All home-sewn up

Last week, the New Zealand Fashion Museum's pop-up exhibition, "Home Sewn: Original New Zealand Fashion", opened in Auckland. It is not surprising that a number of the garments on show were created by Otago and Southland women. Jude Hathaway reports.

At the time when Kiwi blokes were becoming masters of the "can do No8 wire" approach to getting things they needed, New Zealand women were adopting a similar attitude.

If they could not buy the clothes they wanted because of either cost or unavailability, they would jolly well make them themselves.

The result was the evolution of a buoyant home-sewing industry.

Notable Auckland fashion designer and founder of the New Zealand Fashion Museum Doris de Pont, whose appetite for creating beautiful garments was whetted by skills she learned as a home sewer, has set up "Home Sewn" to present a retrospective view of this evolution.

It runs at the Britomart Precinct in the Nathan Gallery, 40 Customs St East, Auckland until September 26.

De Pont has also watched today's women begin to face a dilemma similar to that of their forebears. But this time, it is triggered by a fashion market saturated with ready-to-wear styles that makes finding the right garment as challenging as in earlier days!"It's much easier to simply sit down and sew it yourself. And, increasingly, women are doing just that," she says.

Consequently, she sees the exhibition as "the showcase of an old art form that is gaining renewed interest in the fashion arena".

Along with the 40 outfits that have arrived from homes throughout the country, other exhibition items, such as the machines, the fashion illustrations, photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, and an interactive programme, also intrigue.

The museum's latest book, Home Sewn, a history of home sewing, which includes profiles of 10 leading New Zealand designers and a pattern from each of their collections, has also been launched at the exhibition.

Margi Robertson.
Margi Robertson.
For some in the crowds who have visited so far - 700 in the exhibition's first five days - memories will have been stirred of home sewing as they grew up.

Many of the garments created were unique as sewers with design aptitude breathed originality into them. Indeed, numerous home sewers carved careers in the fashion trade, several helping shape today's national fashion industry.

Among these is Dunedin's Margarita Robertson, successful fashion retailer and founder of the the Nom*D fashion label, who has an outfit in the exhibition.

She made the flocked sheer nylon blouse with satin ribbon detail, in 1970.

"I'm still attracted to this type of fabric in op shops and vintage stores, pretty impractical with its stiffness and nylon content.

"But I love it all the same."

Margarita was taught to sew primarily by her mother, who had worked as a machinist in Dunedin's clothing manufacturing industry.

Motivated by a desire to make her own clothes - she was employed in the Rank Xerox office at the time - Margarita found the materials she used for the blouse in her mother's collection of old fabrics.

That the blouse is displayed with a Nom*D wool serge skirt made 31 years later from boys' school trousers is apt, as reusing vintage garments and reinterpreting utilitarian clothing and uniforms in new and unexpected ways have become integral to Nom*D's signature.


Glenis Hollard

Cotton day dress made by Glenis Hollard, of Dunedin, in 1976. Photos by Ana B.
Cotton day dress made by Glenis Hollard, of Dunedin, in 1976. Photos by Ana B.
Glenis, a self-taught sewer, made clothes for herself and her daughter. For about 10 days at the beginning of each summer, her friend Judith would bring her sewing machine to Glenis' house. Once the children were dispatched to school the pair would spend the day sewing their wardrobes for the season. The catalogue of machines Glenis used serves to chronicle both her sewing endeavours and advances in machine technology. At the age of 8, she worked on a treadle machine making baby gowns for her niece. There followed a Singer, a Necchi 544 in 1967, a Husqvarna in 1975 and, recently, a computerised Janome CS995.

Barbara Brinsley

A day dress of silk chiffon over taffeta lining made by Barbara Brinsley, of Dunedin, in 1966.
A day dress of silk chiffon over taffeta lining made by Barbara Brinsley, of Dunedin, in 1966.
Brought up in Southland in a family of home sewers, the allure of being able to produce well-finished quality clothes attracted Barbara to sew garments like the silk dress which she originally wore to her sister's wedding in Invercargill.

Growing up at a time when even schoolgirls wore Panama hats and gloves, Barbara was highly influenced by her well-dressed grandmother and the polished presentation of others around her. Her love of fashion would find her poring over the latest magazines and Vogue pattern books in the H & J Smith department store. Although she could sew by then, in 1957, just before heading to Dunedin to train for a long-time career in nursing, she completed a formal dress-making course in Invercargill. She went on to sew for her two children and her love affair with fashion continues.

Ruth Shepherd

A jersey knit evening dress made in 1965 by Ruth Shepherd, of Omarama.
A jersey knit evening dress made in 1965 by Ruth Shepherd, of Omarama.
Ruth was living in Wellington when she made her dress for the dine and dances that were so popular in the late '60s and early '70s. The versatile piece was teamed with cork-wedge shoes and either buttoned to above the knee as a dress or left open below the waist as a jacket over pants. Ruth had learned sewing both at home and at intermediate school in Wellington. In 1993, in Timaru, where she had moved with her children, she took up formal training at Aoraki Polytechnic, gaining a certificate in fashion and design. Projects since have included making replica costumes from artworks in the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru.

Now living in Omarama with her second husband, Ruth's love of sewing continues, her grandchildren now reaping the benefits of her skills.

Sharlee Ghent

Skirt and bustier of grain nylon, cotton lining, ribbon, lace, hooks and eyes, and NZ military...
Skirt and bustier of grain nylon, cotton lining, ribbon, lace, hooks and eyes, and NZ military brass buttons by designer Sharlee Ghent, of Dunedin, and seamstress Joy Pointon, in 2010.
Sharlee Ghent, an Otago Polytechnic fashion design student, of Dunedin, and seamstress Joy Pointon, of Wanganui, collaborated on their outfit, which is one created for the 2010 Style Pasifika competition.

Titled "The Treaty Kid - The Genetic Medley" it tells the visual story of the unity of New Zealand combining motifs and traditional clothing styles from Maori and European cultures.

The materials, $2 Shop flags, created huge technical challenges that needed to be incorporated into the final garments.

Handling caused the dye to rub off, which created variations in colour intensity. Made without a pattern and from inferior materials, the outfit is a triumph of the abilities of the designer and seamstress.

Raymond Dunn

Day dress of printed cotton velveteen, circa 1969, by Raymond Dunn, loaned by his daughter...
Day dress of printed cotton velveteen, circa 1969, by Raymond Dunn, loaned by his daughter Richelle Williams, of Dunedin.
In Richelle (nee Dunn) Williams' family, it was her father, Raymond Dunn, who was the chief sewer of the fabulous '60s dresses worn by her mother, Shirley, Richelle and her younger sister Kim Henderson. Involved for many years with Dunedin theatre both as a set designer and performer, Mr Dunn trained as a window dresser. However, he and Mrs Dunn worked alongside each other most of their married life, starting their own company, KimRick Millinery, in 1954. The devoted couple went on to become leather workers for Playboy Fashions in the '70s and eventually moved into shoemaking. Mr Dunn's legacy lives on, as both Richelle and Kim continue to sew today.



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