My mum’s knack for making clothes stitches us together

“You get to see how they are made,” my mum said, as she tugged a thread with a surprising force, unravelling a seam. She was tailoring a pair of pants that I recently bought online. A red, blue and yellow striped pair, loud as a car alarm. Everything about them screamed fun but, as is often the case with clothes made en masse, they weren’t quite right for my body.

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Photograph: Dusica Paripovic/Alamy Stock Photo

Mum’s ability to alter clothes is extraordinary. When she is armed with her pin cushion, quick unpick and an oversized pair of pants you know that she means business. She admires each stitch before plucking it out.

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She was a fashion teacher at Tafe, who spent part of the 1970s in a Darlinghurst college learning how to gather stitches, add pleats and finish a seam so it would remain invisible even to the savviest eye. That’s before she left to teach in regional New South Wales.

An attentiveness for clothes has woven into mum’s life. And she has passed this on to my sister and me. It runs deep in our DNA, like a bright thread from one of Jenny Kee’s jumpers.

We discuss what we are wearing to large events or last-minute coffee dates. Send images of dreamy patterns. And most weeks involve a phone call from my sister, who lives 464 kilometres away, which often begin with small talk before she gets to the real point, turns her camera on and asks: “Does this outfit look OK?” or “What about this combo? Shirt tucked in or out?”.

© Photograph: Dusica Paripovic/Alamy Stock Photo
‘I discovered that the hum of a sewing machine is one of the most satisfying noises on earth.’

Our home was, and still is, like a fabric store with rolls of cloth tilted against each other and packed tightly into cupboards.

I scan walls for something that … has no buttons or zippers that will make sitting in my wheelchair uncomfortable

Mum patiently taught my sister and I how to thread a needle without being pricked – add a bit of lip to the thread and keep your hand steady; how to read Butterick patterns and to have an innate aversion to clothing with checks that do not line up over seams. And I discovered that the hum of a sewing machine is one of the most satisfying noises on earth.

As we got older though, we wore less of mum’s own creations, and bought more of our clothes. Clothes that came from a scroll and click online, or rifling hangers in a department store, that more often than not, do not hang right on my body.

Silhouette dresses that do not follow the curvature of scoliosis. Necklines that droop, bras that don’t stay where they are supposed to, shoes that don’t slide over orthotics and pants that are a touch too long in the crotch and leg even though they’re in your size. In clothing stores I scan walls for something that might be a good shape or has no buttons or zippers that will make sitting in my wheelchair uncomfortable. I find myself doing the sums on how many safety pins it will take to make an item stay up properly. And sometimes when I reach the final shop corner, a self-conscious realisation rises: “there’s nothing here for me”.

Related: Mend your clothes and do yourself some good

The world of mass-produced clothes fuels stereotypes that people are all the same. Carbon copies. It is yet another example of how our society is built with predetermined perceptions: clothes themselves can be inaccessible.

So, mum still alters clothes to fit me. She scraps everything that doesn’t work, and keeps everything that does. Slicing the off-cuts with a brutal ease.

My sister and I haven’t inherited her knack for sewing. I’m not patient enough and my sister is non-committal to pieces (there are remnants of her half-done quilts and pillows lying around our childhood home). At best, we can sew buttons on and my sister can mend a hem if she has to – she’s actually quite good.

Mum has said that it is sad not as many people are compelled to learn the skill, but she believes there’s a resurgence. She’s mostly happy that my sister and I are aware of some things, especially discerning when patterns don’t align over seams.

Nevertheless, I have always looked at mum’s skills with admiration, and the way she looks at clothes and fabrics and sees solutions, rather than issues.

• Kate Thomas is a 25-year-old freelance journalist who works as a copywriter. She is currently based in Wiradjuri country (central New South Wales)

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