Standing in front of a charming house on Clifford Street, you might not guess at the treasure trove within: an expert dressmaker, fabric shop, and legendary sewing pattern collection.
Helen May, who is quite likely Gisborne’s most experienced Creative behind a sewing machine, was born and raised in this very house. Now in her 80’s, she’s been sewing since she was 16 years old. Her sewing room was formerly the drawing room, a formal space with beautiful carpet and a china cabinet where “you weren’t allowed unless there were visitors.” Looking around, she laughs, “Now look at it!”
It’s a room buzzing with industriousness, with long work tables, multiple sewing machines, and numerous works in progress. Weaving among it all are boxes and boxes of sewing patterns, a very special collection developed over a lifetime.
On one wall hangs a “Paulette” pattern of an elegant dress, and this is where it all started for Helen.
Certain from an early age that school was not for her, she told her mother on her 15th birthday that she planned to leave school and be a hairdresser. Her mum was not happy with that plan, and instead got her a job at Paulette Patterns, a factory at the bottom of Gladstone Road. Paulette made sewing patterns, which as Helen explains, “is like a recipe for a dress.” At the age of 16 she made her first dress for a friend, and a life-long passion was born, although it was some time before it became her full-time occupation.
As a young woman she had various jobs in Gisborne and Hawkes Bay, working in the cosmetics department at chemist shops, and running a labeling machine for Wattie’s. She met Seymour, her husband of over 50 years, at Club 44, where she was selling coffees and he was on the door taking money. In those days there was dancing at the Club, which she loved. Helen still loves to dance and emphatically credits it with keeping her young.
Seymour was a dairy farmer and they spent the next several decades in the country, raising four daughters. And she kept on sewing, making garments for friends, which led to a steadily growing business. The teaching side started with her daughters, whom she taught to sew. “They went to school in the dresses they made and all their mates wanted to learn how to sew too.” A children’s sewing class soon started around her kitchen table, and eventually she taught all ages, including adults at the Bernina shop.
When the couple were ready to transition from the farm back to town, Helen didn’t expect to return to the family home, but no other options appealed and her mum was ready to downsize. “So we bought this and moved back!” It’s also home to Seymour’s pottery shop featuring his Mayfire pottery, a kiln, and a space where he teaches as well. “It’s never dull here! We call it ‘Mays Mad House.’”
For our local sewing community, Helen’s pattern collection, or “library” as she calls it, is a considerable resource. The total number of patterns is unknown, but it has to be in the thousands. The collection is “organised loosely” in that she has a vague idea of what she has. There are groupings of particular garments, and she has her favorites at the ready. Often at night if she’s not sewing, she’ll take a box and look through them, just for the pleasure and curiosity of reviewing what’s there.
For those who want to hire patterns, she charges the hefty sum of a dollar a week, and encourages people to take 2-3 boxes at a time to go through at home.
Helen recognizes the collection as the treasure it is. “I just love patterns. It’s such fun, you never get bored.” She points at a skirt pattern, remembering fondly, “you won’t believe it but I made this in blue silk chiffon, and with a top I used it as a ball gown!” That’s the beauty of patterns, the potential for endless adaptation.
She is still working 8-12 hours a day, 6 days a week, including a lot of hand sewing and altering done in front of the TV at night. She continues to make a bit of everything, but she stopped making wedding dresses and ball gowns. “There are not enough hours in the day for that! I’m a one man band.” Helen also cleans, oils, and maintains all her own machines, which she learned to do at Bernina. For a time she went up the Coast to help fix machines, but now she’s simply too busy. “I’ve got more work than I can handle. But I’d far rather be in here than anywhere else.” She adds confidently, “I’ll keep going another 25 years at least.”
Every Tuesday a “wonderful neighbour” comes over and helps Helen with “computer work.” They post a photo to Facebook of a recent creation dubbed “dress of the week,” which often leads to more orders. A couple years ago, Helen realized she had an abundance of fabric left over from her made-to-order work. Once she gathered it all together, there was enough to sell, and the fabric shop was born in a room at the front of the house.
She’s ordered from many sources and countries over the years, building up a highly varied stock including woollens, cord velvets, linens, cottons and stretch knits. “It’s of a quality you don’t get today.” Brought up in the days “when you didn’t waste,” she hates the idea of discarding what could be useful. She no longer orders new fabric given how much she already has. And that’s why the pattern library is so valuable. Style is cyclical, and Helen reckons each pattern will have its moment again at some point.
Helen’s unbridled enthusiasm for working with patterns is contagious. In an age where we tend toward YouTube, it’s refreshing to turn back to paper and the art of teaching oneself. “Spread out a pattern and it’s so detailed and good, you can teach yourself. You learn to follow a process and it shows you just what to do, step by step. And then you’ll think ‘ooh I made this!’ and it just makes you want to do more.”
And if you get stuck, Helen is here to help. She is happy to consult when makers who are struggling with a project come to her for advice. Indeed, she considers it her “community service.” Whether she’s sewing, advising, or helping a customer find the perfect fabric, she’s grateful to have found her element and still be enjoying it so thoroughly. “When I get out of bed I can’t wait to start work, even after 60+ years of doing the same thing. What more can you want?”
To hire a pattern, shop fabric, or consult with Helen, check the hours in the Individual Dressmaker's listing on the Gizzy Local Business Directory.
Story by Victoria Williams
Photos Tom Teutenberg