Meet Alusha Newnham-Kell: Let’s Include Everyone and Every BODY
Sewing your own clothes is the best! It is all about that moment of triumph when you complete a garment and wear it, knowing that you made it with your own hands. The result may lead to a lot of fist pumping and strutting! It brings many of us joy, but what if you cannot find a pattern that caters for your body, especially if you are a plus-size.
We heard, we listened and we responded to your cries for more inclusive sizing with our sewing patterns. To help us develop such a range we took this conversation to our socials and asked for help. An instant frontrunner was avid sewer and fan of Nerida Hansen Fabrics, Alusha Newnham-Kell aka @full.fat.milk. Here is an insight into this talented woman and her journey with sewing for a larger body.
Hello Alusha, lovely to chat to you via email. I notice that on your Instagram page you mention that you live on unceded Gadigal Land. I love that, tell me about this acknowledgement and what it means to you?
Great to chat to you too, Jacqui! I live and work on Gadigal land in Sydney’s Inner West. To me, acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land that we live, work and play on is a simple step that non-Indigenous Australians can take to recognise that this land was taken by force during invasion, and that there are myriad lasting impacts of colonisation.
I could not agree more. Tell me, where did you grow up?
I grew up in a tiny village in rural NSW, on shared Ngunnawal and Wiradjuri land. My parents own 100 acres of bushland there and my childhood was not unlike that of a free-range chicken – lots of creative play and ‘don’t come home until it’s getting dark’ adventuring on our property. We lived too far away from a high school so I was sent to boarding school in Sydney, which is how I ended up living here long term.
Fabulous. When did you start sewing?
I took to a lot of crafts like painting, hand sewing, cross stitch, embroidery, origami, etc when I was a young kid. I was a pretty voracious reader and I was always being gifted craft books of one sort or another, so I dabbled in a lot of activities. I started to learn to sew properly on a sewing machine when I was in university.
Did someone close to you inspire you or teach you to sew?
My inspirational figures would definitely be my mum and my nana. My mum taught me to hand sew when I was a kid and when I expressed interest in learning to sew properly, she gifted me her mother’s sewing machine. My nana passed away when I was very young so I don’t have many memories of her, though I do know that she was an avid sewer and crafter. Whenever I have tried out a new hobby, mum has always said ‘your grandmother’s sitting on your shoulder’ as if my nana’s crafting wisdom is being passed onto me.
What is your favourite thing to make?
Dresses in colourful prints and natural fibres are always number one on my sewing list. The kinds of garments I covet rarely come in my size, and I absolutely love being able to fill my wardrobe with the things that I could never buy for myself.
What has been one of your biggest sewing blunders?
I think one of my biggest sewing blunders was also my biggest ever fashion faux-pas. When I was 13 or 14, in a flash of creative genius, I went to an op-shop and bought a whole stack of garishly printed men’s neckties. I hand-sewed them all together to make an A-line skirt and I wore that thing to death. I’m glad that my sense of style has evolved since then, but I do wish I still had that skirt.
As you know Alusha, we have approached you to help us develop a range of patterns that are more inclusive. What are your thoughts on this project?
I was very excited about this project from the get-go, especially as Nerida Hansen Fabrics have a special place in my heart. Some of the first ‘fancy’ fabric I bought to sew with was from Nerida Hansen, I think in 2017), and I still have those garments in my wardrobe! I love the opportunity to have some input into the design process for more size-inclusive patterns. I don’t know much about the technical aspects of pattern design but I know a bit about how a garment fits and construction works for larger bodies, and I’m excited to see how my ideas come together with Anne’s technical patternmaking skills. I really enjoy the conceptualising phase of garment sewing and have dabbled in drafting my own patterns for a few years, and I think it’s unreal that someone might want to buy a copy of a pattern that was first drafted on some leftover Christmas wrapping paper three years ago.
How challenging is it to find contemporary pattern designs that vary in sizes?
It can be quite the challenge, and it was particularly difficult when I was first learning to sew and the only pattern options that really existed were the ‘Big Four’. The reason why I started to draft my own patterns was because I couldn’t find a pattern that ticked both the boxes of ‘garments I want to wear’ and ‘comes in my size’. A lot of pattern companies still claim that it’s too difficult or expensive to produce high quality plus-sized sewing patterns. Extending the sizes on a range of patterns absolutely can take time and skill to get right, but it is not at all an insurmountable task. The game has definitely been lifted in the last year or so with the emergence of some great dedicated plus size pattern lines and with more indie designers extending their sizes, but options are still limited for many sewists.
One of our ambassadors, @katiemakesadress, made a dress from Nerida Hansen Fabrics in gingham and wrote a blog review at our request. As a result, she received a lot of negative comments some of which were related to her size. Nerida was very quick to show her support for Katie and that she would not tolerate this kind of behaviour within her community. Have you ever experienced any online negativity like this?
I saw that situation unfold and it definitely is a familiar one - I’ve received my share of fatphobic comments and it’s always hard to be on the receiving end of someone’s unsolicited opinions. I’ve deliberately cultivated an online space where I don’t get those comments very often, but they occasionally slip through. Negative and critical comments are symptomatic of the patriarchal and racist societal structures that dictate the ways a woman’s body ‘should’ be, and I won’t have a bar of it. I don’t hesitate to tell people where to stick it when they offer me their opinions on my body or my clothing choices.
Are we getting better at being more inclusive with regard to what is available with size ranges?
We definitely are, but a lot of the fairly size-inclusive indie pattern companies and ethical fashion brands I love are based overseas. Australia is so far behind the ball on this and I think that is quite reflective of where our society in general is at when it comes to bodies. If the average Australian woman wears a size 14 to 16 then that’s right in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to sizing, yet so many pattern ranges and garment lines stop at a 16 or 18. I still get really frustrated when I see brands whose largest size an AU22 call themselves ‘inclusive’ because they’re really not. We’ve definitely got a lot of work to do.
Do you have a dream project that you would like to sew?
I think my dream sewing project is always the thing I’m working on at the time, whether it’s in the planning or the making stage. When I sew a new garment I try to refine my skills just a little bit more than last time, so when I finish a garment I’m like “wow, this is now the best thing I’ve ever made in my whole life.” In that way I think having a beautiful handmade wardrobe is both my dream project and an eternal work in progress.
In my day job I’m a primary school teacher, and I like to think that in the future I might be able to bring my teaching and sewing skills together to have a little sewing studio where people could come and learn how to sew nice things in an inclusive and safe space.
Do you have a sewing goal for 2021?
I always have a new project in mind, and I like to have a long-term project on the go while I’m working on other things. Last year my big project was a quilted patchwork jacket that used up lots of my scraps. This year I’ve started working on a big, snuggly, scrappy patchwork quilt for the couch. I have also been promising my boyfriend that I’d make him a collared shirt for at least two years, so I really need to follow through on that sometime soon.
Any advice for beginner or champion sewers?
Use the fancy fabric! I love to splurge on nice fabrics but I often get anxious about cutting into it because I’m worried that I’ll make mistakes or I won’t do the fabric justice, or I start to question whether it’s too bold for me or if it’s really my colour or whatever. I think often of a story one of my best friends shared with me about her uncle who saved up his Long Service Leave for years and years, but passed away from cancer before he could use it. I’d much rather make and wear an imperfect garment, than run the risk of never getting to wear it at all.
Check back in again soon to follow our progress with more size-inclusive sewing patterns. Shop our sewing patterns online at www.neridahansen.com.au.
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