Weekend with Phyllis

This weekend we spent some time with my husband’s grandmother Phyllis in suburban Melbourne after a week of work in the city.

Today we went up to Healesville to visit Tarrawarra Museum of Art and on the way stopped in Yarraglen to have lunch. Amongst the antiques and secondhand stores I found some lovely buttons and pored over some vintage lace. While I was looking, Phyllis kept insisting she had some buttons in a cupboard as well. I carefully chose a few carded buttons that I could see myself using.


When we got back at the end of the day I dived through the two shoeboxes full of more modern buttons. I’ve chosen some to bring home and left the rest for someone else to use. They were unsold stock from my husband’s uncle and aunt’s secondhand store.


And the last part of playing with sewing stuff (rather than, you know, actually sewing), was dragging an old Singer out from under a dressing table. This was previously Nan’s sister’s machine which she used for years. When her Aunty Kath passed away, my husband’s mother insisted it be kept and it has been waiting for someone to bring it back to Tasmania. It is NOT light enough to be carry on luggage. All we knew previously was that it was a Singer in a curved wooden case. It turns out to be what Google images suggests is a 201k, and it still sews. The power plug is very cracked so we did not plug it in, but turned the hand wheel by hand, as you do. It needs a new power cord and plug, and a new spool pin. And a very good clean and oil.


The Singer got tucked back under the dressing table to wait for someone to bring their car over on the ferry.

I might have also bought some fabric – knits from The Fabric Store’s knit sale and some suiting from Darn Cheap Fabric to make the black work jacket I seem to be missing from my wardrobe.

Decluttering and a Short History of Zac Designs

The clothing care and size label giveaway was a feeble attempt to reduce the contents of a bursting cupboard.

But why did I have them in the first place?

Swing Tag logo

Years ago (so many in fact that the small children pictured below are finished school) I had a market stall where I sold baby and toddler hats and clothes I’d sewn. This was in the days before the burgeoning ‘babies’ markets full of cute pinafores. I’d found it tricky to find decent boys clothes that were interesting, and also thanks to an inspirational outfit with hat from a dear friend bought in Germany and a subsequent trip to Europe ourselves six months later, I knew it was possible to find nicely designed clothes, just not locally. Another element to that was living on student allowances which covered rent and lentils but certainly not the upper end of nice kids clothes. Looking around, there’s still way more nice clothes for girls than boys.

Thus Zac Designs was born.

Babies from Mother’s group all lined up with hats on, albeit temporarily.

Starting out with baby hats, we enjoyed early success in a Hobart winter which made hats essential. I quickly expanded the line to include clothes like trousers, overalls, jumpers, dresses and long sleeved tshirts, all made from good quality fabric and including room for growth with extra buttons, elastic and adjustable straps. Does anyone else remember the Top Kids (ebay link) magazines? Ottobre Design would be an equivalent now and I eagerly awaited the new issues. I also pored over Studio Bambini magazines for inspiration.

Overalls on our chief model, Zac

Each Saturday we would set up our stall at Salamanca Market, thanks to transport from my parents as we did not have our own car at that stage. We quickly learnt that a cool but sunny day was optimal for sales, Easter was better than Christmas, and that while some patterns and fabrics caught people’s eyes they weren’t necessarily the best sellers. Some hats and clothes languished on the stall for weeks at a time, while others would disappear as soon as I could make them. I learnt to only make a small number up in a new fabric to see how it sold first. I was very excited a month or so ago when I found I still had the pattern for “French Style Cardigans” under the house. Surprisingly similar to a red merino one I made for me this winter!

Each week we’d wait to see what we sold – the first dollars were put aside for fabric, then the next portion for basic veggies, then fruit, then bread and cheese and finally local wine. We’d make our sales then send one of us off with Zac in a backpack to gather food supplies from the other stallholders. In our last summer we were perilously close to the Elsewhere vineyard stall. Some days we’d sit there behind the stall enjoying a nice Chardonnay or Pinot Noir as the market moved past lunchtime.

Back of the market stall.

A graphic design student designed us a rubber stamp to make our own swing tags, and I had woven labels made to sew onto the clothes. Quilting fabrics were a good source of interesting prints and I also bought some basics like cotton drill and fleecy (to line trousers and jackets) in the smallest wholesale quantities I could. I set up a sewing table in our wide hallway of the flat and sewed in the evenings or during the day if Zac slept.

Mother’s Group baby

This time taught me a lot about production line techniques through trial and error, customer service and sales, and managing being self employed with a young baby. It also made me realise that I wanted to try work outside the home – not knowing how much we’d earn each week was tricky to manage for cash flow as any small business operator will tell you. But we earnt enough to help get us to Europe for 3-4 weeks on a student budget (babies got you a room to yourself in youth hostels back then!) and then enough to buy my own sewing machine and an overlocker. Mum’s Elna Lotus sewing machine really did a lot of work for Zac Designs. Poor thing. It is still going strong, and one day I’d like one of my own to add to the Elna retirement home I seem to be establishing.

Summer Hat

I’ve had a ball looking back through boxes of photos to find the images for this post. Occasionally I see a ZacHat with one of myfabrics out and about and want to mug the poor parents to say “I made that” and when people see something I’ve sewn and say ‘you could make these for money’ I simply reply, ‘been there, done that, I’d rather sew for fun not full-time’. And, it’s still a time I look back on with great fondness.

My BA Graduation and Zac’s Inspirational Outfit (PS I made that purple jacket too!)