The first time I went for a drink with the man who is now my husband, I wore a black, stretchy velvet jumpsuit that I’d sewed myself out of £2 worth of fabric from Leeds Kirkgate market. It had a huge, bum-length zip that I found at the bottom of my sewing basket and, I think it’s safe to say, it did the trick.
It seemed only fitting, then, that on the day on which we got legally married – in the town hall in Hackney Central – I followed suit. Well, not a jumpsuit, actually, this time. But a dress. Three weeks earlier, during a trip to London, I had walked the length of Walthamstow Market, buying up fabric from the brilliant stalls and shops that line the high street, between greengrocers, phone repair shops, butchers and Jesse’s Cafe, where he and I have shared so many lasagnes. In one, surrounded by sari fabric and denim, lace and nylon, I found some thin, pale apricot material, with a weight and movement to it that instantly appealed. It was £1 a metre and so, like the luxurious hedonist I am, I handed over £4 in change, knowing I might even have some fabric left over.
Now, I love clothes. As a child, we had a dressing up box the size of a small family car and I spent probably two hours after school most days, pretending to be a witch or pirate or genie, before Neighbours and Home and Away kicked in. But more than buying clothes, I love making them. Growing up in a small town, with a big body and not a huge amount of money, I struggled to find anything on the high street that I could either afford or fit in to. And so, from the age of about 12, I started making my own.
My first experiment was a pair of huge, pale blue, wide-leg trousers that I made from an old sofa cover. My mum taught me how to thread a sewing machine, how to wind a bobbin, how to close the stitch by reversing over your last little bit; then I was pretty much just left to it. A friend in Cornwall, Ollie, who was studying art foundation, told me that he picked his clothes apart and then just drew around the pieces. I didn’t fancy destroying any of my jeans and so, instead, started to turn my clothes inside out and just draw around the pieces as best I could. Twenty five years later, I’m afraid I still do it this way.
In truth, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t sew my wedding dress. When my first book came out, I sewed a blue velvet suit out of a pair of secondhand curtains I got for £20 from a local junk shop, and stitched “The Panic Years” across the back. When I spoke at Hay Festival, I wore a 1960s-style trouser and top combination using a length of material I bought from a local scrap project in Oxford for £5. I have made every outfit I have worn to every wedding in my life. When my novel Square One came out, I sewed a bias-cut strap dress, out of £2 of fabric, in the mode of Kate Moss’s famous see-through slip at the 1993 Elite model agency party. I didn’t look like Kate Moss, of course, but I did have a pair of gold high heels I’d bought for £5 off eBay that made me look like a stripper and I sewed the name of my book across the bottom. In short, I have been sewing myself clothes to wear to special occasions for as long as I’ve had my own purse. Despite the fact that I have never followed a pattern, have never taken a lesson and know almost none of the rules of dressmaking.