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Stitch by Stitch

Caroline is a creative maker, a community arts worker, and a storyteller. The Story Costumer is a magical dress shop where garments can be hired or tailor-made.

When Caroline was finishing her thirteenth and final costume for an exhibition planned for a pre-COVID March, she found herself giddy with happiness.

As she snipped and tied the endings to the threads of the creation appropriately titled ‘Beat of my own Drum’, she was giggling and filled with a joy she hadn’t remembered experiencing since childhood. On her Instagram page, she wrote of the pleasure in making this work: “This piece is like the best New Year’s Eve you’ve ever had (or dreamed of). It’s like new underpants with functional elastic; it’s like sparklers and fireworks that don’t scare dogs; it’s like the first asparagus of the season; like shooting stars and the smell of baking tea cake. Did I mention ice cream? It’s definitely like your favourite flavour! I am electric with it all!”. Caroline is keen to share her story to motivate other people to find their own joy and to get back to what it was that made them happy as a child.

Up until two years ago, Caroline had built a successful career in community health. She managed a team of more than 20 people and was always dealing with high-pressure situations. Her role required stores of high energy to meet the demands of never-ending emails, phone calls, meetings, and staffing problems. On top of that, Caroline was also caring for her elderly mother and her daughter, who is on the autism spectrum.

 But that changed on the day when Caroline found herself, after having dropped off her daughter at school, sitting in her car trying to steel herself to make it through another workday. As she desperately tried to summon the energy required to deal with the day, she reflected on the fact that she felt she had lost the ability to lead her staff as needed, and that she was finding herself more and more emotional in the workplace. Her own mental health was suffering, and the realisation dawned on her that this lifestyle was very unsustainable. Shortly after, Caroline handed in her resignation. She was 52 years old. When asked what she intended to do for work, she responded that she was completely without a plan – an admission that shocked those who thought they knew her.

“Her own mental health was suffering, and the realisation dawned on her that this lifestyle was very unsustainable”

She made a conscious decision to trust in the process of stopping.

 It’s not often we allow ourselves enough time to really think about what we’re doing and where we’re going, to actually buy ourselves some time off the treadmill to consider what we’d really like to do with what Mary Oliver termed our “one wild and precious life”, and to consider how to make it happen. Caroline, wisely, gave herself this time and expresses extreme gratitude that she was able to afford it. She set about filling blank pages with notes on all the things that she loved, the things that she wanted to feel, the things she wanted to have in her life. And none of these things were material goods. She had already sold her own house to enable herself to care for her mother. What she kept coming back to was her love for costume and dressing up. As a teen, she was eccentric and fashioned her own style with fabrics and materials. It was her mother who sewed, but Caroline was always creative and innovative. And she had built up a substantial costume collection over her lifetime.

 She decided to open up her “magical dress-up shop,” which, seemingly childlike in its enthusiasm and subject, is more for adults who are seeking to meet and connect with their own inner child. In June of 2019, Caroline opened the door to her Kyneton shop, The Story Costumer – “It aims to lean lightly and impact powerfully”, she tells us. “It is fuelled by kindness, a sustainable fuel if ever I felt one”. Within her shop, there is a gorgeous golden chair which she has dubbed the Throne of Revelation. She says that people sit in this chair and talk about their lives, and as “every costume has at its heart a great story”, this is a necessary part of the costuming process. She speaks of the weight and feel of fabrics and how people connect through fabric. Their weft and weave bind us to each other in much the same way that our stories do, and the fabrics carry our stories.

 Through her shop, Caroline hires out her costumes, designs and creates her own costumes, and receives commissions for costumes. Caroline talks about the surprising way life works when you make a decision like this – that through closing one door and opening another, or letting yourself charge off in a different direction, life will actually help you along. Some people from the old life stay with you, some people drop off, and new people come into your life bearing gifts. She speaks of the generosity of people who have come to her with fabrics that they knew were special, but they didn’t know what they could do with them, fabrics that have family meaning embedded in them. These were gifted to Caroline for her shop. Caroline doesn’t buy anything new for her creations. She spends time foraging in op shops and the like, using what she finds, and she recycles everything, right down to the last threads.

 When Caroline first opened The Story Costumer, she started using a sewing machine. But her need to slow down completely, to reduce her energy demands, has brought her back to hand stitching. She clearly takes great pleasure in the tactile experience of handling fabrics and threads. And you get the feeling that she is making a statement to broader society as well – you’re going too fast, slow down. She said she wasn’t surprised when her daughter said to her one day, “You’re a better person, a better mother since you’ve been a maker”. Mother and daughter enjoy time together, creating, using sewing as play, igniting their imaginations.

When asked what she is currently working on, Caroline said she is seeking some red velvet curtains for a piece about rage and anger. She speaks of the way society feeds us pop psychology solutions that gloss over the reality of ‘messy’ mental health, which often needs a slow process for recovery. She says that working on strong feelings using a medium that doesn’t hurt herself or anyone else is what stitching means to her, and it’s a process – recovery happens, stitch by stitch.

 Caroline’s passion for creating and making a space in life for play means that she will be running workshops in the future about using creativity to connect community, to improve and talk about mental health and healing through storytelling and playfulness, increasing confidence through experimenting with costume, and allowing people to experience that undeniable joy we took in being alive when we were kids.

 If you want to join Caroline and find your inner child, be sure to visit her in Kyneton and sit upon her throne, and share a story or two while dressed in one of her many wondrous creations.

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