Guest blog: Sewing in the family by Elise Valmorbida

Guest blog: Sewing in the family by Elise Valmorbida

Elise Valmorbida is an award-winning and critically acclaimed author and independent film producer. She was the first to propose a creative writing course at Central St Martins in 1997 and continues to teach there today. Elise sat alongside our Founding Director, Katy Emck, as one of Liberty London's Women of Liberty. Here, she shares her personal memories of her grandmother's haberdashery work, and what stitching means to her. 

“The border of her bedsheet is almost complete. It must be a sign. Just three more blossoms with curling stems and sprays of tiny buds in between. Satin-stitch and chain-stitch and stem-stitch. All white. She feels sure that when she reaches the hem at last, her father will appear with her beloved.”

"My novel The Madonna of the Mountains begins in 1923 with the protagonist Maria Vittoria embroidering linen for her dowry trunk, hoping that her father will find her a husband. (He does.)

Sewing appears throughout the novel—it’s one of Maria’s precious skills—from embroidery, to making clothes, to re-purposing old scarves or salvaging woollens during war-time and, finally, amending the very clothes she wears as she is about to embark on an unknowable new life.

The book is a work of fiction, but novels always contain fragments of real people and snippets of real stories. My intimacy with all things haberdashery comes directly from the women in my very Italian family, but particularly my mother’s mother, who adventurously migrated from a Veneto village to faraway Australia in the 1920s.

Her name was Clementina. I treasure memories of her teaching me to sew. She taught me how to darn—I mean, properly darn. Every time I darn a sock, which I admit I still do, I’m sure I do it in loving memory of her. But she was not just a darner of socks.

She invented intricate knitting patterns and proudly showed or gave me her creations. Her embroidery work was exquisite, and prolific. Her clothes-making skills felt magical; she made things up: gorgeous dresses, tailored suits. She hoarded fabrics (mostly remnants) and introduced me to georgette, chiffon, rayon, silk satin, viscose, viyella… She taught me how to use her manual Singer sewing machine. It was built into a table, the deep side-drawers of which were full: one with bobbins of thread, the other with lipsticks. (I think the lipstick might be genetic.)

We spent hours and hours winding wool or synthetic yarn into balls that could be used for knitting and crochet. She regularly gathered discards in the lanes behind local Italian and Jewish textile factories. She brought home samples, rejects, jumpers that had gone wrong; sometimes they needed washing before they could be unravelled. Her clothes-line would be strung with random shapes, sleeves, half-things hanging to dry.

She took me on one of her foraging missions—I think it was a kind of initiation because her ‘sources’ had always been a secret. She was in her seventies. She had a life-threatening heart condition. I watched her disappear, impossibly—handmade pencil skirt, heels, hairnet, lipstick and all—into a huge factory bin. Then she emerged, triumphant, arms full of workable booty. This same woman, with her very broken English, and her meagre means, would frequently go to council meetings—run by men—and speak her mind. Her fearlessness was an inspiration.

I met Katy Emck on International Women’s Day. This year, 2018, is special: we’re celebrating the centenary of some women in the UK being allowed to vote. Equality is still a mission for us, but we have had many more opportunities—education, independence, life choices—than our grandmothers. My Nonna Clementina was born in a time and place that gave her few such opportunities. I wonder what she might have done with her fierce intelligence and boundless creativity today. She’s my Woman of Liberty."

Elise Valmorbida’s novel The Madonna of the Mountains is available from Amazon and all good booksellers.


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