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8 April 2002updated 24 Sep 2015 12:31pm

When I sewed the royal hem

By Annalisa Barbieri

The year was 1984. The autumn leaves were golden, almost as majestic and beautiful, warm but regal, empathetic but distant, in their way, as she was. The Queen Mother. And I was fit to touch the hem of her skirts. Nay, I hemmed her skirts. Which, in the haute-couture style, went unironed, their gay, exuberant quality to remain for ever unquashed by the press and hiss of a steam iron. I felt that these humble hems stood as a metaphor for the Queen Mother’s unfailing, unstoppable spirit.

This particular hem, on this particular dress, was special. Almost as special as she was, but of course not quite. It was to be worn to Prince Harry’s christening. There was to be four inches of pleating at the bottom of the dress, which was of a lilac-purple abstract pattern that may have been floral. She loved floral. She also loved angel sleeves, as she felt it was vulgar for women of a certain age to show any upper arm. “Bingo wings”, she called those flappy upper bits, which she never had, keeping those triceps well in trim by stirring the family pot as vigorously as she did. Insisted on doing it herself, too. What a lady.

Chiffon, she loved. It brought out her playful, childish side. I always thought it summed her up beautifully: seemingly lightweight and transparent but, when layered, it could be as strong and opaque as, well, other fabrics. Crepe de Chine was another favourite, although apparently Prince Philip teased her remorselessly over this, telling her she should buy British.

“But I don’t like worsted,” she would confide in me. This was not a direct confidence – she was too classy for that, but it filtered through. The last season I spent as personal dressmaker to the Queen Mother, before I was fired for painting my nails over a skein of her chiffon, I was fortunate enough to be at the couture house the day the designer returned from the palace. The Queen Mum had chosen 26 new styles for that coming season. To the untrained eye, they all looked exactly the same, but it took someone with her breeding to notice their subtle differences. She had marked each design with “Yes Please” to show which she wanted.

It was a privilege to hand-stitch the hem of a dress of such a woman.

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