Anjali came from a family of tailors. Tailoring had run as naturally as silk thread drawn by a nimble needle through generations of Anjali’s family. The work of the needle and the loom had pulled her ancestors through crumpled and smooth history across at least five generations – that her grandparents had been able to determine – and possibly many more.
Anjali’s uncle first arrived as an immigrant in a grey town at one end of a wet valley, which was bordered at the bottom by the sea. A river ran like a silken ribbon along the seam of the valley and into the ruffled salt waters of the estuary.
Her uncle was the first member of her family to set down his sewing machine in this valley. There were no other tailors in the area, and the rental on one end of a once abandoned warehouse was affordable.
With a skill for organisation, and a skin as thick as a cotton canvas, her uncle was soon successfully stretching the family’s tailoring reputation from the higher and wealthier end of the valley, all the way down to the poorer housing estates at the very bottom edge of the town.
‘Damp and cold are the perfect business partners of any tailor,’ wrote her uncle in response to Anjali’s father’s suggestion that there could be more temperate places to settle.
* * *
All Anjali knew of this history as she grew up, was that her uncle had a successful clothing alteration and repair business in a town that bordered the same rapidly-flowing river as ran below their street. Her uncle’s tailoring shop, she understood, lay further upstream towards the distant hills. From family visits to her uncle’s home and business, she also knew that clothes were her friends. They brought colour and movement and the warm feeling of a hundred sympathetic materials.
When the family gathered to mark the notable and fashionable milestones of each year and of each life, she sneaked away from the body of the family into her uncle’s workshop, where sleeves and collars and cuffs and bodices reached down to her from mannequins and workbenches. In the background she could hear the river muttering as it ran beyond the brick walls of the warehouse. It was a captivating circus of texture and colour and sound and feel.
* * *
Her uncle’s colourful workshop and the spartan furnishings of her parents’ house were worlds apart. But connecting them was the river. The silver weave of the water turning through dark and light. That same pattern and flow of textile, as it ran past her uncle’s factory, and then beyond the far end of the street on which Anjali’s family lived.
The river was the great designer, creating a pattern in a few seconds and then throwing it away; its waters rubbing out the first idea before moving effortlessly on to the next reflection.
Even as a four-year-old Anjali knew that tailoring and garment design was the direction she wanted to go in, although she did not understand the reality of that direction. She had wanted to be again amongst those beckoning textiles, but had not understood that her uncle’s workshop was at least twenty miles further up the curving river. She set off along the river path one warm afternoon, slipping away from the supervision of her parents, when the light falling from the kitchen window reminded her of the coloured crisscross of embroidery. She was found about a mile up the river path and brought back by the paper boy on the seat of his bicycle.
Anjali helped in her uncle’s business as soon as he felt she could be trusted amongst the needles, scissors, and the unforgiving sewing and pressing machines. Her uncle taught her how clothing is structured, how it can be treated, fastened and stitched, and the nature and needs of different fabrics.
As a teenager she collected clothing as a philatelist collects stamps, looking for examples of type, period and origin. Through this she began to understand how clothing defines a person. There is personality in every garment. Clothing is loquacious. It cannot help but give away the nature and intent of the person who wears it. Some clothing wishes to fit in and some wishes to stand out. Clothing can be confident and determined, it can be hesitant or unreliable, it can be threatening, or it can be warm and supportive.