Teaching young and old the art of sewing and design

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Cathy Upton displays garments designed for the Henty Natural Fibre Awards and Australian Wool Awards.

The opportunity to share friendship, knowledge and skills is what keeps Cathy Upton coming back to the Country Lifestyle pavilion year after year.

As an exhibitor and sponsor, Mrs Upton enjoys the social aspect of the field days, meeting sewing enthusiasts who often live remotely and have little access to quality fabrics.

She operates the Wodonga business, Julia’s Fabric Boutique, and has a fashion design partnership with local dressmaker Leanne O’Toole.

“There is one rural lady who saves her pennies and makes the trip to our stand at Henty each year to buy fabric,’’ Mrs Upton said.

“Our original motivation for going to Henty was to provide a service not available anywhere else.

“That was five years ago and we had no preconceived ideas – we took a few sewing machines to give people a look.

“It was a good first year and fabric sales have been increasing since and sewing machine sales just fabulous.’’

With fabric and textiles a passion of Cathy’s, she was always keen to be involved with the Henty Natural Fibre Awards, firstly as an entrant and later as a sponsor.

“As much as I love clothing made of polyester, a by-product of petroleum, I prefer to keep local producers in business by doing what they love and that is producing natural fibres,’’ she said.

“It is much more ethical and keeps a lot of people in a job.’’

Cathy and Leanne entered their first garment in the Henty Natural Fibre Awards five years ago and were inspired to keep entering.

They won the supreme garment in 2013 with a cocktail dress featuring an Australian inspired motif.

The dress was made from hand dyed pure wool nun’s cloth, with a felted Sturt Desert Pea motif and co-ordinated with a pure silk hand made hat.

“The Henty awards have matured and I would love to see them continue,’’ Mrs Upton said.

“Our ambition is to compete at New Zealand’s World Wearable Art awards which have grown into an event generating $25 million for the community.’’

Cathy and Leanne are often inspired by looking through pattern books.

The pair won at the Australian Wool Awards with a garment titled “Bottom of your garden’’.

“The large skirt featured a bodice designed to look like a paling fence,’’ Mrs Upton said.

“It was a social comment piece about today’s throw-away society and depicted abandoned toys at the bottom of the garden.

“Another piece we did was a Driza-bone style and was a comment on the importance of the women on the land.

“When the rain comes, suddenly everything is brought back to life, the same as women begetting life.

“We do like the pieces to mean something to us.’’

Mrs Upton has always been passionate about helping young people to learn how to sew, and encouraging textiles and design to be part of the TAFE curriculum.

Bernina and Julia’s Fabric Boutique, Wodonga, are donating an Activa 215 sewing machine as an encouragement award for the best garment by a student designer at Henty.

“Many young women are reaching their late 20s or 30s with no one to show them the basics of sewing,’’ she said.

“Elizabeth Hemsley conducts our night classes in general sewing where students learn how to make a skirt with a waistband and a zipper.

“Our students enjoy the social connections and one group of ladies have been coming for seven years.

“Many women want to make something creative and their strong environmental conscious means they don’t want throw-away clothing.’’

Julia’s Fabric Boutique also conducts advanced classes.

Mrs Upton said wool was a major component of the majority of the fashion design entries.

“Wool is a wonderful fabric with the ability to manipulate it in so many ways,’’ she said.

“In one entry, we used felted, knitted and crocheted techniques – in another dress we used finger crochet made from wool rope.

“I love the felting as it produces such beautiful colours while Leanne is the brilliant seamstress.’’

Cathy and Leanne both lived in Melbourne in their 20s, just half a suburb away from each other but never met until Leanne opened a fashion design business, Red Frogs and Tall Poppies, in Wodonga.

Cathy had bought Julia’s Fabric Boutique 12 years ago and Leanne moved her dressmaking business to the rear of the shop.

She now works for a local bridal business and continues to design garments with Cathy for competition.

Julia’s is the last independent fabric store for dress making fabrics between Sydney and Melbourne.

The business specialises in bridal, day and evening wear fabrics, such as linen and high quality Japanese cotton. It is also an agent for Bernina, Baby Lock and Elna sewing machines.