In the 1960s, if you were a woman living in a certain area in a certain town in North Rhine Westfalia, and you saw a picture in a magazine of a dress you’d like, you took the picture to your neighbour Hildegard who, without any formal training, was able to look at the picture, measure you up and make you a dress or a costume just like in the picture.

Hildegard some time in the 1940s

Hildegard was my husband’s mother, a beautiful woman (I see in the photographs, she died long ago) who had been a nurse but by this stage was living in a house together with her husband, her three sons, her mother- in-law (who was found in the Black Forest after being a refugee from the east post WW2), both her own parents, a budgie called Hansi and a dog called Lumpi. She not only made clothes for her neighbours but also for her boys – who were dressed identically, including pullovers made on her knitting machine.

1950s in North Rhine Westfalia, far away from Hemel Hempstead

The house wasn’t as big as you may think. Outside there was a vegetable garden and chickens to be tended (for eggs and meat), rabbits for special occasions, not to mention the pig which was fattened in the pigsty and then slaughtered right in the yard and speedily made into sausage.

The three boys had to help around the house of course – stirring of the warm pig’s blood necessary for Blutwurst was not a favourite task – and as the youngest it became my husband’s task to sew the more boring seams of all those dresses, costumes as well as curtains and household linens on the family electric sewing machine. I expect the older boys were digging potatoes, shovelling coal, or shredding cabbage for the annual sauerkraut production.

The cellar of the house was full of carrots (kept fresh in boxes of sand), the big ceramic pots of sauerkraut, shelves filled with jars of preserved fruit from the garden or – in the case of blueberries – picked in the woods nearby. I bet those boys never even saw a fish finger.

It was all a very long way indeed from the life of the little girl growing up in Hemel Hempstead, where the food was bought from the Co-op in the shopping parade and clothes bought at David Morgan in Cardiff, on the annual holidays in South Wales.

Anyway, when he decided to join local Repair Café team a while ago, my husband naturally gravitated towards the textile department. There he works alongside the really charming C. They lengthen and shorten trousers, take things in and out, turn collars, mend zips and turn old sheets into useful items.

The Repair Café has been a victim of Corona restrictions but happily started again the week before last, and C. mentioned that she has an old, disassembled, oak weaving loom in her attic, surplus to requirements. She was thinking about having it turned into a bench for her garden.

You will all know my husband well enough by now to know that his ears pricked up, and he wondered aloud if C. would like a new bench, in return for the loom. Well, yes, she would.

So today the trailer has been hitched to the car, a space big enough cleared in our attic: our house was built in 1754, and the loom is from 1851, so I am sure it will feel right at home.

Our family and friends can look forward to home-woven ponchos or tweed jackets for Christmas.


Next week, Part Two: all about weaving and weavers.

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