Excerpt: Silk for the Feed Dogs


“Send that stupid Irish bitch in here!”

My pencil swerved across the graph paper, tearing a hole in it. A door slammed a little way down the corridor. The sound of scurrying footsteps. That could only mean me. I was the only Irish bitch she could be referring to. Jesus, I wasn’t ready.

A second-year appeared at my elbow, slightly out of breath.

“Eloise wants to see you.”

“Did she say why?”

“She said to tell you to bring whatever you have rustled up in the way of a final collection worthy of graduation, and it better be an improvement on what she saw last time.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s it. But you better hurry up. She’s in no mood to be messed with this morning. A whole group of print students just left in tears.”

I surveyed the puzzle of pattern pieces strewn across my table and looked up to see if anyone was watching, certain my panic was detectable, infrared and pulsating. So far, my only observer was the second-year. The sparkle in her eye suggested she’d taken easily to her role as harbinger of anxiety. I had five outfits near completion, three more in the early stages, and two unstarted. Other students were handstitching hems, working on hang tags, or sitting cross-legged in little camps on top of the tables like climbers who’d reached the summit of a mountain.

It was the week of Final Presentation. For the thirty-six of us on the BA, that meant unveiling our collections for the career-launching fashion show that would be attended by industry bigwigs with the power to pluck us from our East London flatshare-above-a-kebab-shop-obscurity and drop us in a glamorous atelier dans le coeur de Paris. There was no way around it; I would have to improvise what was missing. With four remaining days, I could pull it off. I might have to take my Mum up on her offer of flying over to help me sew.

I looked around jealously. They were all working with wool, obsessed with tailoring. I wanted everything to be light and airy. I was handling chiffon—layers of the stuff,  and overlaid with lace. Afternoons passed as I coaxed the diaphanous wisps to approach the needle, only to watch the cranky old machines turn on them, snatching and biting. This won’t hurt a bit, I’d promise and, moments later, have to rescue another gnarled ball of silk from the pit underneath the needle where the ‘feed dogs’ lived—two metal bars with diagonal teeth that lunged forward and reared back with every stitch. In another outfit I was attaching a sunray pleated skirt to a stretchy bodice, a fool’s game with this equipment. My designs were finicky but worth the effort, they’d see. If I was guilty of anything, it might be overextension. My collection was different from the others, which made Eloise uneasy. And labour intensive, which was why she had forbidden the technical staff to waste any time with me.

“As you’re here, you can make yourself useful,” I told the second-year and yanked her arms straight out in front of her, zombie-style. Another year, and she’d have lost that smug expression, I thought, as I whipped a pleated dress from the mannequin, draped it over her arms, and scooped up everything else, piling it high so that her ogling eyes barely peered over the peak. Grabbing sketch books, folders, and toiles, I hurried her to the door. Edward put down his pinking shears and shot me a thumbs up as I blew past.

“Good luck!” he called. “Come find me after and we’ll go for a fag break.” Seeing the look on my face, he added, “You’ll be fine.”

I caught up with the second-year just as she dumped everything on the floor outside Eloise’s office and stage whispered “Good luck” before running off with a barely concealed giggle. At my knock, the irritated bray of the course director travelled through the door and hung in the corridor: “Just wait.”

The bleakness of the corridor must have been designed to make students feel hopeless. No chairs, no art on the walls, chunks carved out of the paintwork, gaps in the floor tiles, the knocking of the pipes the only sound – although to what goal, I couldn’t say as there was never any heat.

Yet this was the landmark I’d dreamed of reaching: London’s Central St Martin’s. A mythical place populated by misunderstood creative types, filled with malaise, who wound their way through the corridors, libraries, and stairwells to come out the other end in a puff of glittery smoke, destined for stellar acceptance. Ordinary unsuspecting folk passed by it on their way to buses or offices or pubs, oblivious of their proximity to greatness. Halfway between the National Gallery and Tottenham Court Road tube station, this mysterious genius factory lurked, in a building that was an unsightly hangover from the thirties, on a block once famous for sex cinemas and dirty book stores. The closest thing to glamour about it were the rainbow-coloured oil slicks that leaked from a parked fish and chip van pooling around the entrance during the rain, glimmering with the reflections of passing tail lights. But it was exactly where I needed to be. And I’d been accepted a year early, the youngest on the course, just turned eighteen.

Suddenly the pipes seemed to hiss: That’s all very well but if you don’t want your future to be as bleak as these corridors, it’s time to listen to what she fucking tells you.

She was Eloise, the Fat Director. I gave her that title not just because of her outsized proportions but because it sounded like the Fat Controller. From Thomas the Tank Engine. It rendered her less threatening, I suppose.

“Come in now,” she drawled from inside. Her voice had the long, nasal resonance of a foghorn. She never had to raise the volume, just force more air out the hole.

Oh holy Moses. I fumbled for the doorknob.

There were six tutors, with her at the centre, behind a long table. A model sat in a chair in the corner. They watched me stagger in with my arms full and kick the door shut. I dropped a pin box. A little silver river swooshed out onto the floor.

“Oh, get it later,” said the Fat Director, rolling her eyes.

She was slumped over, legs crossed at the ankles, the narrowest and only part where crossing was possible, and she already looked bored.

“So, what have you got?” she asked.

