blankets from the war were used too. That’s all people had back then, so it’s what they used. A wagga and a swag, it’s what they went with.
When I was 14 I worked for a dressmaker. I was taught to be so careful not to break the needles. During the war years it was hard to get needles so you didn’t do anything that might mess up your machine. Keep it dust-free and oiled. The lady dressmaker I worked for drafted beautifully. Ladies would come in and describe what they wanted, ball gowns, anything, and she would draft it from scratch. I never learnt to draft. That’s one regret I have, that I didn’t learn drafting. I sewed with patterns. I’d buy them and then fiddle around with them.
I used to sew the finest voile materials in that job. The old treadles took those fabrics beautifully. No rubbish, just beautiful stitching. We didn’t use zippers, but made plackets. Even the shoulder pads, we made them too.
I taught both my daughters sewing and they love it. I was quite pleased the girls took that on.
My sewing machine is still by the window. I was taught to always have the light over my left shoulder. Always. That’s how I have my machine set up.
We used petrol irons when I worked dressmaking. A little tank of methylated burning and you filled the little tank with petrol. I was only 15 when I used that. My mother nearly went mad that her little girl was using something so dangerous. I was 15 and didn’t think anything of it. It was the latest technology.
When I was 16 I met my husband. He was from a farming family, they’d been pioneers, one of the first farming families in the area. He had just come back from the war.
It was love at first sight for both of us. A darling friend of mine told me there should’ve been a book written. It was true love.
We were married at 19.
We had four little ones when we moved to the farm. I cried for three whole weeks when we arrived. We were so far away from town, surrounded by bush, with four kids.
After all that crying, I thought, I have to pull it together. I love my husband. I have to get on with it. So I did.
I really got stuck into farming. I loved it. Helping in the shearing shed and with the clearing. I really love the feeling of wool. Women have the best feel for classing wool I was always told.
Over the years we had so many pets for the kids. I had a lamb, joey and a pig all at the same time once. I forget the little pig’s name, but he was a little black one and his mum had chewed his ear and tail off. I fell inlove with it. I used to hit a golf ball around the paddock and the little pig would follow. I would mix up a bowl of wheatbix for the three of them to eat. The joey was so dainty eating and would just look at the other two slopping it everywhere. I wish I had photos. I used to have to wipe their faces afterwards with a wet rag or it would set hard.
I raised turkeys, chooks and geese too and sold butter and eggs. The only thing I didn’t do was milk the cow. (A relative warned me that once I started, I’d be forever milking.) We used to go into town once a month, and the groceries, they’d come out on the school bus once a week. At night I’d sit by the fire with a kerosene lamp for light and smock. There was so much to do during the day; I’d sew at night.
When we went onto power in 1976 my husband bought me a lovely Pfaff sewing machine.
My husband was born and bred a farmer. He was beautiful with the wool. He loved his merinos. He died at 68.
I’ve carried these photos forever. They were taken in 1947, 1949 and 1950.
We had a beautiful life, beautiful children. I’ve known what true love was.
I think with farming, there’s a lot of pressure. A lot of pressure you know. Farming is a gamble. You’d have to be very naïve to not realize that the weather is everything and we can’t control it.
I’m still here. I’m still on the farm. My eldest son runs it now. I still get out on the farm and I do my spraying. I’ve got a fairly big garden here. You’ve got to keep yourself busy.
ELAINE GIBBS, 85
‘Dunvegan’ Western Australia