When a bartender asks Shelley McColl, one half of Frocktails’ organising committee, about the playlist for the evening, she tells him it doesn’t matter. Soon the din of women talking will be too loud for anyone to hear the music.
Now in its 10th year, Melbourne Frocktails was started by a group of 30 sewers, who decided to go out for dinner wearing outfits they’d made. When photos of the evening were shared on social media, other sewers wanted to join in.
The event grew so quickly, eventually, organisers had to start issuing tickets. Despite turning to bigger and bigger venues, they always sell out in minutes.
Frocktails’ popularity has spread well beyond Melbourne. Not only are similar events held all over Australia, from Darwin to Adelaide, but there are now Frocktails in New York, Seattle, Montreal, Cape Town, Wellington and Edinburgh.
In Melbourne, as guests enter The Bank on Collins, a grand bar and function space in a 19th-century classical building, they are handed the night’s signature cocktail, a Gin Cushion. It’s served in a coup, sprinkled with lavender petals and tastes befittingly sweet.
It’s a mixed crowd, ranging in age and skills. Some women have been sewing for 60 years, others have just started. Friends arrive in coordinated attire, while some come alone, casting nervous looks around the room. Soon everyone is swept up in conversation, aided by a shared interest in each other’s outfits.
Siobhan Andrews is wearing a dark maroon sequin dress and standing with a group of women in various shades of red. She says Frocktails is a way of socialising with like-minded makers. “It’s not weird to touch each other’s clothes and talk endlessly about pattern numbers and the process of making a dress,” she says. “This is a whole room of people who do that.”
Lisa Howard took on the role of organiser with McColl in 2018. She credits the power of social media with Frocktails’ widespread popularity. Facebook and Instagram have helped revive sewing more broadly too.
“I’ve been sewing since I was a kid but once I was on Instagram, I started finding other people in my local area that also sewed,” she says.
It’s Michelle Sanger’s first time at Frocktails, but she’s very active in the online sewing community. “It’s the weirdest experience when you come in because you know everyone off Instagram and you’ve been chatting for years,” she says. “It’s kind of like seeing celebrities.”
Sanger is wearing a green knee-length brocade day coat with a raglan sleeve. When she opens it, its gold lining shines. She made the accompanying top, skirt and bag too. She’s standing with Verity Best, who is wearing a cocktail dress made of the same green brocade – a “welcome coincidence”, Sanger says.
Best, who insists the inside of her dress doesn’t look as good as the outside, was taught to sew by her mother, but fell out of the habit. “I got back into it about 10 years ago via the Instagram sewing community,” she says. “Once I had that support behind me, it was amazing.”
That online support is in full force in the lead-up to Frocktails, with attendees sharing their progress on social media, along with (often panicked) commentary about what is required to finish in time. But it’s also clear from the warmth and energy in the room that this support extends beyond how to sew a buttonhole or draft a pattern.
“For something that could be a solitary hobby, it brings people together,” says Lara Finlayson, who was at the first Frocktails in 2013. “We’ve got different backgrounds, I suppose, but we have that connection through our sewing and we’ve been able to build real-life friendships as well.”
Advice on raising teenagers is shared over rolls of fabric. Weekends away are called “craft camp”, where sewing machines are brought instead of partners.
Liz Brennan travelled from Port Macquarie in New South Wales for the first event. “At the time people thought I was crazy flying to Melbourne to have cocktails with people I’d never met before,” she says. “But I was like, they sew!”