“Well, I should begin by saying it’s not all here. I’ve got a few outfits still to finish, but that won’t be a problem. They’ll be done. I can show you the sketches of what’s missing. I plan to…”

She sighed heavily, so I stopped.

“Show me what you have got, will you. The clothes, Jesus. Is it too much to ask?” She slumped the other way. “That’s what we’re here to assess as our arses get numb on these chairs. Save what you’re lacking for your fucking therapist.” She made an impatient forward motion, and I grabbed the first half-sewn garment at hand and brought it to her. I asked the model to slip it on, and she walked back and forth in it. The Fat Director continued to mutely point, while I held things up or down until she had seen everything. The others said nothing.

“Anything else?”

“Oh, the illustrations! Here you can see what’s left to finish.”

I spread them on the table proudly. A mixture of drawing and collage, they captured the sense of movement and freedom I was going for since I dispensed with the templates I’d used for the past two years. Four of them cast a glance in their general direction. The sniffy Frenchman, whose speciality was tailoring and who had never been a fan of mine, half-heartedly pawed the corner of one, then slid it away again. He moved like a mime artist—little verbal communication, expressing himself with long fingers, restless limbs, and a melancholic but elastic face. The Fat Director exhaled through her nose while her eyes took another trip to the ceiling so that only the whites remained.

In 1975 when the Sex Pistols played their first gig at St Martin’s, Eloise had attended as an impressionable freshman from an upper class family. According to interviews, she was instantly captivated by the idea of galvanizing a room of people by swearing, spitting, throwing beer bottles, even drawing blood. All these years later, she attacked blind hems, French seams, and notched armholes as savagely as Sid Vicious attacked his guitar strings; she berated her students as venomously as Johnny Rotten berated his fans. She boasted of last year’s student who, pushed to the brink during an end-of-year presentation, made the evening news (great publicity for the school!) when he stole a classmate’s collection and, with the passengers of the south-bound number 38 bus as witnesses, set fire to it in the City of Westminster rubbish bin outside the main entrance before urinating with gay abandon into the flames. Eloise’s only regret was that the student didn’t get to see the high marks she awarded him before the two officers led him away.

As I looked along the row of unresponsive faces and back to Eloise, I felt the frustration rear up in me. I was keen to give her the anarchy she craved. I imagined delivering a single finger salute, trashing the room, throwing a sewing machine from the window, and pogoing out of there. But I was the product of an education which didn’t so much encourage you to respect figures of authority as to keep your disrespect to yourself if you knew what was good for you. So I waited quietly for one of them to speak.

“I just don’t get it,” said the Fat Director. Her weighty silver jewellery rattled on the desktop as she fixed me with torpid eyes. “You see, it’s not that I think you’re un-fucking-talented. I just don’t think you did a very good job. You were stubborn and wouldn’t fucking listen. You had your own ideas, went off in a different direction than what we advised, and this is the result. But I’m sorry. It’s just not good enough. You’ve only got yourself to blame.”

I considered the irony: the Sex Pistols’ peddled nonconformity and rejection of authority. My eyes sought an alternative verdict in one of the other faces. With the Frenchman I knew I didn’t stand a chance, but even the visiting lecturer, with her lilac rinse and painterly smock, who had previously claimed to see “an unusual urban poetry” in my collection, deflected her gaze, showing no inclination to champion it further.

“We simply can’t allow these garments to go on the catwalk,” concluded the Fat Director.

It was like a shutter going down at close of trading. She wouldn’t take those words back now they were out, and I knew the others wouldn’t dare dispute her. They all had their elbows on the table, leaning forward, except the mime artist who was semi-reclining, arms crossed, his hands spookily white against his turtleneck.

I turned, in a hurry to leave and yet rooted to the spot. Summoning every morsel of energy I had I sprung forward, lunging at my collection and squashing it into a bundle in my arms. The floor-length chiffon gown inspired by a rare orchid—I could have grown one from the chiffon easier than sewn one—became the size of a tennis ball in my fists. The sunray pleating and the sweaters with rabbit fur stitched along their furrows were flung into a Boots carrier bag to lie tangled with the beaded headdresses I’d meant to show but forgot. When I was nearly done, I went back to gather my illustrations and threw them on top of the bag like documents for a faulty delivery of goods.

“Oh, and one last thing,” said the Fat Director. She sounded amused. “You cannot draw. I’m sorry but some people just…Can’t. Fucking. Draw. No matter how hard they try. And you, my dear, are one of them.” She looked to her panel for confirmation. “Am I right? I mean, I’m only telling you for your own good. There’s no use pretending you can if you can’t.”

Arms loaded up with all they could hold, the rest draped over my shoulders, I headed for the door.

“And while we’re at it, what is that thing on your head? I mean, what message are you trying to convey? Is it a snood? Is that what it is? You just look so odd. I don’t get it. Do you want to explain it for those of us clearly unenlightened?”

The model snickered, then bounced up to get the door.

I could feel their eyes singeing the back of my collar and, as my heels crunched over the dropped pins, I was sure I made a lavishly downtrodden spectacle. No doubt they were wondering: “Will she wait till she feels the reassurance of the doorknob in her hand before she turns to unleash a tirade? Will this break her like last year’s student who needed three months in a ‘facility’ to undo the psychological damage? Will she go back to whatever dot on the landscape she came from and bother no more with fashion? Will she cry?”

I didn’t even have a free hand to slam the door.


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