Colleen on Wearing Wool…

Colleen’s blog is a treasure-trove of thoughtful writings on many everyday things, but perhaps most especially on various shoes, hats, clothes, quilts and other things that are worn. Colleen writes of the amazing memories connected with such objects as a fine pair of boots; a jubilant turban; and a quilt that she made for her son. Colleen’s tales of wearing, mending, finding, making and modifying textiles are thoughtful, poetic, and celebratory. WOOL emerges time and time again as a theme, and Colleen’s wool-themed posts last WOVEMBER were so inspiring that we asked if she would write us something especially for this year… happily for WOVEMBER readers, she has!

Das Coat & Other Tales of Endurance

Reading the wonderful stories this Wovember, I’ve been wondering exactly how a love of wool emerges. I suspect that wool winds its way into the psyche early, nestles down and, even if it lies dormant for a while, remains deeply embedded. For those of us who not come from sheep dotted countryside or knitterly homes, it is not necessarily yarn that first ensnares us. There are other pathways, things we learned from our family, the fabrics we were dressed in as children, where we were taken to shop.

My own entrapment did not begin with sheep, that’s for sure. Raised among the wool warehouses of London Docks the first fleecy fibres I saw would have been those escaping from the giant bales stored in the wool warehouses round the corner from the flats where we lived. We used to pick them up on the walk to school; even now I find it hard to resist those snags caught in barbed wire on walks in the countryside. So my woolly journey begins with fabric shops around Whitechapel, for these were the places I was taken by my mum, a dressmaker, when she was on the hunt for cloth. Some years a new wool coat (or one year a beautiful plaid cape) would be made for me, other times bought from shops populated by familiar old women with their “Hello Dolly”.

Thus a pattern was set. A taste for wool and quality. Growing up, it was still not unusual in my part of London to have coats and suits made in cloth of your choice. The first was a reversible Burberry, a light gaberdine on one side and a muddy herringbone tweed on the other, an odd choice as the fashion was all for loud checks among my schoolmates. We all had those coats, the Stepney contingent. They came from Jack Berg’s factory where my auntie’s best friend worked there: you had to have the entree, you see. A fashion item even then, the coat was worn for a year or so, then passed on to my mum to be worn to work in the same kind of small factories where it was made

Mum waring reversible Burberry c. 1971

Many wool coats, most from jumble sales, intervened. Then, after a period of travelling and living hand to mouth in the country, I returned home and was smartened up. This time, I was bought a tailor-made coat, navy blue, fitted and belted, a mix of wool with cashmere. It was not the coat I’d envisaged. I wanted something billowy, but the tailor only did, well, tailoring. Beautifully made, it was nevertheless not a happy coat, a coat of constraint after years of freedom with its severe belt and fly buttons, a coat to wear to job interviews and funerals. Eventually relegated to the everyday, it was the coat I wore on the foggy, cold February the day I left my baby and went back to work after maternity leave, a coat of tears. My mum had it next but says it is too heavy for her now. Thirty years of wear.

Das coat in allotment shed, 2012

No surprise perhaps that I had already returned to the tweediness that reminded me of the countryside I was still missing, a coat that had the colours of autumn woven into it, a Donegal tweed of such giant chevroned proportions that we called it Das Coat, voluminous enough to hide a bump and embrace a baby. And before that a second hand Harris Tweed (das) jacket, a more modest herringbone, the last reminder of allotment days now swallowed up by the Olympic Park.

Colleen wearing Das jacket on Manor Gardens allotment c. 1982

Nearly thirty years old, Das Coat now hangs on a hook in yet another allotment shed, raddled with holes from the moths that invaded it one winter, but still good for chilly days. The jacket is no more than scraps and mementoes. But I only have to press the button and it all comes back.

Felix-made badge with scrap salvaged from Das jacket 2012

All images and content © Colleen and published here with her kind permission